Quito: More Than Just a Gateway to the Galapagos

16 May

While often thought of as a jumping-off point for the Galapagos Islands, Quito, Ecuador has a lot more to offer. With a historically-rich city center, lively indigenous culture, vibrant markets and adventurous day-trips, Quito is a unique and worthwhile destination for any traveler.

Mindo

Giant butterfly in Mindo. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

1. Hike Cotopaxi Volcano

Touted as one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, summiting Volcan Cotopaxi is something every adventure-traveler should do when visiting Quito. Located just outside the city, the volcano is 19,347 feet in elevation and takes about two days to climb. The site is also sacred, as Cotopaxi was once worshipped by the country’s ancient civilizations, who thought the volcano had the power to bring rain and a successful harvest.

When you reach the top, you’ll be standing at the very spot where these people believed God resided. To do the trek, you’ll park your car at 14,107 feet, and hike until 15,700 feet where you’ll find your first night’s accommodation. While not particularly dangerous, it is challenging, with beautiful natural views at the top.

2. Venture to the Middle of the World

Quito Equator

On the Equator

The country of Ecuador gets its name from its proximity to the equator. It’s also where the center of the world is located. Officially called La Mitad del Mundo, the Middle of the World was discovered when French scientists set off on a difficult mission to find exactly where the center of the Earth was located. It wasn’t until 1936 that the monument which you see today was erected to show where the middle was, with a line marking the Equator. You can also see statues of the French scientists whose work paid off.

One fun thing to do is balance an egg on a nail, which is possible due to centrifugal forces coming together at this spot. Moreover, around the Mitad del Mundo park are many indigenous market shops, eateries, statues, monuments and gardens to explore, perfect for getting great shots of the unique location.

3. Get in touch with nature in Mindo

Mindo

Mindo. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

Mindo is a nature-enthusiastic town about an hour and half outside Quito, with many unique options for the eco-traveler. Butterfly farms, bird sanctuaries, cocoa plantations, and waterfall hikes litter the area, while zip-lining over the cloud forest allows travelers a scenic adrenaline rush. It’s full of biodiversity, with hundreds of vibrant orchids and bird species, like hummingbirds, toucans, parrots and Golden-Headed Quetzals. Although it is recommended to get to Mindo extremely early if you want to see bird life, you can visit El Descanso anytime and be almost guaranteed to see some beautiful species.

If butterflies are your thing, check out Mariposas de Mindo, where you’ll witness hundreds butterflies changing form, flying around and eating banana out of visitor’s hands. The Yellow House Trails & Lodge, which has been around since the 1800s, is one of the best spots in town for wildlife spotting. If you love waterfalls and want to see the cloud forest up close, head over to the Waterfall Sanctuary and Tarabita, where you can pay $5 to ride a cable-car above the trees and hike to seven different falls.

4. Take in the various architectural styles through the city’s churches

Because Quito was once burned down by the Incas trying to stop the Spaniards from taking over, there is a mixture of ancient and modern architecture in the city. This can be clearly seen by taking a tour of the city’s unique churches. First there is the Basilica del Voto Nacional, the biggest Neo-Gothic style church in Latin America. Built between 1882 and 1987, it is also the highest building in Ecuador at 361 feet. There are a few important aspects worth noting about the structure, which show the combination of religion and nationalism. For one, the gargoyles on the church don’t depict mythical creatures, but instead native Ecuadorian animals. In the steeple’s circular stained glass you’ll notice indigenous plants depicted, and the pink stone you see all over the building is actually andacita stone, which comes from the Andes.

For some Italian Renaissance architecture, visit El Sagrario Church, the newest church in Quito. While it doesn’t contain many historical artifacts, the inside is beautiful, with floral candles and ornate gold alters. Moreover, La Compania is the biggest church in Quito. Built from 1605 to 1765, it’s done in a baroque style and is covered in 23-karat gold. The uncommon thing about this church, aside for how lavish and sparkly it is, is that five Catholic denominations are represented inside.

5. Learn about religion, legends and Inca history

Quito San Francisco Church

San Francisco Church. Photo credit: milan81 via Flickr.

