0.1807° S, 78.4678° W
Sitting at an elevation of 2,850 meters, or 9,350 feet above sea level, Quito is the second-highest official capital city in the world (surpassed only by Bolivia’s capital of La Paz, which sits at 3,640 meters or 11,942 feet). It is also the closest capital city to the equator - meaning 12 hours of sun, every.single.day.
Those two things definitely increased our interest in visiting the city in the beginning, but Quito is much more than just high altitude and sunny days. The city has a ton of culture, history, outdoor adventures, and interesting things to explore.
Fun Fact: Quito and Kraków, Poland, were the first World Cultural Heritage Sites declared by UNESCO, in 1978.
People have been living in the area that is now known as Quito since 8000 B.C. One of the best archeological sites showcasing early human settlement was found in the neighborhood of Cotocollao (just northwest of the city). Near the ancient city's rectangular houses, archeologists have found burials with pottery and stone offerings - evidence that the Cotocollao people extracted and exported obsidian to the nearby coastal regions. Eventually (like many areas in that part of South America), the Incans took over in the 15th century and ruled until the Spanish invaded in the 1530s, eventually conquering the town in 1534 after the execution of the Incan leader, Rumiñahui. On March 28th, 1541 Quito was officially declared a city under the rule of Spain.
The Spanish established Roman Catholicism in Quito, and by 1535 the San Francisco Convent was constructed - the first of about 20 churches and convents built during the colonial period (many of which you can still see today). Spain ruled the area until 1822, when, after the Battle of Pichincha, Quito and the surrounding areas finally received independence. But the fighting for independence and the decision (and in-fighting) on who would rule the county and city kept occurring until the 1930s (even today there is a pattern of changing of government leaders quite frequently).
Another Fun Fact: On February 12th, 1949 a realistic broadcast of H. G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds led to a citywide panic and the deaths of more than twenty people who died in fires set by mobs.
We were lucky enough to spend about a week exploring Quito: walking amongst its old city, venturing up to its higher peaks, and perusing its more modern and hip districts. Quito has a lot to offer the adventurous traveler (and the foodie traveler, and the history-buff traveler - you get the idea). With so much to offer, it is safe to say you would probably need at least a month in the city (and still likely not see it all). Below were some of our favorite places to explore and adventure in Quito, as well as some useful information for when you plan your own trip down to Luz de América (Light of America).
Top Adventures and Places to Explore in Quito
This 45-meter aluminum statue of the Madonna stands proudly above the historic area of Quito. Commissioned in 1976, and made up of seven thousand pieces of aluminum, this iconic piece is the largest aluminum statue in the world. The location it sits on, El Panecillo, is a small hill made up of volcanic soil (like much of the landscape around Quito). Historically, there was once a temple at the top of the hill that aboriginals used to worship the sun at, called Yavirac.
Head up to the statue from town (you can walk there from the old city) and spend the afternoon taking in the view from the top. You will get a good idea of the layout and size of Quito, as well as a great vista of the surrounding mountains and volcanoes that create the basin that Quito sits in.
| Basílica del Voto Nacional
This stunning and majestic Roman Catholic church, the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas, is located right in the heart of the historic center of Quito. The idea of building such a massive church, or basilica, arose in 1883 by Father Julio Matovelle, who believed the city needed a monument to serve as a perpetual reminder of the consecration of Ecuador to the Sacred Heart. The government at the time agreed to give 12,000 pesos a year towards the construction - but when that wasn’t enough, they began getting funding from believers who would donate a stone in exchange for engraving their names on them. The government also established a tax on salt to help further fund the construction. It took until 1988 for the church to be inaugurated and opened to the public. Note: the basilica is not actually completely finished though, and some believe that once it is, it will signal the end of the world.
