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Things to Do in Quito

Tumbling from the slopes of smoldering volcanoes, the typically South American city of Quito entices travelers with a thriving culinary scene and a UNESCO-listed Old Town that begs be explored on a walking tour—day or night. Before flocking to Ecuador’s biodiverse rain forests and national parks, visitors should cover the highlights of Ecuador’s capital on a sightseeing tour. Take in the views from Panecillo Hill during a guided hike or horseback riding tour; ride the Teléferico, South America’s highest gondola; and jump between two hemispheres at the Middle of the World Monument (La Mitad del Mundo), otherwise known as the equator. Day trips from Quito include Otavalo Market, a sprawling indigenous market selling artisan treasures; Cotopaxi National Park, reigned over by the ash-capped Cotopaxi Volcano (where visitors can opt for horse or bike tours); Quilotoa Crater Lake, famed for its vivid emerald hue; and Mindo Nambillo cloud forest reserve, tours of which typically include a visit to a chocolate factory. Nature lovers should add a full-day excursion to the Ecuadorian highlands, where bears roam the forests freely and hot springs surrounding the Papallacta volcano beckon with healing properties. If you’re continuing your Ecuadorian adventure, Quito offers easy access to the Galapagos Islands; Baños (three hours away), renowned for adventure sports such as rafting, rappelling, and ziplining; and Cali and Salento in southern Colombia.
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Cotopaxi National Park
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Cotopaxi National Park (also known as Cotopaxi Volcano National Park) lies 53 kilometers (31 miles) southeast of Quito and is the second most visited (and second biggest) National Park in Ecuador.

Cotopaxi National Park's main attraction is its still active volcano, which stands at a towering 19,000 feet (5,900 meters) above sea level, dwarfing the surrounding valleys, rivers and lagoons.

Referred to by the Incas as the 'Neck of the Moon,' the volcano has had over a dozen recorded eruptions, making it the most volatile volcano in South America. That doesn't deter the many climbers who attempt to climb it each year, however. It last exploded in 1877.

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San Francisco Church (Iglesia de San Francisco)
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Nestled in the historic downtown area of Quito, visitors find the first Catholic Church built in the city, the San Francisco Church (Iglesia de San Francisco). The amazing architecture of this Baroque church blends different styles that were incorporated over the more than 100 years of construction.
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Middle of the World Monument (La Mitad del Mundo)
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Who could resist the opportunity to visit the Middle of the World (Mitad del Mundo) and have your picture taken as you straddle the equator! This complex, built to commemorate the site where a French explorer calculated the world’s equatorial line, may be a shameless tourist mecca, but it makes for a fun day trip from Quito.

Take the elevator to the top of the enormous, trapezoidal monument for great views of the surrounding countryside. You’ll also find a scale model of colonial-era Quito here too, which really helps you get a sense of the old town’s layout.

You’ll also find an Ethnography Museum and a Planetarium at Mitad del Mundo, as well as several tourist shops, bars and restaurants. On weekends, locals hang out in the Middle of the World, which comes alive with folk music and dance shows.

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Santo Domingo Plaza (Plaza de Santa Domingo)
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Santa Domingo Plaza graces the southern edge of Quito’s Old Town and is easily missed by visitors. It’s an airy plaza, dominated by the imposing Santo Domingo Cathedral on its southeastern side. In the center of the square a statue of hero Antonio José de Sucre points towards Pichincha Volcano where he won the battle for Ecuador’s independence in 1822.

The Santo Domingo Cathedral dates back to 1581 and houses an impressive statue of the Virgen del Rosario in an ornately carved baroque-style chapel. If you visit the plaza at night, the cathedral’s domes look beautiful floodlit.

The Plaza comes alive on weekends when neighboring Quiteños converge on the square to watch the various acrobats, jugglers and magicians go through their routines.

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Quito Old Town
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Quito’s unmissable historic center, or ‘Old Town,' extends over 320 hectares (790 acres) and is the largest historic center in the Americas.

Made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, Quito has taken great pride in restoring its colonial buildings and sprucing up its public spaces to ensure that both locals and visitors continue to breath life into the old town.

Life is certainly not lacking in Quito Old Town. The streets and plazas constantly buzz with colorful locals and vendors selling everything from roasted peanuts to giant roasted pigs,. Tourists drink it all in as they shuffle between the overwhelming number of restored churches and chapels, convents and monasteries, mansions and museums.

And of course, there are plenty of bars and restaurants and shady plazas to rest in when sightseeing fatigue kicks in.

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Basilica of the National Vow (La Basílica del Voto Nacional)
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The Basilica of the National Vow (La Basílica del Voto Nacional), often called La Basilica, is one of the most beautiful Roman Catholic churches in Quito. Set up on a hill and visible from almost anywhere in the city, it’s particularly striking after dark, when it is illuminated.
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Church of the Society of Jesus (Iglesia La Compañía de Jesús)
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The Church of the Society of Jesus, (in Spanish, Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús), often called la Compañía, is a Jesuit church in Quito and is one of the most significant works of Spanish Baroque architecture in South America.

The company in question is the Jesuit order, a powerful religious group that exercised authority in Ecuador. The first Jesuit priests arrived in Quito in 1586 with the mission to establish a church, school and monastery.

Construction of this church began in 1605, though the building was not completed until 1765. It is considered Quito's most-ornate church is and often called the country's most-beautiful church. During the colonial period, the church’s bell tower was the tallest structure in Quito, but it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1859. Rebuilt within six years, it was again destroyed shortly after by another earthquake and was never rebuilt.

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Independence Plaza (Plaza de la Independencia)
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Plaza de la Independencia, known as Plaza Grande to the locals, was Quito’s main square in the 16th century, serving as central market and bullfighting area.

