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Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotels
Casa Gangotena, an exquisite mansion in Quito’s Old Town, is one of the city’s two five-star hotels, but its location can’t be beat. It’s right on the lovely Plaza San Francisco and a short walk to other must-see sights, including the Presidential Palace. The service is also top-notch: Where else would you find white-gloved waiters serving breakfast at 3 a.m. for guests with early-morning flights? Book a plaza-view room for that classic panorama of the colonial architecture topped with snow-capped volcanoes. There is nothing like sitting on the rooftop balcony with a drink while watching the glow of the sunset bathe the Plaza San Francisco in soft hues of red and orange.
In Otavalo—a town about two hours north of Quito made famous by its huge Indian market—my home away from home is Hacienda Cusin. The rates are remarkably reasonable, given how much attention to detail has gone into restoring this seventeenth-century estate and its lovely gardens: The rooms are decorated with museum-quality textiles from the owner’s personal collection, for instance, and dozens of fragrant roses bob gently in the water fountains. (The landscaping also attracts an astounding array of birds.) Don’t be surprised to find a special surprise under your blankets—a toasty hot-water bottle to chase away the chill of the Andes. You could fill several days here with hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, and Spanish classes.
Restaurants the locals love
Zazu is an Ecuadorian fusion restaurant that creates modern flavors out of typical local ingredients and dishes. There are two things I love about Zazu: First, when you dine here, you are treated like you are the favorite guest ever, and second, the helado de paila. This traditional Ecuadorian sorbet is prepared tableside in a brass pan (called a paila). Even better are its simple and pure ingredients—just fresh fruit and real cane sugar, nothing else.
You don’t want to hear this, but it’s the guinea pig (known as cuy). Get it roasted—al horno. I promise, it tastes just like chicken. Just don’t look at the face or claws. Look for it at a local mom-and-pop restaurant; it’s often promoted heavily on the signage, as it’s an expensive treat (anywhere from $10 to $20) for Ecuadorians.
What to See and Do
La Ronda in the Old City of Quito. What used to be a rambling, dangerous mess of forgotten side streets has been revamped into a pedestrian-only showcase of whitewashed cobblestone alleyways, home to strolling musicians, street art, little restaurants, and craft shops that beckon you in. It’s one of the most pleasant ways to spend an evening in the city.
The equator obelisk, located just outside Quito, seems to make for a great photo op as you straddle both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, but it’s not actually on the equator! The true equatorial line is 300 yards away.
The Inti Nan Museum on the true equator near Quito. This is where you bring your kids to balance an egg on a nail, or watch water swirl in a drain clockwise in one hemisphere and counterclockwise just one step away in the other hemisphere. The cultural exhibits are an added treat: Test your skills at blow darts and get an up-close look at a real shrunken human head from the Amazon.
Quito has more gold-leafed, architecturally stunning churches than you can shake a stick at. But take a closer look at the exterior at the Basilica of the National Vow, perched imperiously above the city. Is that a . . . marine iguana? Yes, this may be the only basilica in the world decorated with gargoyles of some of the world’s most endangered wildlife.
Take a private after-hours tour of Quito’s spectacular Mindalae Ethnographic Museum, known for its collection of indigenous handicrafts and art. In the evening, the lighting in the galleries takes on a different atmosphere, and the hushed hallways bring a sort of reverence to the artwork. After the tour, you’ll have a candlelight dinner at Rumiloma, a luxury hacienda overlooking the Quito Valley, at which I always like to add a few special touches—perhaps a kitchen tour with the chef or a private wine-tasting.
Have a wander around the Jardin Botanico in Quito, a lovely park that features Ecuador’s astonishing collection of orchids. The rarity, vibrant color, and delicacy of each orchid are just breathtaking. There’s nothing like sleeping in, waking up to a typical Ecuadorian breakfast—strong coffee, fresh watermelon juice, crusty bread slathered in butter, empanadas, and fried sweet plantains—and then spending an afternoon in these gardens.
Quito is called the City of Four Seasons for a reason: The weather can change in the blink of an eye. Since Ecuador is on the equator, the biggest climatic differences come with a change in elevation, not time of year. I prefer the May and October shoulder seasons—the temperatures are mild, usually reaching the high 60s, and there are fewer travelers.
September can be surprisingly chilly.
No doubt in Quito it’s from the teleferico, the cable-car ride overlooking the city and the endless valleys of the Andes Mountains, dotted with some of the world’s highest and most active volcanoes. If you’re lucky enough to be there just after fresh rain, you might catch a rainbow over the city.
Head to Otavalo, just short of two hours from Quito. This is the epicenter of many of the best artisans in Latin America and home to one of the largest indigenous markets on the continent. While Saturday is the big market day, it’s also the day that is most crowded with busloads of tourists—I call it Gringo Day. On other days, it’s less crowded, which sometimes means you get better bargains; haggling is expected. Must buys: the Panama hat, which actually originated in Ecuador, and hand-loomed weaving, made with centuries-old designs. I also love to pick up inexpensive long strands of red-beaded necklaces that are hand-strung and traditionally worn by the Otavalo women.
Be careful if you get offered a last-minute “bargain Galapagos cruise.” I’ve heard dozens of stories of people thinking they were scoring a deal from a friendly local—except the Galapagos ship they just paid for doesn’t even exist. Make sure you book only with members of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association.
For drivers, tip $3–$5 per day per person. For guides, give $10–$20 per person per day, depending on how hard they work to make your trip unforgettable. Don’t forget that the local currency is U.S. dollars, so bring fresh, clean bills with you—they must not be torn or written on.
If you want to see both the Galapagos and northern Ecuador (including Quito and Otavalo): Start with a cruise to the Galapagos, flying directly into Guayaquil (GYE) from Miami. Most hotels are just a few minutes away from the airport, and most departures to the Galapagos are nonstop, lasting 90 minutes. Then book your return flight from the Galapagos into Quito.
If you’re flying to Quito (UIO) from the United States, try to arrive no later than 10pm. The airport is roughly 45 minutes from downtown, and it will take you at least an hour to collect your luggage and go through customs. Note that many Galapagos flights originate in Quito before stopping in Guayaquil, so you may have a pre-dawn pick-up if you’re headed to the islands as well.
On your way home: The Quito airport doesn’t have any airline-specific VIP lounges, but you can use the airport’s private lounge for about $35 per person. This is a comfortable way to kill a few hours if you are flying back from the Galapagos around dinnertime but have to check in at 9pm for your midnight flight home. Those with longer layovers, or who need to overnight for a morning flight, should consider the Wyndham Gran Condor, just five minutes away.
Here’s something not to pack: Ecuador is one of the few “plug and play” countries for Americans—theelectrical voltage and outlets are the same as ours, so you don’t need to bring plug adapters or expensive converters with you.