“Wake up!” mural on the streets of La Floresta — Photo courtesy of Lola Augustine Brown
Ecuador’s capital, Quito, serves up a wealth of deep cultural experiences that you won’t find anywhere else. Founded on the ruins of an Inca settlement, this 16th century city is filled with staggeringly beautiful and ornate churches, palatial homes turned into boutique hotels and winding cobblestone streets. Wandering them, it is easy to see why Quito was the first city to be granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1978.
Here are 10 ways to get a taste of what this incredible destination offers visitors.
Admire the glory of Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús
Gold leaf covThe dazzling interior of Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús — Photo courtesy of Lola Augustine Brown
Known locally as the “gold church” because almost every inch of the interior of this baroque masterpiece is gilded with gold leaf, this church is filled with art and artifacts that will leave you in awe. Construction began here in 1605, in the early years of the Spanish occupation. It took more than 150 years to complete. On a guided tour, you can climb onto the roof, which offers fantastic views of the city and access to the interior of the ornate cupola.
Dine at the fabulous Urko
Chef Daniel Maldonado of Urko — Photo courtesy of Lola Augustine Brown
The creative vision of chefs Daniel Maldonado, Andrés de la Torres and Cristhian Hernandez, the tasting menus at Urko draw from Ecuador’s rich biodiversity to serve up incredible dishes, with ingredients sourced from the Andes, the coast, the Galapagos Islands and the Amazon jungle. This might include Amazonian paiche fish with potato foam on a bed of lacto-fermented tomato gel or a ceviche dish of preserved watermelon and gooseberries with caramelized plantain corn broth. Urko’s vibe is fun, with art depicting local shamanic rituals and local handicrafts displayed amongst plants and flowers. All seats have a view into the large open kitchen, where Maldonado and his team create culinary magic.
Scale the eastern side of Pichincha volcano in a TelefériQo cable car
Take in the sweeping views via cable car — Photo courtesy of Joel Logana / Getty Images
At more than 9,000 feet above sea level, Quito holds the title of the world’s second-highest city. (La Paz, Bolivia, holds first place.) Want to go higher? Take a ride in a TelefériQo cable car, which takes you up to almost 13,000 feet above sea level. Your ears will pop as you take in the epic views of the city. Climbing up the eastern side of Pichincha from the cable car is a popular activity. If you do, you’ll be at an elevation of more than 15,000 feet. Pichincha is an active volcano, last erupting in 2002.
Walk the super cool La Floresta neighborhood
Abandoned “haunted” house in La Floresta parish — Photo courtesy of Lola Augustine Brown
As the artistic heart of Quito, La Floresta is the perfect place to spend an afternoon eating regional food and admiring street murals. Here, you’ll find little boutiques and pop-up shops and galleries, as well as folks selling delicious bowls of pork stew and corn pastries from their doorways.
Shop for local handicrafts at Mercado Artesanal La Mariscal
Shopping for cashmere blankets at Mercado Artesanal La Mariscal — Photo courtesy of Lola Augustine Brown
Definitely a destination for picking up fun souvenirs, at the Mercado Artesanal La Mariscal, you’ll find rows of stalls, selling the softest baby llama blankets and cashmere scarves and stylish Panama hats. Prices at this market are ridiculously cheap, and you’re expected to haggle. If you’re a fan of more upmarket art and souvenirs, head to way fancier store Olga Fisch Folklore, which works with local women’s cooperatives and sells gorgeous jewelry, crafts and clothing.
Climb to the top of Basílica del Voto Nacional
Rose window at Basílica del Voto Nacional — Photo courtesy of Lola Augustine Brown
After feeling the burn climbing the interior of the basilica’s towers, you exit onto the roof to find more narrow stairs. At the top of the stairs, enjoy sweeping views of the city and volcanoes beyond from a tiny perch.
Seek a spiritual experience at San Francisco Market
A healer in her booth at the San Francisco Market — Photo courtesy of Lola Augustine Brown
Local markets are always fun, but beyond the meat and veggies, you’ll find a row of traditional healers, offering to cleanse your spirit or bring you love, luck or money. Hand over your cash, and you’ll be guided into a backroom, where you’ll be prayed over while being thwacked with handfuls of herbs and massaged with rose petals. It’s a fun, if not sometimes confusing, experience.
Stand at latitude 0 at Middle of the World
The monument at Middle of the World — Photo courtesy of Lola Augustine Brown
Though it is as touristy as things get in Ecuador — complete with a village facade and stores selling T-shirts and handicrafts at inflated prices — it’s well worth visiting Middle of the World to learn the origin story of dividing the Earth into hemispheres.
Taste traditional Ecuadorian distilled spirit at Casa Agave
Plant education on the distillery tour at Casa Agave — Photo courtesy of Lola Augustine Brown
When Casa Agave founder Diego Mora started making miske, a traditional agave-based spirit used ceremonially since pre-Colombian times, few people had heard of it. You certainly couldn’t find it in bars. Yet, Mora breathed new life into the spirit, and many distillers have followed throughout Ecuador. Imbibe his refined spirit at Casa Agave, which offers a distillery tour that ends in a tasting and cocktails experience.
Explore Casa Museo Guayasamín
The interior of Oswaldo Guayasamin’s home — Photo courtesy of Lola Augustine Brown
The private home-turned-museum of one of Ecuador’s most acclaimed painter, Oswaldo Guayasamín, is a treat for art lovers. If you’ve never heard of Guayasamín, you’re bound to become a fan of his haunting portraits and abstract landscapes after visiting this Spanish-style villa that he once called home. In addition to Guayasamín’s work, the museum is home to an impressive collection of pre-Colombian and 15th century religious artifacts.