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Three Perfect Days: Quito

A place of deep history and staggering views, one of UNESCO's first World Heritage cities has been flying under travelers' radar for a long time. But thanks to a growing economy and a renewed focus on preservation and development, that's about to change.

Author Sam Polcer Photography Sam Polcer

La Virgen de Quito

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DAY ONE | When you wake at Casa Gangotena, the first thing you see is a mural depicting a colonial-era hunting scene that stretches around the top of your room. It’s just one of the details of this mid-1920s mansion that the owners have done a magnificent job of restoring, along with soaring windows, tin ceilings, antique mirrors and friezes. It’s easy to see why, in less than a year of operation, the immaculate hotel has become a symbol of Quito’s revitalization.

After a satisfying breakfast of coffee, fresh fruit and tamales generously filled with rice, pork, bananas and eggs, you head to the lobby. A bellhop walks you out into the delightful weather — “It’s like this all year,” he brags — and waves you off in the direction of the expansive Plaza San Francisco. You follow the sound of church bells to the Iglesia de San Francisco, the oldest of Quito’s 40 storied colonial churches, on the northwest side of the plaza. Construction on the church began in 1535, a year after the city was founded by the Spanish, and legend has it that the builder, Francisco Cantuña, made a deal with the devil to complete it but was able to save his soul by leaving a single stone missing. As you wander around in search of the telltale gap, you keep getting distracted by the ceiling, which is covered with angels’ faces in the shape of little suns. A worshipper informs you that the Spanish used this kind of imagery to entice the indigenous people to convert to Christianity (not that most of them had a choice — the church also is rumored to be built on top of an Incan temple).

You then walk a couple of blocks to the baroque masterpiece Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, which is Quito’s most iconic church, largely due to its gold-drenched interior. An amalgam of Moorish design, Christian and native imagery and international art styles — even Chinese — covers every inch of the place. The mural in your hotel room looks like an impressionist sketch in comparison with the detail work here.

Close by, perched atop a short but steep, steep hill, is the Basílica del Voto Nacional, the largest Gothic cathedral in South America. Though modeled after the cathedral in Bourges, France, it has local flavor: A careful look reveals gargoyles in the shape of armadillos, iguanas and tortoises. From the main tower you spot La Virgen de Quito, a winged Madonna standing watch from a distant hilltop, and you can’t help thinking that a cable stretched between here and there would make for the mother of all ziplines.

Lunch is, thankfully, downhill. El Rincón de Cantuña, like many businesses in this part of the city, occupies the covered yet airy courtyard of a colonial mansion. Following a glass of guanabana juice (owing to Ecuador’s bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables, juice is offered at the start of almost every meal), you polish off a cast-iron skillet of shrimp, rice and plantains. You’re brought back from the brink of siesta by a good, strong cup of Ecuadorian coffee.

After a stroll through the Plaza de la Independencia, the bustling heart of colonial Quito, you head to nearby Casa del Alabado. The museum, a stucco-walled 17th-century mansion, houses three families’ collections of pre-Columbian artifacts. You’re struck by the work of Ecuador’s early peoples, for whom it seems a bowl wasn’t a bowl unless there was a jaguar or a shaman’s face carved into it. Among the highlights is a stone bench called a “seat of power,” which once conveyed upon its sitter a status higher than that of tribe members who sat on the ground. You feel ready for your own seat of power or, say, mattress of rejuvenation, so you repair to your hotel for some rest. Quito’s altitude is not to be taken lightly.

At dinnertime, you call for a taxi to bring you to Octava de Corpus, a restaurant with an assortment of warmly lit rooms filled with proprietor Jaime Burgos’ eclectic art collection. Burgos, who circulates among the tables greeting regulars and insisting that newcomers practice their Spanish, recommends the Neapolitan chicken. You give it a try, along with an Argentine malbec. Neither disappoints. The romantic, homey atmosphere in the 150-year-old house makes the evening pass quickly — too quickly. You toast your host one last time, and go.

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