Quito, Ecuador – Truly a Cultural Traveler’s Dream

Background

Quito, like many other large cities in Central and South America, has a bit of an unfortunate reputation with regards to crime. As a city set in the mountains, the weather can be highly unpredictable. On both counts, I was pleasantly surprised. I explored a handful of different areas of the city on my own and felt really comfortable. Although it was overcast the first day I was there, the next couple of days were clear, blue skies and moderate sunshine – honestly perfection for a traveler and photographer, because it is such a culturally rich city.

During a 2-week trip combined with Nicaragua and Costa Rica, I budgeted only 4 days in Quito, with my Saturday on a trip up the Andean Highlands (Read about it here).

Arriving in Quito

Arriving at Quito’s airport, clearing immigraion and customs was  fairly easy, but it was a bit of a painful process to get a SIM card at the airport “mall” across the airport road. Arrivals was shockingly quiet, but my flight was from Panama City and not a larger flight like those that come on TAME. The time spent getting my phone set-up at Movistar was really the main delay before I was on my way into town with the first of many crazy taxi drivers. The travel time from Mariscal Sucre Airport into the main parts of Quito can be around an hour, but my journey was much faster, with the traffic really only building up once we were in the city proper.

Quito’s weather is unpredictable, being in a mountainous area. I got quite lucky, seeing only clouds on the first day and then pretty clear skies the next few days. This was in sharp contrast to my visit to the other Andean capital, Bogota, where I was pretty much in a perpetual state of overcast or rainy with one glorious hour of sunshine.

Staying in Quito

For this first visit to Quito, I opted for Hotel Casa Joaquin, a small boutique hotel tucked into the center of La Mariscal. My room was admittedly small, which I expected for the dsc_6739center of the area. The Mariscal is often nicknamed “New Town” and revolves around Plaza Foch, a square surrounded by different bars (but also a Juan Valdez Cafe!). I liked the personal touches of the hotel – staff going out of their way to help, a fresh-cooked
breakfast and little decorative touches like Tin Tin art in the courtyard and a British phone booth in the dining room. The rooms were on the older side with a HUGE key that I made sure to leave with the front desk every time I stepped out.

La Zona

You could call Mariscal party town – the area was just as tacky as any other nightlife district you could find around the world. Music pumping out from what seemed like a hundred tiny dive bars, and all of the eating seemed to consist of your typical drunk eats spots – hot dogs, french fries and so on.img_7007 On Friday and Saturday night, La Mariscal was clearly the hot place to be. Sunday night was comparatively quieter and a little more appealing. I am sensitive to noise, so thankfully my room did not face the street and remained pretty quiet.

Dive bars are not my scene but there are a few nicer bars too. Over the few nights, I just randomly picked one each night to have a drink and catch the vibe of the area. During the day, the area is shockingly quiet when you compare it to the partying happening at night. Culturally, it is not interesting except to see how local (presumedly well-off) people have a good time, but I was directed to an indoor market (Mercado Artesanal) in the south of the zone. Small animist characters made out of eucalyptus. Most of the remaining items were fairly standard souvenirs.


  The Historic Area/Old Town

I am more of a cultural traveler overall, so once I settled into Casa Joaquin, I grabbed one of the plentiful taxis from the New Town to the Old Town to try and squeeze in some sightseeing. The constant trips between both areas all depends on traffic. It is really only a couple of miles, but it could be 10 minutes, it could be half an hour. Unfortunately, my first trip out was on that longer end. If your driver is aggressive enough, and oh boy many of them are, you might be able to shave off some time.

As soon as I arrived, I was immediately charmed. The area is honestly one of the most beautiful Spanish colonial-style historic districts I have been in, and I have done a lot of them, ranging from San Juan to Panama City to Bogota, but the Old Town in Quito is just the best of both worlds – why?

  1. dsc_6866The architecture has been nicely maintained and the overall effect is very eye-catching
  2. The area has not taken on the tacky feel that something like San Juan’s historic district has. I rarely saw a souvenir shop (“Artesanias”) and being politically incorrect, nothing gave me the feeling of “gringolandia”.

