Nestled in a valley flanked by volcanoes and the snow-capped Andes, Quito isn’t shy about its scenery. In fact, it’s world-renowned for its beautiful location, climate and culture, thanks to its proximity to the equator and the controlled development that’s kept this sprawling UNESCO World Heritage City wonderfully preserved. From its ancient Incan roots to its colonial influences to its buzzing streets exuding both traditional and modern ways of life, Quito is one of South America’s greatest historic centers. Here are a few ideas on how to spend your time in the Ecuadorian capital.
Day 1: Quito Flavors
There’s no quicker route to Quito’s heart that through its food, and if you have a sweet tooth, you’ll be especially delighted with the culinary scene here. As you wander through the city’s backstreets, poke your head in to small, family-owned ice cream parlors and sweets shops selling caramel and rum-infused treats.
Salty palates won’t be disappointed either; sample traditional Ecuadorian quesadillas or empanadas at one of the many bakeries or try horeado (roasted pork) from a street food vendor. For all-around food lovers, stroll through Quito’s modern central market, where you’ll find fresh local vegetables, exotic fruits, seafood and spicy chilies.
Day 2: Colonial Quito
This modern capital was founded on the ruins of an ancient Inca city, and its colonial influences are apparent in the diverse architecture. For a hearty dose of the city’s cultural and scenic splendor, start in Old Town and make your way through Independence Plaza, home to Independence Monument, Archbishop's Palace and Government Palace. You’ll notice a fusion of European influences and indigenous roots as you walk down narrow streets past colonial buildings, churches and houses featuring Spanish and Moorish design and sun-dried brick or stucco exteriors.
Arrive in Plaza San Francisco, a sweeping cobblestone square backed by the long white-washed walls and twin bell towers of Ecuador's oldest church, the Monastery of San Francisco.
For great panoramic views of the city and the valley of Cumbayá, head to the San Juan Mirador lookout point or climb up the city’s most famous hill, Panecillo Mirador, to appreciate the colonial-modern contrast from a unique vantage point.
Day 3: Quito day trips
Quito is surrounded by some pretty spectacular sites that are well-worth a day trip. A visit 2 hours north to Otavalo Marketplace, nestled at the foot of Imbabura Volcano, offers an in-depth look at Ecuador’s traditional arts and culture. This indigenous highland community is famed for its colorful textiles, handmade crafts and jewelry. (Though Saturday is the main market day, a weekday visit guarantees smaller crowds.)
If shopping’s not your thing, pay a visit to Cotopaxi Volcano National Park, about 30 miles (53 km) southeast of Quito. Referred to by the Incas as the 'Neck of the Moon ,’ this is Ecuador’s second-most visited and second-largest national park, whose active volcano stands at a towering 19,000 feet (5,900 meters) above sea level, dwarfing the surrounding valleys, rivers and lagoons.
If you’re feeling extra adventurous, a river-rafting trip is the way to go. Enjoy Ecuador’s stunning scenery and abundant wildlife as you raft along the Toachi and Blanco rivers on what’s touted as the best whitewater rapids east of the Andes.
Don’t miss the Middle of the World Monument, where you can take a photo of yourself straddling the equator!