Ciudad de los Cielos: City of the Heavens
Our first big trip for 2017, back in Latin America onto a new country not been before, already number 84 in the list: Ecuador. A country long been in the wish list however always so expensive to go, and hard to fit it during the best months to visit. This time all matched perfectly, with the right season to get there (more or less, it was end of the rainy season) and a good flight deal with Iberia. And as later I will farther expand on each of the travel guides for the places we visited, the internal flights were also surprisingly not expensive, something very rare if comparing any neighbouring country where internal flights are horribly expensive as for example our past experience with Brazil, Panama, Costa Rica or Guatemala.
We begin in the beautiful capital, Quito. This is the highest capital city in the world at almost 3000 meters above sea level, and of course, also the nearest capital to the Equator itself. And I find it hard how to start with this guide because there is simply too much I wish to list and I don’t want to be too long but straight to the point. However, if there is at least a single word to describe it, I must be using “impressive”. Quito, together with Krakow, Galapagos Islands, Wieliczka Salt Mines or Aachen Cathedral to name a few, were the first 12 World Cultural Heritage Sites declared by UNESCO in 1978. Being in such list is always a privilege, and being on the very first one is a statement; but no one can doubt, nor question it. Quito is the most complete, best preserved and the least altered historic colonial city in The Americas. This is a place where time stood still in the 16th century, and no matter how many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in what is one of the most active places on earth, the city has been lucky enough to escape and survive almost intact to our days.
Originally settled by the Quitu Tribe and conquered by the Caras Tribe in 980 AD who then founded the Kingdom of Quito, it enjoyed some centuries of prosperity until 1462 when the Incas integrated the region into the Inca Empire, but not for long; just 72 years after, in 1534, they would be conquered by the Spanish who developed a new city from scratch in a matter of few years, becoming one of the most prosperous on the back then Spanish Empire for centuries.
Bear in mind that when visiting Quito you need to plan your clothing accordingly. Although predictions say temperatures year-round are pretty much the same without variation, at around 19 degrees Celsius, with rain being very normal some part of the day, this can lead to a common error of confusion, and in fact we suffered these consequences. Basically, there was only a day where temperatures dropped below 20! All other days it was way too hot and burning sun. But yes, weather can change in matter of minutes therefore make sure you have some jacket and long-sleeves, as well as shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops. As opposed you have Guayaquil with at least 30 degrees daily, and that’s only 50 minutes’ flight away towards the coast, southwest. This constant climate of Quito is due to the high altitude, and the valley the city sits, right in between volcanoes being the nearest the Pichincha, ever threatening the city and visible from most of the neighbourhoods.
The city is composed of many districts, each very different and characteristic. While no doubt majority of tourist only get to visit the historic centre and the Half of the World site, there is by far way more to enjoy. Probably too much that even 4 days we’ve been were at the brink of not being enough. But of course, we really wanted to visit as much as we could, and ventured into the more secluded and bohemian areas, surprisingly beautiful and historic such as Guapulo. Still, even if there are many areas to go to, all are generally easy to get on foot everywhere; might be a long walk but nice, mind only the hills. Some of these are very steep but once at their tops the views are incredible, as is the good example of El Panecillo.
Coming to the next important subject here, food. Ecuador is very rich in gastronomy and Quito the heart of the country where you get absolutely any choice. The mix between both the coastal and Andean areas gives a choice to anyone. From fresh seafood and fish to fantastic hearty meats. From light dishes around the hot regions (mostly the coast), to pots, casserole and soup dishes in the colder and higher regions which are 75% of the country. Something traditional from this region (and Peru) is ceviche (or cebiche or seviche). This dish is composed of small cuts of seafood and fish cooked in lime juice and salt, mixed with onions, tomatoes, peppers, cilantro and lime juice. A vegetarian variation called cevichocho is very popular in Ecuador, and it’s made of chocho beans, onions, tomatoes, cilantro, limes, oranges and tomato sauce generally served with toasted maize, plantain chips, avocados and hot sauce. Similar to the Brazil churrasco, you can find great meats freshly cut on your table; also popular is chaulafan (fried rice), and tallarin noodles mixed with chicken or beef. Now beware of the prices. Ecuador is not a cheap country, but the opposite, it is way above any expectation, however if you search, you will get great prices for lunch or dinner. They do serve what’s called “almuerzo”, and it’s the very same as “menu del dia” as it is known is Spain. This is a drink, starter, main course and dessert, and will cost you in the range of $2.50 and $3.00. Yes, that’s the price!
