For many people, a visit to the Galapagos Islands is one of the most appealing parts of coming to South America. But before leaving for Lead Adventure’s Galapagos Experience Program, participants spend a day in Quito, Ecuador’s beautiful capital.
However, don’t be fooled because the city is so much more than just the gateway to the Galapagos. The Quitu people originally inhabited the historical capital in pre-Hispanic times. As the years went on, they eventually assimilated themselves with various other groups before fighting with the Incas in the 15th century. When the Spanish arrived a century later, a general demolished the city to prevent the invaders from taking over. Although the demolition left little of its Inca remains, there are still many colonial-style buildings standing to remind the locals and visitors of its history.
Nowadays, these architectural wonders are bustling with fun activities and amazing sights to see. With its variety of delicious restaurants, historical attractions, and live music, it’s impossible to see everything that Quito has to offer in only one day. But if that’s all the time you have, here are some suggested must-sees and pieces of advice.
1. Walking tours or bus tours
For those who are only going to have one day in Quito, a walking tour or bus tour would allow you to cover the most ground in the least amount of time. Briefly stop at many of the capital’s most historical landmarks, such as colonial churches and Plaza de la Independencia, all in one day.
Many companies offer free walking tours for those who don’t want to break the bank. These are usually offered six days out of the week, so it’s very likely that you’ll be able to catch one.
For those who want to see the city by bus, Quito Tour Bus offers customers a beautiful view of the city on their double-decker buses. Their hop-on-hop-off option allows you to get off and get a closer look at the sights you want to see. The tickets are valid all day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
2. Qld town
As soon as visitors step out into old town, they understand why it was named one of UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) first world heritage sites.
Quito’s old colonial center is extremely well preserved. Each building still has many of its original architectural features, leaving colonial houses to fight for space among elegant theaters, restaurants and historical churches. This area of the city is jam-packed with some of the most popular sites to visit in Quito, so it’s easy to cover as much ground as possible just by going to this one area. Mingle with the crowds in Plaza Grande, grab a delicious lunch on Calle Rhonda, and maybe see a show in one of the theaters.
One of the must-see attractions in Old Town is La Compañia de Jesus, a beautiful church that is characterized by its majestic gold and green domes. Much of its features are stuffed with meaning and symbolism. For example, the bright red walls are there to remind visitors of the blood that Jesus shed. Many of the paintings on the walls have been there for years, such as the series of work called the 16 Prophets, painted by Nicolas Javier Goribar. Also, don’t miss the large organ, which is from 1888. With all of the symbolic items adorning the church, it might be difficult to know where to look. But don’t worry. There are many free guided tours in both English and Spanish to help you manuever your way through without missing a thing.
Another important site in Quito’s old town is La Basilica del Voto Nacional, a huge Gothic church that is situated up on a hill. Construction of this masterpiece began in 1926. However, there are some very unique elements of this church-where gargoyles usually stand, there are unusual animals such as iguanas hanging out on the ledges. Daring visitors can climb up the towers for a view that will definitely be earned. The climb requires walking up ladders and very steep steps. However, once you get to the top you’ll be glad that you did it!
These are only a few of the amazing things that old town has to offer. If you’re looking to get a first-hand look at Quito’s past, going to old town is just like standing in a history book.
3. Museo del Banco Central
This is one of Quito’s premier must-see museums. It holds some of Ecuador’s most prized collections of artwork, with items ranging from contemporary works to Inca art. The chronological order of the items allows visitors to easily see how each era in time flourished and developed. And don’t be worried if you haven’t spent enough time in South America to learn Spanish-each display contains descriptions in both English and Spanish. When heading out, try starting at the Archaeological Gallery or Sala Arqueología for the maximum experience. This hall is filled with many items that had huge influences on things that we use today, such as tools and plates. Videos and slideshows throughout the museum can help you visualize much of what scientists learned from studying these items. Even if you don’t usually enjoy visiting museums, this jewel of Quito is definitely worth it.
4. Mercado Artesanal de la Mariscal
This beautiful artisan market on the edge of the La Mariscal district is perfect for browsing and picking up last-minute souvenirs. Here, visitors can find an amazing array of traditional goods, such as hand-knit sweaters, jewelry, and woodcarvings at reasonable prices. Some visitors may have heard about the larger Otavalo artisan market that is usually worth a day trip-this one has similar things, but without the three and a half hour drive! Mercado Artesanal de la Mariscal is usually open daily from around 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Quito’s Teleferico, the highest skyrail in South America, offers visitors one of the best views of the amazing capital. However, this is only good for those who acclimatize to high altitudes easily; the six-passenger cable cars take visitors up to the 13,451-foot summit of Cruz Loma, a mountain near the Pichincha Volcano. The ride lasts for about ten minutes and drops passengers off at a building with cozy coffee shops and outdoor spaces to enjoy the view. The more daring visitors can try hiking up to the Pichincha volcano after reaching the top. There are also horses that you can rent to help you ascent. But no matter what you choose to do, remember to watch out for the altitude and bring plenty of water! The high summit also means that the air gets colder, so make sure to wear layers when visiting this amazing site.
