Quintessential Quito in 48 Hours
Photo: Illa Experience Hotel
If you enjoy the charm of old cities, the traditions of South American colonial culture and unfettered authenticity, Quito, Ecuador is your kind of place. Built on the foundations of an ancient Inca settlement, this capital city oozes old world charisma. Perched high atop Panacillo Hill, the giant winged statue of the Virgin gazes down at the colorful neighborhoods, cathedrals and markets that divulge a marvelous portrait of Ecuadorian life.
With only 48 hours to experience the city prior to a cruise on the brand new KonTiki Wayra out of Manta on the Ecuadorian Coast, we went full throttle to explore everything possible. Although the city itself extends over 80 kilometers in length yet only 5 kilometers in width, the heart and soul of Quito beats in its Old Town.
A Top Hotel in Quito
Cities like Quito are full of hotels that range from small inns to large hotel chain properties but the charm of Illa Experience Hotel is not to be missed. This former 17th century mansion has recently been reimagined and crafted into a 10 room boutique-chic hotel with historic heritage and authenticity fully intact.
As the name implies special experiences are presented each day by craftsmen demonstrating the art of Panama Hat weaving, watercoloring, food cooking and wood burning artists. The small intimate restaurant is artistically managed by a spectacular chef offering a la carte options as well as Michelin style tasting menus.
The hotel is positioned on a secluded side street yet enjoys a coveted position in the center of Quito’s Old Town, providing convenient access for pedestrian exploration of the cobblestone streets that dissect the colorful neighborhoods of San Marcos and San Juan. Sauntering through these quaint hillside neighborhoods reveals architectural surprises, art studios, small shops and cafes scattered amidst historical villas and individual homes.
Best Cathedrals in Quito
As in all South American cities, it should come as no surprise that a impressive cathedrals top the list of sites to see and Quito is no exception with a spectacular trio of religious venues. The impressive Basilica del Voto Nacional is an architectural marvel and is the largest neo-gothic basilica in the Americas. Its stained glass rose windows paint a portrait of color alongside the massive ceiling arches. The twin towers at the main entrance bear a close resemblance to those of Norte Dame in Paris.
All that glitters may not be gold but that is certainly not the case in the Jesuit, Iglesia De La Compania. Behind its facade of carved volcanic stone is the central nave’s artistic plethora of ostentatious gold leaf. The intricate design of the pulpit contains 250 cherubim faces and figures of saints along with Christ the Redeemer. The Convent of San Francisco holds a treasure trove of art and sculpture with deep historic value.
Palacio Arzobispal, adjacent to the Plaza of Independencia is a magnificent building graced by columns and inner patios with wooden balconies. Open space piazzas and markets bring the color of vibrant Ecuadorian life to center stage throughout the city.
The Inti Nan Museum
Speaking of center stage no visit to Quito would be complete without feeding that primal urge for a cheesy touristic requisite of having your photo taken straddling the Equator at 0 degrees latitude. The Inti Nan Museum is the place to start with a quirky guided tour along the iconic line. Witness the contrasts of Northern and Southern Hemisphere effects through assorted presentations. The nearby Ciudad Mital del Mundo is a complex of shops and cafes that can be viewed from the top of the monument related to the equatorial designation.
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The gastronomic pulse of the city can be traced to the country’s indigenous roots as well as the introduction of modern culinary excellence in international tastes. Ecuadorian cuisine centers around locally sourced ingredients with exotic fruits and vegetable in plentiful supply. While the nearby Amazon River and Atlantic Ocean vie for seafood honorable mention, pork and chicken cater to carnivorous appetites. But it’s a cute little critter that defines Ecuador’s intrepid dish of delight. Cuy, commonly known as guinea pig is the one menu item that claims its place on the fringe of endemic tastes. As a general rule, cuy is roasted rotisserie style over open coals but can also be served smoked or in stew like form. I’ll leave judgement up to you as to its redeeming culinary value!
Shopping takes a back seat to sightseeing but there opportunities to buy kitschy llama figurines, woven shawls and blankets but it’s the hand crafted Panama Hats that are worthy contenders for souvenir bragging rights back home. One notable advantage of travel in Ecuador is that their monetary unit is the American dollar avoiding complicated currency calculations.
Quito expresses itself with self respect for its heritage and culture yet welcomes visitors with open arms. Hospitality workers in hotels , cafes and shops always greet with a smile and English is widely spoken. Street hustle is rare and visitors can walk freely without feeling uncomfortable in strange surroundings. Whether it’s a visit prior to a Galapagos cruise or the new KonTiki Expeditions’ coastal cruise, adding on a few days pre or post is a consideration to be taken.