AJ and I spent about two weeks in Quito on two separate occasions and found it to be a beautiful and vibrant city, full of stunning architecture, lively and quirky neighbourhoods, and an endless supply of parks and museums to explore and relax in. It’s also a great base for going off on trips to nearby attractions. In this article I’ll be discussing my favourite things to do in Quito.
Exploring the Old Town:
We stayed in Quito’s Old Town the first time we visited the city, and were able to take full advantage of exploring it as much as possible, taking in the pretty streets and colonial buildings, and revelling in the beauty of the churches and plazas. My favourite places in the Old Town were:
- Plaza de la Independencia
This is the main square in Quito’s old town. It’s full of large trees, benches and fountains, providing a lovely space to sit back and watch the world go by. Around it you will find the cathedral, Carondelet palace, a really large tourist information office where you can get maps and book tours, and numerous small and cute cafes where you can get yourself a drink and some tasty empanadas! It’s best to visit this spot early in the morning before it gets too hot or crowded, but it’s a great place to hang out at all times of the day, and from it you can access a lot of other places in the old town.
- La Catedral Metropolitana
Quito’s cathedral is huge and also doubles as a religious museum. You’re not allowed to take photos inside, which is a shame as it is gorgeous – lots of wooden panels, really intricate details in the carvings and paintings, a really beautiful ceiling and lots of side rooms with different alter pieces and statues in them. At the front of the Cathedral just off to the side of the alter is the entrance to the museum which is an array of beautiful rooms containing religious artefacts. We went through a library, a room full of paintings of bishops and down a few corridors before emerging from behind an altar piece in one of the side rooms. There was no one around so I’m not sure we saw everything or if we ended up going into places we shouldn’t have but it was fun to explore the place. It costs $3 for foreigners to enter the church and museum, and $6 if you want to see the domes as well – we didn’t so I don’t know what that’s like.
- Carondelet Palace
This is the seat of government for Ecuador. Apparently you can take a tour around the inside of the building, but we were never able to figure out how to sort this out so didn’t get to do that. What we did get to do was wave at the President. Every Monday morning around 11am there is a huge procession around the plaza – school marching bands and the royal guards marching and on horses. The royal marching band plays out in front of the palace and there’s a large crowd of people both cheering for and protesting against the current government and president. (I talked to someone living in Ecuador and apparently if you want to have a public protest then you have to have it balanced so there needs to be a group from each side of the argument out at the same time, which is pretty crazy). The president, vice-president, members of government and important people (there was an astronaut there when we went) appear on the top floor and they get introduced to the crowd and wave at everyone and everyone gets to wave at the president. It’s a pretty spectacular event and is even more mind-blowing when you consider that it happens every week.
- The Churches
Like everywhere else in South America, Quito has absolutely stunning churches along with the Cathedral and Basilica. Most are just regular working churches which you can go into as long as they’re open, while others also act as museum and so you need to pay to enter. The most well-known church and museum is La Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, which is completely covered with gold. We saw a glimpse of it from the outside and it looked really beautiful, but when we saw that it cost $2 for Ecuadorians to enter and $5 for foreigners we basically got annoyed at how much more we were being charged and decided not to go in – also, given our budget we had to make decisions about what we could and couldn’t do and it basically boiled down to a choice between that church and the Basilica and the Basilica won hands down. It’s a stunning church, but there are plenty of stunning churches you can go into for a much lower charge, or even for free, a lot of which we found also had a lot of intricate gold covered artwork and murals.
The churches we did go into were absolutely beautiful and they included:
Iglesia Santa Teresita
Iglesia San Fransisco
Iglesia del Sagrario
Iglesia Santa Clara
- Basilica del Voto National
First off, the Basilica is a STUNNING piece of architecture; it is a monstrously large building and is covered in beautiful and intricate stone carvings and stained glass windows. It’s truly an awesome sight seeing it rise up over the other buildings as you walk up the street; it towers over everything around it when you stand in front of it. The main draw of the Cathedral is not just how beautiful it is, but the fact that you can climb to the very top of its towers, which is an exhilarating experience. You start off climbing a staircase inside the tower, but at the top you walk across a narrow wooden bridge (where you can see the original roof of the building), climb a ladder, and then emerge on the roof where you can continue the climb up the outside of the stone towers to the top. The views of the city are spectacular and 100% worth the $2 entrance fee but be warned if you have a problem with heights you may want to reconsider this as you are out in the open when climbing to the very top and there are very limited safety rails.
