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With a capital city that took centuries to build, three days in Quito can just skim the surface of what the conquistadors and those that followed accomplished. The conquistadors lavished such attention on the colonial capital’s cathedrals, monasteries, and palaces that it has been called the Florence of the Americas for good reason. Throw in a few modern museums and you have three days worth of historical and cultural exploration (and some shopping, dining, and a trip to the Equator squeezed in as well).

The colonial charm of Quito is what originally attracted me to Ecuador, with visits to the Galapagos, the Amazon, and the Andes almost afterthoughts compared to the gems of Old Quito. Of course, many visits later, I realize you can conveniently enjoy Quito and all the rest of Ecuador’s compact attractions in just one (longer) visit.


As with any initial visit to a large city with lots to see, I took (and recommend) an orientation tour for any first-time visitors. For almost 50 years, Quito-based Metropolitan Touring (464 780 in Quito, (800) 527-2500 in the U.S.) has provided a wide range of options in the city and throughout Ecuador, with the half-day ‘Colonial Tour of Quito’ highly recommended before venturing out on your own.

Once gaining an overview, including a trip up Panecillo Hill for a panoramic view of the city and Andean foothills, wandering the streets of the old city for a couple of days is the only true way to discover Quito. With a good map, you’ll eventually pass by all of my recommendations, stopping in those of interest.

The narrow cobbled streets of much of the old city are full of history, dotted with spacious plazas, bustling with hawkers selling their wares, and often blocked by workers and animals with heavy loads. The oldest street, La Ronda, is one of my favorite streets in South America. It somehow still has the feeling of 16th century Quito, with whitewashed walls and heavy wooden doors offering grilles with peaks of quiet courtyards, overflowing flowers, and gurgling fountains.

Among the most impressive of Quito’s architectural treasures is La Compañia, a church whose richly carved facade is the most ornate in the city and whose interior is a dazzle of golden altars and gilded columns and balconies. It contains a spectacular colonial art collection and is regarded as the richest Jesuit institution in South America.

Inca gold also shines on the altars and ceilings of San Francisco Church, one of the first great religious buildings on the continent. Sculpture and paintings produced by the Escuela Quiteña (Quito School), the school of Indian artists trained by church friars, decorate the walls with traditional religious subjects mixed with pagan symbols and faces of native notables.

The Monastery of San Agustín, Santo Domingo Church, the Moorish Basilica of La Merced, and the recently restored monastery of San Diego are other of my favorite examples of the magnificence of Quito’s spiritual fortresses. No matter your faith, by attending just one Mass at sunrise or sunset, I promise you’ll get an immediate sense of how the opulence and exuberance of the baroque style nourished the pride of the Spaniards in their new homeland. This rich treasury of religious architecture and decorative arts was recognized internationally in 1978 when UNESCO proclaimed the city a World Heritage Site.

The city’s artistic legacy is also on view at the Museum of Colonial Art, housed in the 17th century mansion of Marques de Villaccis, and at the Casa de la Ecuatoriana, which has a fascinating collection of archaeological artifacts, historic musical instruments, traditional dress, and accessories of indigenous groups, and paintings and sculpture from the mid-19th century to today.

One of my favorite ‘new’ stops just opened in 1998. The Museo de la Ciudad (Museum of the City of Quito) showcases the city’s history in chronological order from 10,000 BC to the 1900s. Located in the former Hospital of Mercy of Our Lord Jesus Christ (from 1565 to 1974) it’s one of the best of its kind I’ve seen.

The city is presented as a center of exchange and of multicultural encounters, as a political and administrative center, and as the departure point for expeditions that discovered the Amazon. Many exhibits, which include dioramas and life-size replicas, focus on the changes in daily life through the centuries. Come to think of it, along with an orientation tour, maybe this should happen early in your three days (or many more?) in Quito. It will definitely put the rest of this amazingly historical city in perspective.

After a couple of days of wandering, spend part of the third day heading out of Quito to the Equatorial Monument, La Mitad del Mundo. Situated just 16 miles north of Quito near the village of San Antonio, visitors can stand with a foot in both the Southern and Northern Hemispheres. It’s a great way to end three days in one of the best capital cities of any hemisphere.


Though there is not an overall tourism website for Ecuador, some good possibilities for additional research include: www.ecuador.org (Embassy of Ecuador); www.ecuadorable.com (Metropolitan Touring); and www.lonelyplanet.com (a top guidebook publisher with great coverage of Ecuador).

Quito offers an incredible range of dining and shopping options, as well as convenient excursions to nearby attractions.

For food, you should have at least one meal featuring authentic local cuisine. Good choices include: La Choza, literally, The Choice, and a personal favorite (12 de Octubre 1821 and Cordero, Tel: 230 839) and Rincón La Ronda (Belo Horizonte 400 and Almagro, Tel: 230 009) are two standards for locals and smart visitors. Choices might include caldo (soup in various forms), yaguarlocro (potato soup), pork in many forms, llapingachos (fried mashed potato and cheese pancakes), seco (stew over rice), tostadas.

Entertainment in the capital city includes folkloric Andean music as clubs called peñas (Pachacamac and Nuestra America are popular), as well as the Jacchigua, the Ecuadorian Folkloric Ballet that’s a stylish display of traditional dances based on ancient celebrations at the Casa de la Cultura.

The shopping in and around Quito is superb, wool fabrics and clothing, Panama hats (they originated in Ecuador), weavings, woodwork, jewelry, and much more among coveted items. The folkloric shops and galleries in Quito carry some of the finest crafts found in Central America. Recommendations include: Productos Andinos Indian Co-operative (Urbina 111 and Cordero, Tel: 231 565); Folklore (Colón 260, Tel: 563 085); and one of many government stores called OCEPA (Washington 252 and Amazonas, Tel: 236 334, and elsewhere).

Further afield, the famed market at Otavalo offers a great way to spend day or more in the countryside. Metropolitan Touring offers several Otavalo options that I can personally recommend, as well as a wide range of other tours in and around Quito and to haciendas, the volcanoes, rodeos, other markets, the colonial city of Cuenca, the Amazon, the Pacific coast, and, of course, lots of Galapagos trips. That’s why you’ll need much more time for Ecuador than your three days in Quito.