As our recent visit to the Amazon Basin took us through Quito we decided to take an extended layover and spent two nights in the Ecuadorian capital. It sits at an altitude of 9350 feet on the slope of the active Pichincha Volcano, and on a clear day the views are stunning with mountain peaks and volcanoes visible in all directions.
Many people suffer altitude sickness, but the effects on our bodies were minimal. We had slight muscle pain and were a little lightheaded. Drinking plenty of water and taking ibuprofen helps. An anti-nausea pill can also help until your body adjusts.
The historic center is recognized as one of the the most well preserved colonial cities in the Americas and along with Krakow, Poland was declared the first UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1978. This area was where we chose to stay for our brief visit.
We arrived at Mariscal Sucre Airport which is located about 30 km from the city center. This airport was opened in 2013, replacing the older airport which due to its location was frequently closed because of nighttime fog and the proximity of tall buildings. A taxi costs about $25 USD but you can take a cheaper shared bus service.
We chose the Hotel Colonial San Agustin, located in a renovated Spanish colonial building and found it to be very clean and welcoming with plenty of character. Arriving after dark and without having had something to eat, we were disappointed to be told it was too dangerous in the neighborhood to go out at night and that most stores were closed early. The young man on the desk accompanied Tim to find an open store to get a few snacks for our supper! We usually try not to arrive too late in a new destination but our flight was delayed more than an hour.
After a very good and very inexpensive breakfast, we spent the early part of the next day wandering the heart of the historic center. The narrow cobblestone streets were full of life and flanked by fine examples of Spanish colonial architecture. There was an abundance of interesting shops, restaurants and services throughout the area with several inviting plazas.
Fabulous churches and cathedrals rise above the streets and plazas and could easily make for several days of visits. We did go inside of the Iglesia San Agustin and were particularly impressed by the colours throughout the nave.
In the lower portion of another church, the Iglesia San Francisco, is a wonderful craft market and gallery. Spread throughout the winding catacombs of the church are well presented displays of fine examples of traditional arts and crafts. Jewelry, pottery, hats, chocolate, sculptures and paintings depicting the traditions of the pre-colonial period, along with well documented historical references made this feel as much of a museum as a shopping experience.
We have seen many street venders throughout Ecuador but nowhere to the extent that we did in Quito. Not only were there the usual street food and souvenir venders, but also literally hundreds selling everything from scarves, hats, vegetables, cigarettes, knock off CDs, underwear, plastic boxes, clothes pins and much much more.
It seemed that you could get just about everything if you looked hard enough. People carried bags, boxes, knapsacks and plastic bags full of these items. Of course there were many shoeshine boys but also something we hadn’t seen before, and that was men with scales who would tell you your weight. Not sure what they were asking for it but probably a few cents.
There was a very large police presence throughout the central area. On every corner, in every plaza and lane were dozens of uniformed police. In fact other than in the train stations of Paris, the most we had seen anywhere. It seemed that their biggest concern was moving the venders along and trying to stop them from harassing people on the street.
There was one stop that we had to make while we were there and that was to visit El Panecillo and the madonna statue which overlooks the city. The statue was inspired by the famous Quito Virgin and erected in 1976. We took a taxi to the summit of the hill where the statue sits and weren’t disappointed with the views.
In all directions the city and its suburbs crawl up and down the sides of the mountains with the volcanic peaks serving as a backdrop. This was certainly one of the most jaw dropping scenes we have seen in our travels. There were surprisingly few people there and an hour passed by quickly as we absorbed the spectacular setting.
We only scratched the surface of Quito during our short visit but it certainly is a unique and vibrant city. You could feel the life of the people on her streets, see the history in her colonial architecture and get a sense of native traditions through the arts, crafts and cuisine which were prominent everywhere.