Some people may be surprised to see Quito in Traveler‘s epic year-end Best of the World feature. But, as Elaine Glusac suggests in her write-up, Old Town Quito is in the midst of a renaissance. The Spanish colonial UNESCO World Heritage site often gets short shrift, with many travelers treating the city as a stopover en route to the Galapagos, but I can tell you from personal experience that Quito deserves main-event status.
Here are five reasons why:
Old Town Quito’s bustling main square is home to the president’s residence, Carondelet Palace, which makes it a lightning rod for civic engagement and protest. If you’re used to the quiet, arm’s-length security that typifies seats of government in the U.S. and Western Europe, you’ll enjoy walking up to peek your head right in to the palace courtyard while guards in rich blue coats stoically ignore you.
You’ll find this spectacular 17th-century Jesuit church just a block from Independence Square. (You can spot its twin green-tile domes from any point in Old Town.) Though intricately carved, the church’s stone facade is no match for its rich interior. Upon entering the narrow nave, only one pew wide, prepare to be enveloped by towering golden walls. The gilded plasterwork draws the eye up with vertical, Moorish patterns that are offset by frescoes in shades of rust and baby blue. Visitors aren’t allowed to take photos inside, so be sure to stop by the gift shop for postcards on your way out.
Visit this indoor food market (and the small shops that line the nearby side streets) for a glimpse into the local culinary culture. You’ll see thousands of eggs stacked in pyramids, whole chickens with their claws pointing into the air, and an assortment of fresh fruit — including regional favorites like taxo (banana passionfruit), tree tomato, yellow gooseberry, naranjilla, and babaco — piled sky high. But don’t just window shop: participate by purchasing a good mix to sample back at your hotel room.
Spend an afternoon (it’s perfect for a rainy day) here for a history lesson about the city. The museum is housed in a beautiful former hospital, built in the 1500s, with a large central courtyard, and the artifacts and replicas on display carry you through Quito’s past — highlighting its geological origins and colonial period — and into its present.
Just outside Old Town, these two shops will satisfy your souvenir needs with their tasteful and authentic Ecuadorian chocolates, coffee, natural soaps and lotions, jewelry, and textiles. Don’t leave the country without trying on a few panama hats (which, paradoxically, hail from Ecuador, not Panama). You’ll see an eye-popping range of prices for the hats based on the quality of the straw and tightness of the weave.
If you find you just can’t get enough of the region, here are three gems worthy of a side trip outside the city:
Explore the Avenue of Volcanoes in this 80,000+ acre park. Snow-capped Cotopaxi is still active, and overdue for an eruption, but that doesn’t sway visitors from driving an hour south of Quito to hike, bike, or ride horses.
Cross your fingers for clear skies, as the scenic overlooks can be a bit of a letdown when it’s hazy. In our hour-and-a-half hike around the flat grasslands of Limpiopungo Lagoon, we were treated to infrequent but breathtaking views of the shy peak as the clouds shifted.
Owner Mignon Plaza will treat you like Inca royalty (and introduce you to her herd of carrot-loving llamas) when you visit Hacienda San Agustin near Cotopaxi National Park. Arrange a lunch stop, featuring her signature Andean potato soup, or an overnight stay in one of the 11 available rooms. The hacienda is built on the site of an Inca palace, with three styles of century-spanning architecture visible from the courtyard. Incas used giant volcanic stone blocks to build what is now the chapel and dining room.
The Andean range divides Quito (and the country) from the Amazon rain forest to the west and the Choco-Darien forest region east along the coast. Head northwest of Quito for a visit to Metropolitan Touring’s Mashpi Lodge in the Mashpi Rainforest Biodiversity Reserve.
Ecuadorian architect Alfredo Ribadeneira designed the stunning, minimalist eco-lodge to blend into the landscape. Our guide, David Yunes, led us on a series of challenging (and muddy!) hikes to explore the forest, flora, and fauna over our two-day visit. Highlights included discovering phosphorescent fungi on a night hike, swinging Tarzan-style through the forest on thick vines, and swimming under a powerful waterfall with big blue butterflies flittering above us.
Mollie Bates is the assistant art director at National Geographic Traveler, but will be leaving us shortly to pursue a design and technology fellowship. Follow her travels on Twitter @mebates.