Quito’s colonial center is well deserving of its title as South America’s first cultural heritage site to be recognised by UNESCO. In its colonial heyday, Quito was the cultural hub of Spain’s empire in South America. Although its regional importance was eventually eclipsed by larger cities like Lima, today Quito’s cultural legacy still speaks for itself. Unlike its traditional rival Lima, the colonial center Quito remains a cohesive chunk of the larger city, and is wonderfully preserved. Don’t get the wrong idea though – the term “preserved” typically connotes Disney-esque sterility – forced preservation in the vein of Guatemala’s Antigua or China’s Lijiang. Forget that. Quito’s charm lies in its organic retainment of its own heritage. Unlike Antigua and its ilk, Quito hasn’t been mutilated by face lifts and brute force touristisation. Rather, the city center has been allowed to age on its own terms. In short: Quito’s center is just as full of life as it is cultural heritage. Cobblestone streets squashed between terracotta-roofed blocks are broken up by open plazas bustling with icecream vendors, shoe shine boys and old ladies selling everything from sweets to puppies. For sure, there’s enough churches and museums to last a lifetime, but the real pleasure of Quito’s center comes from aimless wandering. It’s a self contained world that you can easily get lost in (both figuratively and literally).
I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of the simple joy of blindly exploring the old town, but over the course of your rambling I’d highly recommend a few pit stops. None of these are mandatory must-sees; instead, this is just my advice for a few choice chapters in a one day stroll in Quito’s colonial center.
All good days start with a good cup of coffee. While there are plenty of decent coffee shops huddled around all of Quito’s plazas, if you want to buy bulk there’s only one place to go: Cafe Aguila de Oro (two blocks south-west of Plaza Grande). For US$6, you can get a pound of freshly ground coffee so strong you wont sleep for days. While the pitch black Obscuro is the most flavoursome variety of coffee on sale, the super lightly roasted rubio packs the biggest caffeine punch.
Once you’re caffeinated, you may want to knock off a church or two. While la Compañía is well known for its stunning golden interior, you needn’t worry if you’re the type to be put off by an entry fee. Many of the colonial center’s other notable churches are free to enter, including the nearby El Sagrario (pictured).
If you can, try to catch President Rafael Correa’s weekly public appearance at 11am on Monday. Even if you’re not politically-inclined, it’s kinda cool to snap a photo of a head of state. Plus, his appearance coincides with the changing of the guards at the presidential palace – a colourful event gushing with pomp and ripe for photo opportunities.
By now, it’s probably nearing lunchtime. There are plenty of eateries that sell standard set lunches for US$1.50, though if you want something a little different I’d suggest hunting down some ceviche. Quiteño ceviche is a little different to its more well known Peruvian counterpart. While Peruvian ceviche is traditionally kept simple, in Quito there’s a tendency to stuff the bowl with as much variety as possible. It feels like you’re eating an entire aquarium, and it feels good.
If you need to walk off a heavy meal, the old town offers two alternatives: the iconic rounded Panecillo hill, or the Itchimbia park (pictured). Both offer great views of the city center. It’s highly recommended you take a taxi or bus up and back down the Panecillo.
For more great panoramic shots of the city, head up to the imposing Basílica del Voto Nacional. It’s the largest neo-Gothic style basilica in the Americas, and climbing to the top of the bell towers is an adventure in itself.
At this point, you may be feeling a bit churched out. To wind down, I’d suggest spending a bit of time doing the one thing Quito is best for: aimless wandering. See what you can find!
At some point, you might find yourself in La Ronda, a winding street known for its restaurants, cultural workshops, arts and crafts. It’s a good place to pick up a Panama hat, or an afternoon icecream.
Getting thirsty? The colonial center has a smattering of decent bars, many of which are increasingly stocking locally made craft brews. The best of these is Bandidos, a snug little watering hole near the central markets. Their US$3 pints at happy hour (4pm to 7pm) are a good deal.
There’s plenty more to see and do in the old town, too much for just one day. How many adventures can you find in the nooks and crannies of Quito’s colonial center?