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The city of Quito is a colonial beaut. Though Cuenca set some very high standards, Quito’s architecture is truly amazing. A brief walk around the old town will have your jaw dropping. That being said, Quito also has many districts that are very modern, and fairly expensive-looking.
We’ve visited the capital a few times now, and we always seem to find new pockets to explore. This guide is going to take you through safety in Quito, things to do within and outside the city as day trips, where to stay in Quito and where to eat, drink & party.
You only really need a few days in Quito itself to soak up the atmosphere and culture. People are sometimes put off by its tendency to be grey and rainy, but find the right place to stay in Quito and it’s a cosy place, really. If you’re looking for an easy day-by-day itinerary for what to do here, take a look at this 3-day Quito itinerary.
How to pronounce Quito: KEY-toh
After this guide on safety, things to do and where to stay in Quito, you might also find these posts useful:
It’s worth mentioning that you need to be really careful with your belongings in Quito. Everywhere we went, police, security guards and even locals on the bus stopped us to tell us to put our backpacks on our fronts instead of backs for safety. We were warned several times by hostel staff to be extra careful on the streets at night, even in touristic areas like La Ronda.
Also, Quito is the first place we’ve heard of hostel lockers being broken into. At a hostel our friends were staying at, a man who they believe to be a local booked in to stay, waited until everyone was out doing their daily activities and then broke into lockers by simply pulling off the lightest padlocks. He made off with thousands of pounds worth of tech.
Make sure your padlock is heavy enough that it protects your stuff from someone who has every intention of breaking in – this applies to your entire trip!
Things to do in Quito, Ecuador
1. Grab some crazy views of the capital
Perhaps the most photographed view of Quito is from the top of La Basilica del Voto Nacional, which has some of the very best views of the city, including a straight view to the Virgen del Panecillo, a giant statue of Virgin Mary which stands on the Panecillo hill (which you can just about see through the mist in the below photo!).
It costs $2 to go up the bell-tower and $2 more to go up the tower on the other side; both have amazing views. Unfortunately, holey metal stairs mean it’s not a fantastic option for people with vertigo, nor dodgy knees.
If you then want to climb the Panecillo hill itself (or better, get a bus up), you can also ‘enter the virgin for only $2’, as our unassuming tour guide told us. It’s said that the statue of the Virgin Mary at the peak of the Panecillo conveniently shines prosperity upon the already-richest side of the city she faces. Everything behind her is shrouded in poverty.
2. Turn up the heat in the kitchen
Budget Ecuadorian food typically comprises of lots of lentils or beans (menestras) alongside a staple meat steak, but across the country you’ll also find delicacies such as ceviche and a coconut fish stew called encocado. A dish specific to Quito is the Locro Quiteño, which is a creamy potato soup. You can learn to make all of these dishes – plus get to grips with buying ingredients in a local market – during this Quito cooking class.
3. Go for gold in Quito’s many churches
For those with a particular love of churches, the old town has many, including Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco & Iglesia de Santo Domingo. A solid favourite amongst church enthusiasts (that’s a thing, right?!) is Compañía de Jesús, which is absolutely smothered in gold. We had a peep in, but without being enthusiasts ourselves, we couldn’t really justify the $5 entrance fee.
When deciding where to stay in Quito, you’ll want to consider how many religious and cultural sights you’ll want to be seeing, as the Old Town is a little far on the bus/about 15 minutes in a taxi from other popular areas such as La Foch.
4. Wise up at the Centro Cultural
Off Plaza Grande is the Centro Cultural, where you’ll find free exhibitions about the history of the country and modern state, particularly of the indigenous populations. Best to go with a guide though, as many of the exhibitions are told through art and photographs, without much explanation. If you go to the balcony on the top floor, you’ll get some excellent views of the daily buzz of the city.
5. Get to grips with the transport systems
Quito is home to not only a cable car system, but also old school city trolleys that run through the city centre. You can take a guided tour of the capital on this 1914 trolley circuit, which will teach you all it can about the place in 4 hours as you travel in vintage style.
If you’d rather fly above ground, this cable car tour will bring you up into the hills of Quito to get insane views of all that sprawls below you, and you’ll even get to visit the world’s highest Catholic chapel. After that, you’ll head back down the foothill to Iñaquito Market to get lost in all its hustle and bustle.