Where you will find a great choice of restaurants of any kind is around Plaza Foch, however mind the prices and check some options before making your mind. This is one of the most tourist orientated areas with way higher than average prices. Around La Floresta in La Mariscal district is another good area, while any shopping mall have a large food court with plenty of restaurant options. Towards the historic town and farther south, prices drop dramatically yet quality remains high. These neighbourhoods are where traditionally the local people go out to eat their “almuerzos”, at the exception of La Ronda pedestrian street cutting through the old town where upscale bars, clubs and restaurants align its length for few blocks.
Quito is safe, do not be scared to walk anywhere the historic centre, alone or in a group. People is extremely friendly and very polite. Much more polite than us the Spanish. They will be glad to help you, although it is hard to find anyone who speaks English. Lucky for me, Spanish native, it was all great. There is police presence everywhere and they know well the city, ask them for directions or recommendations any time, they never hesitated to offer us help. However at night, the city gets deserted, and unless the historic centre, any other neighbourhood seemed too quiet, public buses stop working early too, so we moved by taxi.
For more information about Quito check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Ecuador’s currency is the United States Dollar (USD), where the country only mints its own coinage, of the same value as the USD cents. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Quito
Quito is a very easy city for planning your sightseeing tour. It is 41 km long and merely 5 km at its widest part, however, all of its historic and important sites lies within walking distance around the central neighbourhoods at the exception of the Half of the World farther north. Therefore, starting from the north towards the south you should consider:
- La Mitad del Mundo At 26 kilometres north of the city is the monument and museums about the Equator, the Half of the World, although the main big monument itself is wrongly located 240 meters away from the Equator line. Here you can be at both poles on earth, walking along the line. To get there is best to take a Metrobus for $0.25 to Ofelia bus stop and change there for the bus to La Mitad del Mundo for an extra $0.35. The entrance fee to the park is $4.
- La Mariscal District Is the primary area for going out whether it is for restaurants, bars and coffee places or for discos and pubs. Nights and weekends is thriving with young people, except Sunday when most of the places are closed. There are plenty of hotels around this area and the nearby streets. It is right in between the business district that lies few streets ahead to the north and both El Belen and the historic centre which start few streets at the south.
-Plaza Foch Commonly known as La Zona, is the main square and heart of La Mariscal.
- La Paz-Guapulo District East from La Mariscal, along the main Avenida Cristobal Colon towards its intersection with Avenida 12 de Octubre, then taking it northbound you will reach this bohemian historic area, with trendy cafes, bars, restaurants, small art shops and boutique hotels among some of the large top hotels in the city.
-Sanctuary of Guapulo While La Paz sits higher in the terrain, Guapulo is much lower into the valley that here opens with the River Manchangara, forest and hills in the foreground. The colonial convent and church is a beautiful sight when viewed from above the district, at ground level and inside. Built in 1649 in neoclassical style, has among its treasures the pulpit from 1700 by sculptor Menacho, declared to be the most intricate in all of South America. Bear in mind the opening hours Monday to Saturday 9.30am to 12.30pm and 15.30pm to 18.00pm.
- La Gasca-Armero At the opposite side from La Paz-Guapulo, towards the westernmost where the city meets the foothills of the Pichincha Volcano. From La Mariscal, take Avenida Cristobal Colon then onto Avenida La Gasca.
