The Pinchinacha massif juts out a broad shoulder at 2800m, and there Quito sits, basking contentedly in thin air under blue sky. Colonial buildings, rooted to the ground and bleached white by the equatorial sun, mingle with gleaming glass structures stretching to touch the heavens. Weaving between the buildings are the Quitenos themselves, a human stew of stunning variety, noise, and energy. Part thriving modern city, part reviving colonial showcase, Quito is in every way the geographical, political, and historical center of Ecuador.
Quito’s first residents were the Quiti, Cara, Shyri, and Puruha peoples who migrated to the area between the 6th and 10th centuries AD. The Incas conquered the city around AD 1500, making it the northern capital of their empire, but the Spanish conquistadors were hot on their heels. Francisco Pizarro’s colleague Sebastian de Benalcazar invaded in 1534, and the retreating Incas razed the city to the ground. The Spanish rebuilt in their own manner, atop the ashes.
Quito is divided into two principal areas – New Town is bordered by 10 de Agosto on the west, 12 de Octubre on the east, and Parque de la Carolina to the north. Its southernmost border, Parque El Ejido, lies between New and Old Town. Old Town is bounded by El Ejido to the north, 24 de Mayo to the south, Montufar, to the east and Cuenca to the west. The two parts of town are connected by the trolley, which runs north-south through the city along 10 de Agosto, Guayaquil, and Maldonado. After exploring for the day, tourists tend to congregate in La Mariscal, the neighborhood surrounding Amazonas south of Cordero. The streets around Old Town can get dangerous, especially at night, though there have been recent efforts to increase police presence. Avoid El Ejido and all urban parks at night.
Quito welcomes visitors to one of two areas: Old Town and New Town. In 1978, the United Nations declared the colonial city a World Heritage site. Partly as a result, Old Town’s appearance has changed little since colonial days. Streets remain narrow, buildings retain their cool, cobblestoned inner courtyards, and daily activity still revolves around the city’s many plazas. Meanwhile the capital’s social and commercial engine New Town expands, filled with students, business people, and a growing number of tourists. Travelers use the area as a base from which to traipse through the Andes, battle mosquitoes in jungle lodges, and cruise around the Galapagos. Part of the Quito’s appeal is its eternally variation. Daily ups and downs are another story, as clear blue morning skies yield to huge cumulus clouds by midday and showers in the afternoon – but each day the sun returns to trace its glorious equatorial path.
Here is our list of favorites to help you make the most of your visit in this bustling city. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
Although it has yet to become a widespread international delicacy, the food of Ecuador will not leave you unsatisfied. The staples of the region are enhanced with delectable spices and careful preparation.
The most common restaurants are small, family-owned diners, referred to as comedores. Unequivocally the most economical way to acquire your daily sustenance and certainly the most popular way to eat out among locals is the menu del dia (meal of the day). Sometimes referred to as el almuerzo (lunch) during the day, la merienda (snack), or la cena (dinner) at night, the menu is a set platter at a set price – usually with two courses, a drink, and various extras. If it doesn’t do the trick, check out the menu for a la carte selections. To diversity your diet, you may decide to dine at three other types of restaurants. Chifas (Chinese restaurants), present in even the smallest of towns, are generally clean and serve tasty and filling chaufas (fried-rice dishes). Cevicherias serve seafood, especially ceviche (or cebiche), a popular dish made from raw seafood marinated in lemon and lime juice (whose acids partly cook the meat), with cilantro and onion. Pollerias serve scrumptious pollo a la brasa (roasted chicken). Larger and more touristed cities also offer all the fast food, international food, and vegetarian options.
The more adventurous might try tronquito (bull penis) and yaguariocro (soup with blood-sprinklings) – two of Ecuador’s most exotic dishes. Equally shocking to foreigners is cuy (guinea pig). This specialty, dating back to Inca times, gets its name from the sound the animal makes just before getting skewered and roasted: “cuy, cuy, cuy…” More vegetarian-friendly llapingachos (Andean potato and cheese pancakes) also date back centuries: the root was first cultivated in the Andes before becoming a starch staple around the world. Other veggie delights include banana and plantain dishes, which are mainstays of the costeno (coast-dwellers) diet. Patacones (deep-fried plantain slices) compliment the Ecuadorian favorite, ceviche. Other common dishes include encebollado, and fritada. The former is a soup, also known as languriango, made with yellow fin tuna and yucca. The latter is delectable fried pork. Breakfast (desayuno) is offered in most comedores, though it is usually light. Most common are bread, juice, coffee, eggs, and sometimes rice and beans, as well as plantain dishes such as chirriados in certain regions. Highly touristed areas may offer a desayuno americano, which includes a bit more food for the more voracious appetite. If you don’t mind a light breakfast (or want a midday snack), a quick and easy way to grab a bite is to buy fruit at the local mercado (market) or visit a panaderia (bakery).