If you’ve got a free Sunday afternoon and fancy seeing what local Quito life is really like, talk a stroll through Parque La Carolina, where you’ll be able to enjoy watching hundreds of people playing football, basketball and selling their wares against a backdrop of misty mountains.
Things to do from Quito, Ecuador
1. Day-trip to Otavalo
The main draw of the town of Otavalo is the daily market, which is purported to be the largest outdoor market in South America. While the market is a fantastic experience, there are plenty of other things to do in Otavalo, like visiting Peguche Waterfall or hanging out on the San Pablo Lake.
You can take an easy day trip to Otavalo – going with an organised group will make this simpler in terms of transport and timings – but you may also want to consider staying a couple of nights to get the most out of this town.
2. Balance an egg on the Equator
It’s from Quito that you can visit the Equator line, around an hour north. Apparently, this is set at the point that the Spanish originally calculated the Equator to be, with the real Equator being many kilometres away, but it’s a photo opportunity nonetheless. Due to the forces at play, you can balance an egg on a pin here. Note that this gets super busy during the weekends, when locals flood the area.
3. Pop to the Ecuadorian Amazon
Quito is also one of the key places from which you can pick up an Amazonian tour. A three day tour to the Amazon rainforest will cost from $260pp with the cheaper companies available through hostels (which includes a stay at an eco-hotel, your food and drink, full itinerary of activities and a 10 hour night bus each way), or you can book ahead for a tour without the night bus here. You can also go independently to see the Amazon rainforest from Puerto Misahuallí or Cuyabeno.
4. Take a hike (or two!)
Ecuador is known for two of its greatest national parks, both of which have options to hike through as part of a day trip from Quito. Cotopaxi is the first of these national parks, where you’ll go past plenty of flora and fauna as you hike part-way up the volcano.
Quilotoa is the second, which is a hike centred around the stunningly blue Quilotoa lagoon in the crater of a volcano. The Quilotoa Loop is a famous hike that takes at least 3 days for the average hiker, but day trips from Quito will be able to give you a bitesize taste of it. There are companies offering to take you to both of these parks in one day but woiiiii that would be intense and you probably wouldn’t get to see that much of either.
Where to stay in Quito
El Hostelito in Gonzalez Suarez
We’ve stayed in three areas during our visits to Quito. The first area we stayed in was Gonzalez Suarez, where we had a double bed pod bunk in El Hostelito (pictured). We got really lucky with the people here as we coincidentally already knew a few of them, and the others all bonded crazily well on our walking tour which was organised by the hostel (unfortunately not a fantastic tour as it was more the guy pointing out things to us as if reading a map rather than really explaining much).
In the evening, we had around 20 people joining in with a game of ‘Guess the Song’, chowing down on the hostel’s 9% beers and eating the pizzas they cooked for us. Even the owner remarked that it was the best atmosphere he’d ever seen in his hostel. The beds at El Hostelito are pretty comfy (bonus for being a double with a curtain for privacy), and the cooked-to-order breakfast in the morning is excellent – hello, pancakes!
Unfortunately, it is a little far out from the main action, though only a 10 minute walk to restaurants and 15 minutes to La Foch, the city’s main party district.
Masaya in La Ronda
I’m afraid to say though that El Hostelito (and indeed, any other hostel we’ve stayed in since Buenos Aires) was absolutely trumped by Masaya. Large rooms, showroom-level showers, comfy pod bunks, swanky bar and restaurant, free dance, yoga and Spanish classes, free chocolate tasting and helpful staff, all set in an old colonial building. Plus, it was situated right on the corner of La Ronda, amidst Old Town. Kerching!
Selina in La Foch
We also checked out Quito’s Selina in La Foch area. This is an old hotel that’s recently been refurbed into a beautiful boutique space. It’s got a cool bar and is just a walk away from the action of Plaza Foch, but in all honesty it lacks atmosphere, and the double room we had was mega cramped with thin walls. Not so good if you want to sleep whilst the couple next door decide to end their relationship at 3am.