-La Circasiana Palace Along Avenida Colon right by the northwesternmost corner of La Marsical. Once belonging to the aristocrat family Jijón y Caamaño, was built at the beginning of the 1900’s in monumental neo-renaissance style. After the death of the family it became the National Archive of Quito and Library.
-Mansion Jijón Next to the Circasiana Palace, is still the residence of this bourgeoisie family.
-TeleferiQo One of the highlights in Quito, where you get to the hill known as Cruz Loma on the east side of the Pichincha volcano at an elevation of 4100 metres. Because of the increased height it is cooler at the top than the city below. The cable car journey takes 20 minutes and the views awesome all the way up, however once at the top, you have less visible area of the city. Take a taxi to the cable car, it’s quite far if you are planning on walking here. The cable car costs $8.50 return.
- El Belen District Connects La Mariscal to the Historic Centre with two parks in between. Although this area has nothing worth it sightseeing wise, it’s a nice walk through the parks between the main tourist areas.
-El Ejido Park The biggest in this area, marks the southernmost part of La Mariscal district and the beginning El Belen, just across the Avenida Patria. On weekends you can find the handicraft and paintings market. In the north you can find the triumphal arch that once stood in the gardens of La Circasiana Palace (known as La Despedida de los Centauros).
-La Alameda Park At the very south of El Belen district and beginning of the historic centre. In the middle there is the oldest observatory in Latin America, from 1873.
-Simon Bolivar Square The southern corner of Alameda Park is marked by the monument to Simon Bolivar on this nice square that opens to the historic town.
-Basilica del Voto Nacional It is the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas. Designed by architect Emilio Tarlier who inspired his work on Bourges Cathedral in France, was built between 1892 and 1909 remaining technically unfinished because of the legend that says if completed, the end of the world will come. It is two streets west from Simon Bolivar Square, behind the central bank in Calle Venezuela. Do not hesitate in going up the towers, it costs $2.00; the views of the city are impressive.
- Historic Centre The most complete and unaltered in The Americas since the 16th century when it was built by the Spanish. Over 5000 properties are registered with 130 monumental buildings, all of which becoming one of the first 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites listed in 1978. The urban grid follows the traditional orthogonal street plan, with the main square and cathedral at its centre. For an easy way to navigate through without missing a sight, start from the first street towards the end and back up by the parallel one and so on:
-Calle Guayaquil This is the main street from Simon Bolivar Square crossing through the entire historic town towards the very south.
-Calle Galapagos Few meters ahead off Guayaquil Street is this beautiful cobblestone street heading uphill ending with an arch. Known as La Guaragua (Pasaje Chiriboga).
-Plaza del Teatro On Guayaquil Street, one of the many charming colonial squares so traditional in the old town.
-Sucre National Theatre The oldest and most prestigious in Ecuador, built in 1879 in Italian renaissance style.
-San Agustin Church Continuing along Calle Guayaquil, one of the seven monumental churches from the 16th and 17th centuries built on stone in the Spanish Baroque architecture style. Just on the parallel street is Plaza Grande, and by the front the main bus stop serving the central square.
-Bolivar Theatre Few meters ahead from San Agustin, is this 1933 pure art-deco style theatre with one of the most impressive interiors.
-Plaza de Santo Domingo At the south of Calle Guayaquil, home to beautiful architecture and great views over the Madonna of El Panecillo Hill in the foreground.
-Santo Domingo Convent With the arrival of the Dominicans in 1541, they started to create their temple from 1580 until the mid 17th century. Its characterised by its neo-Gothic and Moorish styles as majority of Quito’s churches.
-Arch of Santo Domingo By one of the laterals of the Convent it provides access to Calle Vicente Rocafuerte.
-Garcia Moreno House Built by the back then president Gabriel García Moreno (1821-1875) as his personal residence. Now a museum.
-La Ronda Right by the very end of Calle Guayaquil, this cobblestone street used to be the bohemian centre during the colonial times. Don’t miss it, it’s really worth it.
-Calle Venezuela The second street parallel to Guayaquil. As you were in La Ronda, then take this heading back toward the north.
