Ecuador’s Top Ten Experiences in Quito
Bright lights twinkle at dusk as the plane dips beneath the clouds on approach. I can just catch a glimpse of the surrounding contoured mountains rising up around the city. I imagine the Winged Virgin of El Pancillo, the tallest in the world, standing guard in so many photos. As we take a shadowy bounce on the runway, I can’t wait to get started exploring the top experiences in Quito.
Outside of the Galapagos, Ecuador is an often-overlooked jewel of a country. Surrounded by its larger South American neighbors, many visitors don’t look past the popular islands made famous by Charles Darwin. The county’s small size shouldn’t fool you. This Middle of the Earth gem has loads of appeal and something to offer everyone. When exploring the highlights, I suggest visiting my top ten essential experiences in Quito.
Where is Ecuador
Located on South America’s west coast, Ecuador is bordered on the north by Columbia and the east and south by Peru. The Pacific ocean forms the western border. The famous Galapagos are approximately 620 miles off shore and are part of Ecuador as well.
Divided by the equator, the natural biodiversity within the country is mind bending. The continental areas extend north to south in Ecuador.
A large coastal area has beautiful beaches with clear waters of the Pacific Ocean. The climate is tropical and quite warm.
The Andean Highlands are set in the middle of the country with two chains of parallel mountains running through. You might hear it called La Sierra, and some famous mountains and volcanoes (Chimborazo and Cotopaxi are two) are highlights. This area also includes Pululahua, the only inhabited volcano in the world. The rich soil makes it a prime area for cultivation; the fact that there has not been an eruption for 2,500 years makes me think the residents are a unique and hearty group!
Pro Tip: The altitude is real here. Talk to your doctor about preventing altitude sickness pre-travel.
The Amazon or Oriente Region
The Amazon jungle area is part of the world’s largest rainforest. Famous for it’s biodiversity, the area is interconnected with a complex map of rivers and streams.
Finally there are the Galapagos, an entirely different geographic destination loaded with unique species. Because of our limited time, I’m saving that area for another trip.
With a fairly universal climate in Quito that boasts 12 hours of daylight throughout the year, this small gem ticks off a lot of boxes.
Curating an Itinerary – Top 10 Experiences in Quito
When I travel to a new destination, I always want to see the highlights. Perhaps more importantly however, I want to discover and search out the local food and creatives which make a destination unique. This is why it’s so important to work with a travel planner that has the right contacts on the ground in your area.
Jane and I chose Ecuador for some of the following reasons:
- We only had 8 days (including travel) and wanted to stay in the same time zone.
- The country has a combination of tastes, treks and textiles we always search out.
- Quito, the capital, is known for its largely intact Spanish colonial center, with decorated 16th- and 17th-century palaces and religious sites. It is the first cultural Unesco World Heritage site.
- The historic center can be covered on foot.
- We would have several opportunities to connect with the authentic indigenous local culture.
- The country has impressive bio-diversity and opportunity for responsible travel in all areas of our interest.
Choosing a Travel Planner
I had worked indirectly with Metropolitan Touring on my trip to Lima, Peru and was impressed with their knowledge, flexibility and responsible travel mission. Since they are based in Ecuador, and reputed to be the best tourism agency in the country, I didn’t hesitate to connect with them again.
MetroJourneys is the new digital face of Metropolitan Touring. They work directly with clients for a personal connection and tailor made trips. Upon initial contact with their web site, a destination expert is assigned and you will work with them throughout the planning stages. Caro, our expert, listened to our interests and tailor made a unique itinerary.
I like working with a boutique agency that is flexible and understand the needs of a client. While we did not adhere to one of their preplanned tours, Caro worked hand in hand with us to fit in as many highlights as possible into our 7 day travel trip.
When I am traveling with my girlfriend Jane, we always have three things on our agenda: tastes, textiles and treks. I use the term trek loosely, as we are more of the day hiker variety with a luxury hotel waiting for us at the end of the path.
We also like to walk as much as possible in the historic district of destinations and base our itinerary around that area as much as possible. In addition, we like to get out in nature or the city and get some exercise because we love to indulge in the local food and wine scene. Our philosophy: one (walking) to balance the other(food+wine) for a net zero gain!
