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All travel to Ecuador begins and ends in Quito, Ecuador. This capital city sits at an elevation of 9,350’, nestled in the towering Andean Mountains. On one side, Volcano Guagua Pichincha rises high above the city and on the other, Panecillo and Ichimbia. Enveloped in the long narrow crease between these mountains is a city with origins dating back to the Incan empire.
Many visitors to Quito barely spend a full day scratching the surface of this remarkable city. However, it’s a huge mistake to gloss over Quito in your eagerness to fly on to the Galapagos. I was fortunate enough to meet our friend Jorge Perez. His family owns an Ecuadorian guest ranch called Tierra Del Volcan at the foothills of Cotopaxi. He encouraged us to spend more time in the Andes as their guest. We were also fortunate to have been able to experience Ecuador working with Metropolitan Touring, an Ecuadorian-owned full-service travel operator. They provided us with significant discounts to experience their properties and tours.
What Makes Quito, Ecuador Such a Special City?
When Spanish conquistadors discovered Quito, they too were wowed by its beauty. This mountainous area is a place of stunning beauty with steep streets, staircases, and homes stacked one on top of the other. The city sprawls up the hillsides from the central artery of the city, Mariscal Sucre Street. Building a colonial city on this terrain offered many challenges. Nonetheless, the Spanish brought their European city planning sensibilities and erected a network of narrow streets and spacious colonial squares. The architectural style of the historic district is unique to Quito. It is described as the “Baroque School of Quito”. Old town Quito was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1978.
Walking through the Old Town District, you might think you were in a European town. But the next moment, you are mingling with locals clothed in traditional Ecuadorian dress and surrounded by shops packed with local wares. This is the charm of Ecuador. It is a delightful juxtaposition of old and new, tribal and colonial, highlands and oceans. The list of dynamic contrasts is endless. A large part of a visiting Quito is just about being in a very unique place. We loved people watching in her squares, exploring down her narrow streets, and digging deeper.
1) Roam the Streets of Old Town Quito, Ecuador like a Local
Old Town Quito isn’t just one big history museum. Its narrow streets are packed with locals going about their everyday lives. The ground floors of the 3-4 story buildings have little storefronts selling everything under the sun. From huge bags of colorful potatoes to bundles of herbs in every strange scent. Crafts people make and sell embroidered shoes, felt hats, and religious icons. Weaving between the cars and people along these tight streets makes entering one of the spacious colonial squares a delight. The squares are lined with street vendors selling seasonal fruit, quail eggs, or a shoe shine.
You can certainly roam the streets of Old Town Quito on your own, but I highly recommend Metropolitan Touring’s “Live Quito Like a Local” walking tour. We met up with a local host who lives in Old Town Quito and she took us to visit her friends. We got to learn about their businesses and way of life. Without her, we might have felt too shy to stop at many of these places. This included the only remaining flour mill in the city where farmers still bring small batches of grain to be milled every day. We also visited a family who repairs religious statues, a craft passed down from generation to generation.
2) Climb the Spires of Basílica del Voto Nacional and Search for Animal Gargoyles
With over 200 churches and religious buildings in one city, it would be overwhelming for kids to visit more than a handful. Basicilica de Voto Nacional is a must see. Our kids loved the adrenaline rush of climbing up to the very tippy top of a church spire. All the while, keeping their eyes peeled for animal gargoyles featuring local Ecuadorian wildlife. If you have little ones, keep a close eye on them and skip climbing to the very top where ladders get super steep. I confess, my knees were shaking and I was glad for an excuse to stay with our 5-year-old.
3) Learn to Spin a Wooden Top and Enjoy some of the World’s Best Chocolate in La Rhonda
A stroll down Juan de Dios Morales Street is a walk down history lane. Also known as La Rhonda, this street was once an old Incan trail that was used to transport water to homes from a nearby creek. But in more recent history, La Rhonda gained a reputation as the Bohemian district where the fringes of society reside. This area, once in disrepair, has received a face lift. It is now home to boutique hotels, clubs, novelty stores, and trendy restaurants. A visit with kids must include a stop at Heladería Dulce Placer and a visit to the award-winning Pacari chocolate factory. Then stop at the delightful Zabalartes toy store. You’ll find a wide selection of handcrafted tops and wooden toys and the kids can learn how to spin a top.
4) Visit the Quito Central Market to Enjoy an Exotic Local Fruit
The center of any city is the market, and in Quito, this is where the locals shop for their food. Our kids always love tasting exotic looking local fruit and looking at funny things like chickens with feet sticking up in the air. There are also a few traditional healers in the central market selling a wide array of medicinal herbs to cure any manner of spiritual or physical ailment.