-House of Mariscal Sucre It was the home of the marquises of Solanda. The noble creole Mariana Carcelén inherited the title and all properties during the last years of the Spanish colony, who then married Mariscal de Ayacucho, Antonio José de Sucre, leader of the independence of Ecuador. Nowadays is the museum about their live.
-Plaza Grande – Independence Square Is the very heart of the colonial city; political and religious centre since the city’s foundation by the Spanish. It limits with Calle Venezuela at the east and Garcia Moreno to its west.
-Metropolitan Cathedral Consecrated in 1572 is the seat of the Catholic church in the country. Its architecture is a blend between Gothic, Classical and Moorish influences. It has 2 entrances, something very rare in any colonial or mainland Spain cathedral from the era.
-El Sagrario Church Attached by one of the sides of the Cathedral, was built in the 17th century in Italian Renaissance style. Inside you can find the mausoleum of Marshal Antonio José de Sucre, hero of the Ecuadorian and Latin American independence movement.
-Alberto Mena Camaño Museum At the southwest corner of the square, it is a part restoration part built in the 20th century of the former Royal Barracks building.
-Corondelet Palace Is the seat of government of the Republic of Ecuador. The current building dates from 1801. Formerly in its place stood the original palaces of the Spanish Administration that were damaged beyond repair in 1627’s earthquake. It is opened to the public as a museum.
-Church and Convent of the Immaculate Conception Right by the northwest corner of the square.
-Hotel Plaza Grande At the opposite side from the Cathedral, was the first building in Quito to be more than two storeys high when it was built in 1930. The original hotel was the Majestic, the turned into offices and bank, and completely restored to its former glory and usage in 2005.
-Archbishop’s Palace Next to the Hotel Plaza Grande was one of the first constructions in the colonial city from 1576, although was modified over the years being the latest in the 18th century. The patio has been integrated in a shopping arcade.
-Perez Pallares Building At the northeastern corner, built in eclectic style in 1911 meant to be the Hotel Metropolitano, its usage changed for offices
-Municipal Palace Is the city’s mayor’s office, the City Hall. Located on the opposite side from the Corondelet Palace, although unfortunately it is an ugly building from 1973 replacing the former colonial buildings which were decaying beyond repair.
-Carmen Bajo Church Two blocks ahead from Plaza Grande on Calle Venezuela, and literally parallel to National Theatre Sucre. From 1745.
-Calle Garcia Moreno Perhaps the most charismatic of all the ones that cross the historic centre from north to south. The reason? The postcard perfect picture you will have from the north before Plaza Grande towards the south, as it’s on a hill with views towards the entire El Panecillo Hill at the opposite side. From Carmen Bajo Church mentioned above, take Calle Menabi to reach Moreno.
-Santa Barbara Church At the corner of Menabi with Moreno. Although the original structure is from the 16th century, majority is a rebuilt after some earthquake damages.
-Plaza de las Conceptas Just two blocks south from Santa Barbara (and only one ahead north from Plaza Grande), this is a small square where many boutique hotels are housed in colonial houses. Casa Cadisan occupying an entire corner is the most prominent construction. Hotel Patio Andaluz just across the road is one of the top hotels in the old town.
-Church of La Compañía Along Garcia Moreno after passing Plaza Grande heading south. It was built between 1605 and 1765 inspired after Rome’s Jesuit churches Chiesa del Gesù (1580) and the Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola (1650). It is the most important work of Spanish Baroque architecture in South America and the most ornate in Quito. It blends Baroque, Moorish, Churrigueresque and neo-Classical styles. Beware it is closed most of the times, except when there are masses. They will ask no tourists allowed during the mass, however get inside to the mass and admire it. No pictures allowed.
-Arco de la Reina Continuing south is this ornate arch over the street linking the church and museum at both sides.
-El Carmen Alto Church Built in the 16th century, is actually a network of chapels, cloisters and church, and the original house of the very first Catholic saint born in Ecuador, Maria de Jesus. Majority of them are musealised.
