Climbing Hills & Eating Grilled Guinea Pig: A Weekend In Quito, Ecuador
As you might guess from this post’s title, my second excursion to South America was filled with beautiful mountain scenery and some truly adventurous cuisine! After having a blast exploring Medellín in August, I was anxious to see a bit more of the Andes Mountain region. Quito ended up being a perfect place to get a second dose of everything I loved about Colombia.
The best part about this trip was that airfare was free! I decided to redeem some credit card rewards points I’ve been accumulating, which put the total bill for the trip at around $250. Quito can be done in a weekend, but you’ll want to plan beforehand because the city is spread out.
Four Lookout Points
Like Medellín, Quito is a long and narrow city nestled between mountains that run north to south. This means there are a number of great places from which to see the city’s skyline.
1. Parque Itchimbia
Elevation: 2,891 m (9,484 ft)
If you have time, visit this quaint little city park for a sneak peek at what you’ll see from the higher lookout points.
There’s an interesting glass building here, but it wasn’t open the day I went because of a private event.
Itchimbia is also home to the city’s most famous “Quito” sign.
From Itchimbia’s lookout, you can see El Panecillo, a hill to the south with an iconic statue of the Virgin Mary. In my opinion, that hill was the best place to get a view of the skyline (more on that below).
Looking west, you’ll see the rooftops of Old Quito, and the most prominent building in the area, a massive church towering over everything else. This church is another great place to see the city, but it’s not for the faint of heart…
2. Basílica del Voto Nacional
Spire Elevation: 2,940 m (9,640 ft)
This massive cathedral that’s visible from Itchimbia Park has a beautiful interior with two very distinct chapels. Entrance to this portion of the church costs $2.00.
However, in order to get some great panoramic views of the city, you’ll need to buy a separate ticket (also $2.00) to climb up one of the church’s spires. In fact, once you get up there, you’ll have the option to climb up to an even higher level for a more stunning view.
You should be aware that in order to get up, you’ll need to walk across this rickety wood plank pathway and climb one extremely steep set of stairs (it could almost be called a ladder). There didn’t appear to be any type of handicap-friendly way to get up, and if you want to ascend to the tallest tower, you’ll need to go up two additional, equally-steep sets of stairs that are exposed to the open air.
It’s definitely a “go at your own risk” situation, and a wrong step and poor grip would definitely result in some serious injuries or worse. It was kind of shocking to see families bringing young children up so casually as well as women going up in heels. Just be aware and prepared if you plan to climb up.
Elevation: 3,945 m (12,943 ft)
Quito has a cable car (gondola) just like Medellín, but the ride here is a tourist attraction (no locals use it to commute). This is the highest lookout point over the city, and it truly is impressive. What I liked about it is that you can see some of the surrounding mountains and valleys that can’t be seen from any other viewpoint.
Some people may experience altitude sickness at the top of the mountain. There’s medical stations at both the top and bottom, but you might want to avoid the TelefériQo if you already feel light-headed or short of breath to begin with.
Entrance cost $8.50 for a round-trip ticket, and the ride lasts about twenty minutes each way. If you want to go, ask your Uber or taxi driver to go here.
4. Loma El Panecillo
Elevation: 3,016 m (9,895 ft)
The Loma El Panecillo isn’t nearly as high as the lookout from the TelefériQo, but in my opinion the best views of the city can be seen from this relatively small hill south of Quito’s old town. Perhaps that’s because it’s still close enough to the city that you can see a bit more detail in the buildings.
The hill is home to a massive statue of the Virgin Mary which can be seen from many parts of the town below. You can even go inside the statue for $1.00; its construction out of aluminum plates makes it an interesting monument to see both inside and out.
Cuisine (Including Guinea Pig)
In general, food in Quito seemed pretty standard from an American perspective. I saw a lot of fried rice, empanadas, and chicken or beef with fries, salad, and soup.
Quito has a ton of family-owned restaurants, so be sure to try one! In general, food in Quito is really cheap. It’s typical for a meal to only cost three USD, and tipping is not expected.
Cuy Asado (Guinea Pig)
But okay, let’s talk about that rather shocking dish that you probably clicked this link to read about! Shortly after arriving in Quito, I learned from a cousin that there is a delicacy served in a number of South American countries known as cuy asado, which means roasted guinea pig.
