Your once-in-a-lifetime Galapagos itinerary will invariably include at least one night in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. More than likely you’ll spend two nights there – one before your Galapagos transfer and one after – so it really makes sense to take the time to discover Quito.
Quito is the closest capital city to the equator, which is only 15 miles away. At 9350 feet above sea level it is also one of the highest capital cities in the world. This combination makes for an extremely pleasant year round climate, which is referred to by locals at eterna primavera or ‘eternal spring’. If you’ve flown in from the lowlands, the altitude might take some getting used to, but if you’ve just come from Machu Picchu it’ll be a cinch.
Quito was the first site to be conferred with UNESCO World Heritage status. This is because the historic center or ‘old town’ of Quito is one of the biggest and best-preserved examples of Spanish colonial architecture anywhere in the Americas.
We recommend the Casa San Marcos boutique hotel to all of our clients. Located in the heart of the historic center (but in a blessedly quite street) and housed in a restored mansion that verges on being museum-like, the antiquity of the hotel may make you feel like there’s no need to go out and discover the rest of the old town. This would be a grave error, because old Quito is a fantastic place to explore on foot, and your Vaya Adventures expert guide will be only too happy to navigate you to the best sights.
A logical place to start is the central plaza, the Plaza Grande, which is flanked by some of the city’s most historical and imposing buildings and features sculptured gardens and a lovely fountain. It’s a great place to people watch, and just take in the bustling vibe of the city. If you’re there on a Monday morning you can even witness the changing of the guard.
Of the 130 or so colonial buildings in the center of Quito many of the most magnificent are churches and other religious institutions, but two in particular stand out. The sight of the Iglesia de San Francisco and its accompanying cobbled plaza against the magnificent backdrop of Volcán Pichincha is one Quito’s most iconic images. San Francisco is Quito’s oldest and largest church, and it’s actually the biggest religious building on the continent. Although it’s quite an imposing structure from the outside, the internal courtyard is verdant and welcoming, and the baroque decorations on the ceilings and altars are florid and delicate in the extreme.
The other must-see church in Quito is the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús. Only one block away from San Francisco, la Compañía is the most ornate church in Ecuador. Construction began in 1605 and was only completed in 1765, and the 160 years of painstaking effort are writ large on the interior of the church. Highlights include the intricate carvings and liberal use of gold leaf; the perfect symmetry (all the way down to the trompe l’oeil staircase at the back); and the inclusion of Ecuadorian plants and animals in the motifs. This all adds up to what is in my opinion the most beautiful church in a city filled with beautiful churches.
This blog gives just a tiny taste of what Quito has to offer. Whatever you do during your stay in Ecuador’s capital, you will experience an Andean city which is completely unlike that tropical nirvana which is the Galapagos. Ecuador may be one of the smaller countries in South America, but it also one of the most diverse.