What to do… where to go… day trips…. how best to do it… - having lived in Ecuador and visited Quito on dozens of occassions, here’s my top 10 travel tips about Ecuador’s capital city.
1. Make sure you book a hotel in the right district
Almost all of the hotels in Quito are in one of two neighbourhoods - either the Mariscal (otherwise known as “gringolandia” or the “New Town”) or the Old Town (the historic colonial quarter). Because the traffic in Quito is so appauling, the Old Town is an extra 30 minutes or so from the airport (compared to the Mariscal) - if you’re flying in and staying for one night, that extra travel time probably isn’t worth it. The Old Town is a pretty and atmospheric part of Quito, however it does rather lack restaurants and bars. The Mariscal, on the other hand is full of bars and great restaurants. Depending upon your priorities and criteria, you’ll need to select one of these districts. There’s a greater selection of hotels in the Mariscal area - this is where I always choose to stay in Quito.
Quito - the old town.
2. Allow time to acclimatize
Quito is at 2800 metres (9300 feet) - it’s the second highest capital city in the world (after La Paz in Bolivia). If you arrive by a flight, you’ll feel the altitude immediately upon arrival. Drink plenty of water and take it easy. Altitude sickness is indiscriminate of age or physical fitness - you won’t know whether it will hit you hard until you’ve arrived. Although everyone feels the altitude a little, I’d reckon that one in ten people that arrive from a low latitude get hit really hard and are bed bound for 24 hours. Bear it in mind, and don’t go planning to climb any mountains for a least a few days until after you’ve arrived.
3. Nightlife in Quito
Quito is a cool and easy place to go out partying. Plaza Foch (in the Mariscal, or New Town) has now become a focal point - there’s many bars to choose from on this plaza. There’s also many nightclubs nearby - the “No Bar” (Northern end of Juan Leon Mera street) being a legendary place where dancing on tables is the norm. “Gringos” go to No Bar to meet local people who’ve come to No Bar to meet gringos - it’s that type of place, and a good laugh on any day of the week.
4. Explore the Old Town - On a Sunday
Quito’s old town is atmospheric with many beautiful plazas and old colonial buildings. On Sundays this historic quarter is shut to traffic, and the experience of wandering the otherwise heavily trafficked streets is far more appealing and relaxing. Likewise note that your taxi is unlikely to get you to your hotel front door on a Sunday - so if you’ve booked a hotel in the Old Town on a Sunday, expect to be walking with your bags to get there!
5. Don’t Bother with Quito’s Cable Car
There’s a recently installed cable car that takes you to the top of one of Quito’s next-door mountains. If you’ve exhausted the possibilities of other things to do in Quito, this is an option, but there’s much better tours that can be taken (Quito’s got some great museums for example, such as the Gold Museum). The views are often limited as it’s often cloudy at the top of the cable car anyway. I wouldn’t bother with this artifical tourist attraction.
6. Don’t Bother with the Mitad del Mundo Either
“Mitad del Mundo” means “Middle of the Earth” - it’s a tourist complex and museum created bang on the equator where one can witness water going down plug holes in both clockwise and anti-clockwise directions, depending on the hemisphere. It’s tacky and pointless if you ask me!
7. Do Visit Cotopaxi Volcano
A Cotopaxi Volcano tour is definately one of the best tours available from Quito. Cotopaxi National Park is about a 90 minute drive from Quito - the scenery is spectacular, and it makes a great day trip. Make sure you’re well acclimatized before taking this tour though - the volcano is extremely high. More info can be found on the guide to Cotopaxi.
8. Do visit Otavalo - on a Saturday
Otavalo has one of Ecuador’s best indigenous markets.
Otavalo holds what is quite possibly South America’s most famous indigenous market, on a Saturday. Week round it’s possible to visit, but the proper market where indigenous Indians come from all over North Ecuador (and even as afar as Colombia) is on a Saturday. The market has become rather commercialized (even a tourist spectacle), but it’s still well worth a visit. See the Otavalo guide for further travel tips.
9. Maybe Pay a Visit to Papallacta
There’s hot springs at Papallacta, which is a 90 minute drive North East of Quito (regular buses). It’s an interesting and enjoyable alternative day trip.
10. Avoid Quito’s bus station if possible
Quito’s main bus station (the Terminal Terrestre) is a pretty hectic and unappealing place. If you can avoid it do so. I always head to the Transportes Ecuador bus terminal on Juan Leon Mera street, from where there’s hourly services to Guayaquil via Santo Domingo. It’s a far more peaceful experience, plus Transportes Ecuador has Ecuador’s best buses (and non-maniac divers!)