I took a few different walks around the Old Town and just took it all in over my few days in Quito. Some highlights were:

Iglesia San Francisco – This imposing white-wash church is the focal point of just one of many beautiful squares in the area, and the inside was a sensation for a gold-lover like myself.dsc_6762

The restaurant scene, just walking around, was simple, with a lot of cafeteria-style places. .
There was a wonderful hill that sort of gives a Panorama of the colorful homes of Quito. Safety Monitors were verywhere

 

Calle La Ronda on Saturday night – all of the restaurants look the same to me. Outdoor musicians, cute little shops. I asked for the recommendations and ended up with way too much food and felt a little pressured to leave as the restaurant became crowded, but the guy himself told me to take my time.

 

Sunday in the Old Town is a real treat. I started the day off at the hilltop Basilica del Voto Nacional. Besides a viewing deck that looks out over the entire Old Town, you can get a bit o a thrill walking through the church’s roof and then up narrow metal ladders to reach the dsc_7090top and get an even more spectacular view. That Sunday was Valentine’s Day, so the top lookout points were full of young couples in love, and I quickly became the designated photographer for all of the happy couples – it was actually a lot of fun.

Walking downhill is the easy part! Many streets in the Old Town are closed off on Sunday as the people of Quito descend on the area to enjoy a day off. Vendors selling plastic toys, joggers, middle-aged women clutching puppies – oh what a delight for an avid people-watcher like me. In the main square (Plaza Grande), traditional dances were on display as everyone tried to get a closer look of the colorful costumes and graceful moves of the young women.The crowds did eventually get to me and I found a nicer cafe upstairs to watch the world go by, called Pacari. This was definitely gringolandia, but frankly, I did not love the restaurant/cafe scene I found in Quito, so I was happy to find a better-quality place, even if it looked like a Westerners’ haven.

After Sunday services were over, this was a chance to visit a few of the churches I did not make it to before.

Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus – No photography was allowed inside and it was very quiet once services ended. The workmanship and detail are impressive, but maybe it was just overhyped in my mind, since it was constantly listed as the church “to see” in Quito. I personally preferred both San Francisco and Basilica Del Voto for different reasons.

Walking north of the Old Town reveals still plenty of historic architecture, such an old theater and historic hotels – honestly, the city is jam-packed with beautiful buildings.

Bellavista

A quick taxi up to the comparatively quiet neighborhood of Bellavista. At the end of a residential area is both Capilla Del hombre and the Guayasamin Museum

I accompanied what seemed like a large European family to visit Guayasamin’s home.

I don’t blame others for bringing a guide or driver. The area is residential so I had to hunt a passing driver down while walking downhill.

Getting Around Quito

The taxi drivers are definitely a little nutty. I had the pleasure of one who replaced his rear-view mirror with a portable movie player and watched a movie during the whole drive. I had another one who was trying to balance his ice cream and the steering wheel. A couple of others tried to bargain to be my driver. Lots of fun, really lots of fun, but they are inexpensive and the easiest way to get around the city. The only warning is on Sunday, when many of the streets in the historic area become pedestrian only. You will have to walk a bit to find a taxi.

Conclusion

Quito is one of my favorite large cities in the Americas. I have every intention to make a return visit and spend a week or so traveling the Andean highlands – the Galapagos can wait!

Perhaps only Mexico City is comparable to the level of cultural intensity in this city. I was not a huge fan of the food.

Traveling solo is pretty easy in Quito. The taxis are fairly inexpensive. Accommodation was on the pricier side for something mid-range, but I suppose you could stay in another area for cheaper. I was not overjoyed by the restaurant selection.

Solo Traveler Comments:

Pros

  • There is so much to see and experience in Quito alone that could fill 3-4 days. It is culturally one of the more impressive cities I have visited.
  • It is very easy to do it yourself using taxis to get around the city
  • Taxis and food are on the middle on the cost scale
  • Good menu of reasonably-priced trips outside of the city (Mindo, Mitad del Mundo, Otavalo, etc.). A lot of group options to keep costs down for solo travelers.
  • Not likely to encounter significant numbers of tourists or over-commercialized tourism
  • I found the city to be fairly friendly, at least compares to the likes of Bogota or Panama City.

Cons

  • Mid-range hotels are on the pricier side
  • Safety monitors are all around the Old Town, but especially when alone avoiding quieter spots at nights is advisable
  • The cost of cell data was surprisingly expensive
  • Better-quality dining is a little harder to find, with a lot of nearly identical cafeteria-style places (Old Town), generic Ecuadorian menus (Calle de La Ronda) or bad drunk eats (Zona)

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