Things to Do in Quito
With sweeping plains, rocky mountain trails, and glassy lagoons, Ecuador’s largest and most-visited national park is a spectacular setting for an outdoor adventure. Located along the Pacific Ring of Fire, Cotopaxi National Park is most famous for the much-photographed Cotopaxi volcano, the highest active volcano in South America.
The historical heart of Ecuador’s capital, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Quito Old Town is the first port of call for most visitors to the city. Known for its cobblestone lanes, Spanish colonial architecture, and beautiful churches, it’s Quito’s most atmospheric district.
Quilotoa Lagoon was formed when a now-extinct volcano collapsed and the resulting crater was filled with a startling emerald-green lake, the color resulting from volcanic minerals. Just south of Quito, the village and lagoon of Quilotoa have become a popular day-trip destination, affording spectacular views and photo opportunities.
The Middle of the World Monument (La Mitad del Mundo) commemorates the site where the 18th-century French explorer Charles Marie de la Condamine once calculated the globe's equatorial line. A trapezoidal monument in the center of the park houses a viewing platform; a small museum on the equator pays tributes to local indigenous cultures.
Situated at the southern edge of Quito’s Old Town, Santo Domingo Plaza (Plaza de Santo Domingo) sits beneath the shadow of the 17th-century domed Iglesia de Santo Domingo. A statue of Ecuadorean hero Antonio José de Sucre stands in the middle of the plaza, pointing toward the spot where the battle for independence was won in 1822.
The Basilica of the National Vow (La Basílica del Voto Nacional), often called La Basilica, is one of the most beautiful Roman Catholic churches in Quito. Set up on a hill and visible from almost anywhere in the city, it’s particularly striking after dark, when it is illuminated.
Construction began in 1883 on what became the largest neo-Gothic church in the Americas, measuring 459 feet (140 meters) long and 115 feet (35 meters) wide, and reaching a height of 98 feet (30 meters) in the nave. The two front towers stand 377 feet (115 meters) tall.
The neo-Gothic decoration has an interesting twist — it features gargoyles and ornaments that depict local animals such as armadillos, iguanas, pumas, monkeys, tortoises and condors. The abundant artwork also includes bronze statues, stained-glass windows and impressive stonework.
Get the best views by climbing to the top of the three towers, where you can see a large portion of Quito and the surrounding mountains. Walking from one tower to the next on wooden bridges and steep ladders adds to the thrill.
The church is technically unfinished, and local legend has it that when La Basilica is completed, the end of the world will come.
Nestled in the historic downtown area of Quito, visitors find the first Catholic Church built in the city, the San Francisco Church (Iglesia de San Francisco). The amazing architecture of this Baroque church blends different styles that were incorporated over the more than 100 years of construction.
The church stands on the open San Francisco Plaza, where the city once drew its water, held weekly food markets and general meetings and where military and political demonstrations took place.
Construction of the church started in the 1530s, shortly after the Spaniards arrived in Ecuador. Although much of the church has been rebuilt due to earthquake damage, some of it is original, and it constitutes the largest colonial structure in the city.
The churches and cloisters stand on almost two whole blocks and include an atrium, a courtyard and a convent. The atrium runs along the length of the public square, with access to the plaza by means of a fan-shaped staircase. Franciscan fathers still live here and work to help the poor.
The entrance is adorned with images of the sun, decorations that were used to attract indigenous communities to the Catholic Church. Combinations of indigenous and Catholic symbols are repeated throughout the church. The interior of the church shows a Moorish influence on the walls and columns, which are covered in gold leafing. Of the 3,500 works of art, many are from the Quito School of art.
Quito’s Jesuit Church of the Society of Jesus (Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús), often called La Compañía, is one of the most significant works of Spanish baroque architecture in South America. The incredibly ornate and beautiful church boasts gold leaf ornamentation, gilded ceilings, and religious paintings by artists of the Quito School.
Flanked by several important buildings—the Archbishop’s Palace, City Hall, Government Palace, and the cathedral—Plaza de la Independencia (Plaza Grande to the locals) has been part of Quito’s streetscape since 16th century. What was once a central market and bullfighting arena is today a shady square.
Nestled in a valley at the foot of a volcano 57 miles (92 kilometers) north of Quito, Otavalo is a highland community of indigenous locals famous for their weaving skills and colorful textiles. The local Otavaleños who sell their wares at the daily market wear traditional clothing and have maintained their culture, way of dress, and identity.
More Things to Do in Quito
Like a mirror that reflects the beauty of the surrounding peaks, Limpiopungo Lagoon, tucked in a valley of the Cotopaxi National Park at over 12,400 feet (3,800 meters) above sea level, forms part of Ecuador’s Avenue of the Volcanoes.
