The city of Quito in Ecuador is often an afterthought on itineraries through the Americas. In fact, many travellers I met on the continent passed on Ecuador entirely. But if you give Quito a chance you’ll discover there are myriad exciting things to do here, and it serves as the perfect launching spot for excursions to many of the country’s nearby gems. Whether it’s roaming the charming old town or a sojourn out into the jungle, don’t be surprised if you end up growing a bucket list and hanging around a few days longer than expected.
Here are just four of many trip ideas for when you find yourself in Ecuador’s little capital.
1. Exploring old Quito
Quito is an interesting city in that it is extremely modern, with large shopping malls, hotels, Western restaurants, and an active nightlife, but it also retains an old city area that has been carefully preserved and protected. Unlike some old cities around the world, it hasn’t been entirely spruced up and glamorized as a tourist exhibition; rather it is very active and lively, and many locals still call the old city home. Take a walk around and you’ll see it all — kids playing in the alleys, families out eating dinner, old men and women selling bread on the street. It’s a peek into traditional Quito life and is a must-see.
The old city itself has around 40 churches and countless other museums, plazas, art galleries, and theatres, so from a sightseeing perspective it’s also filled to the brim, and impossible to unravel in just one day. However, that also means there’s something for everyone. The tourist favourites are the impressive Basílica del Voto Nacional — the largest church of its kind in the Americas, and the enormous Plaza de la Independencia that serves as the old city’s central square. As for my personal favourites, I was particularly fond of Calle La Ronda — an artsy, happening street littered with bars and artisans, plus the rather unassuming San Francisco market.
Of course, the perfect way to end a day exploring the world’s highest capital is to head up to El Panecillo; one of the highest points to take in views of this sprawling city.
2. The Middle of the World
Not only is Quito the world’s highest capital (at least until Bolivia chooses a capital city), it’s also the closest capital to the equator. The drive from central Quito to the equator is less than an hour, and of course, the route is well travelled, so it’s not hard to get there.
The official site is known locally as Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World), and is set out as a museum, monument, a few souvenir shops and cafés, and a thick yellow line painted through it, which marks the equator. A fun fact: it’s called Mitad del Mundo because the word “equator” in Spanish is ecuador, and therefore calling the site ecuador would be a little, err, confusing. Imagine telling your friends your favourite part of Ecuador was the ecuador? Anyway.
Another fun fact: The yellow line marking the equator was positioned during a French expedition way back in the 1700s, and, of course, technology was a little less polished back then. If the expeditioners had been travelling with iPhones, they would’ve realized the real equator is actually a couple hundred metres down the street. Nonetheless, the equatorial line has been left as it was found all those years ago, along with a monument to commemorate the expedition.
There are also a series of experiments set out for tourists to try — first, a makeshift sink to show that water drains counter-clockwise in one hemisphere and clockwise in the other (the same well-known theory that causes North Americans to watch closely while flushing the toilet on their trips to Australia). A second experiment aims to prove you can balance an egg on a nail on the equator because, well, you’re in the centre of the world.
Are they true? You’ll have to head to the middle of the world and decide for yourself.
3. Climbing Cotopaxi (or at least some of it!)
Ready for the Andes? Two hours outside of central Quito sits Cotopaxi, one of the world’s highest active volcanoes. If you’re the thrill-seeking type, you can hire a guide and climb to the summit, which is a relatively short but challenging climb (around eight hours). But even if you’re not interested in making the ascent, Cotopaxi is one hell of a day trip.
The fact that Cotopaxi is still active makes for an interesting setting; it has shown signs of activity as recently as 2016, and you will see hints of this within the park — volcanic rock, dry lava, and ashen ground spread throughout. There are also various lagoons, rivers, and glaciers for you to explore, plus a small wildlife museum, and if you’re lucky you might even snap some photos of live Andean foxes or deer running around.
It’s popular for non-climbers to hike up to the climber’s refuge and then make the trek to the nearby glacier — and even here, you will be sitting at an altitude of 4,800m (15,748 ft) (yes, that’s high!). If you are planning on heading that way, try and spend at least a few days in Quito getting acclimatized beforehand, otherwise you risk your selfie time getting cut short as your head begins to spin for more oxygen. Altitude can be pretty gnarly!
Hungry for more? The nearby town of Latacunga is the perfect place to stop for lunch or dinner, and a great spot to try some traditional small-town food (empanadas, anyone?).
4. A day in Mindo
Around two hours outside of Quito lies the tiny town of Mindo. The town has been famous in birdwatching circles for some time, but eventually it managed to find its way onto the backpacker radar, too. And why not? The place is filled with adventure.
Mindo lies within a thick cloud forest by the Tropical Andes — one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. The town offers visitors everything from mountain biking to horseback riding, tubing to canyoning, all within a lush surrounding of unique flora and wildlife. More relaxing activities, such as chocolate making and butterfly watching, are also on the menu. With its growing popularity, Mindo has slowly become more touristy each year, but if you’re a hiker, adventurer, nature lover, or all of the above, you surely will not be disappointed by this town.
One of the most popular things on the Mindo to-do list is the hike out to its famous waterfalls. There are several falls, the big mama of the lot being Cascada La Reina (The Queen Waterfall), which is also the farthest to reach. It will be several hard hours of hiking to reach them all, particularly La Reina, so make sure both your body and mind (and shoes) are in adventurous shape!
When the sun is finally ready to set and you’re too tired for the drive back to Quito, don’t fret. Many travellers choose to overnight here, and there are plenty of accommodation options in town. Once you’ve found a bed, simply hang up your wet shoes and let the Mindo frogs sing you to sleep.
G Adventures runs a number of departures in Ecuador encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.
Header image courtesy Simon M.