Wander Around The La Mariscal and La Floresta Neighbourhoods:
These two areas are far more tourist-central (and therefore expensive) than other neighbourhoods in Quito – in fact the La Mariscal area has been dubbed ‘Gringo Central.’ Walking around it’s not hard to see why; the area is full of loud bars, clubs, and overpriced crappy American-styled restaurants, and more tourists than I saw anywhere else in Ecuador. It’s fun to take a wander around and if you want a night out drinking and dancing then it’s a great place for that. Apart from that it does have some nice museums to explore (we were there over the Christmas/New Year period so pretty much everything was closed down sadly) and the Parque El Ejido is really nice to chill out in, admire the statues and check out the artisanal market inside.
The La Floresta area has a more quirky relaxed atmosphere and feels like a more expensive and hipsterish area. It’s really nice to walk around in and admire all the cute paintings on the roads and walls, and there are tonnes of cute little cafes where you can grab a good coffee. Make sure to visit the Ochoymedio movie house for the beautiful mural painted on a small ‘tower’ outside.
Ride The TeleferiQo and Hike Up Volcan Pinchincha:
The TeleferiQo is Quito’s cable car which takes you nearly 1000m up the side of Volcan Pinchincha to a lookout point where you can get really nice pictures of the city (provided the fog hasn’t come in yet), and where you can find a picnic spot, medical point, gift shop, restaurants, and a really pretty church. The cable car station is nowhere near a bus stop so you’ll need to take a taxi there. It’s also the start of hiking trails up and around Volcan Pinchincha. There are maps on large boards at the start of the trails, so if you’re worried you can take a picture of it and use it to navigate, but the paths are really obvious and it’s difficult to get lost. We took the trail that goes up the side of Pinchincha. There were guided horses available to rent but as we hiked I didn’t look at the prices. We did encounter a couple of stubborn horses whilst hiking who were staunchly refusing to walk any further and just refused to move, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that they may be a little overworked. The route we took takes about an hour each way and is really worth doing; the views of the city and landscape are spectacular, and you don’t come across a huge amount of other hikers so it’s a really nice escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. There are bits of wildlife here and there – mainly birds and small animals. Also, there was an eagle chilling at the high point when we got there which was amazing; it was completely unphased by us being there, and only got antsy when another eagle dived at it before flying off. Amazing!
Go On A Day Trip:
Quito is an excellent base for going off on day trips because there are so many attractions nearby. The north and south bus terminals are easy to get to once you know exactly which form of public transport to go on (don’t get me started on the public transport – three different types, no signs on half the bus stops so you don’t know where you are, not all of them go where you think they will…it was a nightmare for us), and the transport to the attraction is cheap and plentiful throughout the day. Trips we took included:
- Otavalo Market
The big pull for Otavalo is its daily artesenal market that’s held in its main square, and which on Saturdays, expands into a huge market that takes over the side streets. Getting to Otavalo is pretty straightforward: get the ecovia bus to Rio Coco (make sure it says Rio Coco on the front), and from there get a bus to Carcelen – this will be the bus that goes to Carapungo, but you can only get one specific bus so make sure to ask people working there where to wait for the Carapungo bus that goes to Carcelen. Once on that bus sit on the left-hand side and look out for the Carcelen bus station (it’s big, you can’t miss it). The bus won’t go into the station but it will stop across the road from it so when you see it make sure to push the button to get the driver to stop (there’s always a number of people getting off there so you shouldn’t miss it as long as you’re paying attention). All this will cost you $0.25 – the fare you paid to get on the ecovia. In the Carcelen bus station you buy your ticket to Otavalo – you’ll see the name over the correct ticket office. It costs $2.50 for the bus and then $0.20 to get through the ticket barrier to where the buses are (this is really common in bus stations in Ecuador).
Make sure to have a map of Otavalo with you before you go so you know how to get to the market from the bus station – it’s less than a ten-minute walk. The market is huge and there’s a large variety of crafts to buy; we got a table runner, cushion cover and small painting, and paid a lot less than we were expecting when going, so we were really happy. The day we went there was really heavy rain showers so the market wasn’t really hopping but we still had a good time running between stalls trying to check out products protected under layers of clear plastic.
- Hike up volcan Cotopaxi
Volcan Cotopaxi is an active volcano in a nearby national park and is the second highest volcano in Ecuador. There are numerous day trips that take you to hike up the volcano. At the time of our trip (November 2016) there were limitations on the trips due to recent volcanic activities. The park had only been reopened for hikes three months previously and all hikes could only go up to the refuge as the summit was deemed too dangerous to hike to. The whole time we were there there were practice alarms going off and drills happening in case the volcano erupted again.