Head south from Quito and enjoy the constantly changing scenery along the Pan-American Highway, with unrivaled views of volcanic peaks including the majestic, snow-capped Cotopaxi.
Near the lagoon, there are hiking and bike trails as well as opportunities for horseback riding. The lagoon is home to at least 24 species of birds, including native waterfowl such as the rare Andean ibis, slow-swimming Andean ducks and coots and the endangered Andean condor. Mammals that roam the areas surrounding the lagoon include llamas, deer and rabbits.
All of this natural beauty is ideal for taking pictures, and a walk around the lake highlights different viewpoints.
In downtown Quito, just one block south of Santo Domingo Plaza, you’ll find the emblematic street affectionately called Calle La Ronda. This pedestrian drag is lined with shops that provide a peek into the local culture and give visitors a chance to pick up popular Ecuadorian take-homes like Panama hats (which are actually from Ecuador).
Who would’ve thought an invisible line would be so hard to find? As the very name of the country describes, the Earth’s Equator bisects Ecuador into the Northern and Southern Hemispheres—although pinpointing the exact location of that line has been an ongoing challenge. For hundreds of years, it was believed the Equator bisected Ecuador at the Mitad del Mundo monument, but new data has revealed the site is off by a few hundred meters. The nearby Intiñan Solar Museum, it’s said, is the site of the real Equator, although GPS info seems to point out that neither spot is correct. Either way, regardless of the Equator’s exact location, this small museum north of Quito is still a fascinating stop. Try to balance an egg on a nail or watch water spin opposite ways, and while some of the exhibits might be staged, the concepts behind the gravity and physics are curiously entertaining. In addition to exhibits about the Equator, the Intinan Museum also offers a look at Ecuador’s culture—from the biodiversity of the Galapagos Islands to Amazonian tribes. There’s even the chance to take a photo with an ancient shrunken head, and while the somewhat kitschy Equator tricks are admittedly fun to see, it’s the authentic looks at Ecuadorian culture that defines this Quito museum.
Ringed by mountains, Quito has no shortage of viewpoints, but the ultimate view of the Ecuadorian capital has to be from the peak of the Pichincha Volcano, reached by the TeleferiQo. Opened in 2005, the gondola lift runs up the east side of the still-active volcano, reaching a height of 3,945 meters, which makes it South America’s highest aerial lift. The dramatic ascent, which takes around 10 minutes, offers impressive views over the city and surrounding mountain valleys, but the best lookout point is on arrival, from the top of the Cruz Loma plateau.
As well as riding the TeleferiQo, visitors can follow a number of marked hiking trails, enjoy a horseback riding excursion or dine at one of the mountaintop restaurants and cafés, while the Vulqano Park amusement park, located at the foot of the mountain, makes a popular distraction for younger members of the family.
Squint south toward the old town from Quito center and you can’t miss the El Panecillo, a hill that resembles apanecillo (little bread roll) with a statue of the Virgin Mary standing on top. At 9,895 feet (3,016 meters) above sea level, El Panecillo is Quito’s most popular lookout, affording 360-degree views of the city.
Just a 40-mile (67-km) ride from Quito through the Amazon jungle lies the 625 acres (253 hectares) of the privately owned Termas de Papallacta Spa.
This hotel spa and resort features thermal baths on the banks of the Papallacta River, which crosses the property. Situated in a unique environment between the Cayambe and Antiisana volcanos, the odorless thermal waters in the nine pools vary between 97 F (36 C) and 104 F (40 C), providing health benefits in a soothing environment.
Enjoy some pampering and relaxation in the hot-water thermal pools or the three cold-water pools. The spa also offers hydro massages using water jets or air bubbles, facials, reflexology and aromatherapy.
Take advantage of self-guided walks on the many nature paths, or opt for the orientation given by native guides. The abundance of animals and plants on the property includes 160 species of birds. This private nonprofit organization has a research and interpretation center that has audiovisual information on locally found species. The resort restaurant has a diverse menu of national and international cuisine. Local fresh trout is the specialty, and many ingredients are picked from the organic vegetable garden on-site.
The Cotopaxi Volcano, one of South America’s most famous peaks and Ecuador’s most active volcano, is perhaps the most recognizable landmark along Ecuador’s Avenue of the Volcanoes. On a clear day, you can see the snow-capped cone all the way from Quito, but a closer exploration requires a trip to Cotopaxi National Park.
Built between 1562 and 1806, the iconic white façade and towering columns of the Cathedral of Quito(Catedral de Quito) today remains one of the most recognizable and distinguished structures in the city’s historic center. The impressive exterior is visible from hillsides that rise high outside of Quito, but travelers will find that its well-preserved interior is equally as stunning.
