When in doubt about where to begin when travelling South America, always go for the underdog. Quito might not be as famous for nightlife and music as Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires; it is not as well-known a UNESCO Heritage Site as Cusco in the Peruvian Andes or as infamous among beach-lovers like Cartagena. It is an underdog, yes, but it was also selected as one of Lonely Planet’s Top 10 Cities to visit in 2016 – and after two recent trips to the Ecuadorian capital myself, I can only agree. Quito is huge and so diverse, you can easily plan multiple trip to this city, stay in a different part of town every time and feel like you have never been to the same place.

The Travelettes Guide to Quito - Old Town View 3

A city with many faces

It does not take very long, and you realise that Quito is no one-hit wonder, but has many different faces. It lies in a narrow valley, but stretches over 40km from north to south. There is a neighbourhood for everything: the picturesque Old Town from colonial times is dotted with shops of all kind, but no flashy neon signs – this is UNESCO World Heritage at its best, and with every step you walk further back in time. Just a few minutes away lie the young and modern districts of Mariscal and La Floresta, where the bars and restaurants are filled with young Quitenas, and numerous hostels offer their dorms to the flocks of backpackers. For laid back boho atmosphere head to Guapulo, the best local restaurants and markets are found in the south around Av. Ajavi or north in La Vincentina, to relax in a beautiful park follow my friend’s advice and make your way to Parque Las Cuadras. The city is surrounded by mountains, hills and volcanoes (some are active!), so there are amazing opportunities to see the city from above – a great idea to get an idea of the vast dimensions and a first peek at the different areas of Quito! My favourite ‘viewing platforms’ were El Panecillo (my the Virgin Mary statue) and the AirBnB-flat I rented on the 13th floor of a Mariscal residential tower!

I could go on forever, but to give you an idea of how to get the best out of visiting this city, here is my Travelettes Guide to Quito.

The Travelettes Guide to Quito - View over Quito 1The Travelettes Guide to Quito - Old Town Pedestrian Streets 1

Where to Stay

Where you stay in Quito, really depends on how much time you have and what you hope to spend your time with. The effects of the altitude are remarkable – you’ll be exhausted from walking up and down the steep streets much quicker than you’re used to, and the sun is burning your skin even though it does not feel too hot. You will want a hotel in walking distance so you can go home for a quick rest or to fetch than sun lotion you left in the bathroom… I’ve stayed in various hotels and apartments throughout my two visits to the city, and can recommend all of them for different reasons:

Staying in the Old Town

The advantage of staying in the Old Town is obviously that you are close by such vibrant areas as La Ronda or Plaza Grande, but also to the gorgeous architecture and artisan shops of the old streets themselves. Although this is a touristy area during the day, the atmosphere pretty much dies after nightfall though (except for La Ronda), so don’t expect crazy nightlife and club vibes around every corner.

To poshen it up a bit: Casa Gangotena (a beautiful boutique hotel, as central as central can be)

Down-to-earth, B&B-style hotel: Casa Gardenia (a refurbished old town house in an authentic neighbourhood of Old Town)

The Travelettes Guide to Quito - Old Town 1The Travelettes Guide to Quito - Old Town Hotel Casa gardenia

Staying in Modern Quito

If you are less into sightseeing and artisan shops, but more into nightlife and meeting other travellers, try and stay in La Mariscal or La Floresta. These two neighbourhoods in the newer part of Quito (north-east of Old Town) are the heart of Quito’s backpacking culture. You will find numerous hostels, cheap laundrettes, restaurants and coffee shops and all the nightlife Quito has to boast. The big advantage is that you are in walking distance to some of the city’s coolest restaurants and bars, but particularly on weekends, the streets will be busy with party folk and cars trying to find a parking spot.

A cool boutique hotel: Cafe Cultura

The AirBnB of my dreams: The Penthouse Lodge (you are welcomed by the host’s lovely parents Alberto and Elena)

Hotel Cafe Cultura, Quito Quito - AirBnB La Mariscal

Getting Around

As I have mentioned before, getting around Quito by public transport is not so easy, particularly if you don’t speak Spanish and can’t ask locals for help (not many Quitenas actually do speak English, despite more and more tourists coming in). There are many public busses, most of which run roughly North-South (there’s not so much to do for East-West lines), but they can be quite confusing.

