Quito, Ecuador, City Guide

Quit your job and head to Ecuador. Based on the six days we just spent in the capital city, Quito, there are many reasons why you should do just that! 

Reason #1
To start with, a few facts about this place: It's one of the world's highest capital cities standing at 2,850 metres (9,350 ft) above sea level and was declared an UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site back in 1978. So it sounds pretty good on paper, right? Well wait until you get here! This city is incredibly beautiful with a complete spectrum of old - within Centro Histórico - and new - with the shopping malls, football stadium, parks and bars. Wherever you are within this 21km long stretch of Quito, at only 5km wide you can always see a bank of pastel matchbox houses framing this beautiful valley. 
Make sure you take a visit to the Basilica of the National Vow (Spanish: Basílica del Voto Nacional) for a fantastic 360 degree view within Quito and the TeleferiQo (a cable car to the summit of Volcan Pichincha) for views from the west overlooking the entire city at a mere 13,250ft!!

Reason #2
The currency is American Dollars which is super convenient (despite the inconveniently bad exchange rate at present) and your money will go much further than it would in the US. An example being a bottle of Coke... In California, it's a minimum of $2.50, in Quito, more like 70 cents.

Reason #3
They have a really efficient bus network that can transport you from one end of Quito to the other for the grand price of 25 cents. Yup that's about 18p vs the £2.40 we pay for a one-way bus ride in London. And there's no one-bus-every-10-12-minutes, they're pretty much every 30 seconds. The Ecovia (new buses) have their own designated lanes so are faster but can be quite crowded with locals and tourists alike. Any London commuter can hack it, although, as always have your wits about your possessions, i.e. no backpacks on your back or handbags with open zips... common sense stuff really. The blue buses (older community buses) are considerably quieter but they use the main roads so A to B takes much longer but you do get to take in more sights along the way. It's also amazing to see how many bus-to-bus salesmen/women jump aboard to sell you anything and everything from bags of corn to brooms! 
The other transport is, of course, taxis: don't ever agree to the meter as they will zig-zag around every street possible before reaching your destination, and trust me there's a lot of roads to zig-zag through! Our hostel owner, Luis, gave us great indications of prices so we could pre-agree a fee (for those with limited Spanish... "cuánto" or "precio" would do the trick!). The maximum we ever paid was $5 and that was to the TeleferiQo which is quite far out from Centro Historico (where we were staying). Average journey $2-$3. 

Reason #4
You can go to the middle of the world. Officially. 'Ecuador' is Spanish for equator don't you know! Visit Mitad del Mundo; a museum celebrating the indigenous groups of Ecuador and the official GPS markings of the equator and latitude 00'00'00. Your visit will be a mix of history - see how the Inca people would shrink the heads of their loved ones or enemies, a tomb and terracotta pot where a village chief would be buried after his death along with his entire family (the family all alive at time of burial), and a house built by hand to be cool in the day and warm at night - with a little bit of physics... which way does the water drain on the equator: clockwise or anti-clockwise? Neither would be correct - it drops straight down! Cue everyone checking their flushing toilets! Plus you're 1 kg lighter on the equator and significantly weaker - literally one metre either side of the equator made huge differences to our ability hold our arms up in a 'T' shape whilst someone pushed them downwards. Science, ladies and gentleman! 

Reason #5
From Quito (the capital city of Ecuador), heading West you have fantastic links to the coast (approx 6 hours by car or bus), the jungle if heading East and the financial city of Guayaquil, which is just a short 40 minute flight to the South. Most significantly, you are only a 2-3 hour flight from the Galápagos Islands. This is a massive draw for many travellers to Ecuador, but sadly we didn't have enough time in our schedule (I know, cry me a river) but have heard wonderful things. We've been advised a minimum of 6 days to see the best of it and up to 10 days to really see it all. Plus another trip we wanted to make is down the country towards Cuenca (South East) to ride the Devil's Nose Railway line in Alausi. Again, ran short of time but if you had longer, I would certainly recommend it based on our own research. Find out more here.

Reason #6
There's a huge variety of day trips within close driving distance including Cotopaxi for some lung-testing hiking up the volcano with the option to mountain biking down! And whilst adapting to the altitude (the above is recommended once you've acclimatised), spend a day visiting Mindo Cloudforest. This is how our Monday in Mindo went:

Up at 7am for an incredible breakfast courtesy of our host at Dawn's Lodge, Luis, who had arranged the tour and would be our guide for the day. Turns out he was also our Spanish teacher for the day - fantastico! (I learnt more than that, I promise, just don't want to show off!). Two & a half hours drive out of the city and up into the Andes. For any car sick prone travellers either take tablets or sit up front as half the journey is pure winding roads (and they're crazy drivers!). 

