While Ecuador was only meant to be the first quick stop to launch our six-month adventure exploring South America, it turned out to be so much more. Quito, the capital of Ecuador, was the first city we arrived to from Los Angeles. Quito is a massive city packed tightly into the Andes mountains. Its population of nearly two million Ecuadorians make sure that there is never a dull moment. We were thoroughly impressed with Ecuador’s natural beauty but also the humanity of the people. Most of the Ecuadorians we met shared an innocent, kind-hearted charm that shone throughout our entire trip.
In this post, we’ll focus on some of the best spots to check out during a one-week visit to Quito.
Important: Ecuador currency: United States dollar!
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Day 1: Visit Mitad del Mundo / Middle of the World
One simply can’t go to Ecuador without visiting the actual Equator where the coordinates are 0’0’0! You must visit the monument symbolizing Ecuador’s unique positioning on the planet. It is set in the middle of a park called Mitad del Mundo, approximately a thirty-minute drive from Quito. The entrance fee to the park was $5 per person for foreigners. (Note that in some of the touristic sites there is usually a slight pricing difference if you don’t have an Ecuadorian ID.) We took the bus from La Mariscal and it cost $1.30 per person for the one way to Mitad del Mundo. However, buses throughout Quito typically cost no more than $.25-$.35 cents.
Mitad del Mundo is an exciting place to visit. Sure, it has the famous monument and yellow equator line for the epic photos. It also offers several cultural and scientific exhibits. One that we enjoyed was the traditional Ecuadorian house exhibit. On display were houses from each of the three regions of Ecuador: the Amazon, the High Sierra, and the Coast. It’s an excellent way to become more acquainted with Ecuadorian culture. The park can take anywhere from 2-4 hours to complete. If you just want to see the equator monument, it’ll be even shorter! But there is a catch! The monument isn’t where the exact equator line is. The true equator point is roughly 200 meters from the monument at a museum less frequented. Some others researchers have argued that there is even a third point nearby defining the true equator.
Day 2: Visit El Centro Historico (Old Town) / Free Walking Tour
If you’ve traveled other places in South America, you’ll know that many of the cities have their historic centers. These nostalgic yet sprawling neighborhoods bring the past back to life. With their signature colonial architecture and cobble stone streets, they’re hard to miss.
It’s safe to say that Quito might have the largest and most well-preserved historic center. With buildings dating back to the 1400s, Quito’s Centro Historico is rich with history and culture.
One of the highlights of the old town is La Iglesia de La Compañia de Jesus. This breathtaking church took over one hundred years to fully construct. It’s design incorporates elements of four different architectural styles: Baroque, Moorish, Churrigueresque, and Neoclassical. The interior is splashed with gold from corner to corner. The details in the sculptures are outstanding! The whole building is really an architectural masterpiece.
We recommend doing a free walking tour through Centro Historico. Though free walking tours can be a hit or miss, we were happy with this one. We didn’t register prior to showing up to the meeting spot (on the corner of Calle Mejilla and Juan Jose Flores). Luckily the guide met us there twenty minutes before departing on the tour. Registration can be completed here. We had an awesome three-hour blast to the past with our guide Miriam! She was engaging and knowledgeable and helped keep the information relevant and interesting. (A rule of thumb for the free walking tours is to please tip your guide, as they are usually not paid employees.) We tried several fresh fruits at a local market, tour several historical sites, and finished with a tasting of the best chocolates of Ecuador.
Day 3: Neighborhood Discovery (La Mariscal, La Floresta, Mercado Artesanal)
Now that you have an idea of Quito’s past, it’s time to dive into the more modern Quito.
As mentioned, Quito is a stupendous city with so much to explore. It’s important to observe and admire the fusion of the old and new worlds.
The influence of modern city life and youth culture can be found in the more developed neighborhoods of La Mariscal and La Floresta.
La Mariscal is known for its nightlife, offering a variety of bars, clubs, and restaurants for your enjoyment. Make sure to check out Plaza Foch, which has all the eats and drinks your tummy and pallet may desire!
Also in La Mariscal is one of the best artisanal markets, simply called Mercado Artesanal. With about ten halls packed with homemade arts and crafts, you won’t be bored! You’ll find some of the Ecuador’s best souvenirs at this market. The pride the Ecuadorians have in their country and culture, without a doubt, shines through their talent in handicrafts.
Day 4: Visit Virgen del Panecillo Statue
During your visit to El Centro Historico, you may have noticed in the distance a massive angel statue high up on a hill. Curiosity may have you thinking how it is up there, and that you’d like to visit. We say, go for it! You can go by bus, taxi, or by walking. There are public transportation buses that will take you there and back from the El Tejar stop (on Mariscal Sucre Avenue), just a few blocks behind the El Centro Historico (approximately $.25 cents). One tip of advice if you’re taking a taxi is to make sure your driver is using a meter device to calculate the cost (shouldn’t cost more than $3-4 USD). This is just to avoid getting scammed for a few more dollars that what it would normally cost.
Since we enjoy exploring cities by foot, we walked from Plaza Grande to the statue. The mostly uphill route took us about forty-five minutes through some neighborhoods and up several flights of stairs. If you’re going to walk it, we recommend doing it during the day. Just remain mindful of your surroundings as some of the areas might seem unsafe with not as many people around.
The statue is of the Virgin Mary and she is built with just over seven thousand separate aluminum pieces. Constructed by a Spanish sculptor, Augustin de la Herran Matorras, in Spain, the pieces were then shipped by boat to Quito. The completion of the Virgin of El Panecillo on the hill overlooking Centro Historico took place in March 1975.
