Our time in Quito
After leaving Cartagena, our next stop was Quito, the capital of Ecuador! It has one of the best-preserved historic centers in all of the Americas and was one of the first World Cultural Heritage Sites declared by UNESCO. It sits at an elevation just below 10,000 feet making it the second highest capital city in the world after La Paz, Bolivia.
We flew to Quito via Bogotá and spent about three and a half days there. Cartagena was a bit more expensive than we anticipated (partly because we decided to treat ourselves at the hotel and partly because of the Airbnb fiasco) so we wanted to save some money on accommodations. Luckily for us we were able to find a one-bedroom Airbnb for only $40 a night(!) in La Floresta. The location was perfect - close enough to La Mariscal, an area that is very safe and has a ton of restaurants and bars, but far enough away to not be loud and full of drunk people :P. We loved its artsy, bohemian vibe and the cute coffee shops all around us. Here are some of the highlights from our time in Quito.
Food & Dranks
After living in Ecuador for almost 4 months back in 2008 (woo study abroad!), I have acquired a taste for Ecuadorian food and one of my favorites is menestra. Ecuador can be (roughly) divided into three main sections - the coast, the mountains, and the jungle and each has their own distinct regional dishes (like ceviche on the coast and guinea pig in the mountains). But there are also dishes you can find just about anywhere and luckily for me, menestra is one of them! It is a simple but delicious bean stew and it is traditionally served with your choice of meat, rice and plantains. Within hours of landing, I dragged Phil to a restaurant I found on Tripadvisor called Menestras de la Almagro for his first taste. We ordered one menestra with pollo apanado (a lightly breaded & fried chicken breast that has been pounded flat) and one with carne (a thin, well-cooked slice of beef). For $9 USD (literally, Ecuador’s official currency is the US dollar so I’m not even converting), we got a FEAST.
Luckily for me, Phil shared my love of the dish and we had it no fewer than three times while in Quito (… for less than four days).
Besides my favorite Ecuadorian dish, I also have a favorite drink - any cocktail that features maracuya (aka passionfruit)! While you may associate Ecuador with bananas (they are the second largest importers of the fruit to the US after Guatemala), they have a huge diversity of delicious and cheap fruit. Because fresh fruit is so affordable, when you order a strawberry daiquiri or a piña colada, you best believe it’s gonna be made with real, fresh fruit and not some artificial flavored ish. Cue the maracuya mojitos, maracuya margaritas, maracuya EVERYTHING!
Passionfruit adds both a sweetness and a tartness to drinks that I love and if you ever find yourself in Ecuador, I highly suggest you try one out! And if alcohol isn’t your thing, a little passionfruit pureé in sparkling water is also delicious.
Parque La Carolina
My absolute FAVORITE thing we did in Quito was our visit to Parque La Carolina on a Sunday. Phil was itching to play some soccer (he even brought cleats on the trip!) and I wanted to get in a run somewhere off the roads. Once we got to there, Phil left in search of soccer and I went to explore via the running/biking path that zig-zags through the park. Starting along the edge of the park, my first impression was it was a nice place to run (paved path, lots of greenery to look at, enough people out and about to feel very safe) but as the path weaved through the park I was FLOORED. This park, which looks pretty small compared to the neighboring Parque Metropolitano, is HUGE and it was also PACKED — I’m talking Dolores Park on an 85 degree day in October packed! Everywhere I looked there were more people and more and more things to do.
Stuff I saw people doing while on my run which covered MAYBE half the park:
Enjoying picnics brought from home
BMX-style biking on a dirt course
Admiring/photographing/chilling around A GRAFFITI COVERED AIRPLANE
Running on a track (that is not the biking/running path I was already on)
Playing on multiple playgrounds
Eating dozens of different foods from vendors in the park ranging from fresh watermelon slices (I got one!) to fried bread filled with cheese to huge ice cream sundaes
Buying/selling goods from the practical (a ball to play with, an umbrella for shade) to the absurd** (knock-off sneakers, underwear, makeup) **for a park
Enjoying impromptú comedy shows encircled around a performer
Stuff I didn’t even see but later read they also have in the park:
A botanical garden
A manmade lake where you can rent paddleboats
A reptile zoo
A paved skate park
My only regret is that I didn’t take more pictures to share. I was trying to enjoy the time outside and off my phone but OBVIOUSLY that was a dumb idea and I should have taken more photos to share :P. If you are ever in Quito on a Sunday, this is a MUST do. I hear Saturdays are also great but I can’t imagine they are as big as Sundays, as a huge portion of businesses in the city shut down (Ecuador is a Catholic country after all).