Arrive at Mindo and after paying a $10 admission fee to the Cloudforest, take a cable-car zip wire above the trees to the start of three hiking routes. With options of 30 min, 2 hour and 4 hour paths, we chose based on the waterfalls you can see at each end point. Walking with our taxi driver Eduardo, we continued our Spanish lesson on foot whilst taking in the incredible jungle surroundings. Note to husband: if you want to wear shorts cover yourself in DEET otherwise you will get in excess of 30 mosquito bites. Gym leggings were the way forward. 
Another ten minutes up the road (bumpy gravel track) and you arrive at the Canopy, a series of zip wires through the forest. For $20 each we chose the full experience and spent an hour and a half zooming along above the cloudforest! With two dedicated guides that managed all the safely aspects, all you have to do is sit back, lean your head away from the wire and enjoy the view! Each wire is varied in height and length. Some you go solo, others you ride as a 2 with your guide to enable the butterfly or superwoman poses - Mr A even did the last one upside down and backwards!
Afterwards we went to a butterfly farm (called 'mariposa' in Spanish) whose owner talked us through the timeline of crystallise to butterfly before walking into an incredible butterfly enclosure full of flutterings and flashes of colour. You can also take a walk through the orchid garden and admire in silence from a hammock a whole host of hummingbirds. 
Ending on a sweet note was the chocolate plantation to see how 'real' Ecuadorian dark chocolate is made... and wow. Our Portuguese chocolatier talked us through the whole process from tiny plants to cocoa bud, the fermenting, drying, roasting, pressing and finally onto a plate in front of us to taste along with a range of flavours. Highly recommended!

Reason #7
The parks (parques) around Quito are beautiful and plentiful. The main park - La Parque Carolina - situated in between the old and new centres boasts a derelict plane and a number of volleyball and football pitches (which Mr A assured me they were better quality than those back home) at which you could play or watch the locals. 
Back in the historical district, Parque Itchimbia (located a short but steep walk from our hostel) gives you a great panoramic view of the city scape and perfect for the Quito sign photo! 
Finally, make sure you take a trip up to El Panecillo - a poignant Angel statue that stands at the top of a hill overlooking the Centre Historico. We would advise a taxi ($3 from town) as it's a long walk but you can head back down via the steps which bring you out near the San Francisco church... Another famous tourist spot. Just be careful, we were advised against walking but felt safe as it was midday and there's a clear pedestrian stairway route. Once you reach the bottom have a cup of coffee or some lunch at Tianguez next to the San Francisco Cathedral to catch your breath and admire the view.

Reason #8
'Ecuador' and 'cuisine' aren't two words you would typically hear in a sentence together. Particularly not when in the company of fierce competition from its South American neighbours. Argentinian steak, yes. Brazilian BBQ, absolutely. Peruvian ceviche, of course. But Ecuador is somewhat an unsung hero in my opinion after 6 days and what amounts to 18 meals there. The three restaurants I'm going to share cover all budgets and atmospheres...

'Plantain' is something you will eat a lot of here and gets served in many forms with pretty much every meal. It's the sister to the banana but much sweeter. Fried plantain crisps are served as an appetiser (like prawn crackers in a Chinese restaurant or Poppadoms in Indian cuisine) and other times it comes as a carbohydrate alongside rice to fill you up during your main meal. So finding a restaurant named 'Fried Banana' we just had to try. It's in the heart of the 'new' district but off a quiet side street from Plaza Foch, the hub of bars and restaurants that attracts a lot of tourists. However we almost had the restaurant to ourselves as we ate rather early by comparison to Ecuadorians (usually around 9pm). To start, I went with the healthy option of a salad (uncooked vegetable aren't something you should eat unless you can trust they are prepared properly) and Mr A had, to my food envy, mozzarella cooked in honey - exquisite!! For main we went for a traditional meal which was Arroz` con Camaron, a kind of prawn and vegetable fried rice and, you guessed it, plantain on the side. Seriously delicious carb overload I have to say. You cannot leave this place without trying the desserts! We had the famous fried banana and fried apple dishes which were cooked and sweetened with cinnamon, nutmeg and other spices. It was a proper autumnal dessert given the temperature outside matched that of England in October! 

Location: Mariscal Foch E4-150 y Av. Amazonas
Budget rating: £

If you want a chilled out vibe, this is the place for you. With an underground cave feeling to its interior there are several pockets to choose a table within. Famous for their craft beer (quite a find in Quito you know) and pizzas, this might not be a traditional cuisine experience but it is a delicious one. With eyes bigger than our bellies, after a full day of travelling and hiking, we ordered the Mexican Flag and Guapa Papa. One with a tomato base and the other with a pesto base, the toppings were heavy upon a crispy base, making these pizzas dreamy. Wash it all down with your choice of six craft beers (which frequently rotate on the menu ensuring a small but tasty selection and reason to revisit!). From a travellers perspective, the steady wifi and Spanish version of Cards Against Humanity makes for an entertaining (if not confusing) evening!

Location: Jose J.Olmedo
Budget rating: ££

A culinary experience to remember for a very long time. It was a push on our budget when you are away for five months but to put it into perspective, a three course meal with alcoholic drinks cost around £80. I'm going to be posting a detailed food blog on this restaurant as it deserves its own platform. Surmise to say, each plate looked like a piece of art and it tasted like it should belong in a hall of fame. The drinks menu came with a dedicated mixologist and incredible flavour combinations and, part of the ethos of Urko, is their open kitchen for you to see the chefs at work creating their masterpieces. 

Location: Isabel La Católica
Budget rating: £££

So, hopefully that's enough to whet your appetite and entice you into a trip to this beautiful and culturally-rich country. The people are very welcoming and it's not totally overrun by tourists like many of South America's capital cities. Add in a visit to the Galápagos Islands and I think it could quite easily rival most two/three week tropical holiday destinations and at a fraction of the cost (if you can get good flights). 

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