South America’s Lofty Celebrity: Quito, Ecuador is a study in history and light

By Richard Carroll

Photos by Halina Kubalski

Quito, the proud capital of Ecuador, stands majestically beneath wandering clouds that drape the city with dramatically shifting shadows. At an incredible 9,350 feet above sea level, the city is the second-highest official capital city in the world, after La Paz, Bolivia. The rarefied air invites visitors to breathe deeply, slow their pace, and soak in a magnificent setting where nature reigns.

As high as it is, the historic city is entrenched in a river basin tucked between towering Andean peaks and snow-capped volcanoes, and wraps around the eastern slopes of Pichincha, a stratovolcano. Amidst this ageless landscape is a long and narrow city that was founded by the Spanish in 1534, on the ruins of an Inca city. Its historic center is one of the largest, least altered and best protected in the Americas, not unlike Bordeaux’s historic center in France and the walled city of Antigua in Guatemala.

In 1978, Quito became one of the first two cities UNESCO honored as a World Heritage Site, thanks to its cultural heritage, traditions, art, architecture and geographical beauty (the other city was Krakow, Poland).

A city where nature speaks

The historic area is crisscrossed with narrow cobblestone streets covering an impressive 800 acres. From the 15-room Hotel Castillo Vista del Angel, high on the eastern flank of Old Town, astonishing 360-degree views and vivid impressions emerge under the night sky. Countless twinkling stars above are mirrored below, as though their twins plunged down into the valley, landing across the mountainous landscape in a romantic display of Ecuadorian design.

The Quiteños compare the weather to politics – unpredictable and tricky. They can experience four seasons in one day, so a raincoat, sunblock, and sunglasses are advisable when you’re outside. On a clear day, they can see 22 volcanoes, but when the afternoon rains arrive, it’s time to pop into a cafe for a cup of coffee.

In the heart of Quito, thousands of houses and dozens of churches and cathedrals line Old Town streets just wide enough for a horse-drawn carriage. A maze of white, sky blue, light yellow, and pale peach buildings spread up the sides of the surrounding steep mountains and ancient volcanoes like a mind-boggling jumble of puzzle pieces not yet assembled that challenges visitors to put on their walking shoes and explore.

The streets and narrow sidewalks in Old Town are alive with Quiteños, an engaging blend of students, young and nicely dressed businesswomen, families, vendors selling fresh fruit, and indigenous groups from the Andes Highlands and nearby cities, some ingeniously carrying their babies in the traditional backpack.

Yellow cabs weave like buzzing bees in search of their queen through the streets, expertly navigating the five pedestrian-free streets that lace Old Town and connect with the legendary Plaza Grande, or Independence Square, in the heart of the city. The 16th century square is neatly lined with the presidential palace, city hall, the cathedral, Archbishop’s Palace, restaurants, coffee shops and Café Galeria. The café offers Pacari organic chocolate tastings, not unlike the wine tastings of other regions. Ecuador’s climate is ideal for producing some of the world’s finest cacao, which is shipped in great quantities to Switzerland.

Cathedrals and churches: A historic understanding

Quito’s churches reveal the history of Ecuador and her people, preserving the art of the 16th and 17th centuries, the architecture, extraordinary wood carvings, rare fine art, and the traditions of the Ecuadorians. Quito has 27 churches in a 33-block area, including La Compañía de Jesús, built in 1605, adjacent to Plaza Grande. The church is considered the crown jewel of the Baroque Period in the Americas, with an interior exquisitely covered with 23-karat gold leaf. Nearby, the cathedral with rococo, neo-Gothic, baroque, Moorish and neoclassical architecture has a dome that can be accessed up a narrow passageway for views of the plaza and striking photo opportunities.

A guided walking tour leads to San Francisco Market, dating from 1893, offering vegetables, meats, herbs, seasonal fruit from the Andean highlands, roses in abundance, and a food court to experience potato cakes, chicken stew, potato soup and slow-roasted pork topped with fresh juices. Indigenous holistic herb healers encourage an herbal massage and cleansing using leaves, branches and flowers that leave the legs and feet tingling; they give instructions not to shower in the evening to let the herb treatment settle. Ecuadorian roses are a major export and foremost city adornment, leading one local Quiteño to say, “You can buy 25 roses for one dollar, so if you’re not a romantic in Quito, you have a big problem.”

In this city of neighborhoods, La Ronda is a bit off the tourist trail in the Southern Historic District. It is an artistic and colorful block-long stone-lined alleyway, similar to those in southern Spain, with flowered iron balconies, restaurants, classic museum-quality wood carvers and small boutiques.

Leave the driving to your guide

Sixteen miles south of Plaza Grande is a monument marking the general location of the equator, while nearby, a Solar Museum with a modern GPS unit calculates the zero latitude exactly. A location known to Quiteños as “the middle of the world,” the equator is also the origin of the country’s name, Ecuador. A two-hour drive brings travelers to the city of Otavalo’s craft market and Plaza de los Ponchos, South America’s largest outdoor market. It’s a vibrant array of indigenous weavings, from scarves, blankets, and ponchos to embroidered blouses, hammocks, and jewelry. In contrast, Cotacachi, 45 minutes northwest of Otavalo, is known as the City of Leather, with some 50 shops.

Cotacachi is also a glorious stop for lunch, home to the exquisite 23-room La Mirage Garden Hotel & Spa, a five-star expanse of beauty and elegance. A former hacienda opened in 1987, La Mirage is the only Relais & Châteaux property in Ecuador, with a wall of prestigious awards. Chef Hugo Flores works with the local farmers and creates delightful specialties from the Andean region. Out on the grounds, eight peacocks take turns staring through the windows at Chef Flores’ shrimp, avocado and pineapple salad.

The annual Festival of Lights

South America’s premier Fiesta de la Luz, or Festival of Lights, in August draws visitors worldwide. Twenty-one buildings are cleverly lit along with a street of multihued umbrellas. A stunning 12-minute presentation depicts the history and life of Ecuador, Quito and their people, created with dazzling artistic skill similar to the quality of Pixar or Disney. The streets of Old Town are blocked from traffic, and an evening under the lights of Quito is exceptional.

Drink only bottled water, and Quito’s diverse gastronomic offerings will be a distinctive highlight, with recipes to share.

When You Go

The official Ecuadorian currency is the U.S. dollar, with small bills and loads of singles essential. Driving in Quito is not recommended; a personal guide is. Marcelo Guerra, born and raised in Quito, speaks fluent English and can arrange a tailor-made itinerary. Email or, or call 011-593 9 8458-7400. Various airlines serve Quito, including JetBlue connecting through Fort Lauderdale. The Quiteños recommend visiting from December to April, when nights are warmer, mornings are usually sunny, and bursts of rain in the afternoon are easily avoidable.

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The 16th century Plaza Grande, or Independence Square, is the heart of Quito.