Best restaurants in Quito
In La Ronda (Old Town)
For good restaurants and bars in Quito, most locals will direct you to Calle La Ronda in the old town. Whilst the street is vibrant, busy and full of places to eat and drink, it’s also a bit pricey in places (the type of area geared entirely to tourists, where restaurants and bars do not show any prices until you get inside).
There is a restaurant on the corner called Leño Quiteño, which we assume is recommended in Lonely Planet as it’s the only one that’s constantly full to the brim with tourists. However, if you want true Ecuadorian food at true Ecuadorian prices, get to La Ronda’s crossroads and turn up the steep hill towards the square. On this square, just behind the bus stop, you’ll find Cantunita, which serves excellent typical food for a few dollars.
For something a little more spicy, near to La Ronda is a teeny Mexican restaurant called Llama Love, which is recommended by all the local hostels for a reason. The tacos and burritos are excellent!
For daytime coffee or a little tipple, we really enjoyed Sloppy Joe’s in the old town area (there’s also one further out now i Cumbaya), which on appearance is a bit underwhelming, but we fell in love with the effort the little old lady put into her tiny place, plus wine is only $2 a glass, so what’s not to love?! The food was tasty but portions were small, so perhaps this is more of a place for an afternoon beverage and a chat than a full meal.
The restaurants and bars on the main square of La Foch are super expensive and have a certain pull for tourists (though we must say we weren’t tempted by the neon-lighted Chelsea Bar, and wondered if the owners had ever bothered to google a picture of Chelsea).
However, if you go one block away from the square, on Calle Joaquín Pinto, you’ll come across D’Arguellos, an unimposing but friendly-feeling restaurant, which serves excellent food at dirt prices. One 330ml beer at the cheapest-looking bar on Plaza Foch cost more than a large meal and drink at D’Arguellos on the same night.
Again, the Mexican food clinches prize for best restaurant in La Foch, with Lucha Libre absolutely smashing the dinner experience. Once we got over the cheesiness of the very intense intro from our waiter, we sat back and enjoyed amazing food with novelties such as chilli chocolate sauce in a really cool setting. Price not too bad, either.
Nightlife in Quito, Ecuador
As mentioned about, the place to party is the area of Plaza Foch. The main square has some of the swankier bars, whereas side streets in all directions have a mix of pub culture, rock bars and clubs. Weekdays are a little quiet, but things start to boom from Friday onwards, when you can barely walk down the streets for people.
We did however also find a crazy-fun bar tucked away along La Ronda called La Casa del Pozo. Can’t say the food is highly rated, but the experience is a fun one on the right night. Perhaps it was the dinginess of the entrance, or the intimidation of so many unashamedly S-M-A-S-H-E-D Ecuadorian families in one place, but we became a bit of a side show as being the only non-Latinos who dared to come in and get a table.
Cheap drinks are served in jugs, and a live performer eggs on salsa dancing in between the tables. There were an odd number of kids here while their parents were still shimmying past midnight, but as we saw in the party beach town of Montañita this just kind of seems to be a thing in Ecuador.
Getting in and out of Quito
Be aware that there are two Quito bus terminals
Quito has a particular problem with traffic. In order to deal with this, they are currently building their first metro system, and have recently moved their single central bus terminal to two separate ones, either side of the city. Though this may alleviate some traffic in the city, it does mean that it takes around 45 minutes to an hour ($10-12) to get to either terminal from the centre.
Make sure you determine which terminal you need to go to first; Carcelen serves the north whilst Quitombe is for any buses going south.
Getting from Ecuador to Colombia by bus takes a few legs
If travelling to southern Colombia (e.g. Ipiales) to cross the border via bus, note that you will need to get a bus from terminal Carcelen to Tulcán, and then from where it terminates get a £3.50 taxi to the border. After you’ve been stamped through both the Ecuadorian and Colombian border offices, you’ll need to get another taxi to the Colombian town you’re visiting. Don’t worry, it’s all easier than it sounds!
Pre-book your airport transfers for ease
A taxi to Quito city centre from the airport takes 30-90 minutes depending on traffic (rush hour is an arse-ache in this city), and will cost $25-35. Pre-booking a place on one of the hourly minibuses that go from the Mariscal Sucre Airport to select hotels around the city can save you some dollar though, depending on where you stay in Quito.
Recommended time to stay in Quito: 3 days
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