Having flown under the radar of favourite South American destinations, Quito in Ecuador is starting to demand attention. JANELLE ESTREICH reports.

Scan a map of South America and you could easily miss it. Wedged between Colombia to the north and Peru to the west, Ecuador’s landmass is only slightly larger than that of New Zealand’s. Long overlooked in favour of its larger, more famous Latino cousins, it’s fair to say that the smallest of the Andean nations has some catching up to do on the tourist trail. Even the country’s most famous (albeit off-shore) asset, the Galápagos Islands, have only afforded the country stopover status.

In many ways it’s baffling. For a country of this size, the offerings are generous: mysterious cloud forests and diverse tribal communities of the Andes; Amazonian jungle rich in people, plant and animal life; sandy beaches good for surfing and whale-watching along the Pacific coast; plus the sierra’s lakes and 55-odd volcanoes, many of which are still active. So Ecuador’s got the goods, it’s just taken some time to wake up to its own potential.

In recent years, government and tourist bodies across the country have been working to invigorate interest in Ecuador, starting with its major cities, such as the coastal hub of Guayaquil and the capital Quito, where most visits to the country begin. Undervalued for many years, Quito has embarked upon a regeneration programme designed to clean up the city’s image in order to capitalise on its historic wealth.

Built high in the Andes in a long, narrow strip stretching some 35km north to south, Quito is the second highest capital in the world at 2850m. Historically, the major trading centre between the sierra, the coast and the Orient, it now serves as Ecuador’s political and cultural capital. The city itself is divided into two distinct parts: the historic Old Town and the more modern, commercialised New Town to the north.

The New Town, characterised by modern office buildings, smart shops and nice restaurants, is the centre of business in Quito; its private residential streets, banks, tour agencies and new hotels providing a comfort zone for the middle-class and tourists alike. But it’s among the colourful streets of the Old Town that the big carrot lies.

The first site to be given World Heritage status by Unesco in 1978, Old Quito is a warren of narrow stony streets and white-washed houses with red-tiled roofs, where Spanish-inspired colonial churches, cathedrals and palaces overlook open plazas.

The centrepiece is Independence Plaza, dominated by the Metropolitan Cathedral, Archbishop’s Place and the Presidential Palace, which has hosted several presidents in recent years. This is an expression of real democracy,” Dolce, our local guide, informs us. “You don’t have to wait four years here; if you don’t like them, you just kick them out.”

Indeed, it is the vivacious locals who breathe life and soul into the streets of Old Quito. It is here where the indigenous people, with their broad faces, colourful clothing and pork pie hats, go about their business. A young woman runs along the street balancing a large tray of freshly cut watermelon on her head; a mother sells bananas from a street cart, while a baby held in a sling on her back gnaws on a chunk of the mushy fruit; silky-haired little boys shine the shoes of old men as they gossip in the popular San Francisco Plaza.

Beyond the charm of the colonial quarters, though, ramshackle housing sprawls for miles. Home to some of the city’s poorest inhabitants, the area stands in stark contrast to the wide, leafy avenues of New Quito. Visible poverty and a reputation for petty crime are issues the Old Town must address in order for tourism plans to progress.

“This area has been very rundown and certainly a no-go zone at night,” says Dolce. “Now there are foot patrols by police at night and the streets are well lit. The middle-class are coming back and, hopefully, the tourists.”

There may be some way to go but they’ve plenty to work with here – they just need to let the rest of the world know about it.


Salsa bars
You must not, I repeat, must not leave town without visiting a salsa club. Ecuadorians don’t lie when they say salsa is in their blood and will take any opportunity to prove it. Mayo 68 comes highly recommended in the Old Town, while Seseribó is hot in New Quito.

Avienda Amazonas, the showpiece of New Quito, offers access to the main shopping malls.

El Panecillo hill, which hosts the enormous statue of the Virgin of Quito, puts the Old Town into stunning perspective.

A night-time tour of Old Quito taking in its finest floodlit buildings.

For pure opulence, check out the baroque masterpiece La Compañia de Jesús, the interior of which is entirely covered in 24-carat gold leaf.

The ethnographic museum at the equator monument (20 minutes’ drive north of Quito) offers a fascinating, if not exhaustive, history of the 60-odd ethnic groups that make up Ecuador.

Recharge over canelazo, a highland hot drink made of sugar cane and cinnamon, at little café on San Francisco Plaza, before stocking up on authentic arts and crafts at the neighbouring Tianguez, a fair trade gift shop selling jewellery, paintings, blankets, sculpture, bags and clothing.

Day trips
From Quito, book in a one- or two-day trip river rafting, exploring cloud forest, bird watching, mountain biking, visiting hot springs and historic haciendas, volcano trekking or shopping at the Otavalo market.”