As an adventurous eater who will try most things, I kept an eye out for it on menus but didn’t see it until I ended up at a top-rated restaurant called Achiote. At that point, I had to order it! For one person, they recommended the half-order, which cost about $25. The restaurant itself ended up being very nice and I really enjoyed my appetizer and sangria.
When the actual cuy asado came to the table, I was surprised to see how nicely it was presented. It was served as the full front half of the animal (head and all), but I think that is pretty standard based on my Google searches.
The meat itself ended up tasting pretty normal, although the skin was very tough. I told friends and family that in a blind taste test, I don’t think the average person would be able to distinguish it from chicken. There are a lot of bones and was told that you’re supposed to eat it by hand.
Other Classy Options
I ended up trying seco de chivo, a delicious goat stew served with rice and salad.
Another cool place was Vista Hermosa in the old town, a restaurant with indoor seating as well as a beautiful rooftop deck.
Their menu looked a bit pricy, but it was a good place to just have a drink and an appetizer while enjoying the view.
And if you’re going to come to Ecuador, don’t leave before tasting some locally-sourced coffee! I really enjoyed the atmosphere of República del Cacao, which was also located right on Foch Plaza.
Quito Old Town
Compared to the other Latin American cities I’ve visited so far, Quito’s historic district is huge. There are so many different things to see and do, but I used this blog post to help guide me.
Of all the attractions mentioned in that blog, I managed to visit all except La Ronda, which appeared to be quite far from everything else.
If you explore this neighborhood, you won’t be able to miss Plaza Grande, also known as Plaza de la Independencia. It’s fairly standard as far as public squares go, but most other attractions in the neighborhood are within a block or two of here.
Probably my favorite thing in this neighborhood was the Mercado Central, which is located here. It’s both a fresh produce market and a huge food court, and I wanted to have lunch here on Sunday, but they seemed to close early (around 3:00 or 3:30 p.m.). Even if you don’t eat here, it’s fun to see the fruit and veggie stands that have been set up so beautifully.
A Myriad of Churches
The link above also mentions a few churches to check out, and while they all are interesting, none of them compare to the Basílica del Voto Nacional I talk about above. They are different in style though, so you should still pop your head in for a quick look if you have time.
This plaza north of the old town is basically home to a bunch of bars and trendy restaurants. Achiote and Miskay, two great Ecuadorian restaurants I recommend, are very close to the plaza.
Parque El Ejido
This park may not boast great views, but it’s still a cool place to check out mainly because of the artists selling their work along the park’s northern edge.
There was a lot going on when I visited on Saturday afternoon, including various performances like this one.
Prices and Currency
In general, Quito is very affordable. As I mention above, meals are a fraction of what they would cost in the States (and may even be cheaper than food in Mexico). Ubers are similarly cheap (usually less than $3 within the city), although to and from the airport will be about $25.
Ecuador’s official currency is the USD. Like Panama, Ecuador uses only American paper bills, but change is given as a mixture of American and local coins. Credit and debit cards seem slightly less versatile here than in neighboring countries, so I would carry some paper bills at all times just in case.
Ecuador is generally considered to be quite safe. My main piece of advice would be to take Ubers between different areas. For example, the TelefériQo station is not very centrally located, so it wouldn’t be practical to walk there. Within certain zones such as Foch Plaza and Quito’s historic district, exploring on foot should be no problem. Despite Quito’s sprawling urban landscape, much of the city seemed very quiet, which is both a blessing and a curse in terms of personal safety.
There was one jarring incident I had where I got into an Uber in view of two or three cab drivers who clearly were not happy about losing business to an Uber driver. They ended up throwing rocks at the car as we drove away. Clearly, tensions between Uber and taxi drivers may be particularly high here. As a solo traveler, I still fully recommend Uber wherever they operate abroad because it provides an extra layer of security and accountability you wouldn’t have even with licensed taxis.
One Awesome Trip Down, A Few More in 2018 to Go
Ecuador was my 21st country, and I have a few more international border crossings planned for the final months of 2018. My next major trip will be to Greece, where I’ll be exploring Santorini and Milos as well as spending a day or so in Athens. After that I’ll be heading to Lima in November to visit a friend from college; if Peru is anything like Colombia and Ecuador, I’m sure I’ll fall in love with it too!