The plaza contains several important buildings: the Archbishop’s Palace to the north, City Hall to the east, the cathedral to the south, and the white, neoclassical Palacio del Gobierno (Government Palace) to the west.

The Government Palace (re-built in 1920 after its original 1650 building was destroyed by fire) is not open to the public, but you can take a peek inside the main entrance, which is a beautiful example of Moorish architecture. There is a tourist information booth just behind the entrance gate.

You’ll find more Moorish-inspired work in the courtyard of the Archbishop’s Palace (built in 1852) where there is also a small craft market and a few shops.

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Otavalo Market
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Nestled in a valley at the foot of a volcano, Otavalo is a highland community of indigenous locals famed for their weaving skills and colorful textiles. The local people (Otavaleños) who sell their wares at the daily market, wear traditional clothing and have maintained their culture, costume and identity.

Saturday is the main market day in Otavalo but a weekday visit will be less hectic and provide more opportunity for some serious browsing. Within the market you’ll find traditional crafts, brightly-colored textiles and traditional weaving designs plus some musical instruments and carvings.

Even if souvenir shopping isn't your thing, Otavalo market is a popular day trip from Quito, and a visit to Otavalo and the surrounding area is a window into the world of some of the more traditional indigenous peoples of Ecuador.

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More Things to Do in Quito

Telefériqo Quito

Telefériqo Quito

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Ringed by mountains, Quito has no shortage of viewpoints, but the ultimate view of the Ecuadorian capital has to be from the peak of the Pichincha Volcano, reached by the TeleferiQo. Opened in 2005, the gondola lift runs up the east side of the still-active volcano, reaching a height of 3,945 meters, which makes it South America’s highest aerial lift. The dramatic ascent, which takes around 10 minutes, offers impressive views over the city and surrounding mountain valleys, but the best lookout point is on arrival, from the top of the Cruz Loma plateau.
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Calle La Ronda

Calle La Ronda

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In downtown Quito, just one block south of Santo Domingo Plaza, you’ll find the emblematic street affectionately called Calle La Ronda. This pedestrian drag is lined with shops that provide a peek into the local culture and give visitors a chance to pick up popular Ecuadorian take-homes like Panama hats (which are actually from Ecuador).
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Limpiopungo Lagoon

Limpiopungo Lagoon

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Mindo Cloud Forest

Mindo Cloud Forest

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The Mindo-Nambillo Ecological Reserve is one of the most biologically diverse forests in the world. Its damp environs create a very special ecosystem that nourishes trees and plants and attracts an amazing variety of birds.

Mindo’s mild and damp climate – a few degrees lower than Quito – has created the perfect environment for many species. Hummingbirds, rare butterflies and over 170 species of orchids have been recorded here.

In addition to bird and wildlife viewing, you can take your pick from the available tours of the Mindo-Nambillo Cloud Forest, which include hiking, horse riding, mountain biking, floating down stream on an inner tube and/or flying through the forest on a zip-line.

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Intiñan Solar Museum

Intiñan Solar Museum

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El Panecillo

El Panecillo

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Squint south towards the old town from Quito center and you can’t miss El Panecillo, a hill that does indeed resemble a panecillo (bread roll), and the statue of the Virgin Mary standing on top.

At 9,895 feet (3,016 meters) above sea level, El Panecillo is Quito’s most popular lookout, affording 360-degree views over the city. On a clear morning (and mornings are the best time for cloud-free views in Quito) you can even see as far as Cotopaxi’s distinctive volcano.

The aluminum statue of the Virgin Mary was introduced to the Panecillo in 1976 and was inspired by the Virgen de Quito (Quito’s Madonna), which can be seen in the Church of St. Francisco.

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Termas de Papallacta Spa

Termas de Papallacta Spa

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Cotopaxi Volcano

Cotopaxi Volcano

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The Cotopaxi volcano, one of South America’s most-famous volcanos, is perhaps the most important point along the Avenue of the Volcanos, located just 30 miles (48.2 km) outside of Quito. On a clear day, Cotopaxi is visible from Quito. But to get a closer look, consider taking the trip to the Cotopaxi National Park, where you can admire the spectacular views of the volcano up close.

Forming part of the chain of volcanoes known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, Cotopaxi is one of Ecuador's most-active volcanoes, with 86 known eruptions. It is the second-highest summit in the country and is among the world’s highest active volcanoes, reaching a height of 19,347 feet (5,897 meters) and creating the ideal environment for one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world.

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Cayambe Volcano

Cayambe Volcano

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Museum of Colonial Art (Museo De Arte Colonial)

Museum of Colonial Art (Museo De Arte Colonial)

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A short stroll from Plaza Grande, the Museum of Colonial Art (or Museo de Arte Colonial) is in a restored 17th century mansion and includes a fine collection of 16th to 18th century paintings, sculpture and furniture.

Works by renowned ‘Quito School’ artists Miguel de Santiago, Manuel Chili (the indigenous artist known as Caspicara), and Bernardo de Legarda feature along with some of Quito's finest colonial art. The Museo de Arte Colonial is not open on Sunday or Monday.

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Capilla del Hombre (Guayasamín Museum)

Capilla del Hombre (Guayasamín Museum)

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The brainchild of Oswaldo Guayasamín, Ecuador’s most renowned contemporary artist, the Capilla del Hombre or ‘Chapel of Man’ is an art museum with a unique concept – dedicated to chronicling the history of mankind through art. Guayasamín’s vision wasn’t realized until after his death, but the museum, inaugurated in 2002, is now among Quito’s most fascinating, housed in a striking hilltop building in Bellavista.
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Presidential Palace

Presidential Palace

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