For some religion mixed with Inca heritage and mythical legends, visit San Francisco Square and Church. It’s the only place in Quito where you’ll find Inca history, which you can see in the stones of the square. The most important legend in Quito focuses around this church. Apparently, a lazy Inca man named Catunya was ordered to build San Francisco Church. Because he didn’t feel like doing it, he made a deal with the devil in exchange for his soul. Lucky for Catunya, the demons forgot to lay the final stone, and his soul was safe. Today, people still search the church for the missing stone.

6. Take in aerial views of the city

For a sweeping view of Quito, head to Panecillo Mountain. The word panacillo literally means “small bread” in English, so you can guess what the shape of the mountain resembles. You can see the entire city from the top of this once-volcanic site. Additionally, this is where you’ll find the only Virgin Mary statue in the world to feature wings. The statue also has an apocalyptic meaning, which can be seen by the The Virgin squashing a snake with a dragon head, while her wings allow her to fly to safety.

You can also go to the teleferico, a cable-car which reaches 13, 287 feet in elevation. After taking in views of the city and surrounding mountains and valleys, visitors can enjoy an amusement park, cafes, handicraft shops, go-carts, horseback riding, restaurants and even a nightclub.

7. Watch the changing of the guard and see a protest

Guard

Guard. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

Every Monday around 11:00 am, the changing of the guard takes place at the governmental palace, also known as Carondelet Palace. It’s opposite Independence Square, where many people take the opportunity to protest because the president comes out onto the balcony for the ceremony. Even when the people are happy, they’ll still find something to shout about, which can be an interesting way to gain insight into the culture.

The actual ceremony of the changing of the guard takes about 30 minutes, and includes music and choreographed movements outside the palace and throughout the square. The palace is actually no longer inhabited by government officials, but is actually a free museum that is worthwhile for learning about Ecuadorian culture and heritage.

8. Shop at Otavalo Market

Otavalo Market

Colorful goods at Otavalo Market. Photo credit: ~maja*majika~ via Flickr.

Whether you’re in the mood to purchase handmade indigenous goods or just want to browse the colorful vendor stands, Otavalo Market is a worthwhile day trip from Quito. You can purchase items like handbags, instruments, hats, masks, jewelry, headbands, clothing, scarves, hats, socks and more. Bring your bartering skills, because the price is offered is almost always the seller’s highest offer. It’s a wonderful cultural experience, as locals travel from miles away to sell their goods. While the market goes on daily, it’s best on Tuesdays and Saturdays, which is when you’ll see the most action.

Fun fact: You can tell a local woman’s marital status in Otavalo by looking at their head shawl, or fachalina. A knot tied on the shoulder means she is single, and a knot tied on the heart means she is married. The yellow jewelry worn by many women represents the sun and corn, while their red bracelets are worn to ward off bad spirits.

Driving down the Pan-American Highway on the way to Otavalo, you’ll see a giant green shop on your right with a sign reading “Mira Lage Parador Turistico.” Pull over, or have your bus or taxi driver stop, and wander around this tiny stop. You can visit Odaly’s, where you can see authentic Panama hats being made, as well as the green building where you can sample a typical snack, fresh cow cheese and dulce de leche on a crispy biscuit. Head into the backyard for sweeping views of Sambo Lake, Imbabura Volcano and the surrounding mountains.

9. Learn about masapan

In the past, indigenous women in Calderon, a parish of Quito, would honor their dead husbands by being buried alive with them. Thankfully, this ritual is no longer practiced. Instead, it has been replaced with Day of the Dead festivities on November 2. One custom is for people to take certain foods – colada morada, a red drink which represents blood, and wawa de pan, a girl-shaped bread – to eat “with” their dead loved ones. Oddly enough, these girl-shaped breads are also covered in glue and made into clay-like handicrafts called masapan. They make more than just girls, as you’ll see all kinds of colorful figures like foods, animals and clowns. Walking around Calderon, you’ll be able to walk into shops and see the cultural craft being made first-hand.

10. Visit the Central Bank Museum

Combining culture, archaeology, history, technology and art, the Central Bank Museum, or Museo del Banco Central, is often touted as the best museum in Quito. Its all-inclusive nature appeals to most visitors, as it presents the city and country from many different points of view. Although some exhibits deal with currency, you’ll also learn about Inca artifacts, ancient tools, modern art, pre-Colombian pottery and the evolution of the Ecuadorian culture, and, unlike many museums in the country, most exhibits include English translations and tours.

Quito: More Than Just a Gateway to the Galapagos

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