Sustainable bucket list guide for wildlife lovers
1 March 2024
Many visitors to Ecuador come to explore the celebrated Galapagos Islands, traverse glorious Andean peaks, or absorb the Ecuadorian way of life as part of a bigger tour of South America. The country’s charming capital, Quito, is lesser-known to global tourism, but if you’re stopping here on a tour of Ecuador, you’ll soon see how mistaken that is.
You’ll find so many reasons to linger in and around Quito, the second-highest capital in the world (situated between a trio of towering volcanoes). With a few days here you can experience the warmth of its locals, wander colourful indigenous markets, and observe an intriguing culture that is steeped in the traditional and spiritual.
If you’re planning a dream trip to Ecuador, here’s the advice from our locally-based experts on the best things to do in Quito and its surrounding areas.
Arguably the most impressive part of Quito is its aesthetically-pleasing historic centre, which can boast status as one of the original 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites (there are now well over 1,000!)
It’s home to a gorgeous mix of Spanish colonial, indigenous and Baroque architectures, and a number of elaborate churches with magnificent interiors – an afternoon absorbing these historic masterpieces is certainly time well spent.
Alongside the main square, Plaza de la Independencia, are a number of notable landmarks; the Palacio de Carondelet (presidential palace), Quito Metropolitan Cathedral, and supremely Gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional, to name a few. A cluster of impressive churches join the ranks of architectural mastery; such as the gilded Jesuit Iglesia de la Compania, the Basilica and Convent of San Francisco, and the stunning El Sagrario; each of which display astonishing stylistic features and ornamentation that deserve a guide book all their own.
Nearby, effortlessly bohemian street La Ronda consists of old heritage buildings converted into restaurants, independent stores and stylish bars, making it the perfect place to people-watch with a good cup of coffee.
The historic centre is certain to feature in a walking tour of Quito, but there’s so much more to see. Traditional markets, or mercados, are a big part of everyday life in Quito. Not only are they rife with opportunities to taste authentic local food – such as ceviche, empanadas or choclo con queso (corn kernels with cheese) – you can also browse for clothes and locally-made handicrafts. Mercado Central is a brilliant, quintessentially Ecuadorian market if you’re keen to get amongst locals, whereas Mercado San Francisco and La Mariscal Artisan Market are geared more towards tourists and make great spots for souvenir-shopping.
Public parks are aplenty in Quito and serve some peaceful respite from the hubbub of street life. Parque La Carolina is the most popular, with lots of open green spaces, ball courts, and a pretty botanical garden – it’s also a prime spot to catch off-the-cuff music concerts or performances. Other parks include Parque El Ejido, scattered with art installations that make for interesting talking points during a stroll.
For a taste of culturally significant artwork, the Fundacion Guayasamin houses the works of Ecuador’s renowned 20th-century artist and sculptor, Oswaldo Guayasamin. His work often addressed themes of poverty and the political climate in Ecuador, and this museum is dedicated to his workspaces, processes and inspirations.
To round off the day, incredible panoramic views are in store at El Panecillo – a hill just outside of town adorned with an enormous statue of the Virgin Mary. For another scenic sojourn, Teleferico Quito is the second-highest cable car in the world, and whisks you skywards to an elevation of 4,100m for epic views across the city – be aware, that really is high!
A fun claim is to stand in the Middle of the World, or Mitad del Mundo – where supposedly one can stand both in the northern and southern hemispheres simultaneously. A museum and several viewpoints can be explored here, but the most prominent feature is of course the Mitad del Mundo Monument, a tall plinth structure which represents the equator line. More recent calculations have identified the real ‘middle’ to actually be a few hundred metres away – but that’s easily dismissed when you’re at the top of the monument enjoying the sense of worldly perspective.
About two hours north of Quito, the Otavalo area has a long and fascinating history, dating back to pre-Incan times when it was an important trading hub. These days it is most revered for the colourful Otavalo Market run by its indigenous communities, selling everything from ceramics, metalwork and furniture to handmade clothing. The star products on sale here are the gorgeous traditional fabrics, as the generations-old Otavalenos are skilled weavers known for their textile production. If you want some authentic clothing, rugs or accessories made in Ecuador, this is the place to admire the craftsmanship, chat to the makers in person, and stock up for your journey home.
Otavalo is pleasant to walk around, with a vibrant atmosphere owing to its strong indigenous presence – many of the locals wear authentic local clothing and adhere to a more traditional way of life.
One of the biggest draws to Ecuador is the simply stunning volcano Cotopaxi, which at 5,897m is the second-tallest peak in the country. Snow-topped and surrounded by sprawling grasslands, bedecked with Andean horses, Cotopaxi and its national park are definitely scenic, and a real treat to explore for a day or more. Experienced hikers may attempt the intrepid climb up the volcano, but for most, it’s just as rewarding to hike or ride on horseback along the many trails that meander through the picturesque foothills, with glorious Andean condors gliding overhead.
Less than two hours from Quito, Cotopaxi is an Ecuadorian highlight you’d be foolish to miss, but chat with a local travel expert to get an idea of the best time to visit, as the weather can be very temperamental.
After a few days of active exploration, what better way to unwind and refresh than soothing your well-worked limbs in hot springs. An hour from Quito, the village of Papallacta is home to an inviting spa complex of natural thermal pools, with water warmed and enriched with beneficial minerals from the volcanic soil. As the hot springs are sat within the borders of the Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve, the views add to the experience with the Andean highlands as your hazy backdrop – so there’s no excuse not to truly relax on this pleasant pit stop.
Avian enthusiasts, or any nature-lover for that matter, should visit the Mindo Nambillo Cloud Forest Reserve – a truly wild biosphere with elevations of 1,200m and up, in the foothills of the mountains about an hour from Quito. The cool, humid climate of this mist-covered cloud forest results in a unique blend of exciting biodiversity, with numerous plant and animal species as well as 500 types of birds inhabiting the peaceful landscape. Unsurprisingly, fervent birdwatchers travel here from miles around – and a large Andean cock-of-the-rock statue sits at the entrance of Mindo town.
The reserve covers 19,200 hectares and at its peak, reaches heights of up to 4,500m; you may not hike that far, but there’s still plenty to discover. An amble through the steamy forest retains an almost-mystical quality as you move past rivers, scenic viewpoints, Spanish cedar trees, and clusters of orchids visited by butterflies and hummingbirds. With such proximity to Quito, Mindo makes for the perfect day trip out of the city.
Quito is a vibrant, memorable Andean city – and there’s much more to experience on a bespoke trip to Ecuador, from the adrenaline-fuelled sports of Banos to the wildlife bucket list of the Galapagos. Get in touch with our locally-based experts to help build an itinerary that includes all your must-sees in Ecuador and is entirely customised to you.
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