The religious monument is home to numerous works of art, including sculptures and paintings by artists that came up during the republican and colonial eras. The walls of the choir are covered by an incredible Miguel de Santiago painting known as the Death of the Virgin. The Cathedral of Quito(Catedral de Quito) is not only the largest Catholic church in Quito, but also one of the largest in Latin America, making it a destination that’s truly worth a visit.
The majestic snow-hatted peak of Cayambe Volcano serves as a dramatic backdrop to the Cayambe Coca Ecological Reserve and at a dizzying 5,790 meters, it’s Ecuador’s third-highest peak. Cayambe’s real claim to fame is its unique location – the highest mountain and only volcano in the world whose summit is crossed by the Equator line.
Scaling one of Cayambe’s three summits has become a popular challenge for mountaineers, but its difficult terrain and glacial passes means it’s a technical hike unsuitable for beginners. For most visitors, the best way to enjoy a view of Cayambe is by hiking, mountain-biking or horse riding through the scenic foothills of the surrounding Cayambe Coca Ecological Reserve.
The brainchild of Oswaldo Guayasamín, Ecuador’s most renowned contemporary artist, the Capilla del Hombre or ‘Chapel of Man’ is an art museum with a unique concept – dedicated to chronicling the history of mankind through art. Guayasamín’s vision wasn’t realized until after his death, but the museum, inaugurated in 2002, is now among Quito’s most fascinating, housed in a striking hilltop building in Bellavista.
The Capilla del Hombre(Guayasamín Museum) houses Guayasamin’s impressive personal collection, including paintings and sculptures by prominent Latin American artists, pre-Columbian artifacts, colonial sculptures and original works. Additional highlights include the ‘Tree of Life’ in the museum gardens, where Guayasamin is buried, and the ‘Eternal Flame’ installation, a powerful declaration of peace and human rights.
Technically, El Sagrario Church is the chapel that’s physically attached to Quito’s Old Town Cathedral. Thanks to its separate entrance, however, and ornate, stone façade, El Sagrario Church is considered a sight unto itself when wandering Quito’s Old Town. Constructed between 1617 and 1747, El Sagrario showcases architectural styles from Baroque to Neoclassical. Ionian columns and Corinthian columns both help hold up the façade, and the interior is lavishly decorated with touches of Renaissance art. Gaze upward at the frescoed archangels flying their way towards the chapel’s cupola, or down at the crypts beneath the floor that hold some of Quito’s remains. One of Quito’s most celebrated sculptors—Bernardo de Legarda—placed his touches on El Sagrario in the middle of the 18th century, and in addition to being a literal sanctuary from Old Town’s bustling streets, El Sagrario is a cultural and artistic treasure that’s free and easy to visit.
Once the seat of the archbishop, these days the Archbishop's Palace (Palacio Arzobispal) in Quito’s Old Town is a bustling food court with restaurants, coffee shops, and fast-food places gathered under scenic arches. Here you can get it all, from burgers and fries to seafood to fine dining, with a romantic view of Independence Plaza.
South of Quito, two parallel mountain ranges run from north to south along a 124-mile (200-km) route where more than a dozen of Ecuador’s volcanoes are found. German explorer Alexander von Humboldt called it the Avenue of the Volcanoes in the 18th century, and aptly so. Eight of the 10 highest points in Ecuador are found here. The volcanoes — some active, some dormant — are each unique.
Traveling through the Avenue of the Volcanoes provides wonderful views of the countryside and the opportunity to visit tiny villages high in the Andes and shop at local markets. Deer, llama, Andean fox and puma, and 90 species of birds all call this region home.
Along the way, there are some of the finest outdoor adventures anywhere, including horseback riding, biking, and hiking through mountains, valleys and around volcano craters. Hiking around the lakes in the region is also a beautiful way to see the area.
The impressive volcanoes passed on the route include Cotopaxi, a snow-capped cone, which at a height of 19,347 feet (5,897 meters) is one of Ecuador's most-recognizable volcanoes. The summit of Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest mountain, is the furthest point from the center of the earth. Many of the giant volcanoes in this region have a national park named after them, including Sangay, Chimborazo, Llanganates, Cotopaxi and Cayambe Coca.
The 1.87-mile (3-km) -wide lake at Quilotoa has a distinctive greenish color, and the small town at the summit is worth visiting. Cayambe is considered the highest point on the equator and is also the only point on the equator to have permanent snow cover. The volcano Tungurahua has been active recently, with several eruptions producing large clouds of ash.
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