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Did You Know … ?
- Quito is South America’s oldest capital, having first been an Incan capital.
- The city’s Metropolitan Park is the largest urban park in South America (1,376 acres).
- A ton of gold was used to decorate the interior of La Compania Church.
- Quito was the world’s first city to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site (1978).
- Quito is the world’s only capital city threatened by active volcanoes.
A capital history
Ecuador’s capital, at 9,300 feet above sea level and home to more than 1.7 million, was an Incan capital first. Its incarnation as a Spanish colonial city dates from 1534.
Not quite 450 years later, in 1978, the city appeared on the first list of UNESCO heritage sites. This attention helped stimulate restoration projects that show off the attractive buildings that front public squares and line narrow and sometimes-steep streets in the colonial area.
The centerpiece is the expansive and popular Independence Square, bound on one side by the Presidential Palace and another by the Metropolitan Cathedral. The oldest section of the gleaming white palace, home to presidents who choose to use it, dates from the colonial city’s first year.
Complementing the city’s appealing colonial architecture, traditions of pre-Hispanic culture are evident in handicrafts available in the markets. They also turn up in Quito’s churches, usually made clear with help from a tour guide. For example, the varied decor inside the so-called Gold Church (built 1606 to 1765) includes two renderings of the sun and its rays, “to make the Andeans comfortable that their god is here,” one guide said.
The city’s only Gothic church, the Quito Basilica, sits on an elevated site just outside the historic center. Built of volcanic stone and completed in 1993, it is a lovely heir to Europe’s Gothics, but very much of its homeland: Where viewers ordinarily see gargoyles on church exteriors, here we see stone replicas of caimans, turtles, boobies, anteaters and others.
Quito may be 9,300 feet above sea level, but that is the valley! Still-higher mountains (some snow-capped, some active volcanoes) provide a dramatic scenic backdrop. These features have other repercussions: The high altitude produces a pleasant, moderate climate despite proximity to the Equator, but for some visitors, altitude sickness is a risk. Those gorgeous mountains also trap pollutants and make for some disappointingly smoggy days, and the closest volcano (Pichincha) sometimes dusts the city with ash.
But crime is the most serious risk; tourists are victims of everything from pickpocketing to homicide and hence well advised to be appropriately cautious.
Things to do for Venturers
- Seek out your nightlife in the Mariscal Sucre district, taking care not to walk alone after dark. The area offers a selection of bars and nightclubs, plus penas, meaning clubs featuring traditional Andean music.
- See Quito and the Pichincha volcano from a paraglider.
- Explore the city’s Metropolitan Park (Parque Metropolitano) on a mountain bike.
- Improve your moves — find your way to one of the city’s dancing schools for lessons in the salsa and the merengue.
- Sign up for a Spanish language course.
- Cross the Equator on horseback. The planet’s halfway point between the North and South poles is a few miles from Quito.
Things to do for Centrics
- Ride the Teleferico, a cable car that takes you up to the flanks of the Pichincha volcano, which is west of the Old Town.
- Make a day trip to area towns noted for shopping, especially Otavalo noted for its market and Cotacachi noted for leather goods.
- Come to town in December for the annual Fiestas de Quito.
- If you like the look of lots of gold, see the main altar in La Compania Church, known informally as the Gold Church.
- Be entertained by the 20th century touches on the gothic Quito Basilica, built between 1893 and 1993. The basilica features stone replicas of caimans, turtles, boobies, anteaters and other animals that live in Ecuador’s Galapagos islands.
- Discover the cafe culture in Quito’s Old Town. Sip a cup of Ecuadorian coffee and enjoy a typical Quiteno pastry.
Things to do for Authentics
- Get a good look at the inside of Quito’s oldest church, at the monastery of San Francisco, by attending a service.
- See one of the regular folkloric shows offered at the Casa de la Cultura.
- Take a guided sightseeing tour of the historic city center to better grasp how this city became the first UNESCO-protected site.
- Take in an overall view of Quito’s colonial city from Panecillo Hill.
- Shop at Quito’s market in Parque El Ejido.
- Visit the City Museum to learn more about daily life in Quito from the 16th century to modern times. It is inside the restored 16th century San Juan de Dios Hospital, itself worth a look.
For more information, consult Quito Tourism at /www.quito.com.ec/en