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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 (Indígenas).
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. Indígenas make up a large proportion of the population, and 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 has always been the heart of Quito. As the hub of the old centre, it is the best place to sit, enjoy a meal, and people-watch. The City Hall, the cathedral, the Archbishop's Palace and the Government's Palace are 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. Both the Government Palace and the cathedral were scenes of shocking murders. In 1875, President García Moreno was murdered by machete, and in 1877 the Bishop of Quito was poisoned during a Good Friday Mass. But despite this gory history, 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 the visitor has 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 Bahía. On show too is the Sala de Oro (an exhibition filled with gold), and the Sala de Arte Colonial, which is packed with religious paintings and sculptures. English-speakers may find the information provided on exhibits limited, but the artefacts themselves will not disappoint.
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 66°F (19°C), which generally falls to an average of slightly below 50°F (10°C) at night. The average temperature annually is 64°F (18°C). There are only really 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. The long, narrow city is served by three types of buses. Eco-friendly electric trolley buses, called 'troles', follow two north-south routes. Taxis are plentiful and also inexpensive.
Quito is unique insofar as it's equatorial, yet surrounded by ice-capped volcanoes. Its beautiful setting and proximity to some of Ecuador's natural wonders account for why it appeals to travellers.
The best way to experience Quito's beauty is to take a ride on the Teleferico, a cable car which carries people from the base of Volcan Pichincha to the top of Cruz Loma. It provides breathtaking views. The view from Cerro Panecillo hill is also spectacular.
Quito dates back to Incan and even pre-Incan times, but little evidence of this ancient history remains. The city's Spanish heritage is far clearer. The best examples of colonial architecture include 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. The impressively housed modern museum is full to bursting with ancient cultural artefacts. Other worthwhile museums include the Museo Mannela Saenz, the Museo de la Ciudad, and the Guayasamin Museum.
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, 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 of the equator, as they're subject to a lesser force of gravitational attraction than usual. An anthropological museum has interesting displays of Ecuador's indigenous populations and their customs, and there is a scenic lookout at the top as well as a planeterium. Buses leave regularly from Quito for El Mitad del Mundo. There is a small admission price for the complex.
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 otavaleños 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 like woollen blankets, bright ponchos and jerseys, colourful bags and woven tapestries. It is possible to buy almost anything from fresh fruit and rain sticks, to jewellery and dried lentils. The noisy animal market commences first thing in the morning. Located on the edge of town, locals visit it to buy and sell cows, pigs, horses and llamas, with much haggling over prices.
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, Volcán 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 Volcán Cotopaxi are December through April. However, travellers should always pay close attention to any alerts or warnings issued by authorities regarding volcanic activity. Those not interested in climbing the volcano will find picturesque walking trails around the lake at the bottom of the mountain, and there is a restaurant nearby for refreshment.
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 constitute 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 also 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, and mountain biking. It is also possible to organise trips to the Oriente, the forests of the Amazon Basin, where travellers can see wildlife, visit indigenous communities deep in the jungle, and experience life in the isolated far reaches of the country. There are many bars and restaurants throughout the town, often with live folk music.
Banos is also home to Ecuador's most famous candy, taffy, which is made from sugarcane. Hanging from hooks in the doorframes of almost every shop, it is an integral part of the Banos landscape.
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