My Top Ten Experiences In and Around Quito
3 Day To Do List
1. The Exceptional Churches of Quito
It’s hard to just pick one church when there are so many to see in this Unesco city. We covered 6 top to bottom, and these were my favorites.
La Basilica del Voto Nacional
For the views – make sure to climb (take an elevator if need be) the Neo-Gothic bell tower in the La Basilica del Voto Nacional. The 360 degree views of the old city are magical. Don’t miss the gargoyles on the exterior. They represent the indigenous animals of the land-armadillos, tortises, birds and dolphins!
PRO TIP: Try to time your visit early or later in the day for the best photo opps.
La Compañía de Jesus
For the Gold-The extraordinary façade of La Compañia de Jesús is only surpassed by its jaw dropping gold interior. Every sculpted surface is covered in gold leaf-apparently seven tons of it! Visitors will immediately understand why the awe-inspiring site was nicknamed Quito’s Sistine Chapel. Church lovers will not be disappointed.
Iglesia y Convento San Francisco
For the Culture – Quito’s first church, Iglesia San Francisco is also the largest religious complex in South America. The entire compound of buildings will transport visitors back to the 16thcentury. Close your eyes and you might even hear the faint sound of monks chanting in a muffled hush.
Inside, along with an appropriate musty scent, the woodcarvings are amazing. Crowning the altar is the exquisite Winged or Dancing Virgin sculpture by Bernardo de Legarda. Her dress and folded hands give a feeling of motion. This particular Virgin can be seen throughout the northern Andes as a popular cult figure.
The adjacent museum has an impressive collection of artwork and décor; an airy courtyard complete with swaying palms is a respite from the buzzing streets outside. Make sure to ask about the devil’s connection to building-a great inventive folk tale.
2. Limpia – A different Kind of Wellness
I have always been fascinated by the power of traditional medicine. When I heard about the traditional healers in Quito, I asked MetroJourneys to make sure to include it on our list of experiences.
Limpia is a natural cleansing procedure involving the use of herbs, oils and flowers. This is a typical type of Andean medicine used for maintaining wellness, treating disease and cleansing the spirit. Healthy mind~healthy body.
In a closet-sized, nondescript stall located in a local market, we found our healer. The shelves were lined with flowers, herbs and a variety of potions. Señora Rosa Lagla is a 4thgeneration healer, a holistic trade passed down amongst indigenous women. You cannot study to become a healer, it is kept within families.
Traditionally, clients strip down to their underwear, I took the condensed version and rolled up my sleeves. Señora started whacking me with an assortment of herbs up and down my arms and neck. My allergic self did not take kindly to the process and immediately broke out in hives. I was assured this was the toxins escaping form my body and part of the process. Apparently I was loaded with the nasty devils.
When the itching reached a crescendo, the method changed. I was carefully massaged with rose petals and a salve laced with marijuana. The bruised petals released an intoxicating scent (I’m all about the smells) and transported me to a different place. I left balanced and restored, perhaps a little high and ready for whatever Quito had in store for my next experience.
Talk about a unique method of healing…even if I was a bit lost in translation.
3. Roof Top Deck of Casa Gangotena
For one of the most spectacular views in Old Towne, head to the rooftop of Casa Gangotena , an iconic property in the heart of the historic district. As the city winds down for the evening, the views are some of the best, overlooking San Francisco Plaza. Located in Quito’s centro historicó, the 360 view below clearly illustrates why this city was the first to receive cultural Unesco World Heritage status.
As the second highest capital in the world visitors quickly realize how much is on offer here from this view. Behind the hotel, The Virgin of el Pancillo overlooks the property and the rest of Quito, guiding all into the evening.
Service on the roof is called through a buzzer system in the tables. The small bites are a delicious accompaniment to said cocktail; the lentil cones we ordered were one of the best bites I had on the trip. Chef Emilio Dalmau puts his own unique twist on typical mestizo ingredients. The night felt like the perfect beginning to an adventure in Ecuador.
4. Casa del Alabado Museo
One of the most beautirully curated museums I’ve ever been to can be found in Casa del Alabado Museo. Referencing the Pre-Columbian world view of indigenous American peoples, the exhibition rooms are broken down into small bites of related objects. With a focus on communication, rituals and nature, the celestial, underworld and middle earth are all related and intertwined.
The art of turning clay, stone, metal, wood, fber and shell into cultural objects was a spiritual activity. Different materials have become cultural elements that made human life possible and have enriched it spiritually.
