My kind of place: In one of the highest capital cities in the world, the range of attractions matches the altitude, writes Sarah Gilbert
Once, the Ecuadorian capital – formally named San Francisco de Quito – was just a stopover for tourists heading to the Galapagos, but it’s been transformed into a great destination in its own right, thanks to a US$460 million (Dh1.69 billion) programme of restoration and urban renewal.
Its historic centre is a Unesco World Heritage site, a maze of picturesque cobbled plazas and steep narrow streets that was developed first by the Incas and then the conquering Spaniards, with around 40 churches and chapels and almost 20 convents and monasteries. It’s kept its authenticity even though many of its crumbling mansions have now been turned into stylish boutique hotels, restaurants and cafes.
Quito is breathtaking in every sense. At 2,850 metres above sea level, it’s the second highest capital in the world, and one of the three on the Equator. It sprawls for 40 kilometres along a plateau surrounded by vertiginous peaks and up the eastern slopes of the majestic Pichincha Volcano. It’s a perfect base for exploring: from straddling the Equator at La Mitad del Mundo (The Middle of the World), to the rich bird life of the Mindo Cloud Forest and the snow-capped Cotopaxi Volcano.
A comfortable bed
Casa Gangotena opened last year on the central but tranquil Plaza San Francisco after a US$10m (Dh36.7m) renovation turned a 1920s mansion into a stylish 31-room boutique hotel. It’s kept many of its original features – soaring ceilings, marble floors, beautiful tiles – and has a rooftop terrace with stunning views. Doubles from US$460 (Dh1,690), including breakfast (www.casagangotena.com; 00593 2400 8000).
La Casona de la Ronda is a charming bed-and-breakfast that recently opened in the old town’s buzzing Calle la Ronda. Set in a 17th-century townhouse, it has 22 antique-filled bedrooms. Doubles from US$99 (Dh364), including breakfast (www.lacasonadelaronda.com; 00593 2228 7538).
Find your feet
Begin with a walking tour of the colonial centre, including Plaza de la Independencia, bordered by the cathedral and the Archbishop and Government Palaces, and the 16th-century plaza and monastery of San Francisco. Metropolitan Touring offers day-long tours of the historic centre and Mitad del Mundo from US$59 (Dh217) per person (www.metropolitantouring.com). Take a stroll down the lively Calle la Ronda, where artists’ workshops are preserving traditional crafts such as marquetry and metalwork, and visit the newly opened Casa Del Alabado (www.alabado.org/en), which houses a fascinating museum of pre-Columbian art. For a real bird’s-eye view of the city, take a ride on the Teléferico (www.teleferico.com). The air gets rarer as the cable cars climb to 4,000 metres, and on a clear day you’ll see the Avenue of the Volcanoes in all its glory.
Meet the locals
At the San Francisco covered market, where stalls are piled high with exotic fruits and herbs to cure all ills, you’ll find the locals tucking into chicken soup and chicha, a non-alcoholic drink made from corn at makeshift eateries.
Book a table
At Casa Gangotena’s restaurant (www.casagangotena.com), executive chef and Quito native Andrés Dávila serves a mix of classic and contemporary Ecuadorean dishes with a focus on seasonal ingredients, such as an Ecuadorian fish stew served on a plantain leaf, or sirloin steak with chimichurri sauce and Andean potatoes. Mains are around US$20 (Dh73).
Theatrum Restaurant (www.theatrum.com.ec) serves Mediterranean cuisine with a Latin twist in a high-ceilinged room draped in red velvet curtains. The five-course tasting menu is around US$46 (Dh169) and includes specials like grilled octopus with olives and fava beans.
In the new town, Zazu’s (www.zazuquito.com) Peruvian chef creates inventive dishes from fresh, local ingredients. There are more than a dozen ceviches (raw fish marinated in lime juice) and tiraditos (the Peruvian take on sashimi), as well as mains such as crusted tuna with coconut rice. Mains are around US$12 (Dh44).
A genuine Panama hat at Homero Ortego (www.homeroortega.com) on Plaza San Francisco will shade you from the Equatorial sun – Ortego’s family has been making them for five generations. The cloistered nuns of the Convent of Santa Catalina (Epsejo 779 and Flores) sell botanical potions and natural remedies from behind a rotating wooden hatch. In the new town, Olga Fisch (www.olgafisch.com) sells crafts from around the country, such as beautifully embroidered textiles from the highlands. Upstairs is an exhibition of some of the unique items from her private collection of pre-Columbian pottery and ceremonial costumes. And at Galeria Ecuador Gourmet (www.galeriaecuador.com) you can stock up on delicious organic chocolate and the country’s finest coffee. A short drive high into the city’s suburbs is La Capilla del Hombre (www.capilladelhombre.com), the home-turned-museum of Oswaldo Guayasamin, Ecuador’s finest contemporary artist, where you can buy his work, from postcards to limited-edition prints.
If you only visit one of Quito’s magnificent churches, make it La Compañía de Jesús (Calle Sucre, entrance US$2 [Dh7.35]). One of the finest Baroque churches in the Americas, every inch of the interior is covered with intricate carvings and glittering gold leaf.
What to avoid
Eating at street stalls. They may not be as hygienic as they should be.