Capital city Quito is the central hub of Ecuador, and often the entry point for all other destinations in the country. Nestled in the Andes Mountains, it is a vibrant amalgam of modern business executives and traditional Andean people (Indigenas).
The city is divided into two areas. History buffs will enjoy the Old Town, where the architectural influence of Spanish colonisation is evident in the red-tiled roofs lining steep, cobblestoned streets. It is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. New Town is more business-oriented, with its hotels, embassies, offices, shopping centres and travel agencies.
Quito is the cultural centre of the country and Indigenas make up a large proportion of the population. Evidence of their culture is all over the city, from the handicrafts displayed on street corners and ramshackle shops selling traditional everyday goods to the women in thick woollen clothing and felt hats queuing for bus tickets. The Quechuan language rings through streets and central plazas (squares) throughout the city.
The destination is rich in historical churches, monasteries and convents, many of which house religious paintings and sculptures dating back to the 16th century. There are also a few museums worth visiting in Quito. Among them, the Museo del Banco Central (beautiful pre-Colombian artefacts), the ethno-historical Museo Mindalae, and the contemporary art museum Museo Guayasamin stand out. Also a popular base for learning the Spanish language, Quito has over 60 language schools dotted about the city.
The Plaza de la Independencia is the best place in Quito to sit, enjoy a meal, and people-watch, with the City Hall, the cathedral, the Archbishop's Palace and the Government's Palace all located around the square. The cathedral is the oldest church in South America and is one of the city's most impressive historical and architectural sites. Historians should note that both the Government Palace and the cathedral were scenes of shocking assassinations. In 1875, President Garcia Moreno was murdered by machete, and in 1877 the Bishop of Quito was poisoned during a Good Friday Mass. However, the Plaza Grande is now the happy, atmospheric heart of Quito and should be the first stop for travellers.
The Iglesia de San Francisco is a peaceful place, without the shady benches full of people and the business of Plaza de la Independencia. Inside, visitors will find chapels gilded in gold, splendid altars and many religious paintings and carvings produced by the Quito School. Its monastery holds some priceless examples of Spanish sculpture and art. It is one of the biggest religious compounds in South America, with seven courtyards and buildings stretching behind the church. These only become evident once visitors have ventured through the stone doorway of the main entrance. The Iglesia de San Francisco is arguably Quito's greatest tourist attraction and a must-see for travellers in the city.
One of the few sights in Quito's New City is the round, glass-plated building of the Casa de la Cultura. It houses a theatre, a cinema, and two museums, the most impressive being the Museo del Banco Central. Ecuador's premier museum, it contains an astonishing assembly of religious art, Columbian ceramics and pre-Hispanic gold, and a huge archaeological repertoire. Of particular interest are the ceramics of the La Tolita society (600 BC to 400 AD) and the Gigantes de Bahia. On show too are the Sala de Oro (an exhibition filled with gold), and the Sala de Arte Colonial, which is packed with religious paintings and sculptures.
Quito has a subtropical highland climate. The city has a fairly constant cool climate due to its elevation and proximity to the equator. The average temperature during the day is 66F (19C), which generally falls to an average of slightly below 50F (10C) at night. The average temperature annually is 64F (18C). There are only two obvious seasons in the city: dry and wet. The dry season (summer) runs from June to September, and the wet season (winter) is from October to May.
Getting around Quito is easy and very cheap, with transport options including buses, eco-friendly electric trolley buses called 'troles', and inexpensive taxis. Ride sharing apps Uber, Cabify and Easy Taxi operate in the city, as does the public bicycle renting system, BiciQuito.
Positioned on the equator yet surrounded by ice-capped volcanoes, the uniquely beautiful Quito dates back to Incan and perhaps even pre-Incan times. Though little of that ancient history remains, the city's Spanish heritage is far clearer, with the best examples of colonial architecture including the 16th-century La Compania de Jesus Church; the white homes of La Ronda, Quito's most picturesque colonial neighbourhood; the St Francis Church and monastery, thought to be the oldest in South America; and the Plaza de la Independencia, which is lined with grand old buildings.
If travellers only visit one museum in Quito, they should make it the Museo del Banco Central, as the impressively housed modern institution is full to bursting with ancient cultural artefacts. Other worthwhile museums include the Museo Manuela Saenz, the Museo de la Ciudad, and the Guayasamin Museum. Quito is also home to some of Ecuador's best-loved natural wonders, and the best way to experience them is to take a ride on the Teleferico, a cable car that carries people from the base of Volcan Pichincha to the top of Cruz Loma. The views are breathtaking.
El Mitad del Mundo (The Middle of the World) is a purpose-built complex of museums and shops that was constructed to mark the equator, the line that gives the country its name. The 96-foot (30m) high Equator Monument is the focus of the square, and is topped by a brass sphere representing the world. A painted line stretches out on either side of the monument marking the equator that divides the world, and the complex into northern and southern hemispheres. A set of weighting scales also lie on the square and illustrate the fact that visitors lose a bit of weight at the equator, as they're subject to a lesser force of gravitational attraction than usual.
Ecuador is famous for its colourful, indigenous markets, and the best known of these is the market at Otavalo. It dates back to pre-Incan times, when jungle products were brought up from the lowlands to be traded for highland goods. Every Saturday, visitors will find a wonderful sprawling mix of rich colour, smells, and the sounds of energetic bargaining, an essential part of trade and an art in itself. Spread over three plazas and the surrounding streets, thousands of local otavalenos in striking traditional dress sit among their wares, doing hard business with tourists and locals alike. The Plaza de los Ponchos is the main area for crafts such as woollen blankets, bright ponchos and jerseys, colourful bags and woven tapestries.
Parque Nacional Cotopaxi is Ecuador's most visited National Park, with one of the highest active volcanoes in the world at its centre. At 19,350ft (5,900m) above sea level, Volcan Cotopaxi offers excellent hiking and climbing opportunities along with a small museum, a llama herd and camping and picnicking facilities. There is also a good chance of spotting condors and deer. An overnight mountain hut on the snow line is available for those wishing to climb the volcano. The recommended months for climbing Volcan Cotopaxi are December through April. However, travellers should always pay close attention to any alerts or warnings issued by authorities regarding volcanic activity.
The Spanish founded the charming city of Cuenca in 1557. Despite being Ecuador's third largest city, it is quaint and pretty, and a favourite for photographers, with its cobblestone streets and 16th-Century buildings. It is a good idea to spend a few days relaxing in this special place, where colourful Ecuadorian culture meets old-world colonial style. There are a number of museums and churches to see, as well as bustling plazas and markets that can be visited during a leisurely ramble around town. The nearby fortress of Ingapirca is a popular excursion. Located just outside Cuenca and in a town of the same name, the fortress' ruins are Ecuador's only major Inca site.
The small town of Banos is a holiday favourite for its hot springs. Framed by majestic mountains and volcanoes, it serves as a gateway to the Amazon rainforest. Situated on the slopes of the active Tungurahua volcano, Banos is on constant alert for signs of activity from 'The Black Giant'. The town is popular with Ecuadorian and international travellers alike as a place to relax in unspoilt, peaceful surroundings. The best known of Banos' therapeutic hot baths is the Piscina de La Virgen, which is next to a waterfall. For the traveller looking for more holiday action, there are numerous activities, including horse riding, hiking, mountain biking, and trips to the forests of the Amazon Basin.
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