-Museum of the City Housed in the former San Juan de Dios Hospital, a must see for the great collection and history of the city greatly explained, on top of the building itself, restored using the same materials and techniques as when built in the 16th century by the Spanish.
-Boulevard 24th of May At the end of Calle Garcia Moreno is this wide boulevard, recently revamped and landscaped limiting the historic town with the southern suburbs. There is a great view of El Panecillo Hill, where the street leading to its top starts.
-Calle Sebastian de Benalcazar The 4th of the main streets crossing the colonial town. As you were in Boulevard 24th of May, take this street heading back up north. It will be the last of the zig-zag you do with this one.
-Santa Clara Monastery At the intersection with Calle Cuenca, it is one of the hidden gems in Quito. Founded in 1596 and rebuilt after an earthquake from 1645, home to the very first written of mysticism poetry in the Americas.
-San Francisco Square The next in importance after Plaza Grande, but of equal historical value with some of the finest colonial constructions.
-Church and Monastery of Saint Francis Nicknamed as El Escorial of the Americas due to be the largest of any Spanish colonial structures ever built in the New World. The building began construction in around 1550, just 16 years after Quito was founded by the Spanish, and completed in 1680 occupying the land where the palace of the Incan ruler Atahualpa (1497-1533) once stood.
-Gangotena House One of the most prestigious mansions, built in the 17th century for the aristocratic Spanish descending Jijón and Gangotena families.
-Vice-presidential Palace A block ahead from San Francisco, it was originally built as the Central Post Office in 1927 in neo-classical style, changing its use to some ministries, city’s offices and the residence of the mayor. Right behind it is the Corondelet Palace on Plaza Grande.
- El Panecillo District This hill immediately south of the old town, at an elevation 3016 meters above sea level offers great views from the top, where it stands the statue of Madonna created by the Spanish artist Agustín de la Herrán Matorras in 1976. Any of the major streets heading south from the old town such as Garcia Moreno, Venezuela or Guayaquil link with Melchor Aymerich Street which leads directly to the top of the hill.
- La Recoleta District Next to El Panecillo all along the eastern side of such hill and towards the south, containing some of the last major sights.
-La Recoleta Palace Not far south from La Ronda on Avenida Pedro Vicentemaldonado. One of the buildings outside of the historic centre also included under the UNESCO World Heritage listing. Built in 1908 for the National Expo in neo-classical style at the exception of the central cupola and entrance where after the 1914 earthquake it was remodelled in art-nouveau. It’s home to the Ministry of Defence. The Trolebus Q has a stop right at the front.
-San Diego Recoleta Convent Next door to Recoleta Palace, built in 1598.
-Chimbacalle Train Station The only one serving the capital, and only with tourist trains rather than any commuter or inter-city trains.
Quito’s Mariscal Sucre International Airport replaced the older sited right in the middle of the city. It is located 20 kilometres northeast of the city with easy access by road. Public buses depart around every 15 minutes towards Carcelen bus terminal from where you can change onto a Metrobus or Ecovia bus line to your final destination nearer the historic centre. A single ticket costs $2, and $0.25 cents for the Metrobus.
A not so handy Aero Servicios Bus connect both the former airport with the new one every 20 minutes for $7.00 single ride; from the old airport you can grab a taxi to your final destination, however please DO NOT take this at night, you can end up stranded at the old airport with unofficial taxis your only option left, hence at your own risk.
At last, the most convenient and of course the most expensive, taxis have a fixed fare to/from the airport, $25 to La Mariscal and $26 to the historic centre.
Coming overland is only possible by bus, either within Ecuador or neighbouring countries such as Peru in the south and east or Colombia in the north. There are 2 main bus terminals, one at the north named Carcelen, and the one at the south named Quitumbe. The distance between them both is considerable, therefore make sure in advance from where the buses will be arriving/departing; however it makes and easy rule that anything towards the north and Colombia will depart Carcelen, while Guayaquil, Cuenca and onto Peru, from Quitumbe terminal. Please note that in order to enter any bus station in Quito (and as in the next guide explained also in Guayaquil), you need to pass through turnstiles that cost $0.10, however, if you arrive to any bus station by bus already, as in a Metrobus, you do not need to pay to change between buses, only if you leave the station and reenter.
