Despite South America always hovering at the top of my travel bucket list, Quito – Ecuador’s pretty colonial capital city – was my first real taste of this part of the world. We were invited as guests of South America touring specialists Metropolitan Touring and LANairlines and we spent two full days of our trip exploring the city, adjusting to both to the city’s altitude and surprisingly slow pace of life. At an elevation of 9,350 feet, Quito is officially the highest capital city in the world and after landing slightly bewildered after a 14-hour flight, it showed – I’d never felt so breathless just wandering around a city!
Quito was one of the first cities in the world to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and the historic part of the city is beautifully preserved – we passed wide plazas lined with brightly coloured colonial buildings and boutique hotels restored to their former Belle Epoque splendor. Quito is one seriously pretty city. Although we were told it hasn’t always been this way. Once a hotbed of crime and general unruliness the city has been cleaned up in recent years to become a very trendy place to live and visit.
Quito also has quite the emerging foodie scene – further proof that the capital is seriously upping its game in the trendy stakes. We visited Cuchara de San Marcos – a quirky Vegetarian restaurant that serves up hearty South American dishes sans meat and Lua which is overseen by respected chef Alexander Lau. With modest homely decor and signature dishes like grilled piranha and spicy traditional ceviche, Lua is quickly becoming one of the most critically acclaimed places to eat in town.
Even though the city has a newfound trendiness, traditional values are still held very much in high regard and as we walked around it became clear just how important religion is to the capital. Since the Spanish colonisation, Ecuador became a Roman Catholic country and today the Catholic Church still has a very significant place in Ecuadorian society. Sitting just behind the hustle and bustle of the cobbled Plaza de San Francisco is the jewel in the capital’s Catholic crown – the striking white Monastery of San Francisco. It’s a 16th-century Roman Catholic complex that covers three hectares and features an immaculate courtyard and easily one of the most impressive churches interiors I’ve ever seen.
Not too far away is another beautiful place, the Church of La Compañía. Taking 160 years to complete, its exterior features intricate hand-carvings on grey stone but inside the lavish gold decor is truly extraordinary and even manages to top its rival in the impressive interior stakes.
The next day the walking tour focused more on local life. Quiteños are softly spoken non-confrontational people – and many still wear traditional Ecuadorian clothing of colourful tightly wrapped ponchos and felt fedoras, something which really adds to the understated vibrancy of the city.
We encountered many colourful characters which included street stall owners selling high-quality traditional crafts, master chocolatiers (chocolates made here are seriously delicious), herbalists who insisted that rubbing nettles on our skin would sooth our stressed-out souls, hat shops selling a huge array of hats and character masks and the owner of the only shop in town which still made ‘colaciones’ (peanuts glazed with honey) by hand.
Our hotel in Quito was the beautiful Casa Gangotena which apparently ranks as one of the top hotels in the world and after a few night’s stay I could see why. It’s an exceptionally classy place – an old Renaissance-inspired colonial mansion restored to perfection and finished with art deco furniture and hand-painted ceilings. We sampled their impeccable service (and impeccable cakes) at a traditional high tea and gorged on gourmet buffet breakfasts served in a huge glass atrium as attentive waiters hovered.
During the evenings we retired to our spacious rooms and I was lucky enough to be booked into a room that overlooked Plaza de San Francisco – the city’s lively central hub. As I pulled back the gold-drapes from the tall windows I peered out curiously onto the square. Just beyond the everyday craziness on the cobbled streets below I caught a glimpse of the distant towering peaks perfectly framed by the bright blue Andean sky. It was at this point I knew I needed to see a lot more of this intriguingly beautiful continent.