Un pais pequeño de gran corazón. Tiny country, huge heart.
Exploring Ecuador is on my permanent To-Do List. With more to see and do packed into this coastal nation occupying some of the northwestern bulge of South American than expected, you’d be wise to stay for a good long while, or plan on going back. Yes, there is that much to enjoy. And Ecuador is on the US dollar, so the economy is stable.
Alas, as I prefer city dwelling, I had no problem spending a week in Quito, with a two-night excursion to Mindo thrown in for good measure. Mindo is about a two-hour drive northwest of Quito, and as such, doable for a couple nights without any hassle or much expense. Lucky enough to have a friend living in Quito, her apartment in the city was our first stop upon our late night arrival. She also helped me plan my stay and I’m happily passing along our itinerary to you. De nada amigos!
If you’ve never been to Ecuador and don’t have heaps of time or money, this is a good place to start. [You may want to read my HOT TIPS below first.]
DAY 1 – Mitad del Mundo: Where Science and Culture Meet (driving)
Begin at the Intiñan Museum. This small outdoor museum is where you’ll learn about Ecuador’s native tribes and culture. For me it is most interesting to learn about what was happening in the pre-colonial era, since so much of our history in the US is centered around Europe. The exhibits, including replicas of typical houses, are well done. But the real fun comes in learning about the Coriolis Effect on the equator! You can also try your hand at balancing an egg on the head of a nail.
Mitad del Mundo – This place is a bit touristy granted, but once inside the vast campus there’s plenty of opportunity to look beyond the kitschy shopping and learn about Ecuador’s history, geography, people and arts. Although this is a monument to the equator, thus the name Middle of the World, the actual location can be seen at Intiñan, which is why I recommend visiting them first. Inside the imposing monument is the Ethnographic Museum, which you will want to see, for another small fee.
If you are up for shopping after lunch and a siesta…
Olga Fisch Folklore Museum and Gallery – This is a wonderful shop showcasing locally made quality art, crafts, jewelry, clothing and homegoods. Learn the neat history of its eponymous owner and her collections. The museum is upstairs and not to be missed.
Productos Andinos – This artist’s cooperative is the best place to buy uniquely Ecuadorian crafts at reasonable prices. Urbina 111 y Cordero, next to Hotel Sebastian.
Galerias Ecuador – Another collection of boutiques under one roof, featuring locally made art, jewelry, clothing, soap, perfume, tea, the list goes on and on. I highly recommend you try and buy the “Inti” an Ecuadorian liquor named for the Inca sun god!
Head to the Ichimbia neighborhood for a view of the city at sunset and a cocktail and bite to eat.
Day 2 – Iconic Sites of the Old City (walking)
Hay Pan – The croissants, pastries and bread at this shop, aptly named, are superb. You’d have to travel to France to find better. Start your day with flaky dough and latte.
La Basilica Voto Nacional – One of several iconic landmarks in Quito. The largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas, known for its carvings of Ecuadorian animals, the view from the top of its tower is arguably one of the best in all Quito. A series of walkways and ship-steep ladders will take you there…if you dare! Check out the VIDEO of our ascent.
Oswaldo Guyasemin – Appreciate one of Ecuador’s most famous artist’s work any time you can. It’s stunning.
La Ronda – Stroll about in Quito’s Old City. We wandered to La Ronda in search of unique gifts and souvenirs from local artists. This pedestrian only street makes treasure hunting relaxing and enjoyable. Sample Ecuadorian chocolate, well-regarded.
DAY 3 – Further Afield (driving, walking)
Mercado Iñaquito – I adore markets and this staple of the city is no exception. Fresh food abounds. Prepared food ready to tantalize your tastebuds. Flowers for sale. Even electronics, kitchen gadgets (including the biggest wooden spoons I’ve EVER seen) booze and baskets. Love this place. Bought some local in season fruits we hadn’t tried before like babaco and pitajaya. Try as many fruits as you can, fresh, juiced, macerated. They are unique and ubiquitous and positively delicious.
YAKU Museo del Agua – A fantastic way to learn about Ecuador’s development as a city. In addition to being a beautiful space with more phenomenal views of the expansive city, this contemporary museum is built on the site of the first water distribution tanks feeding Quito. Watch the film, which is subtitled in English. A bite and drink at the outdoor cafe and nice and so are the many restrooms. Next head to…the Winged Virgin.