The good news is, taxis are incredibly cheap. For a ride from my AirBnB in La Mariscal to the bus depo Rio Coca in the north (a good 20-30 minutes drive depending on traffic) I paid just under $4! Make sure you can pronounce the place you want to go or write it down, and ask the driver to turn on the taximeter (el taximeter). It is possible to pre-book taxis by phone and safer to use them from official taxi ranks (especially at night), but even hailing one on the side of the road is no problem.

travelettes guide to quito, ecuador - getting around - kathi kamleitner

What to Do

1. Stroll around the Old Town in the morning before the tourist crowds come in to watch the Quitenas of the area wake up and start their day. Have breakfast with them at one of the many flying food stalls and be their first customer of the day to purchase sweet treats or souvenirs.

The Travelettes Guide to Quito - Old Town ConventThe Travelettes Guide to Quito - Old Town Shops 3The Travelettes Guide to Quito - Old Town Selling Sweets 2

2. Keep your sweet tooth going and visit Colaciones Cruz Verde, where owner Luis Marcelo Banda is making a fresh batch of cooked and sugarcoated peanuts every day from roughly 10am to noon. All he uses is nuts, lemon, hers and sugar, and mixes it all together in a 100-yearold pan which his father used for the same purpose before him. He is the last person to keep this tradition alive and distributes his colaciones to most of the surrounding sweet shops, where they are usually sold without a label.

The Travelettes Guide to Quito - Old Town Colaziones Luis Banda

3. Walk up the stairs of Gonzalez Suarez Library to get a gorgeous view over Old Town and Panecillo.

4. Visit the curandera Enma Lagla in her herb shop to learn about which herbs she uses to cure which illness. With a little bit of luck you get to watch her perform her skills live, and rub sick babies in fragrant herbs and flowers. This traditional healing method is still very popular in Quito, which keeps Enma a busy woman.

The Travelettes Guide to Quito - Old Town Herbs 1The Travelettes Guide to Quito - Old Town Enma Lagla Herbal Medicine

5. Dig for curiosities (like lotion make of slug slime…) or eat more sweets at the local market outside of Santo Domingo.

6. Explore the artisan shops of La Ronda to meet the traditional merchants of Quito. At night stay around for live music and traditional Ecuadorian cuisine in one of the numerous restaurants and bars.

The Travelettes Guide to Quito - Old Town La Ronda

7. Take a taxi to the top of Panecillo to climb the Mary statue and get a great view of Northern Quito.

Great Day Trips

1. Visit the famous indigenous market of Otavalo.

2. Take a bus, or drive to Mitado del Mundo – the Equator – to visit the historic monument and test the laws of physics at the Intiñan Museum. (There is also a Hop On-Hop Off tourist bus that takes you out there.)

3. Spend an afternoon and evening at Papallacta Hot Springs to relax and soak in the thermal pools.

4. Go to Bellavista Cloudforest to meet the hummingbirds (over 30 species have been recorded in this area!) and hike in the lush green forest high above the city. The drive takes a while and leads over a bumpy road, but is worth it once you reach the private reserve and feel at peace with nature!

The Travelettes Guide to Quito - Bellavista Cloudforest 1 The Travelettes Guide to Quito - Bellavista Cloudforest 4

Shopping Guide

I found all places I visited in South America so far, to be the perfect for ‘useful souvenir’ shopping, and I simply love markets! If you can, definitely make your way to Otavalo to shop locally crafted leather wares, woven bags, handmade shoes and jewellery, and much more. The market is at its best and biggest on a Saturday. If you are limited to staying in Quito, here are two great shopping options:

Mercado Artensanal

Mercado Artesanal is a market place in La Mariscal where mostly indigenous Ecuadorians sell handmade souvenirs, like scarfs and blankets made from Alpaca wool, woven jumpers and jackets, flutes and drums, but also jewellery, fridge magnets and other things to bring home. At first glance I though, this is a tourist trap – and there are loads of tourists there – but even locals Ecuadorians go there to shop for gifts every now and then.

