Quito takes your breath away — in more ways than one.
At 9,350 feet above sea level, the thin air of Ecuador’s capital can make newcomers huff and puff.
But Quito is also stunning, a vibrant city within glorious Andean mountain ranges whose natural beauty gets serious competition from exquisite architecture and kaleidoscopic street life.
Most visitors dash around Quito for a day before heading off to explore other Ecuadorian treasures, like Galapagos’ wonders or Cuenca’s Incan ruins. But Quito rewards longer sojourns. That it’s a quick six-hour flight from New York, in the same time zone, and — like the rest of the country — uses the U.S. dollar as its currency makes Quito even easier to enjoy.
The city’s compact, sloping historic center — itself a giant UNESCO World Heritage Site — makes an ideal home base. Amid Gothic churches and Colonial mansions, you’ll find chic hotels carved from centuries-old buildings. Casa Gangotena, whose loftlike white rooms loom over bustling Plaza San Francisco, situates you across from Museo Casa del Alabado (alabado.org), a stunning collection of 5,000 pre-Colombian art housed in a refitted Colonial-era palace. The view’s just as impressive from the museum’s tranquil courtyard cafe, where you can chill out with coffee and a croissant.
A local had tipped me off about Quito’s oldest food market, Mercado San Francisco, a 120-year-old institution that got a facelift two years ago. The 10-minute climb up Avenida Simon Bolivar (a street) offered a snapshot of Quito commerce and culture. Slim storefronts sold everything from dried corn and candles to sugared peanuts and palo santo, the fragrant “magic” wood whose reputed powers include repelling insects.
Spotless, high-ceilinged and fluorescent-lit, San Francisco Market dazzled with colors, soundsand flavors. Chicken feet protruded from pans on one counter; stalls opposite proffered remedies for sexual dysfunction, depression and the common cold. Locals swear by healers who hawk services here; instead, I fortified myself with exotic fruits at a busy stall run by the smiling Teresa Angos, who gladly sliced samples of custardy granadilla, fleshy pink guava and tart, grape-tomato-like uvillas.
After meandering back down to Casa Gangotena through narrow streets, where hawkers’ cries mingled with plaintive music from stalls and storefronts, I detoxed in the serene lobby lounge before dinner. A 15-minute cab ride northeast, in the upscale district of La Floresta, Urko (urko.rest) lived up to its esteemed local rep for brilliant modern spins on indigenous Ecuadorian cuisine. Invest the two hours demanded by Chef Daniel Maldonado’s spectacular 13-course tasting menu; descriptions of “unripe strawberries, sunfo and yogurt” or “pork belly, cornand elderflower” don’t do justice to his wizardry.
Early the next morning, I wandered to Plaza Grande, historic Quito’s main square and a local hangout. Shops and museums wouldn’t open for an hour, so I nabbed an outdoor seat at Dulceria Colonial, one of six cafes that line Plaza Independencia at the square’s east side. Tables filled up with local students and workers schmoozing over coffee before the workday started.
Above the plaza sits the 16th-century Catedral Primada de Quito (catedraldequito.org) , an architectural wonder whose intricate wooden Moorish ceiling contrasts with the Ecuadorian and indigenous art that adorns every crevice. The big reveal here is a cramped, steep secret passage to the church’s domed roof, with its sublime views of old Quito’s rooftops. Ask the ticket-taker if a guide is available to lead you, and be warned it’s a physically taxing, hands-and-knees ascent.
After the trek up and down, I needed more fuel. Galletti Coffee Roasters (cafegalletti.com), rumored to serve Quito’s best espresso, didn’t disappoint. In an airy space inside the circa-1933 art-deco relic Teatro Bolivar (teatrobolivar.org) — which still hosts live performances — friendly young baristas pulled cortados and flat whites.
Chocolate is another of Ecuador’s proudest exports; Pacari (pacarichocolate.com), a revered local producer, operates a buzzing boutique nearby. After a brief lecture and slideshow on chocolate production, I stocked up on superb bars flavored with chili, lemongrass and Andean mint.
Of Quito’s rich menu of museums, I’d heard the Centro de Arte Contemporaneo was a must. Housed in a former military hospital, the museum’s soaring ceilings and arched hallways make as much of a showpiece as the edgy art it spotlights. Rotating exhibits might include emerging art from Brazil or a career retrospective of Dutch video artist Han Nefkens.
For lunch, I cabbed it 20 minutes east of downtown to Cumbaya, an affluent suburb and expat hub. ZFood was worth the slog through Quito’s notorious traffic. Seafood emerged on painterly plates — smoked trout with poached egg and broad beans and an impeccable octopus with grilled halloumi. A walk around the neighborhood revealed smart design stores like mid-century modern emporium Vintageless, custom perfumer The Lab, and spiffy cafe Piedra Negra (piedranegracafe.com).
With its laid-back Latin American style and European flair, the neighborhood made me realize why some who visit Quito decide to call it home. I’m not quite there yet, but my next visit is already planned.
If you go…
Getting there: Ecuadorian airline TAME offers the only nonstop flights from New York to Quito, from about $ 665 round-trip. Delta flies from Newark to Quito, via Atlanta, from about $ 470 round-trip.
– El Esmeraldas serves some of Quito’s best ceviches and encocados — pristine fish in rich coconut sauce.
– From a stand at the corner of La Ladron de Guevara and Lerida streets in La Floresta, Nuka Llakta serves irresistible wheat and corn pancakes — grilled as you watch — for just $ 1 for three.
– One of Quito’s finest restaurants, a rooftop terrace with panoramic views and a smashing location make Casa Gangotena (casagangotena.com) an unbeatable hotel option; rooms from about $ 360.
– Sleek, smart Nuhouse (nuhousehotels.com) situates you in the middle of Plaza Foch, Quito’s nightlife hub, but double-paned windows help muffle street noise; rooms from about $ 70.
More info: Quito Tourism, quito.com.ec