Quito is a massive, energetic city filled with culture, amazing sights, and entertaining nightlife. Perched in the Andes over 9,000 feet above sea level, the city will quite literally take your breath away. With a population of almost 3 million, the Ecuadorian capitol pulsates with energy from the opening of the central market at 6am to the closing of the bars and discotecas in the Mariscal neighborhood at 3am. The restored old town is the most popular destination for tourists, and with some buildings more than 500 years old, it's a stunning compilation of beautiful architecture. I got oriented for my week in the city with a free walking tour of the neighborhood's main sights.
Our tour guide also did a great job filling us on the history of Quito and the state of the city today. Ecuador is definitely still a country growing into its own, and its capitol embodies that attitude. Although the economy has prospered in the last few decades, the main export is oil; volatility in the price of crude oil can significantly alter the country's financial outlook.
Curiously, Ecuador uses the American dollar as its national currency. This stems from a financial crisis that occurred during the turn of the 21st century, when the Ecuadorian sucre lost 67% of its value in 1999. In January of 2000, the switch to the dollar was made official, at an exchange rate of 1/5th of its value from just a few years ago.
The only major city between Lima and Bogota, Quito has been a major city for the politics and economy of the Inca empire, Spanish conquistadors, the briefly conceived Gran Colombia, and modern day Ecuador. As such, the city contains an astonishing compilation of architecture, churches, and gorgeous colonial-era houses.
Despite the booming tourism market, Ecuador is still a country of political and economic unrest. Just 48 hours after walking through Plaza Grande (above) for the first time and seeing the Presidential Palace on a guided tour, I returned to find a very different scene. A group of anti-government protesters organized in the square, marching, singing, and waving flags in protest of the President. Although there was talk in the local media of a plot to overthrow the government in a violent coup, ultimately the violence was relatively minimal. Nevertheless, walking through the town on Thursday afternoon was a sight to behold, as thousands marched towards the square and squadrons of heavily armed police prepared to rebuke any uprisings.
Hostel Hunters International
Somehow during my brief time in the city I ended up migrating back and forth across the city and sleeping in four different hostels, each with their own distinct vibe and gorgeous views. Here are the pros and cons for the four properties.
Pros: Stunning mountain views, retro hipster vibe, ridiculously comfortable beds.
Cons: Slightly more expensive, 30 minute walk from the Old Town area.
Pros: Friendly and helpful staff, delicious group meals, brand new bathrooms and mattresses.
Cons: Brand new also means still under construction, so prepare to wake up early.
Pros: Amazing rooftop terrace view with a stunning view of the Old Town, funky art installations.
Cons: Well my phone got stolen right off my bed here, so that wasn't so great.
Pros: Smaller and quieter hostel with a peaceful outdoor garden in an otherwise chaotic city.
Cons: They don't have a night guard, so if you're trying to get in after 11pm you'll have to wait until 7am.
Despite its distinctly busy vibe and sprawling urban downtown area, Quito is also home to plenty of beautiful outdoor areas, each one offering a stunning view of the city, which runs North to South hemmed in between two lines of mountains. Ecuadorians are definitely an active bunch, and the parks are continuously filled with locals utilizing the city's free bike share, joining a game of pickup soccer, or just relaxing in the sun on a beautiful day. Just a few blocks behind the main stretch of hostels in the old town is a set of steep staircases that will take you to Parque Itchimbia. If you've still got your breath after climbing to the top, you'll surely have it stolen away by the panorama view of the city, which stretches as far as the eye can see in both directions.
On Friday morning, I woke up (relatively) early to hitch a ride to "Quito's ceiling" via the city's massive cable car line on the other side of the city. As soon as we started to pass above the tree line, the volcanos and snow-capped mountains that surround the city come into view while the seemingly never-ending city unfolds below. In contrast to exploring the city on foot, the view from the top was the first time I had really grasped the scale of Quito's monstrous size and its proximity to the volcanos of the Andes.
On Saturday afternoon I was delighted to return to the hostel to find my friend Steve had arrived from Philadelphia, officially kicking off his 10 day jaunt into the world of Ecuadorian travel. Comfortable navigating in the city by this point, I took him around the main sights throughout the afternoon, forcing him to try all the distinctly Ecuadorian food and drinks along the way. As night fell over the city, we celebrated the 4th of July with a rooftop BBQ before heading out to take in the scene of Saturday night in Quito.
All in all, it was the perfect ending to what turned into one of the best weeks of my entire trip. I really enjoyed the city without being rushed by an itinerary, ran into friends I had met earlier in my travels, made new friends at different spots around the city, and danced the night away in the city's discotecas.