four days in the dizzying heights of quito, ecuador

We finally made it to Quito after being waylaid in 2020 due to the pandemic and, again, in June of 2022 due to the strikes and protests by the indigenous people of Ecuador. The protests and road closures caused us to cancel our trip the Friday night before we were due to fly out on June 18. When the strikes were finally settled at the end of June, we immediately rebooked our entire trip and finally arrived in Ecuador on the afternoon of Monday, July 25.

Quito, the capital of Ecuador, has an estimated urban population of 2.8 million. It sits nestled in a valley on the eastern slopes of Pichincha, an active stratovolcano in the Andes at an elevation of 2,850 m (9,350 ft), making it the second-highest capital city in the world after La Paz, Bolivia.

It wasn’t an easy journey. We had to get up at 2:15 a.m. to catch an Uber to Reagan National Airport for a 6 a.m. flight. After a 2-hour layover in Miami, we arrived in Quito at 2:00 p.m. Our Airbnb host, Lucia, had recommended Freddy as a driver, and he deposited us from the airport to her beautiful apartment north of Mariscal Sucre. We didn’t realize it at first, but it turned out to be one of Quito’s upper-middle class neighborhoods, with plenty of good restaurants and security guards manning every building. The apartment was decorated in a bohemian style with colorful handicrafts, plenty of books, and ebullient plants.

That first afternoon, we walked downhill to the supermercado to stock up on food; the trudge back uphill carrying groceries was challenging due to the city’s high altitude. We settled in, ran out for dinner at the cute Lemongrass across the street ,and then bundled up early against the cold. During three weeks in Ecuador, we didn’t find a single accommodation with heat.

A Walking Tour of Quito’s Centro Histórico

Quito’s Old Town, Centro Histórico, has restored Spanish colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, lively palm-fringed plazas, sing-song street vendors, 18th-century churches, and tourist police galore. Shoeshine boys were busily shining not only the shoes of businessmen, but the police’s as well. A random guy asked if he could take a picture of me, which reminded me of China, where everyone wants a picture of the gringo that sticks out like a sore thumb.

On Tuesday, we followed the “Old Town Walking Tour” from Lonely Planet Ecuador & The Galápagos Islands. Twice, once at the Plaza of San Francisco and again in the neighborhood of La Ronda, police in neon yellow vests approached us and warned us to keep our backpacks in front and not to put our phones in our pockets. We read later that Quito has about 200 “tourist police” who are bilingual and are there to keep tourists safe. Apparently the historic center is rife with crime, but we stayed aware and kept our distance from others. The walking tour kept us on the go for about 5 1/2 hours and 17,168 steps, or 7.28 miles.

On our walk, we came upon a hat shop, Sombreros Lopez. One of my goals was to get a Panama hat in Ecuador, but Panamas are famously from Cuenca, so I had to contain myself. However, I did buy a tan felt hat, which it was too hot to wear on this day.

We made a lunch stop at San Agustin Heladeria-Restaurante, where we each had a humita (steamed corn tamale cake wrapped in a corn husk). Mike had a pork sandwich and I had shrimp ceviche. Our biggest surprise was the smoking ice cream dish and the waiter dressed like the devil.

We continued our walking tour past the Plaza del Teatro and eventually to the Basilica del Voto Nacional, where we elevatored to the top of one of the towers and enjoyed views over Quito just as the sun came out from behind the clouds.

Finally, our first day came to an end as we walked by Plaza San Blas and soon caught an Uber back to our apartment. Later, we enjoyed a “Ham & Champ Pizza” at Bandidos del Páramo, another restaurant across the street from our apartment.  We had two superb pizzas while in Quito, some of the best we’ve ever had.

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Plaza San Blas

Quito’s TelefériQo (a futile attempt)

Wednesday morning, it took us about 20 minutes to get to Quito’s TelefériQo by Uber.  Ubers are in abundance in Quito, easy to use and cheap. We took the lift 2.5 km up the flanks of Volcán Pichincha to the top of Cruz Loma.  At the top, we were at 4100m (13,451 feet).  When we first arrived we found some cloudy views, but quickly a cold fog moved in and obscured any further views. We huddled in the café and drank Café Americano lattes and shared an empañada with plantain, chili and queso. We realized the futility of hoping for any views and headed back down the mountain.

La Floresta

We took a taxi to La Floresta, an artsy neighborhood, where we had a fabulous and beautifully-presented lunch at Casa Warmi. What a pleasant experience. The restaurant was adorable with its golden wood floors, a wall of ivy with a mounted bicycle, and a tree growing through a hole in the roof. We enjoyed corn chowder with queso, yucca fritters with raw tuna embellished with flowers, and cevichocho (ceviche with a kind of grain – chochos – and red onion and avocado). Yum!

After lunch we walked around La Floresta, a quirky neighborhood with charming cafés, painted planters, an abandoned ruined house with an abundance of plants, and an adorable café/theater, 8cho y Media: “Siempre tendemos Paris” (We’ll always have Paris). Inside had mid-century modern decor with comfortable seating areas and movie posters. We enjoyed espressos and shared a giant chocolate chip cookie. From there we caught an Uber to Casa Museo Guayasamin.