Where to go to pick up last-minute travel items:
6. English Bookstore
Traveling is fun, but sometimes you’re going to have to time to kill while you’re going from place to place. When you’re on the plane to the Galapagos, why not read a book from the English Bookstore? Trip Advisor named this one of the best places to shop in Quito. This large selection of used books is every reader’s dream-literature from every genre fight for space on the overflowing shelves. Instead of browsing the limited “English” sections of bookstores in expensive malls, come here for a much wider and more interesting selection. Address: Corner of Calama and Diego de Almagro. 217
This large chain of supermarkets is perfect for buying essential ítems at cheap prices. Feeling cold and need a cheap jacket? Most of the name-brand clothes sold at stores are very expensive and may even cost more than they would in your home country. Megamaxi, the larger version of this store, also sells cheap clothes perfect for taking on a long trip. Instead of going to large, expensive malls, pick up food, razors, and anything else you need without spending the money you want to use in the Galapagos.
8. Best companies to buy a SIM card from: Movistar or Claro
If you’re like many travelers and feel more comfortable having a cell phone in a foreign country, finding a SIM card might be at the top of your list. In Quito, many people can purchase pre-paid cards and have them easily inserted into your cell phone (that is, if you choose not to purchase a cheap Ecuadorian phone). Many people recommend buying a card from Movistar, though others claim that Claro has better coverage in remote areas, which might be better for the Galapagos. However, whatever you prefer is up to you!
9. Andes 6000
For those who love outdoor sports but may have forgotten a few items, this is one of Quito’s many outdoor adventure gear stores. They are located at Juan León Mera and Veintimilla, making it very accessible. Many of their items include sturdy backpacks, tents, and sleeping bags for anyone who plans on climbing up many of Ecuador’s high mountains. This is also a great place for anyone who’s looking for some extra comfort for their feet because they also offer hiking boots. For people who are going to the Galapagos, this might be a good place to stop by if there were some things that slipped your mind when packing!
Best Parks in Quito
10. Quito Metropolitan Park
Feel like getting off your feet and being active? With an area of 580 hectares, Quito Metropolitan Park is one of the largest natural parks on the entire continent. Many people often visit this beautiful monstrosity to play sports, go hiking, go mountain biking, or just have a relaxing picnic. Along the trails, there are seemingly random spots where visitors can rest while looking at giant works of art. It’s also a good option for animal-lovers. In the park’s Ashintaco Gorge, visitors can look out for and carefully examine over 70 different species of birds. Every weekend, approximately 25,000 thousand people visit the park in total, but don’t be deterred-its huge size means that everyone still has their own space to have fun and relax! Quito Metropolitan Park is located on the north side of the Metropolitan district.
11. La Carolina Park
If you want a nice park that’s a little more central and easier to get to, La Carolina Park is an ideal destination. Every day, the park is filled with various groups who gather to play anything from rugby to ultimate Frisbee. There’s even a BMX bike racetrack and a large skate park where children and teenagers often visit to practice. Playgrounds extend throughout the entirety of the park, making it perfect day out for families. Inside, there is also a bontanical garden where you can glance at or observe a huge variety of Ecuadorian plant species in one easily accessible place. The park is closely located to many stores and restaurants in case you get hungry while doing these fun activities.
12. Itchimbia Park
This park is ideal for anyone who wants a taste of historic Quito while enjoying a beautiful natural view. It’s located inside the city’s historic center and contains the Itchimbia Cultural Center for anyone who wants to make a nice day out a learning experience as well. The beautiful center is made from iron and zinc, which was actually imported all the way from Hamburg. There are often music festivals and social gatherings going on, and the park has over 400 different species of flowers. It is fairly new; it was reconstructed and then re-opened in 2004. There is also a bike path and many people can be seen flying kites and relaxing. The park also underwent changes to make it more accesible for those with disabilities, such as paths for people in wheelchairs.
Where to go for a night out
13. Boca Abierta
This quaint, alternative-style restaurant/bar is a great place to relax and have a drink with your friends. They often have live music playing on a small stage so your have something to jam out to while you’re enjoying their wide variety of menu items, such as canelazos (a popular hot alcoholic drink with aguardiente and sometimes cinnamon), salads, and desserts. Boca Abierta is located at República E4-12 y Rumipamba.
14. La Mariscal
This district is filled with an endless stream of nightclubs if you’re interested in spending the night dancing. Here, you’ll find places with many different types of music-just pick something! Just by walking down the streets, one can hear American music, salsa, rock, and so much more. And if you’re feeling talented, there are also karaoke bars for everyone to show off. These places are usually open very late and there are usually plenty of cabs roaming around to take you and you’re your friends back home afterwards.
15. Teatro Nacional Sucre
If you’re into the performing arts, head back to Quito’s old town to see a show at Teatro Nacional Sucre. This is often called the capital’s most popular theater for the performing arts, and it offers many different kinds of shows from ballet to electronic music. Previously, the theater had little use, serving only as a place for a couple of presentations and a place for people to have events. However, over time it slowly evolved into the national treasure for performing arts that it is today.
There is also a restaurant inside where guests can eat before watching the show. Performers from the theater often put on street shows right outside in the Plaza de Teatro.-not a bad cast for a free street show!
Are you interested in being a volunteer?
More information about our Volunteer at Ecuador Children Care, Education and Development in Quito!
Information about our Galapagos Volunteer Porgram.