Quito - Mercado Artesanal

La Ronda Street

La Ronda is a pedestrian street on the outskirts of the Old Town, basically ‘the last street’ before you hit a small bridge leading over one of Quito’s many gorges (which are now mostly built over or turned into roads). The area is particularly famous for the small shops inhabited by traditional craftsmen. You can pick up a little brochure describing the fifteen different artisan workshops and galleries which are spread out over four buildings along the street. The businesses range from tin maker Manuel Silva (who is also an amazing photo model) who has been making small tin objects for over 60 years, over traditional hat maker Luis Lopez who will make you hat to protect your head from the strong equatorial sun, to the delicious honey products of Api Real and the chocolate of Chez Tiff – did you know that Ecuador produces some of the best chocolate beans in the world?

The Travelettes Guide to Quito - Old Town La Ronda Artisan craftsThe Travelettes Guide to Quito - Old Town La Ronda ShopsThe Travelettes Guide to Quito - Old Town La Ronda Tin Maker

Where to Eat

Food in Ecuador is very diverse and benefits not only from various historic influences (like African-Caribbean, Spanish and Indigenous cuisine), but also international immigration from all parts of Europe and Asia. There are great sushi restaurants as well as traditional eateries and fusion kitchens. Here is a selection of my favourites:

El Pobre Diablo in La Floresta: A restaurant and art space, where you find the hipsters of Quito hang out and spend a little bit too much on absolutely fantastic food and excellent Canelazo cocktails! There is a warming fire place and apparently this is a must do on one of their live jazz nights! I was there twice, but missed the music both times…

el pobre diablo, quito 3

La Liebre Video Cafe in La Floresta: The perfect spot to hang out with your laptop all day, sip a fresh latte, eat a healthy salad and use the free WiFi provided.

Noe Sushi Bar in La Floresta: Some of the best sushi in town. They also have an express restaurant at the airport, so make sure to schedule plenty of time for a quick sushi stop before flying home.

Mercado Central in Old Town: Unfortunately I didn’t manage to go to Mercado Central for the best, cheapest and most authentic sea-bass lunch I was ever promised by a local – give it a try and let me know what you though!

Hotel Plaza Grande in Old Town: What I did do was head to Hotel Plaza Grande for a cooking session with one of the hotel’s chefs. I learnt how to make Helado (typical Ecuadorian ice-cream made with dry ice; stays frozen even in the midday sun!) and the local Ceviche.

Restaurant Leña Quiteña in La Ronda: Here I learnt a lesson – don’t order blindly, but always ask for translations. Otherwise you end up eating the insides of something you never even thought anybody would consider edible… The atmosphere at the restaurant’s rooftop was unmatched though, and I’m sure the food is good (if you order something you actually want to eat).

Cosa Nostra in La Mariscal: This Italian gem was recommended to me by my AirBnB hosts and fulfilled my wildest dreams of crispy thin Italian pizza and cheap red house wine!

Food in Quito

Good to Know Before you go

– Ecuador uses US Dollar as it’s currency and most ATMs accept foreign debit/credit cards. Banks are not super easy to find though, but there is one on Plaza Grande at the corner of Av. Venezuela and Eugenio Espejo. Ecuador uses $1 coins, which lose their value outside the country – make sure to get rid of them before you leave.

– While hostels usually charge quite a lot for doing your washing, some laundrettes are super cheap – I used Lavanderia Cascade, which is located at the corner of Av. Luis Cordero and Juan Leon Mera in La Mariscal. I paid around $3 to get ALL my clothes washed the day before I flew home.

Featured Destination Travelettes Ecuador, Kathi Kamleitner -152

– The sun is super strong because Quito is basically on the equator – bring plenty of sun protection. Funny enough, as soon as you step into the shade or after sunset, it can actually be quite chilly, because you are on 2,800m altitude.

– Quito is quite safe, but certain areas are not recommended to go, like Mercado San Roque. Also take care when walking down the empty streets of Old Town at night – better take a taxi to get back to your hotel.

The Travelettes Guide to Quito - Old Town Pedestrian Streets 2

As you can see, Quito is full of surprises and cool things to do. Exploring the city is definitely an essential experience when travelling Ecuador and the more time you take, the deeper you get to experience the local differences from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. I would spend at least 3-4 full days in the city to leisurely see as much as possible.

Have you been to Quito yourself? Do you think it deserves to be one of the top cities to be visited in 2016? I look forward to your tips and thoughts!

 

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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner, except El Pobre Diablo via & Hotel Cafe Cultura via.

Disclaimer: I was invited to Ecuador by Quito Turismo and Metropolitan Touring, but all opinions are my own.
Thank you to Fame Creative Lab and BZ.Comm for their help and support!