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If you visit Ecuador, you will sooner or later end up in Quito – just like me. When I visited Ecuador, my plane tickets to Galapagos left from the capital, so I didn’t have a choice but to come here. After a bit of research, I found out that it’s the perfect city to base myself for a couple of days. There are lots of things to do in the area, both in the city as well as in the surroundings. I could easily have spent a week or more in Quito and now regret that I only had a couple of days.
Quito is the second-highest capital in the world (if you want to go higher, you have to go to La Paz) and the one closest to the equator. It is, in fact, so close that you can easily go there on a half-day trip. The Old Town is full of cobblestone streets and ancient churches, you can try amazing food at Quito’s markets and if you’re tired of being in the city, you can hike up Cotopaxi or take a day trip to the cloud forest in Mindo.
To give you some inspiration on why you should absolutely visit Quito and what you shouldn’t miss, here are my favourite activities:
#1 Visit Quito’s churches
Quito was named Unesco world heritage site for its churches and it would be a shame to come to this city and not visit at least one of them. The most impressive one is the Compañia de Jesus (which is unfortunately also the only one with a steep entrance fee), but there are many more beautiful churches around the city. I have never recommended churches as the number one thing to do in a city, but if you go to Quito, it would be a shame to miss out on their beauty. And even if you’re not a fan of them usually, you should at least briefly go into one to see the very golden, very sparkling interiors.
We managed to visit five churches in one day, which was overdoing it, but we did not have time to spread it out more. If you are here for a couple of days and are interested in churches, I recommend you take your time visiting them. Otherwise, go to the Convento San Francisco to at least see one of them. It is not just interesting for its church, but also for its beautiful exterior and for people-watching on the large plaza in front of it.
I also heard great things about the Basilica del Voto Nacional. You can climb to the top and enjoy the view of Quito. Plus, there is a cafe hidden up there which serves cold drinks, making it the first church I’ve ever heard of in which you can enjoy a beer. I didn’t get the chance to go there by myself, but it’s at the top of my list for the next time I return to Quito.
30min – 1d
#2 Take a free walking tour through the Old Town
If you have been following this blog, you will have seen me recommend a lot of free walking tours. These tip-based tours are a great way of getting to know a city and I enjoy doing them. I’ve only ever been on one that I didn’t like that much, all of the others were great. Quito was no exception. We had an amazing local guide who showed us around the city and told us about life in Ecuador. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know much about the country’s history. Hearing about recent events that have shaped the Ecuadorian culture and society was very interesting and eye-opening.
Plus, Quito is a beautiful city. The centre is full of historic buildings and plazas. We did the tour on Carnival and arrived in the middle of the celebrations, which was a bonus, but I’m sure it is amazing on every day of the week.
The tour leaves from the Community Hostel every morning and afternoon (except for Sundays). It is available both in English and Spanish. Take a look at their website to check out at what time you need to be there and to book a spot.
#3 Watch the changing of the guards
The changing of the guards takes place in front of the Palacio del Gobierno every Monday at 11am. The ceremony started at the beginning of the 19th century, shortly after Ecuador gained independence from Spain. Today, the soldiers still wear the same colourful uniform as they did 200 years ago.
To get a good view, you need to arrive early and get one of the spots at the front. With the soldiers spread out over the whole plaza, it is impossible to see all of them at the same time and it pays off to walk around during the ceremony. Make sure to look towards the palace when the national anthem plays because that’s when the president will show up on one of the balconies. To be honest, there were a lot of people on the balcony and I have no idea which one was the president. Maybe I should have googled a picture of him beforehand. But at least, I can now say that I saw him.
If you are not in Quito on a Monday, you can still visit the governmental palace. Free tours take place regularly from Tuesday to Sunday.
#4 Browse through the workshops at La Ronda
La Ronda is a beautiful street known for its colourful houses built in a Spanish colonial style. Rumour has it that its origins date back to the 14th century when it was an Incan trail. The street, as you see it now, was built in the 18th century. In the early 1900s, the street became popular with artists before it fell into decay. These days, it has been nicely restored and is full of galleries, workshops and restaurants and bars. It is one of the best places to buy arts and handicrafts in Quito.
While I was only here during the day, I heard that it comes fully alive in the evening. Police patrols the area to make sure that it’s safe for you to walk here at night as well. Quito gets very cold in the evening, so you could get a cup of canelazo. This drink is made from sugar cane alcohol and various fruits and spices and will make you feel warm and fuzzy inside.