5. La Rhonda
Colorful La Rhonda, one of the best preserved Colonial streets in Old Town Quito. Mornings are sleepy and the area does not does not get busy until close to sundown. Once the retreat of bohemian creatives, artists and writers, the government has worked hard to change its seedy reputation. The cobbled street is lined with cafes, galleries and top notch artisans who have been invited to share their talent here.
Come early for a quiet cup of coffee, later for a hip and active vibe. Don’t miss the honey shop, their products will have you buzzing long after you return home.
We stopped into the atelier of metalworker and sculptor Germán Campos Alarcón. His meticulous work is used in much of the restoration of many historic buildings and churches. While my Spanish is pidgeon at best, we managed to sign language our conversation and realized we had a mutual friend in Philadelphia.
Julia and Isaiah Zagar from Eyes Gallery and Philadelphia’s Magic Garden had visited and worked with him many years ago. While the connection didn’t really surprise me, it certainly was a reminder of why I love to travel and seek out creatives around the world. We are all tied together by a magic string; this was the first of two close encounters of the makers kind I had during the trip.
6. Plaza Grande – Spend Some Time People Watching
You can’t dig deep into the city’s culture without spending some time in one of the crowd gathering plazas. My favorite being Plaza Grande aka Independence Square is surrounded by the Presendial Palace, City Hall, a cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace.
Choose a bench and enjoy the people watching. Multi generations gather, the central statue is a favorite spot for photos. Vendors of all kinds make their way through the paths of cobblestones that radiate from the center. Should you need it, you’ll have many a chance to get your shoes shinned.
7. Metropolitan Cultural Center
Just across from Plaza Grande, the Cultural Center offers a taste of contemporary Quito and is housed in the former Jesuit headquarters. Some of the best artists in the country, as well as an assortment of international names have exhibited here.
On display are permanent as well as temporary exhibitions. The artwork is political and asks tough questions of its audience. On the walls were work dealing with Quito’s expansion and keeping the area sustainable, indigenous women and their contribution to the culture and several interactive works. In the rotunda, there is a tasty café which makes for a nice break as you’re touring the historic district.
8. Middle of the Earth – Mitad del Mundo and Museo de Sitio Intiñan
Yes, it’s a tourist trap and yes, I almost skipped it. But really, how many times are you going to be able to stand on the equator? This was my first and probably only.
A charming museum has really old school displays and lots of information about the indigenous population and their talents and skills. It’s a good overview and will give great insight into the artisans and what to look for in the local markets.
9. The Chapel of Man~ Capilla del Hombre
The story of the indigenous people is often overlooked during travel. There is no better place to learn more than the powerful museum featuring the work of Oswalso Guayasamin.
Completed in 2002, shortly after the artist’s death, the Chapel of Man is dedicated to the struggles of the indigenous people both before and after the arrival of the Spanish explorers. The artist’s enormous paintings fill the unique space and the enormity of the subject matter is important for travelers to expereince.
10. Fifty Shades of Rose – Visit the Source
As you travel outside the city, the countryside is dotted with white tents. I was surprised to learn they are the greenhouses for some of the over 400 varieties of roses grown in the country. Thirty million stems are a lot of roses. Ukraine and the US are the biggest markets. Chances are, if you’ve delivered the flowers to someone you love, there’s good probability they originated here. The country has the perfect climate, rich volcanic soil and conditions for producing the best on the planet.
Being in the middle of the world, the temperatures weather and daylight hours are steady year round, producing roses where the stems are longer (some up to five feet) and blooms larger. In the hothouses the wide variety proudly stand at attention reaching for the sky. I was fascinated to learn about the development process and research that goes into bringing a new variety to market. Research of trends was not unlike the fashion and design business.
The historic French neo-classic style Hacienda la Compañia acts as a showroom for the company owned Rosadex company: massive vases of blooms are on display amongst the historic property and impressive collection of antiques.
Note: All of the Top Ten experiences in Quito listed are within walking distance of the historic center except for the last three.
Disclaimer: I was hosted by MetroJourneys for part of my travels in Ecuador.
Next up-A trip to one of the most Eco-friendly lodges in the world and a Trip to the highlands and the most famous market in Ecuador.
Pin Me ♥ Top 10 Experiences in Quito, Ecuador