A nearly 150-foot statue of the Virgin Mary is at the top of El Panecillo. // © 2014 Quito Turismo
Feature image (above): A ride on the Teleferico cable car provides a magnificent view of Quito. // © 2014 Quito Turismo
Ecuador’s capital city may be world-famous for its centuries-old historic center, but Quito is also a great base for exploring everything from nature to modern art and a bit of equator-related science.
First-time visitors should consider joining a tour tailored to their individual interests for a good overview of what Quito has to offer. Travelers looking to visit multiple destinations on a flexible, independent schedule can ride the Quito Tour Bus, which offers hop-on, hop-off service to 12 different tourist sites on its day tour package. For personalized individual and group tours, companies such as Gulliver Expeditions offer everything from day tours to multi-day excursions that include Quito’s biggest attractions as well as activities outside the city.
For grandiose views of the city, take a ride on the Teleferico, a cable car system that whisks visitors up to a sky-high vantage point of approximately 13,200 feet, near the Pichincha volcano. Also noteworthy for its outlook is El Panecillo, a hill overlooking the colonial center, topped with a nearly 150-foot statue of the Virgin Mary that was commissioned in the 1970s and made from some 7,000 pieces of aluminum.
Twentieth-century creativity is also in focus at Guayasamin Foundation’s La Capilla del Hombre, also known as Chapel of Man. The work of Ecuador’s most celebrated artist, Oswaldo Guayasamin, is the focus at this sizeable museum, while the artist’s own collection of pre-Columbian, colonial and contemporary art is also on exhibit.
Heading outside of Quito, a must-stop for most new visitors is Mitad del Mundo (“Middle of the World”), a village built around a giant monument that sits on what is supposedly the equatorial line. The most popular photo opportunity here is to straddle the bright yellow line that represents the division between the northern and southern hemispheres.
A couple minutes away by car is the Intinan Solar Museum, a fun venue that showcases how various ethnic groups live in Ecuador. The museum also allows visitors to participate in experiments that mimic the effects of being on the equator, such as balancing eggs. Travelers who find themselves hungry after all this experimentation can head to El Crater, an upscale Ecuadorian restaurant within Hotel El Crater that sits dramatically on the edge of a cloud-filled volcanic crater.
Quito is also a good base for exploring natural beauty farther afield. Less than two hours away is Tucanopy, an attraction that offers guided nature walks, horseback riding and camping. But the most favored activity, as Tucanopy’s name might suggest, is the canopy ride: Participants get to soar among the trees, and there’s also a unique balance-beam walk high above the ground as well.
Visitors looking to extend their time in the scenic countryside outside of Quito may want to spend a night or two at one of the historic haciendas that dot the region. Hosteria Hacienda Pinsaqui, set on an estate that dates to 1790, offers easy access to the famed market of Otavalo, while the 45-room Hacienda Cusin offers activities including horseback riding, mountain climbing, bird watching and even Spanish lessons.
For modern accommodations back in the city of Quito, multiple internationally branded properties are ready to satisfy the needs of nearly any traveler. Among the best places to stay in the newer part of Quito are JW Marriott Hotel Quito, Le Parc Hotel Boutique and Hilton Colon Quito. Hilton Colon Quito is especially convenient to La Mariscal, a lively district filled with restaurants, cafes, shopping and nightlife. It’s a very different experience from the colonial Quito downtown area and every bit as enjoyable.