Within the city there is a good network of buses. Three of these lines are called Metrobus, and are similar to a segregated tramway with high frequencies and high capacity, serving the entire city north to south along its main avenues. The bus stops for these require a ticket to pass through the turnstiles, and are very handy if you are somewhere north or south from the historic city that lies in the middle. It costs only $0.25 per ride. Along these segregated right of way, at the same bus stops are also the Trole and Ecovia bus companies, with different routes. Plenty of normal buses crisscross the city but are not as efficient as the Metrobuses.
A new metro line is under construction and scheduled for opening in 2019. It will run from north to south, with stations serving the historic town. There are no commuter trains nor intercity trains serving Quito, only the line connecting with Guayaquil and beyond merely for tourists purposes in luxury train tours.
Anywhere around the historic city there is no need for taking any public transportation. First of all the streets are all pedestrianised, and second, distances are short; but what’s the point if every single building in this area is a sight on their own, therefore that walking is the most pleasurable way to discover the city. Also, a “bigger” distance as is from the historic area to the thriving Plaza Foch (La Zona) is no more than 30 minutes of foot.
Surprisingly, being a capital city of over 2 million people and of such importance to business and tourism, the overall accommodation choice is somewhat limited. I am talking about large hotels, especially the big world’s chain hotels. When searching around I missed many of our usual favourite chains, which was a bit of a surprise and I though perhaps it was due to the lack of availability on our dates, but it wasn’t; I directly searched by names and are non existent (yet). Fair enough, it was not difficult to find a nice deal anyway, in a great hotel, as usual by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
The main point we had in consideration was location. Somewhere around the historic centre or the lively Plaza Foch will be your best bet. No need for taking any transportation at all other than from/to the airport and the farther districts, you have everything near you just a few minutes’ walk and a massive choice of restaurants, bars and great nightlife.
For our first 5 nights in the trip we stayed at the Hotel Reina Isabel in Avenida Amazonas with Veintimilla, in the district of La Mariscal very near Plaza Foch, hence really centrally located and perfect for going anywhere in the city sightseeing on foot (at the exception of La Mitad del Mundo of course, where you will need 2 buses to get there). We booked a Deluxe room and was absolutely perfect! Very large, separate living room area, extra big beds, probably the biggest we’ve ever seen in a hotel, nice and quiet at night. Extremely comfortable with everything we needed, and very well cared overall. The staff was super friendly, speaking both Spanish and English and always there to ensure you have a good stay. The breakfast, although not the biggest, was great and their selection of freshly cut fruits absolutely the best. If you want a gym, they have the largest and most complete we’ve ever seen in a hotel! There is no doubt we can recommend this hotel to anyone, and looking forward to a next time for us indeed.
As for our last day at the end of our Ecuador trip we stayed at the Swissotel in Avenida 12 de Octubre, next to the Guapulo District. Once again, the location could not be any better. From here you can easily walk anywhere to the historic centre and surrounding districts, however bear in mind this is one of the top hotels in Quito therefore expect higher fares. The reason why we selected our last night here was because of our late departure flight back to Madrid on the following evening for what we wanted to have a well deserved rest after this busy tour through Ecuador. There is a large pool, sauna, jacuzzi and all such facilities which is what we were looking after. The hotel is simply spotless and amazing! From the higher floor rooms you can see the entire city and the Pichincha Volcano, on rooms larger than average (we stayed at an Executive anyway so this means extra large). The Executive Floor is stunning, once again with probably the best views of any building over the city and volcano, with superb quality of the food and drinks provided by spot-on waiters and great care for customers. From the moment we entered and checked-in until we left, everything was perfect, almost impossible to find anything wrong. A truly 5* experience.