Fruit juices abound in Ecuador – the Oriente boasts naranjilla (a bitter-sweet orange-like fruit), tomate de arbol, mora (blackberry), guanabana, maracuya, and papaya juice galore. Coffee is not as good as it should be; it is usually served as esencia (boiled-down, concentrated grinds mixed with water or milk). You might also be served hot water with a can of instant coffee. Mate de coca (coca tea) is a good cure for altitude sickness, and a local specialty. A favorite dairy drink is yogur, a combination of milk and yogurt. And then there’s beer. Two regional favorites are Pilsner and Club. For a sweeter buzz, try canelazo (or canelito), a combination of boiled water, sugar cane alcohol, lemon, sugar, and cinnamon. Many drinks are made from aguardiente, a potent sugarcane alcohol. And of course, there’s the omnipresent Chichas, made from yucca and fermented with the saliva of the women who brew it. Look for it in houses that fly white or red flags over their doors. Non-alcoholic chichas (also non-saliva) come in myriad varieties throughout the region and are occasionally served straight out of a plastic bag.
Unless urgent visits to the nearest restroom are your idea of fun, avoid drinking tap water. Water advertised as purificada (purified) may have only been passed through a filter, which does not necessarily catch all diarrhea-causing demons. Water that has been boiled or treated with iodine is safe to drink; otherwise, bottled water is best. Watch out for refrescos and other water-based juices, and freshly-washed fruit. Also use bottled water when brushing teeth.
After dark, curls of cigarette smoke replace bus exhaust as the real world goes to sleep and young people throughout the city let loose at Quito’s wide range of bars and dance clubs. Stick to nightlife in New Town; not only is the scene hipper, but Old Town’s streets are too dangerous for nocturnal merry-making. That said, New Town’s not exactly a safe haven either; reports of robberies and assaults have put night revelers on guard. Take a taxi back to your hotel, no matter how close it is.
Starting around 11pm, New Town’s dance clubs fill with people anxious to get their groove on. Gay and lesbian travelers have options in Quito, but they are often difficult to find. Ecuadorian law has decriminalized homosexuality.
As the rest of the country, futbol is not just a sport but a passion in Quito. Volleyball is a close second in popularity to futbol. Ecuador fares decently in international team competitions, but at home play its own version called Ecuavolley, using a soccer ball instead of a volleyball. With only three players on a team, Ecuavolley players are allowed longer contact with the ball than in international play. Locals lay down Ecuavolley courts nearly everywhere, putting nets up on city streets, in the middle of Old Town colonial courtyards, and parks. Ecuador inherited the bullfighting tradition from Spain, and partakes of it during the Quito City Festival in the first week of December.
Foreign visitors are often shocked by the machismo in some parts of Latin America. Women in bars – and foreign women in general – are often regarded as promiscuous. Females who drink and act rowdy – or even just express their opinions in a public setting – will shock men who expect and prize meekness in women. Whether you’re male or female, be sensitive to rising testosterone levels. Never say anything about a man’s mother, sister, wife, or girlfriend.
Personal hygiene and appearance are often difficult to maintain while traveling but they are very important in Ecuador. Close-cropped, clean-shaven men and women who don’t show much skin will receive more respect than scruff mop-heads or bra-less women. Men should remove hats while indoors.
Latin Americans hold politeness in high esteem, among both acquaintances and strangers. When meeting someone for the first time, shake hands firmly, look the person in the eye, and say “Mucho gusto de conocerle” (“Pleased to meet you”). When entering a room, greet everybody, not just the person you came to see. Females often greet each other a peck on the cheek or a quick hug. Sometimes men shake hands with women in a business situation, but the standard greeting between a man and a woman – even upon meeting for the first time – is a quick kiss on the cheek. Salutations are considered common courtesy in small towns. “Buenos dias” in the morning, “buenas tardes” after noon, and “buenas noches” after dusk should be said to anyone with whom you come into contact. It is also customary to say “buen provecho” (“enjoy your meal”) to those with whom you fine.
When signaling for people, don’t use one finger pointed upward; simply motioning with your hand in a sweeping motion is more polite. The American “OK” symbol ( a circle with the thumb and forefinger) is considered vulgar and offensive. Spitting is perfectly acceptable in this region – but beware of the burp, as it is considered rude in public.
Punctuality isn’t as important in Peru as it is in Europe and the US (as bus schedules will quickly confirm), but there are, of course, limits. A different perspective on time is apparent during meals, which are rarely hurried. After a big meal, enjoy the ingenious tradition of siesta, a time in the afternoon when it’s just too hot to do anything but relax, have a drink, or nap; don’t expect much to happen during the mid-afternoon, as banks and shops often shut their doors.
Be sensitive when taking photographs. If you must take pictures of locals, first ask permission – they may object strongly to being photographed, and if they don’t, they may ask for a tip.