Casa Museo Guayasamín

Casa Museo Guayasamín is the former home of Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999), an Ecuadorian painter and sculptor of Kichwa and Mestizo heritage. The museum houses his work and the home mostly houses his collection of pre-Columbian ceramic, bone, and metal pieces. The pieces are arranged by theme – bowls, fertility figurines, burial masks, etc.  The museum also houses the artist’s collection of religious art, including works by highly-skilled indigenous artists from the Quito School. There’s even a collection of bloody crucifixes; despite being an aetheist, the artist often featured tortured Christlike figures in his own work.

He explored themes of oppression in the lower classes, racism, poverty, Latin American lifestyle, and human and social inequalities. His work focused on subjects who symbolized all human suffering.

Guayasamín built the museum in Quito that features his work. He also built the stunning house where he lived and worked. Seeing Guayasamín’s home and studio was the highlight of the tour. We watched a video of him vigorously painting a famous musician (the long yellow “towering” face shown in the video – see below). I loved seeing the huge table he used as a palette, the moveable stairs he used to do his large paintings, the paints and oversized brushes. We saw a self-portrait of the artist done at an early age and his library.  One collection showed him with his mother, his greatest love. He was married three times and had seven children.

Guayasamín was buried with his best friend under a pine tree in his yard overlooking Quito.  The grounds of his house, and the museum below the house, sit at a high point in Quito and overlook the city. It’s a gorgeous site.

Back at the apartment, Mike captured me relaxing on the sofa under a blanket, writing in my journal. Later we mustered our energy to walk a steep set of stairs to look for a restaurant on Avenue Gonzales Suarez. We finally ate dinner at Lucia’s House, a restaurant on the edge of La Floresta.  I enjoyed an Ensalada Mexicana and Mike had corn chowder with bacon. We walked back to the apartment.

Termas de Papallacta

On Thursday, Freddy picked us up and drove us over the mountains and the Papallacta Pass, an hour and a quarter southeast of Quito, to Termas de Papallacta. Neither Mike nor I were feeling that great and we had scheduled massages. Mike enjoyed a deep body massage while I regretted my choice of a hot stone massage; mine was disappointingly low pressure. I wished I’d booked the deep tissue massage because my back had been killing me since Tuesday morning for no discernible reason.

The baths were in a tranquil setting surrounded by mountains, including Volcán Antisana. The town is high in the Andes at around 3400m in elevation.

We went into the hot pools with differing temperatures and tried them all. I enjoyed the hottest ones the most since the air was cold and it was a gray day.  The resort was in a deep bowl with mountains all around. 

It was all very relaxing and nice to get away from the hubbub of Quito but the best part was the drive over the mountainous landscape with our driver Freddy.  He was keen to speak English and we were keen to speak Spanish, so we had many fascinating conversations using our bungled languages, interspersed with words from both languages and using Google translate when necessary to communicate. Freddy was driving over mountain passes and in the middle of traffic speaking into his phone for translations and we didn’t feel the slightest bit of concern over his multitasking. We loved our time with Freddy!

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The view over the mountain pass coming back from Termas Papallacta

Quito’s TelefériQo (Second time’s a charm!)

Freddy texted us early Friday morning, our last day in Quito: “Hola Cathy buen día. Hoy es gran día para ir al teleferico. Esta despejado.” (Hello Cathy, good day. Today is a great day to go to the teleferico. It is clear.) We had already awoken and seen the sun and the blue skies so we got up and going and headed straight to the TelefériQo. From the top, we could see clearly the views from Rucu Pichincha.  We saw all the volcanoes including Cotopaxi which we’d visit near the end of our trip (& go horseback riding) and Chimborozo, where we planned to ride bikes down the volcano. It was a stunning day and I was thrilled we got to see the views on a clear day.

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Mirador de Los Volcanes

What an amazing morning. Sunshine, a cool breeze, a few clouds, the high grassland (páramo), the views of Quito and the volcanoes. I couldn’t have wished for a better last day in Quito.

As our hike from the TelefériQo was uphill at such a high altitude, it was tough to catch my breath. I took a lot of breaks. Also, my lower back had been killing me for several days and I had no idea why.  I felt like I was 100 years old! Still it was worth every bit of pain I felt.

Mike climbed higher than I did; meanwhile I laid on the grass and a domesticated Andean condor came pecking in the grass around my head. He had no fear at all. You could hike to the summit of Rucu Pichincha (4680m), about a 3-hour hike for fit walkers, but we stopped well short of that.

Dinner at La Plazuela

We were exhausted so we went back to the apartment to relax for the rest of the afternoon.  Then we walked to La Floresta to look for La Plazuela.  No one at all was in the restaurant but the woman there was very friendly. We ordered two tinto veranos (they were huge!) and a Del Huerte Pizza.  To top it off, we had a Torta de chocolate accompanied by ice cream (helado). We took an Uber back to the apartment and packed up most of our stuff for our early morning flight to Cuenca.

Freddy took us to the Quito airport on Saturday morning at 7 a.m. for our LATAM Airlines flight at 8:59 a.m. to Cuenca. We had enjoyed Quito but we were excited to get on to the next stage of our trip.

Below is a video of our days in Quito. All photos included here are different from the ones in this post, and there are a few video clips as well.

Stay tuned for more on our fabulous trip to Ecuador.