We did our tour with Carpe Diem Adventures who were brilliant. The tour included transport, lunch and mountain biking equipment. We did a short hike from the carpark to the refuge; starting at an altitude of 4500m and hiking up to 4864m. It’s totally worth it for the views, and in the refuge you can get yourself a hot drink and food in celebration. Hiking back down to the carpark is much quicker and easier. Provided the weather is good you can then mountain bike down to the lake; when we went it was raining when we got to the carpark so we drove a bit further down and then started cycling, managing to escape the brunt of the bad weather. We had so much fun that our guide let those of us that wanted to cycle further continue on all the way to the lunch spot near the entrance to the park. You should be aware though that the roads are not paved and are covered in multiple small but sharp bumps, potholes and stones. This means that it is a very bumpy ride and my palms were physically aching and sore by the time we reached the lunch spot but it was great fun and the views were spectacular, I would definitely do it again!
- Visit the Equator Line at Mitad del Mundo:
North of Quito is the Mitad del Mundo, or Centre of the World; where the equator line is. There are two sites for the equator line, one where the original line was calculated by French explorers with a large monument and a whole village dedicated to it. Not even five minutes down the road is where the more recent 0000 line is, calculated by GPS. Both sites are well worth checking out as both of them are very different.
To get to the Mitad del Mundo, you need to take a metrobus to the Ofelia Station – make sure it says it at the front of the bus before you get on. It costs $0.25. Ofelia Station is the last stop so don’t worry about missing it. At Ofelia Station look for a blue bus that says ‘Mitad del Mundo’ and hop on – they go really regularly throughout the day and cost $0. The driver or guy collecting money on the bus will announce when you’ve reached the stop for Mitad del Mundo; when you get off the bus you need to cross the road and then turn right, walk straight through the roundabout and then you’ll see the big monument and site on your left – it’s huge, you can’t miss it.
The site of the monument is a huge village where you can go up the top of the monument, visit a llama farm, check out a bunch of different museums and a planetarium, buy souvenirs, get your passport stamped, and sit on any number of the super cute hummingbird benches dotted around the site! For $7.50 you get an all-inclusive ticket that gets you into the site and all the attractions within.
When you exit the first site turn left and walk down the road a few hundred meters. Soon you’ll come across a sign for the other Centre of the World Museum pointing up a road to the left. This site is much smaller but is still really interesting, and worth the $5 entrance fee. You will be guided around the museum where you’ll learn about different tribes that live in the area and in the Amazon, get to see a real shrunken head, do “science experiments” (it’s not real science but it’s fun to watch), and get to try your hand at the challenge of balancing an egg on a nail – which both AJ and I conquered! If you conquer the egg challenge you get a certificate, and at the end of the tour you can get your passport stamped and check out the gift shop as well.
Given that Mindo is just two hours by bus from the Ofelia station in Quito, you head out to Mindo for a mini trip; given how much there is to do there I would recommend at least a weekend stay, though 3 or 4 days would be best. You can read about our Mindo adventures here.
Celebrate New Years:
AJ and I decided to get ourselves an AirBnB over the Christmas holidays to spend a week relaxing, cooking our own food and enjoying a dorm room free existence for a few days! When we looked at how much everything shut down over the Christmas period we decided to stick around and celebrate New Year in the city, which turned out to be an excellent decision. New Years in Quito is CRAZY and brilliant fun. During the day you will see the ‘widows’ roaming the street – men dressed in women’s clothes out begging for beer money from car drivers and anyone who passes them by. All over the streets you will see people selling dummies to be burnt at midnight; these range from simple stuffed clothes with a mask on, to large and intricate papier mache figurines of political figures and cartoon and anime characters. During the day there are concerts going on, and at night we went to a street party in the La Mariscal area; all the bars were blasting music and people were out on the street drinking and setting off fireworks. Health and safety is clearly not a priority; the most popular fireworks are thin tubes that you hold in your hand and point upwards as they shoot out smalls blasts of fire. Along with them are small cones that essentially explode on the ground like a giant Catherine wheel. It’s fantastic. Coming up to midnight fires are lit and you get men jumping over them as people start throwing their effigies into them. When it hit midnight the air was full of fireworks, the fires were full of effigies and the streets full of people celebrating the new year.
Quito is a fantastic place to visit when in Ecuador; it has cute and quirky hangout spots, old colonial architecture, insanely beautiful churches, and opportunities for city escapes, hikes, and standing in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres simultaneously. I would highly recommend making time for Quito; regardless of what kind of travelling you enjoy, you will find something to capture your attention.