The Basilica del Voto Nacional is truly beautiful, and even if you aren’t very religious, you can still see just how amazing the construction and style truly are. Spend an hour or so walking around the outside and interior of the building, and then head up to the roof (and across a wooden planked walkway) to check out the two towers, which both stand 377 feet tall. Full disclaimer: you can take a pretty sketchy narrow metal ladder to the top of the towers, which Luke did happily, but I (Madalyne) didn’t feel very confident about it - plus the view from the small balcony was still absolutely amazing.
| Art Museums
Quito is absolutely full of culture, and one of the best ways to explore it is through its multitude of museums. Most are located in and around the old city and are definitely within walking distance of each other. So we suggest spending a day meandering around the area and popping into a couple of the museums to get an idea of Quito’s history and rich culture.
Pre-Columbian Art Museum House of Praise: this contemporary art museum houses around 5,000 archaeological pieces, from the utilitarian to more ceremonial artifacts. Most are made of ceramic, stone, shell, metal, textile, and wood. Each object brings you closer to understanding the spiritual, social, and political practices of the cultural groups that inhabited the area that today is known as Ecuador. Some of the main exhibits focus on shamans and the spirit world, the everyday life of the people who lived in the area thousands of years ago, and the artistic and symbolic nuances that have survived throughout the years.
Museum of the City: located right down the street (on Calle Rocafuerte) is the Museum of the City, a small museum in a historic hospital (built in 1565), that not only examines and explains the various aspects of the city, both modern and historical, but also is a great space for people to come and express themselves in a creative way. If you are looking to learn more about the importance of Quito in the region, the various cultures that lived or live in the area, and how people today are reconnecting with its history, then definitely consider stopping by.
Sucre House: established in 1977, this museum - also in the old city - is dedicated to the memory of its most famous occupants - the Venezuelan independence hero, Marshal Antonio José de Sucre, and his wife, Mariana Carcelén. Sucre is regarded as a national hero in many countries of South America; including, Peru, Bolivia, and Venezuela. He is much loved in Ecuador, and Quito in particular, due to his involvement in the Battle of Pichincha, which helped lead to the expulsion of the Spaniards and the independence of Ecuador (though there is a lot more to his involvement and subsequent death in regards to Ecuador, learn more here). The Sucre House Museum contains the personal belongings of the couple, including the original furniture, everyday items, and even maps and documents from the time of independence. If you want to learn more about Quito and Ecuador’s independence, as well as more about a man who had a huge influence on South American politics, definitely check this small museum out.
Other museums to explore include the Contemporary Art Center of Quito (which also happens to be in a historic military hospital), The National Museum of Ecuador, and Banco Central, otherwise known as the Museo Nacional del Banco Central del Ecuador or Museo Numismático.
| Explore Various Districts
While Quito is known for its stunning historic district (more on that in a bit) it is also a large metropolis with various different areas to explore. Luckily, public transportation within the city is quite good - or if you are like us, spend the day just walking around the area to not only get a better feel for it, but also a nice workout. These three districts are great options for getting a more well-rounded idea of what Quito is all about.
La Floresta: the more hipster-bohemian area of Quito, La Floresta is the place to go for good coffee, unique restaurants, including food trucks, and even a farmers market. For a quick pick-me-up, check out Botanica café, located in the heart of La Floresta.
La Ronda: this quiet neighborhood is actually tucked up in the historic district of Quito. While it is often quite quiet in the morning, it comes alive with locals in the afternoon. Peruse its artisanal shops, try some local ice cream and learn about making chocolate.
Guapulo: located close to the La Floresta district, Guapulo is a lot less touristy than many other areas. Tucked up against the hillside and full of a mix of whitewashed buildings and vibrant colored houses, this is a great spot to meander around and just get a feel for what Quito is like for locals. One great spot to explore is the Guapulo Colonial Church and Convent, a beautiful Catholic Church in the heart of the neighborhood.
| Carolina Park
Quito has some truly wonderful public parks. One of the neatest is Carolina Park, which sits in the middle of the more modern area of town. It is so big, 165 acres, that you will easily forget that you are in the heart of a massive metropolis. Spend an afternoon walking around its many paths, exploring the botanical gardens, and of course, checking out the now-defunct 1940s Douglas DC-6 Ecuadorian Air Force plane that sits in the middle of the greenspace.
