Breathtaking Quito

Head to Ecuador to find the highlights at the middle of the world


I’m feeling slightly breathless after a cable car ride to the lower slopes of Volcán Pichincha, more than 4,000 metres up. Down below me lies the city of Quito, not only right in the middle of the world but, at 2,850 metres above sea level, also the world’s second highest capital after La Paz.

From here, Ecuador’s capital resembles a long narrow strip, 50km long and just 5km wide, with the old town, Centro Historico, in the middle. Stretching off in the distance, I can see the “Avenue of the Volcanoes”, the corridor of snow-capped peaks — many still active — which includes Cayambe, Antisana, Cotopaxi, and Pasochoa.

When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Ecuador in 1526, Quito was a major Inca city, but Rumiñahui, a general of ruler Atahualpa, buried its treasures before razing it to the ground to prevent the Spanish looting it.

Nothing remained but the Spanish later built on top of the ruins, resulting in today’s Unesco World Heritage site crammed with churches, monasteries, mansions and expansive squares. It’s no museum frozen in time though — the bustling streets are lined with indigenous women in colourful dress, hawking their wares.

The focus of the city is the Plaza Grande, laid out in 1534 on the site of one of Atahualpa’s palaces, which contains Quito’s important civic and religious buildings; the President still lives in the low white Palacio de Gobierno today.

To one side of it is the Catedral Metropolitana, and opposite is the Palacio Arzobispal, once the archbishop’s palace, where shoe shiners ply their trade among the colonnades. This is the place for people-watching, while the presence of uniformed police deters pickpockets.

Just a short walk away sits the impressive cobbled Plaza San Francisco, with Volcán Pichincha providing an epic backdrop. It’s home to Ecuador’s oldest church, Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco, a long whitewashed building with twin bell towers, whose construction started a few weeks after the city’s founding in 1534 and was finally completed 70 years later.

Since then, numerous earthquakes have taken their toll and much has been rebuilt, but it still occupies pride of place in one of Latin America’s finest squares.

Nearby, in the traditional neighbourhood of San Roque, you’ll find Mercado San Francisco, the oldest covered market of Quito, opened in 1897. Here stalls are laden with exotic fruit and vegetables from all over Ecuador and it’s the best place to sample typical dishes among the locals.

There’s also a whole section dedicated to traditional healing, a true sorcerer’s den, with arrays of powders, potions and dried herbs. For a detox, Ecuador- style, you can sit while a traditional healer cleanses your body and soul.

There’s Jewish heritage to be found in the city as well. Although Jews had been living in Ecuador since the Spanish conquest, over the centuries the early Sephardic families were almost completely assimilated. However, between 1933 and 1945 the country became an unlikely haven for refugees fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany.

After Kristallnacht, Ecuador became one of the last countries to offer immigration visas at its consulates in Europe. Other ports of entry to Central and South America were closing but Ecuador kept its borders open and by 1940 there were 3,000 Jews recorded here, rising to a peak of 4,000 in 1950, most of them in Quito.

After the war, many emigrated and today the population is down to around 800. Quito’s synagogue (and the Jewish community’s headquarters) stand in the city’s northern Carcelén district.

Inaugurated in 2000, the modern two-storey white-walled shul, topped with rust-coloured domes, has enough space to accommodate 400 worshippers. On the first floor stands the women’s gallery, and a study hall that hosts daily prayers.

North of the Centro Historico, around half-way to Carcelén (on the one of the most congested avenues in the city), you can find the extensive Jewish cemetery. It’s part of the larger municipal cemetery of El Batán, but with its own wrought-iron entrance, topped with two stars of David.

It’s relatively new, with the oldest gravestones dating back to the 1930s. Most are written in Spanish and the cemetery is very well maintained. It’s worth continuing north and taking the short trip out of town to Mitad del Mundo, the Middle of the World.

In 1736, French scientist Charles-Marie de La Condamine led a mission to delineate the Earth’s northern and southern hemispheres — he determined that the equatorial line ran right through this spot and a monument was later erected in 1936.

It was replaced in 1979 by a 30-metre-tall concrete monolith, topped with a large metal globe, with an ethnographic museum inside and a lift to take you up to the top.

Next door, at the Intiñan Solar Museum, the equatorial line is delineated in red and the exhibits focus on the indigenous tribes of Ecuador, including replicas of typical houses.

The area has become something of a theme park with several other museums, restaurants and souvenir shops; crowds gather at the weekend for traditional music and dancing displays and a brand new UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) building promotes the union of South American countries.

In theory, you can straddle the equator with a foot in each hemisphere — except, unfortunately, the French surveyors got it slightly wrong. GPS devices show that the true equator is 240 metres away on a hilltop containing a sacred indigenous site that’s more than 1,000 years old. But at least you can see it from the top of the monument.

Not far from here is the geobotanical reserve containing the extinct volcano of Pululahua, whose crater is one of South America’s largest, at 400 metres deep and 5km across. It has its own moist microclimate, and the fertile soil supports a patchwork of fields and small farms, while lush cloud forests cling to the crater’s steep sides.

Head to the Mirador de Ventanillas on the rim, to get a good idea of the sheer scale and size of it.

For more of the area’s natural treasures, the nearby El Pahuma Orchid Reserve protects more than 300 species of orchids, of which nine are endemic. It’s also home to more than 500 species of birds, including 40 different hummingbirds.

A network of trails wind through the cloud forest to some spectacular waterfalls; with occasional stunning views of the Andes. They’re an opportunity to enjoy the birdsong and get up close to the orchids. Bears have also been sighted here, but rarely as they tend keep out of visitors’ way.

If the bears are hard to spot, harder still is the national bird of Ecuador, the Andean Condor. One of the best places in the country to try lies around 100km south-east of Quito at the Antisana Ecological Reserve, named after Ecuador’s fourth-highest volcano.

Rising to 5,758 metres, the name translates as “dark mountain” and her snow-shrouded slopes are often covered in cloud.

Fortunately, I arrive when the skies are clear and climb up above the Mica Lagoon, Quito’s reservoir, to get a better view. The viewpoint itself is called Mirador Los Condores, the other reason to make the journey up here.

As I stand taking photographs of the volcano, which is becoming slowly engulfed in mist, my guide suddenly nudges me. I lower my camera and we witness a slow motion fly-past of the world’s largest flying bird, gliding on the thermals. It’s our lucky day — there are less than a hundred of these birds left in the wild.

This really is one destination where it’s not only the altitude that takes your breath away.

Getting There

Flights from Heathrow to Quito via Bogota cost from £700 return with Avianca.

Luxury rooms at the boutique Illa Experience Hotel in the Centro Historico cost from around £375 per night.

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