Quito, Ecuador is a city of heights and elevations. It’s one of the first things immediately evident as you walk off the airplane at Mariscal Sucre International and see the runway surrounded by mountains. The air is thin, and you may even lose a step for a few days while you adjust to the world’s second highest capitol city. Quito, a UNESCO World Heritage Center, sits at an average of 3,000 meters (~10,000 feet) above sea level and you can enjoy its highs and lows in ways both subtle and bold.
See The View From The Top
Take the world’s second longest cable car, the teleferico, and climb Pichincha Volcano to a height of 4,100 meters (~ 13,400 feet). Try to go on a clear day and you’ll be able to see most of the city of Quito, which sits nicely in a valley among the Andes mountains. If you’re up for it, you can also bike or hike up Pichincha Volcano, but that’s an all day excursion and be sure you’ve had time to adjust to the altitude.
A Dinner With A View
In the evening make your way to the Parque Itchimbia area. It’s a bit across town if you’re staying the popular Plaza Foch (where most tourists end up) but the food and the views of the historic downtown are incredible, especially at night.
- Cafe Mosaico or any of the restaurants immediately next to it offer some of the best views.
The entire downtown area is brightly and clearly visible, including the La Basilica Church – a site that will test your fear of heights if you have one.
Climb (Literally), To The Top Of La Basilica Church
As I was discussing with a friend, the climb to the top of La Basilica just wouldn’t fly in the US or Europe. Upon first glance of the church, which costs $2 to enter, you just expect to walk up the flight of stairs in the tower…but, it doesn’t end there. You’ll take a small bridge across the church’s arches, and climb ever narrowing stairs (ladders really) to reach the tiny tower at the top. Many people simply couldn’t get over their fear of heights and got stuck in between ladders along the way. Don’t think about the wind or the 90 meters (~300 feet) to the top. You’ll feel like a bird perched upon the clouds and get a close look at the maze of streets below.
Walk Across Snow On Cotopaxi Volcano
There are 11 volcanoes – all of them active – around Quito. One of them, Cotopaxi is also a national park and you can enter for a few dollars on most days between the hours of 8am and 3pm. The summit sits 5,900 meters (~19,400 feet) above sea level and it’s cold. Bring a jacket and good shoes as you’ll be walking across snow. There are small buses and tours that go regularly and it’s much easier to find that way than driving by yourself.
- That said, the park is the kind of place that’s great to explore without a tour guide if you’ve got some experience hiking and are physically fit.
Look Down At The Equator
Another great view of where hemispheres meet is the top of the Museo Ethnografic Mitad del Mundo. From there you might be able to catch a glimpse of of Quito’s snow capped volcanoes and watch tourist after tourist make the pose with one foot in each hemisphere. Just try and resist.
Hop On A Chiva And Celebrate
The “Chiva” otherwise known as a party bus, are hard to miss at night in the Cumbaya district. It’s a lively place full of bars and where you can go to drink Ecuadorian Pilsner beer, snack on choclos (a type of fried corn), and dance the night away.
- The area is relatively safe and you can wander from bar to bar. Start at a place called “58” to warm up and explore from there.
The chivas run by ever now and again and on their open roofs locals dance and sing with no end.
Send Your Taste Buds To The Next Level
The small tomato-based dip called “aji” is a wonderfully spicy appetizer. Everyone makes aji a little different and you won’t find the same recipe at any two places.
- The spice doesn’t last or linger in your mouth for too long and if you’ve got a taste for food with a kick, you can add some aji to the otherwise bland “fritada” dish. It’s a traditional Ecuadorian dish that is a mix of fried pork, corn, and potatoes although the variety varies.
Finally, to bring your temperature down to normal, cool yourself down with the juice from tomate de arbol; a slightly sour but refreshing tomato juice.
Enjoy The Lows Too
There are hot water springs right outside of Quito, and the historic downtown area’s presidential palace, church, and square shouldn’t be missed at night. Even the strolling around old colonial street, La Ronda, you can’t help but take the steep hills and valleys that define the landscape of Quito. The heights of Quito give wonderful views a the city that touches the clouds, and you’ll appreciate it that much more when you descend to explore the streets, markets, and culture down below.