#5 Have lunch at Mercado Central
Quito’s central market is the perfect place to try Ecuadorian dishes without busting your budget. I highly recommend locro de papa, which is a potato soup with egg and avocado. It might not look very appetising on the photo above, but I promise that it’s extremely tasty. The llapingachos is also very good.
If you want to try the locro de papa, ask around. I did not see it advertised anywhere, but when asking, everyone wanted to serve it to us. Also, if you want to have a drink with your food, I can highly recommend the batido de mora. It’s a milkshake made with Andean blackberries and one of the most delicious shakes I’ve had in South America.
On the upper level, next to the food stalls, you can find fruit vendors where you can stock up on fresh fruit for dessert.
#6 Visit the equator in Mitad del Mundo
The equator is one of Quito’s strangest sights. It wasn’t my first time standing on the equator line. I had crossed it before in Uganda, where we had gotten out, taken pictures and then gone on.
Mitad del Mundo was nothing like that. First of all, there are two places claiming to be the equator. One of them holds a large monument. This is where the first expeditions marked the equator line. Around the monument, you will find lots of shops and museums with a reconstruction of traditional houses, a chocolate museum, an exhibition about the city of Cuenca and so on. It all seemed very random to me.
Inside the monument, you can try some experiments related to physics, though to be honest, when we went, it was packed with people and we could barely see anything. The exhibition on the upper levels, about Ecuador’s indigenous tribes, was more interesting and from the top, we had a great view of the surrounding mountains.
Next to the monument, you can find the Museo Intiñan. This museum claims to have the real equator line running through it. Just like around the monument, you will learn about Ecuadorian traditions, chocolate and indigenous tribes. And since the entrance fee includes a guided tour (ask for an English one if you don’t speak Spanish), your guide will do some experiments for you, all related to physics. I found this place more interesting than around the monument because we had a great guide and it didn’t seem as random.
To get to Mitad del Mundo, take the Metrobus northwards to La Ofelia. From here, regular buses leave to Mitad del Mundo. Expect the bus ride to take at least an hour to an hour and a half in total.
1/2d – 1d
#7 See Quito from above
There are two places from which you have a great view of Quito. I didn’t make it to any of them, since, each time I wanted to go, the weather turned too cloudy. But I heard good things about them.
The first way of getting up into the mountains is by taking the TelefériQo. This cable car takes you to an altitude of almost 4000 meters and gives you a great view not just of Quito itself but also of the surrounding volcanoes.
The second option is going up to El Panecillo. This is a hill with a statue of the Virgin on its top. In theory, it is possible to walk here from the city centre. Our guide on the free walking tour warned against it, though, since there have been robberies of tourists climbing up the hill. Stay safe and take a taxi.
1 – 4h
#8 Shop at Otavalo market
The market in Otavalo is a great day trip from Quito. It originated in Pre-Inca times when indigenous people from the rainforest came here to sell their goods. Over the years, it has evolved and has now turned into a market mostly aimed at tourists. If you want to buy souvenirs, no matter what, you can get it here.
The market takes place every day of the week but is largest on Saturdays, when it spills out in the streets and alleys surrounding the main plaza. It is extremely photogenic, with colourful fabrics, handicrafts and paintings.
To get here from the city centre, you need to take the trole northwards. Get out at El Ejido and switch to line C5. Take it to the end to get to the El Carcelen bus terminal, from where you can catch a bus to Otavalo. The whole trip takes around three hours.
#9 Have fun in the cloud forest at Mindo
While Mindo is a destination worth spending a night or two, it can also be visited as a day trip from Quito. We went with one of the tours offered by Community Hostel and had a lot of fun. First, we visited a butterfly garden, then went on to do some ziplining (and a coffee tour for those who didn’t want to go on the zip lines) and finished in a chocolate museum where we had some of the best hot chocolate I’ve had in the past months.
While Mindo can be visited on public transport, you should join one of those organised tours if you want to do it as a day trip. And maybe you’re more lucky than me and can also hike to a waterfall, an activity that we had to cancel due to heavy rain.
I hope I managed to give you an idea of what to do in Quito. If you travel onwards to Galapagos, check out our budget guide to island-hopping without missing out on animals and activities. Or read an interview with Jaime, an Ecuadorian guy I met in Cuenca and who answered my questions about life in Ecuador. Also, we have an overview of things to do in Ecuador and food not to miss to make it easier for you to plan your trip to this beautiful country.
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