Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, sits high in the Andean mountains at an altitude of 9,350 feet. With over 2.6 million people and probably twice as many buildings, the bustling city of colorful homes and graffiti is crammed into a valley.
The traffic is congested, hectic and sometimes downright chilling. But don’t let this scare you away from one the most fascinating and historic cities of South America.
During a recent visit, I experienced several once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
Hike down a crater
Northwest of the city center sits the Pululahua Crater Geo-Botanical Reserve, a massive crater created thousands of years ago by a volcano.
Brown and green checkered fields and farm buildings sprawl along the crater’s floor which is almost one mile below the visitors center at the top of the rim.
As I stood on the edge of the crater near its visitors center and looked down, two Andean women dressed in traditional clothing and carrying filled-to-the-brim backpacks walked down a narrow rock pathway. The only way to reach their farms is by foot.
Set up outside the center were Andean vendors. From one of the vendors, I found a soft wool poncho that I couldn't pass up.
Walk on the equator
A few miles from the Pululahua Crater is the La Mitad del Mundo (The Center of the World). A stone monument designates the equator, the imaginary line that separates the southern and northern hemispheres.
On the day I was there, people from many nations were straddling the equator’s line, which at this location is drawn on the concrete floor.
Pray in an unfinished church
One of the most significant cathedrals in South America, the Basilica del Voto Nacional (The Basilica of the National Vow), has been under construction since 1887 and technically is unfinished.
Every year a change is made or something added to the cathedral. A local legend declares that when work on the Basilica is completed the world will end.
In the cathedral, I spent a lot of time looking up and admiring the stunning stained-glass windows and impressive artwork on the ceiling
Have lunch with the Virgin of Quito
My guide expertly navigated the steep narrow streets that end at the El Panecillo, the top of a hill that looms over the city. While there, I found myself standing in front of the towering Virgin of El Panecillo statue, also known as the Virgin of Quito.
Made of 7,400 aluminum parts, this graceful shinning statue of the Virgin Mary, is among the tallest statues in the world. With panoramic views of Quito, it is a place that is both spectacular and spiritual.
Hang out with Andean locals
Quito boasts of having one of the largest, least-altered and best preserved historic centers in the Americas. The city square is surrounded by picturesque and colorful 500-year-old Colonial buildings that include the Metropolitan Cathedral and Carondelet Palace.
Nearby is the Church of La Compania de Jesus, an impressive example of baroque style art that was built in the the early 1700s.
At the center of the historic site is the Plaza de la Independencia, a beloved public area where on weekends, people gather to drink coffee, sell crafts and talk.
Eat fruit you can’t pronounce
At the large farmers market near Plaza de la Independencia, rows and rows of vendors sell fruits, vegetables and flowers.
The friendly vendors laughed as I tried to say the names of each item I examined. While there, I learned the differences between a banana and a plantain and that Ecuador is the world’s leading exporter of flowers.
The visit to the market was the perfect ending to a unique and quirky South American adventure.