El Panecillo – You’ve got to go see this statue so emblematic of Quito – don’t just look at her from a distance. Go inside. Read the history. Admire the stained glass. Learn how she was made. And what she represents. And of course, enjoy the views from her vantage point. On your way down the hill stop at…San Diego.
San Diego: Convent, Church, Cemetery – One of the oldest monasteries built by the Franciscan monks in 1599, still in use today, paintings dating back to the 17th C. line its corridors. Inside the church behold the coffered ceiling and the 17th century woodcarved Christ of the Sacristy. Outside next to the monastery is the oldest cemetery in Quito.
A SHORT STORY FOR YOU
Serendipity. Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time. We arrived at San Deigo to find that mass had just begun. Perfect. I love visiting churches. I asked if we could stay, and we did. Afterward we headed to tour the convent, but I decided not to pay the entrance since our Spanish is limited and it would take about 45 minute to see everything. It was late afternoon and we were feeling tired from our already busy day.
We walked back to the empty church so I could snap a few photo. The senora working at the desk at the convent wandered over and our driver began to explain in Spanish that we’d just been to mass. Long story short, she grabbed a set of keys, invited us to follow her behind the altar, unlocked a 12 inch thick concrete door, pushed it open and motioned for us to follow her inside! We couldn’t believe it. A secret room behind the alter of the church complete with skulls and bones! Few outsiders are welcome to see this.
DAYS 4, 5 – Depart for road trip to Mindo (click to read my post)!
Day 6 – La Plaza de la Independencia
Arrive Quito from Mindo.
Check into boutique Hotel Carlota – Staying in the historic district, UNESCO’s first World Heritage Site, meant we could see everything we wanted to see on foot. The hotel bills itself as a sustainable, luxury boutique hotel, which happens to be my favorite kind.
Spend the remainder of the afternoon exploring. Most hotels and other tourist attractions have free maps which are easily navigated. Wear solid shoes, streets are a mix of cobblestone and pavement. The architecture is exquisite and many of the interiors are decorated in the exaggerated grandeur of the Baroque style.
Plaza Grande (aka Plaza de la Independencia) – Beautiful square with a park in the center. The main buildings on all four sides represent the four ruling powers of the colonial period: the Government Palace to the west, the Municipal Palace to the east, the Archbishop’s Palace to the north and the Cathedral to the south. You can tour some of the buildings if they are open.
Pop into Saint Augustin Church and tour the Convent. Stop for a pastry and hot chocolate at one of the many pastelerias.
Day 7 – The Old City: Colonial Architectural Wonder
Grab an empanada, jugo de maracuya (my favorite) and a cafe from the shop connected to the Hotel Carlota, on the go.
La Compañia de Jesus – This is the one church I felt I must see and it is as spectacular as everyone says. Nearly the entire surface of the inside of the magnificent Jesuit church is covered in gold leaf or painted gold. It’s like being inside a jewel box. Request a guide when you pay the entrance fee. You’ll learn so much more about what you are seeing if you do. You are not allowed to take photos. You’ve got to go see it for yourself!
San Franciso Church and Plaza – Built in 1536-1580 this complex gave Ecuador’s capital city its proper name, San Francisco de Quito. The main altar holds the original masterpiece by Legarda, “La Virgin de Quito” which was the inspiration for El Panecillo. The statue is the only winged image of the Virgin Mary in colonial art.
Hasta la Vuelta, Senor – My daughter and I had dinner here on the advice of a local and we are so glad we did. It took us a while to find it, but our tenacity paid off. It’s on the third floor of a building on Calle Chile (on the Plaza), but you can’t see it from the street. Once inside the arcade, take the stairs to the third floor; the restaurant looks down into the interior courtyard. Learn the story of the name. The food was Ecuadorian and very good.
- Ecuador is, obviously, a Spanish-speaking country. Although some who work in hotels or in the tourism industry do speak at least some English, many do not. At least learn some of the basics or get your translation app ready for a workout!
- I hired a driver, whom I paid by the hour (this will run between $10-15/per hour) but was well worth it. We developed a friendship with our driver and practicing speaking Spanish with him, patient as he was, really helped improve our communication skills! You can learn a lot from a native who knows the streets.
- Although we stayed with a friend most of the time we also enjoyed Hotel Carlota, not only for its smart and stylish boutique surroundings, but also for the location.
- Pack a raincoat and or umbrella. A lot of what I’ve described is outdoors and the clouds roll in with rain showers frequently.
- Quito is the world’s second highest capital city. Wear sunscreen even if it’s not hot!