Want to have a great time in Quito? Save time and effort when planning your trip by taking advantage of these QuickTips from mine!
From the airport, take a metered, legal taxi to your hotel, or arrange a transfer via Latin Adventures. (If you take my advice and stay at Casa El Eden, they can arrange transport for you, too.) Our one-way private transport for two cost us $30 USD. Be aware the airport is twenty-five to forty-five minutes from the Old City, where most tourists will want to stay.
The Old City has the highest concentration of tourist destinations and offers easy access (via taxis and tour busses) to the rest.
With spacious rooms, generous cooked breakfasts, and owners willing to manage reservations and tours for you, Casa El Eden (about $110 USD per night) is the best hotel and your best value. Key sights and good restaurants are just a five- to ten-minute walk away.
If price is no object, you can stay directly on the Plaza Grande at Plaza Grande Hotel for $350-$450 USD per night. (But why?)
The Old City, packed with museums, attractions, and character, could fill three days on its own.
Nothing in Quito beats the sheer opulence of Iglesia de La Compania de Jesus (the Church of the Companions of Jesus). The San Francisco Church, Independence Plaza (or Plaza Grande), the Government Palace, and the Casa del Alabado Museum are all within walking distance from the Church of the Companions — and all of these are just a five- to ten-minute walk from Casa El Eden.
There’s an artisan market in the crypts under the Church and Convent of St. Francis on Plaza San Francisco. You’ll pay a bit more for the chocolate, handicrafts, blankets, and jewelry on sale here, but you’ll save yourself a trip out to the market at Otavalo. (While here, have a cold glass of blackberry juice at the adjacent cafe. You’ll thank me later.)
La Ronda, the narrow, sunken street lined with cafes, bars, and shops, is also nearby, but deserted until evening. Though close to Casa El Eden, take a taxi here and back at night.
You can buy tickets for the Tourist Bus, which follows a three hour route with a twenty-five minute photo stop at the hilltop statue of the Virgin of Quito at the Tourist Information Office at Plaza Grande. The earlier you start this tour, the greater its value; later in the day, the bus will terminate at its last stop and might not bring you full-circle.
If you see no other museum while in Quito, take a taxi up to La Capilla Del Hombre (The Chapel of Man), where artist Guayasamin’s work is displayed in a stunning setting that’s more of a temple than a museum, then tour Guayasamin’s home, which is next door. Both locations offer guided tours in English and Spanish; we don’t speak Spanish and still had a great time on the Spanish-language museum and house tours.
If you’re not feeling adventurous, you can book a walking tour of the Old City through your hosts at Casa El Eden. I also highly recommend the “Rocafuerte Street and Capilla Del Hombre” tour sold by Latin Adventures, particularly when led by Diego.
If you dig local food markets, take a taxi to the relatively small but very rewarding Santa Clara Market.
Get out of the Old City and see more of the real Ecuador by booking an inexpensive and exciting tour out to the nearby Mindo Cloud Forest. Please, please use Latin Adventures for this, and book the tour with Diego, if you can. Adventure travelers will love the zip lines and canopy tours, while the more sedate can enjoy the short hike to a waterfall (*not* the death march to Casaca Reina!), the Mindo Chocolate factory, and the Butterfly Garden. If you plan to zip line, hike, or go white water rafting, take a change of clothes.
Mitad del Mundo (“The Middle of the World”) is a Disneyesque park supposedly built right on the equator; it isn’t. Move this quirky, touristy attraction to the very bottom of your list.
Virtually everything for sale at the market at Otavalo is for sale in the Old City at slightly higher prices. Unless you’re really into seeing local markets, save time and buy your trinkets and souvenirs in Quito.
Dinner at Zazu is splendid; don’t miss it. You’ll love the night-time views from El Ventenal, with its dramatic panoramic windows. Both require taking a taxi from Casa El Eden.
In the Old City, snag a perfect pizza, a delicious sandwich, or exquisite little cookies from La Reina de la Paz (on La Ronda). The first floor restaurant at the swanky Plaza Grande Hotel is a lot of fun (order “The Secrets of the Friar” or the big ice cream dessert, and get your camera ready for a big surprise) and is highly recommended for lunch or dinner.
Theatrum, a short walk from Casa El Eden, serves strictly average food in an over-the-top, dramatic setting; it’s worth seeing, but the food is mediocre. (The restaurant will provide escorts for your walk to and from the B&B.)
Watch for great local snacks and candies from the street vendors in the Old City. We recommend the toasted corn snacks, the sugared peanuts, and the chewy, tasty colaciones (a velvety candy made with honey and nuts).
The Internet and old guidebooks abound with horror stories of theft, kidnapping, and violence in Quito. But with tourism becoming a major industry by 2013, things changed quickly. Most streets are quite safe during daylight hours, particularly those around major tourist attractions. In today’s Quito, most crime is opportunistic. In crowds and near major tourist sites in the Old City, watch your pockets. Don’t wear gaudy jewelry or wave your iPhone around.
Be aware streets at higher elevations, particularly at the top of the hill on Rocafuerte Street, remain sketchy. No matter how in-shape you are, do not attempt to walk up the hill to The Virgin of Quito at any time of day (though the site itself is perfectly safe).
The area around Plaza Theatro (and between Plaza Theatro and La Ronda) can be dicey at night, with (legal!) prostitutes and shady characters lingering on the street corners. Most folks will prefer to travel by taxi at night.
I worried a lot about altitude issues in Quito, but didn’t have any problems at all. Different people respond differently, but if you’re in reasonably good health, I don’t think you’ll find the thin air challenging at all. You will get out of breath quickly when climbing hills or stairs, but otherwise, you’ll be fine.
There’s not a lot of English spoken in Quito. The Google Translate app for your smartphone is your friend. Did you know that it can listen to a conversation and repeat aloud the Spanish it hears in English … and the English in Spanish? Or that you can point the Google Translate camera at signs in Spanish … and see them magically translated into English?
You’ll read a lot about taking metered taxis exclusively (and avoiding unmetered ones). This is a good rule pretty much anywhere, but we had great experiences in unmetered taxis. Yes, you’ll be charged about double what a metered taxi would charge, but that’s often the difference between $2.00 USD and $4.00 USD.
Avoid taking the crowded Trole, Ecovia, and Metrobus lines, which are overpacked with locals and a haven for pickpockets.
On prescription medications? Virtually any prescription drug you’re taking is available — with no prescription needed — from any of the hundreds of pharmacies you’ll pass on the street (at much lower prices than the very same medicine will cost you in the States, even with your insurance company’s “discounts”).
More than anything — relax. Quito is a beautiful, charming city. Guidebooks and online sources exaggerate safety issues in Quito; if you use common sense and conduct yourself as you should in any major city, you’ll be fine.
Finally: if you’re looking for a “I just want to have fun and not plan anything” vacation, stay at Casa El Eden and let the owners handle everything from tour arrangements to restaurant reservations for you.