Another activity I really enjoyed in Quito was our trip up to the top of the (dormant) Pinchinca Volcano. After a 20 minute taxi ride, we arrived at the base of the teléferico (which is actually already partway up the mountain!) and bought our roundtrip tickets. At first I was confused as to why anyone would not get a roundtrip ticket but it turns out it is possible to ride up and mountain bike or even paraglide back down. We decided to stick with the cable car :). The ride takes you up from about 10,000 feet above see level to almost 13,000 feet.
The view from the cable car ride up was awesome - we watched Quito get smaller and smaller and saw more of the surrounding mountains open up. When we got out at the top, we decided to take the small walk up a dirt trail to an overlook point that looked nice and even had a swing! We had been in Quito for a few days but this elevation is no joke so even just the 10 minute uphill walk had me breathing like I had been sprinting! The view was beautiful even though it was a bit cloudy (we waited until our last day - if I could do it again, I would have checked the weather ahead of time and made sure to pick the clearest day we could). We enjoyed the views, swung on the swing and stooped down to take pictures that make the perfectly safe swing look like the person is swinging over an abyss :P. Unless you plan to hike at the top (and read up on that first because of a) the altitude and b) possible safety issues), you don’t really need more than 30 minutes or so at the top. After our fill of views and selfies, we hopped back in a cable car down and took an overpriced taxi home (damn tourist attractions!)
Besides the expected experience of a cable car with beautiful views, I also really enjoyed our rides up and down and the chats we got to have with our fellow cable car-mates. One the way up, we shared our cable car with two Ecuadorian women who live in Quito and two Canadian men who were backpacking through South America. We really enjoyed the views on the ride up as well as chatting with our friendly cable car-mates! The Canadian dudes had been traveling through South America for almost 9 weeks and were about to wrap up and head home while the ladies were locals just coming up for a fun trip. On the way down, we talked with an Italian man who had been backpacking through South America for four months on his own. He was a history buff in particular and told us about some of the ancient archeological sites he had seen. He gave us a few tips for Peru (where we were heading next) and I gave him a few tips on Ecuador!
Side note: Staying in Airbnbs has been awesome for privacy, security of our belongings, full access to a kitchen and sometimes free laundry but it does mean that we don’t interact much with other people outside of taxi drivers and people who work at the shops & restaurants we go to. While we have definitely had some awesome conversations with people in the service industry, I do miss the increased interaction I’ve had while staying in hostels with other travelers and locals who work there. What I don’t miss are the shared bathrooms, not-amazing kitchens and noise also usually found there. In South America, it’s very affordable to get our own apartments (sometimes cheaper than a hostel!) and we enjoy the benefits I described above but sometimes I wonder if we are missing out by not staying in hostels (in private rooms … because we too old for that dorm life :P).
Quito’s Historic Center
As I mentioned above, the historic center of Quito is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The center covers over 700 acres of land filled with plazas, churches and quaint colonial streets. Phil and I decided to explore it (and more of Quito) by walking the two miles from our apartment to the center. On our way we passed through a few parks and stopped for at least one frisbee break but the main event was really the historic center.
After our trek there (no, two miles isn’t that far but DAMN that altitude will get you!), we decided to take a break in the main public square, the Plaza de la Independencia. The square was bustling and we enjoyed people watching for a bit before heading out to wander more. I bought some delicious, fresh cut mango for $1 (one of my favorite treats in Ecuador) and we explored the narrow streets.
Our final stop in the center was the Basílica del Voto Nacional (Basilica of the National Vow). Construction on this Roman Catholic church began in 1892 and though we couldn’t tell from the outside, it technically remains unfinished. Local legend says that when the construction is complete the world will end! The reason we specifically made the detour here is that this cathedral is unique in all of the world - instead of having traditional gargoyles, it has “grotesques” in the form of native Ecuadorian animals like iguanas and Galapagos turtles.
While there is much more to see in Quito, these were our highlights! If we had more time, we would have ventured out of the city to visit Otavalo (home to one of the most famous markets in all of South America) or hiked around Cotopaxi (the world’s tallest active volcano). But after our four nights we were off to Guayaquil.