Quito, Ecuador, is an ideal base for cultural and ecological day trips around the country.
The charming boutique hotel Portal del Cantuña is 50 feet from a prime area, Plaza de San Francisco. Once a 19th-century Franciscan convent, the hotel retains its original columns, relics and chapel. The colonial furniture, stained glass and greenhouse lobby exude Ecuadorean style, and the ornate parlor beckons you to drink tea as the 5 a.m. church bells chime.
Every morning, cyclonic flocks of doves swoop off plaza rooftops, and taxi brigades are ready to transport anyone. Nearby is the luxurious Casa Gangostena hotel, a re-purposed mansion where you can stop for cocktails or dinner.
Following are other excursions to enjoy in and around Quito.
Tours are available in the capital city, where many buildings have a fusion of Flemish, Renaissance and Mudéjar styles. Significant sites include the gothic Basílica del Voto Nacional and the modern Virgen de El Panecillo overlooking the city.
That 135-foot-tall depiction of the Virgin Mary with wings – radiating auspicious grace, especially when lighted at night – is one of South America’s tallest statues and the world’s tallest statue made of aluminum.
The basilica is modeled after the iconic Notre Dame cathedral, except it has indigenous animal sculptures instead of gargoyles. Once you disembark the bus and head inside, take the elevator to the steeple and ascend the ladder to reach the spires. On the panoramic ledge, you view the world’s second-highest capital (after La Paz, Bolivia). Afterward, take a break in the cathedral’s café.
Calle La Ronda is the cobbled, bohemian alley of galleries, cafés and music. With a canelazo (a local treat) in hand, stroll in the calm afternoon or bustling evening. Be alert in Quito; police circulate to warn about safety.
Mitad del Mundo
This equatorial landmark, whose name means the middle of the world, is 45 minutes away from Quito. The 18th-century French geodesic mission measured the earth’s latitude and roundness, and the country’s name derived from this. The nearby Intiñan Museum is the GPS-determined equator, where you can participate in hands-on experiments.
It’s easy to find a driver to Otavalo, the textile market in northern Ecuador about 2 hours from Quito. On enchanting back roads, you encounter cornfields and villages where farmers herd cows and cowgirls break in ponies. Indigenous women wash quinoa in San Pablo Lake. Enjoy seeing aloe vera plants and tussock grasses, which make the drive sublime.
Carve out a full day for an excursion to this lake in a volcano’s caldera.
On your 3-hour journey to the destination, you pass Cotopaxi, the world’s highest active volcano. Interact with an indigenous Sasquisili family in their earthen dwelling and see cuy (Guinea pig) roasting roadside. The patchwork of pastoral scenes includes herds of sheep and farmers descending mountainsides.
Eventually, you reach the stunning, teal lake. The hike is rigorous, so consider riding a donkey, guided by an energetic, fit native. Indulge in the comfort of locro de papa, a cheesy potato soup, afterward.
Mindo cloud forest
About 90 minutes from Quito is a verdant ecosystem that transitions from forest to jungle. Stop at Pululahua Crater, a geo-botanical reserve with billowing clouds filling the vista. Mindo’s adventurous ziplines and tubing experiences are balanced by easy tours of coffee and chocolate plantations. The exhilarating basket ride over the ravine is the way to enjoy Ecuador’s essence.
Dine at Pim’s, which features virtual aerial views. At one moment, you see a glowing city at night, then you’re ensconced in cloud mist and the view disappears. Los Geranios and La Pizca are also recommended restaurants.
After day excursions, return nightly to Quito to enjoy shimmering streets and sauntering crowds under a canopy of umbrellas. Illuminated buildings reflect dewy roads as you walk in the glow of Quito, a city that reminds people, “We travel not to escape life … but for life to escape us.”