At the park surrounding the statue, you’ll see beautifully epic views of Quito. If it’s a clear day you may be lucky to see some of the sixteen volcanoes surrounding the city. After taking in the views, treat yourself to some delicious food at one of the many food venders in the park. The hill which the statue so powerfully stands marks the division between the northern and southern parts of Quito.
Day 5: Day Trip to Parque Nacional Cotopaxi (Cotopaxi National Park) OR Quilotoa Lagoon
When we visited Quito, we planned a stay in Latacunga. This is a smaller, yet lovely town which we used as our base for the day trips to Cotopaxi and Quilotoa. However, if you’re only staying in Quito we still recommend doing the trip to Parque National de Cotopaxi. You can either set up a paid tour from Quito or just hop on the bus and pay for a tour with a guide outside of the park. The park is only a thirty minute bus ride from the Quitumbe Bus Terminal in Quito. You’ll want to take the Quito to Latacunga bus and make sure with the driver that he’ll stop outside of Parque Nacional Cotopaxi. The driver will leave you on the side of the road, and from there you’ll see the white trucks parked across the highway. They are the official guides offering tours into the park. Plan to stay at the park with your tour guide for at least four to six hours.
Prices will vary depending on your tour arrangements. We paid a tour guide who was parked outside of the park $50 USD for a full day tour. His name was Victor, and he was great. He shared lots of information regarding the volcanoes in the park. He was gracious and kind, and even hiked up to the Jose Ribas Refugio Cotopaxi with us (the Cotopaxi refuge is located almost 16,000 feet above sea level). This is something we highly recommend doing if you’re in decent shape. The views are stunning and the experience is one of a kind. After the Cotopaxi hike, our guide took us to Laguna de Limpiopungo, where you have an immense view of two volcanoes, Cotopaxi and Rumiñahui.
If you’re even more daring, arrangements can be made to hike to the summit of Cotopaxi. This would require a brief sleep at the refuge, and a departure time to embark up the mountain around 1:00AM. It’s about a twelve hour journey round trip from the refuge.
Another excellent option for a day trip from Quito is to the Quilotoa Lagoon. Just a three hour ride from the city, this gorgeous volcanic crater lake will drop your jaw and steal your breath away! The mineral enriched water shimmers under the clear sky with a bright turquoise color. Entrance fee to the lagoon is $2 USD per person, which is paid at the drop off point before entering the village.
The Quilotoa Lagoon can be enjoyed from the main vista point at the edge of a cliff overlooking the natural wonder. If you’re adventurous and have the time, there is a steep, but well shaped walkable path down to the lake. It takes about forty minutes going down, and about an hour and a half coming back up. This depends on your reaction to the high altitude, level of fitness, and the pace you choose.
If both of these awesome destinations are a must for you, simply replace Day 7 activities with the other one. No big deal! There are tours leaving from Quito to both Cotopaxi and Quilotoa.
Day 6: Teleferico & La Carolina Park
This is an awesome way of seeing just how stupendous Quito is from an aerial view. We’re talking about the Teleferico park. The entrance fee to the park is $8 USD per person for non-Ecuadorians. Begin by enjoying an 18 minute gondola ride drawing you up along one of the many steep mountains surrounding Quito. The vast city landscape is captivating and breathtaking. Once you arrive to the top, be mindful of your body’s reaction to the altitude. Just the gondola trip takes you up an extra 3,600 feet. There is a café offering snacks, pastries, and hot drinks, and it doesn’t hurt to rest there for a bit. Besides, they have perfect seating behind a glass wall, overlooking all of Quito. The rest of the time can be enjoyed on a hike through the hills. Not much of a walker? That’s fine, after the first short portion of the hike there is a swing on which you can sway to and fro. We do recommend wearing warm clothing, as it gets very chilly with the strong, cold winds.
The Teleferico park can be checked off in a half days’ time. Once we were back at the gondola station, we took a taxi to La Carolina Park. Taxi’s will be waiting for arrivers at the gondola station. We paid $7 to get from the station to La Carolina Park. Included in that price was the exit fees the taxis must pay to the park attendee.
La Carolina Park is a large, well-kept park in the heart of Quito. Here you will find plenty of food and snack vendors along with families and friends enjoying their outdoors activities. Stroll through the park, go for a run, or lay in the grass under a tree’s shade. They even have little lake in the park where visitors can rent paddle boats. The park is huge, so we suggest just getting lost in the stroll.
Day 7: Explore the City and Get Lost
This is your freebie day, where you get to decide what else you want to see in Quito. Or if you want to revisit some place, go for it! Centro Historico has some great museums, so be sure to check those out if you didn’t have time to on Day 2.
One of the best ways to get to know a place is by trying their local foods. Traditional dishes vary not only by country, but also by region. For example, it’s common in the Andean villages to raise and eat guinea pigs (called Cuy). If that doesn’t sound appetizing, we still encourage you to step outside your comfort zone and try some new foods!
The itinerary is built with flexibility in mind. The activities are interchangeable, but do keep in mind the altitude changes and make sure to properly prepare for them. Altitude sickness is very real, and can hit people differently. It’s best to keep the higher altitude activities (Cotopaxi, Quilotoa, and Teleferico) to the latter half of the itinerary. This way you give your body a few days to acclimate to the high altitude in Quito.
Most importantly of all, just get lost in the current of the Quito city life. We promise it will take you to unfamiliar, exciting places!