72 HOURS IN & AROUND QUITO
When it comes to exploring Quito, Ecuador's capital, you have to venture into the cobbled side streets of the city's Old Town to learn what makes the area distinct and different. In the shadows of buildings centuries old, sample street food and breathe the air of ancient churches. Then head north on the Pan American highway to glimpse real life in Ecuador: country roads, small town squares and roasted pork sold one slice at a time by the side of the road. Here's our top choices for three days in and around Ecuador's capital.
Old Town Quito is a jumbled mass of narrow cobbled streets, ancient churches with ornate, colonial architecture and noisy street vendors selling roasted corn, candy and frittadas cooked over metal buckets filled with burning hot coals. The best way to explore the Centro Historico is slowly and by foot, joining a tour with the Quito Visitors' Bureau or exploring the various walking routes with a self-guided map in hand. Start at the Plaza Grande and peek inside the Palacio de Gobierno (Government Palace). There are numerous churches in the vicinity, each one older and more architecturally elaborate than the next. The juxtaposition between the skyscrapers of New Town and the living, breathing history encrusted in the buildings of Old Town is nothing short of stunning. At night join the locals and head to Calle de la Ronda, a cobblestone street that comes to life after dark. Here you'll find live music, bustling restaurants and unforgettable ice creams at Dulce Placer Heladeria.
Quito is 45 minutes' drive from the equator and the staff at the Museo Solar Inti Nan. demonstrate the centrifugal forces on either side of the equator. Exhibits on wildlife in the Amazon teach visitors about the candiroo, small parasitic fish attracted to urine and able to penetrate the human urethra. The shrunken head exhibit is another intriguing display, explaining how ancient Ecuadorians shrunk the heads of their enemies to withdraw their power, and the heads of their chiefs to preserve their spirits.
The city of Quito spreads 60 kilometers long in a narrow valley surrounded by volcanic mountains. To get a sense of its dimensions from a great vantage point, head to the Teleferico, a cable car that begins at the base of the Pichincha Volcano and ascends 14,000 feet to Cruz Loma. The air is thin at this altitude, so there's a good chance you'll be gasping for breath and acutely feeling the oxygen shortage as you walk around. There's a long hike from Cruz Loma for the energetic or a coffee and souvenir shop for those who prefer to take a quick look around before returning to a lower, less breathtaking altitude.
Leave the heavily trafficked roads of Quito on the Pan American Highway to experience the personality and distinctive crafts of the smaller towns up north. We devoured biscoches at Cayambe, a town known for its rich, croissant-like pastries cooked in wood-fired ovens and served with sweet, dark coffee. Further north lies Otavalo, a town whose market square, the Poncho Plaza, is one of South America's oldest. Busiest on Saturdays, when animals are sold in addition to crafts, the market is a focal point of activity every day and a great place to seek out interesting crafts and hone your bargaining skills with local villagers. We left with thick, soft blankets, ponchos and shawls, convinced they were made from lama wool. Later, we learned our purchases were 100% acrylic! Fifteen kilometers north, Cotacachi is the center for leatherwork in Ecuador, its stores carrying a great selection of finely made leather jackets, briefcases, purses and boots.
The northern highlands, surrounded by the Andes Mountains, are hacienda country, home to expansive estates that often include a tourism component. We chose Hacienda Zuleta, a property built in the 1600s and owned by the family of the late Ecuadorian President Galo Plaza Lasso. Cows bellow gently outside the bedroom windows, fireplaces illuminate the 17th century paintings on ancient stone walls and guests are treated to traditional Ecuadorian dishes at meal times. By day there's horseback rides into the mountains and bike excursions on cobbled roads. The hacienda grounds include an organic vegetable garden, a cheese factory supplying incredible tasting cheese to grocery stores throughout Ecuador, a dairy farm and a condor rehabilitation project to help protect this critically endangered bird.
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IF YOU GO:
Adventure Life, a company specializing in travel in Ecuador, coordinates itineraries throughout the country including Quito city tours, highland hacienda adventures, Galapagos island cruises and visits to the jungle. Info: (800) 344-6118 or www.adventure-life.com
PHOTOS: by Lauren KramerTravel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.TravelWritersTales.com
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