Another great park is the Parque Metropolitano Guangüiltagua, a massive green space on the edge of the city. Check it out if you are looking to go for a run (there is an 8-kilometer or 5-mile loop within the park), see some local flora and fauna (there is supposedly a wild herd of llamas roaming around), and get some incredible views of the city and the nearby mountains - including Cotapaxi (an active volcano).
One of the more popular tourist attractions in the city, this aerial tramway was opened in 2005 and today takes visitors up the nearby mountains to the hill known as Cruz Loma, which sits on the east side of the Pichincha volcano. From the top, you not only have great views of the area, but also the opportunity to hike to various other amazing destinations. Including, hiking to the top of mountain peaks, to various viewpoints, and even to an antenna (why not?). Note: the Teleferiqo drops you off at an elevation of about 4,000 meters or 13,000 feet - so make sure to bring plenty of water, warmer clothes, and sturdy shoes.
No trip to Quito, and Ecuador in general, is complete without stopping off at La Mitad del Mundo, otherwise known as the middle of the world. Located 35 kilometers (22 miles) outside of Quito, and easily accessible by bus, this small village sits right on the equator. The first thing you will notice is the 30 meter high stone monument topped by a brass globe that contains a viewing platform and museum. While you can stop and check out the monument, we actually suggest going just past it to the Intiñan Solar Museum, which may actually be closer to the true equator. This museum is the one we explored, and we have to say it was very interesting and memorable.
For starters, you get to do a lot more science experiments and interactive activities, including learning about the Coriolis force, the fact that your balance is better right on the equator, and even how guinea pigs can sense whether you are a good person or not (like we said, it was very interesting and memorable).
No matter which spot you explore, in the end, you are doing something pretty cool: standing on the equator.
Another interesting thing to explore nearby is the Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve, located just a few miles further northwest from La Mitad del Mundo. This reserve contains the Pululahua volcano, whose caldera (or crater), is believed to be only one of two in the world that is actually inhabited. Even more interesting is that it is the only one that is farmed, and whose agricultural produce is used to sustain not only the population, but also sold for profit.
| Historic District
Just like you cannot leave Ecuador without visiting the equator (which if you haven’t guessed by now is how the country got its name), you cannot leave Quito without visiting the historic district. The city has the largest, least-altered, and best-preserved historic center in the Americas, hence why it became one of the first (along with Krakow, Poland) to be recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978.
Today it is known as one of the “crown jewels” of South American colonial culture. And once you walk along its narrow cobbled streets you will understand why. Some of the best places to take it all in, and really understand why the area is so important (and stunning) is the Plaza Grande, a large square or plaza surrounded by classical architecture, including the Government Palace (Carondelet Palace), the Metropolitan Cathedral of Quito, and an intricate obelisk that was designed in Italy. Another beautiful plaza is Plaza de San Francisco, which is home to Iglesia San Francisco, an ornate church with beautiful artwork.
In the end, if you want to get a feel for the historic district then head out on your own and wander around its numerous historic streets. Spend some time looking at the architecture, stop in at a restaurant or two, and of course, sip on some delicious coffee (Ecuador has a big coffee culture so make sure to seek out some fantastic cafes, including these seven).
Quito is a bustling, exciting city full of adventure and culture. If you are looking for a place that mixes the great outdoors with beautiful architecture (not to mention great coffee and food), then Quito should definitely be near the top of your list. We only spent about a week in the city and ever since boarding our flight back to the States we have talked about going back and exploring it even more.
| How to Get to Quito
We found some pretty cheap flights back home to the USA from Quito (we are talking $200 each). According to Skyscanner, our flight search tool of choice, there are a wide range of flights that depart from the USA regularly. Including, non-stop from Atlanta, New York City, and Houston.
You can also reach Quito by bus from various other places, including Lima, Peru; Bogota, Colombia (for only ~$45!), and of course other cities in Ecuador (namely Guayaquil and Banos). So really there is no excuse not to explore this wonderful city in the heart of Ecuador.
Learn more about our other Ecuador adventures here.
xx take more backroads