First of all, four days is not enough to see and appreciate Quito. We had always planned only a short stay in this fantastic colonial city as the jumping-off point for our trip to the Galápagos Islands. But we did hit some important highlights – and, best of all, we have a list of things to do when we come back (which will happen). We call this our Quito shakedown.
A few general observations about Quito:
- It’s high country, more than 2,850 meters (9,350) feet. Luckily, we didn’t feel any ill effects from the altitude unless you count the huffing and puffing we did up the city’s impossibly steep hills. Our tour guide, a native Quiteña, did mention that even folks that grew up there get winded climbing those hills (or maybe she was trying to make the two middle-aged gringos feel better!).
- Situated in a deep and elongated valley surrounded by the Andes, Quito reminds us a lot of Medellin, Colombia, but without the tall, red-brick high-rises.
- It’s true that the sun shines brighter and closer at the equator. Bring the sunblock.
So, in the spirit of one of those airline magazines, here’s the blow-by-blow of our first two days in Quito, the gem of Ecuador and its capital city.
Day One – Settling In
We arrived in the late afternoon at Quito’s new-ish and ultra-modern Mariscal Sucre International Airport, situated about 11 miles east of the city. UIO has the distinction of being the first all-new airport to be built in the Caribbean, Central, or South America in the past decade. It was a pleasure to fly in and out of this well-thought-out and highly efficient airport four times, counting our trip to the Galápagos.
We were met by our driver, Rene Sandoval, who took us into the city and to our Airbnb lodging – a beautifully decorated but snug and cozy loft apartment in a historic building just four blocks from the Plaza Central in Quito’s historic district. For less than $100 a night, we had everything we needed, and the host, Maria, even left us fresh flowers and some groceries (fruit, cheese, crackers, eggs, butter, cold cuts, coffee, and wine) to tide us over.
After settling into Maria’s place, we took our famished selves out to find a dinner spot. Our noses led us to the Plaza Central and a fabulous restaurant, Hasta la Vuelta Señor. Situated on the top floor of the historic Archbishop’s Palace, this place offered up wonderful Ecuadoran cuisine, an excellent wine list, and a very interesting back story about a fun-loving monk – all for the budget-breaking price of $68 for both of us (including a bottle of wine).
Tips for the day:
- Hiring a driver like Rene (firstname.lastname@example.org) will save you time and money. Rene drove us to and from the airport (a half-hour trip each way) and gave us a full day exploring Otavalo and surrounding sites (a two-plus-hour drive from Quito), all for less than $200.
- So far we’ve had great luck with our Airbnb experiences, and we can’t recommend Maria’s apartment enough. Here’s the listing.
- Hasta la Vuelta Señor. As a bonus, it seems to be open later than other nearby restaurants, many of which close by 8 p.m.
Day Two – Seeing the Sights
As luck would have it, our first full day in Quito was Sept. 22, which happened to be the autumnal solstice. According to Marisol, our tour guide, this was a very auspicious day on the Incan calendar. It’s one of two days out of the year where the sun is almost exactly overhead at noon, a phenomenon that only exists at or near the equator.
After breakfasting on Maria’s groceries, we met at the Community Hostel for our free walking tour led by Marisol. This three-hour tour (I know what tune’s in YOUR head now!) stretched into almost five hours and covered almost all of the major points of interest in and around the historic district including the National Theater, President’s Palace, Archbishop’s Palace, numerous ornate and monumental old Catholic churches, and Quito’s famous Calle La Ronda, known for its artisan workshops during the day and vibrant night life when the sun sets.
Following our marathon tour, we were once again famished – and discovered a restaurant row on Eugenio Espejo street just off the Parque Central. We finally settled on an upstairs cafe named El Balcon, where we enjoyed an authentic Ecuadoran lunch and a couple of “Latitud Cero” microbrews.
Instead of dinner that night, we went for another Community Hostel offering, the Friday Food Tour. And who should turn up as our guide but . . . Marisol! Not only was she a font a knowledge, but her pride in her home city was a joy. She was a kick to hang out with all day.
Tips for the day:
- Most of the world’s major cities now have some sort of free (plus whatever you decide to tip the guide) walking tour. We’ve done them in Amsterdam, Montevideo, Panama City, Buenos Aires, and now Quito. It’s been a quality experience every time, and it’s a great way to connect with fellow travelers and exchange tips.
- Community Hostel is a real find, just up the street from the Centro Mercado. Not only did we book the walking tour and food tour there, but they offer a wealth of other activities at very reasonable prices (including last-minute specials to the Galapagos). Although we didn’t partake, we understand they serve an excellent breakfast and dinner.