Founded in 1534, Quito, the capital of Ecuador, seamlessly merges the old and the new to give visitors a glimpse into Latin American history through the lens of a vibrant, modern city. Cobblestone streets and colonial Spanish architecture blend with chocolate-tasting rooms, artisan shops and restaurants that showcase local cuisine. As a cultural showpiece with a central location for sightseeing, Quito is a must-see stop on any Ecuador family vacation.
Quito’s historical center is the jewel of the city and considered one of the best-preserved colonial centers in all of South America, as evidenced by its designation in 1978 as a UNESCO World Heritage Centre. The city of Quito is dedicated to creating an experience that is safe and comfortable for tourists, adding extra police presence and pedestrian streets — though, as in any large city, be alert for pickpockets.
For tourists, especially non-Spanish-speakers, I’d recommend a private guided walking tour or combination van and walking tour. Not only do the guides show you areas you would not see on your own, they provide peace of mind in unfamiliar territory and, as a bonus, are very reasonably priced. The following are don’t-miss highlights.
La Compania de Jesus Church. Among the dozens of churches in Quito, La Compania de Jesus — the oldest church in the city — is the star. Its Baroque architecture is paired with a jaw-dropping, ornate interior. Constructed over a 160-year period beginning in 1534, the Jesuit church includes pounds of gold leaf throughout and literally dazzles the eye.
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The Plazas. Two plazas stand out in the historical center: Plaza Grande, also known as Plaza de la Independencia; and Plaza de San Francisco. Plaza Grande is a leafy meeting point, watched over by the Presidential and Archbishop’s Palace and bordered by outdoor cafes. Plaza de San Francisco sits in front of San Francisco church on a large cobblestone plaza, perfect for kids to run around and chase pigeons. There’s also an outdoor cafe and a one-of-a-kind winding maze of artisan shops in the old catacombs below the church. Across the street, buy an authentic Panama hat from Ecuador’s oldest hat maker, Homero Ortega.
La Ronda. This pedestrian-only street is hopping on Friday and Saturday nights with Quitenos out for an evening stroll and dinner. The atmosphere is family-friendly, but late afternoons are quieter. Favorite kid stops are Chez Tiff for a history and tasting of chocolate, Api Real for all things honey, and Zabalartes, where kids learn (much more quickly than parents) how to spin a hand-carved wooden top.
El Panecillo. The 150-foot-tall Virgin Mary statue standing guard over the city of Quito is visible from many points in the historical center. If time permits, there are expansive valley and city views from El Panecillo, plus a small tower to climb, though you’ll need a taxi to reach the statue.
Casa del Alabado Museum of Pre-Colombian Art. This small, private museum is located in a colonial mansion near the Plaza de San Francisco. It works well with kids for a short visit because it’s packed with just enough information to provide an overview without overwhelming them.
The Basilica is not technically in the historical center, but it’s nearby enough that it’s convenient to visit on the same day. The outside is most interesting for kids; it’s easy to create an “I Spy” game with the gargoyles, which represent animals from different regions in Ecuador. Look for jungle animals like monkeys and pumas on one side and wildlife from the Galápagos Islands on the other.
Ecuador gets its name from the equatorial line that runs through it. The official Mitad del Mundo (middle of the world) monument is located about 40 minutes from the city center. Families may prefer the Intiñan Museum next door, which includes a guided tour and hands-on science experiments like balancing an egg on a nail.
Many local residents still purchase the majority of their groceries from the city’s indoor markets, so this is one way to show kids a slice of local life. The markets are full of fruits and vegetables found only in Ecuador and other parts of South America, not to mention the meat and fish that don’t look anything like the packaged products we are used to. Purchase fruit to taste or a freshly made juice as a treat at the end of the tour. Two good markets for tourists are the Mercado Central near the historical center and Inaquito Market in the newer part of Quito.
The TeleferiQo, a word combination of teleferio and Quito, is a cable car ride up Pichincha Mountain. If the skies are clear, the views of the entire valley and city below are worth the visit. Once at the top, where the elevation reaches 13,000 feet, there are hiking trails and horseback riding, though it’s recommended to take a guide for any hiking. Parents beware: The Vulcano Amusement Park sits below the TeleferiQo and is irresistible for kids.
Most of the sightseeing for a short visit to Quito is concentrated in and around the historical center, but there are also museums and parks in the “new town,” where the larger chain hotels with pools are located. Quito is also a convenient base for day trips to Otavalo and the artisan towns of the highlands, north of the city.
Editor’s Note: Quito Tourism provided a media package for Kristi to experience the city. As always, all thoughts and opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Kristi Marcelle.
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