5) Get a Herbal Cleansing (limpiadores) from a Traditional Female Healer
When local Ecuadorians have a spiritual or physical ailment, they don’t go rushing off to the doctor’s office. Instead, they first visit a curandero, a traditional female healer who can cleanse you with a combination of “magical” plants. She learns her craft from her mother and the knowledge is passed down from one generation to the next. The walls of her store are lined with cubbies stuffed with bunches of fresh herbs. And she seems to be a lexicon of healing properties locked within each herb. A cleansing involves her rubbing these herbs all over your skin and may even include a prescription for a bitter concoction to drink. Our son who had been having a stomachache was thrust into her care. He wasn’t so amused, but we were.
6) Visit the Winged Virgin at the Top of Quito El Panecillo
It’s hard to miss the huge statue of the winged virgin on a hill from just about anywhere in Quito. Standing at an impressive 135ft (41m) tall, you’ll see that she is crowned with stars, angelic wings, and is standing on a snake. You’ll also be rewarded with one of the best 360-degree views of picturesque Quito and her surrounding volcanoes. Visit in the morning when you are least likely to have clouds obscuring your views. The walk up the little bun (Panecillo) is a bit much for the kids, and some say it can be dangerous, so take a taxi up.
7) Ride into the Clouds on the Pichincha Teleférico
This high altitude cable car ride will take you from to 9,514’ to 13,451’ in 18 minutes. It’s a thrill to ride up on this steep cable car and an opportunity to say you’ve been above 13,000’. At the top of the Teleférico, there are hiking trails and inexpensive horseback rides to enjoy the views. There could not be a more spectacular place on earth to enjoy a horseback ride. Be prepared for the high altitude. Drink lots of water, apply sunscreen, and bring extra layers to keep you warm.
8) Visit a Gold-gilded Church – Ingelsia de la Compañía de Jesús
The other church that grabbed our kids’ attention is the gold-gilded Ingelsia de la Compañía de Jesús, Quito. Entry is free, but photography inside the church is not allowed. This ornate baroque-style church was built in 1605 by the Jesuits and took 163 years to build. A full restoration in 2006 included the addition of 7 tons of gold leaf. The kids were very impressed by all the bling.
9) See Some Old money at Museo Numismática Banco Central
Our kids were surprised to discover that Ecuador uses the American dollar after it abandoned its own currency. It was a result of a severe financial crisis in 2000. One place you can still see an Ecuadorian Sucre (pictured above) is at the Museo Numismática Banco Central (Numismatic Museum) in Quito, located in the former Banco Central del Ecuador in Old Town Quito. All the informational placards are in Spanish, but it was still interesting to see the currencies dating back to the Spanish conquest.
10 ) Visit the Home of a National Hero – Museo Casa de Sucre
It’s hard not to be curious about what’s behind those small doors as you walk through Old Town Quito. If you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of some beautiful Spanish courtyards. If you are really curious about getting behind those secretive doors, you can visit José Antonio Sucre’s House. Sucre is a national hero for his role in liberating South America from Spanish occupation. His house, La Casa de Sucre, in Old Town Quito is now a museum furnished as he would have had it in the 1820’s.
11) Go Underground into the Burial Crypt at Metropolitana de Quito
Quito is home to numerous monasteries, convents, churches, and grand cathedrals. The magnificent Catedral Metropolitana de Quito (Cathedral of Quito), allows you to descend underground into a catacomb crypt and take a tour with a friar. Thread through tight passageways up to the roof for a stunning view of Quito. The national hero Antonio José de Sucre is buried here.
12) Dine on a Rooftop to the Twinkling Lights of Quito
A fun way to experience Quito with kids is dining on the rooftop at the Vista Hermosa restaurant in the Old Town district. Ride up to the rooftop in an old elevator and be greeted by wait staff with elaborately painted faces. The menu has local favorites as well as kid-favorites like pizza and pasta.
13) Stand at the Center at of the Earth at the Equatorial Divide
Apparently finding the exact line of the equatorial divide isn’t the easiest thing in the world. At Mitad del Mundo, the official monument was erected. However, with the arrival of GPS technology, it was confirmed that the real equatorial divide is actually a few hundred meters up the street next to the Museo de Sitio Intiñan (Intinan Solar Museum). It is a fun place to visit with kids because of the hands-on experiments that demonstrate some of the unique phenomenon that happens at the equator, including the Coriolis effect. The museum also features a few exhibits about native peoples of the Andes.
14) Go where the local families love to hang out
We always love getting off the tourist track, so I asked the Perez family to share some places that local families enjoy.
“Yaku Parque Museo Del Agua (Yaku Water Museum), has one of the best views of old town Quito. It is fun for the children because they have the opportunity to learn about the water cycle in the Andes in a very interactive way. The giant soap bubbles are at Zoológico de Quito (Quito Zoo), but it’s also a fun place to try some local fruits which are plentiful in this area. The Quito Zoo is a good place for kids to get up close to animals from the Andes and the Amazon Basin.”