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
DAY TWO | For breakfast, you walk across the plaza to Tianguez Café, a fair-trade crafts store and restaurant tucked into the catacombs beneath the Iglesia de San Francisco, where you explore a labyrinth of narrow hallways lined with handmade masks and figurines. You buy a tiny bird carved out of “vegetable ivory,” which is made from the nut of the tagua palm tree, and then settle down for a plate of veggie empanaditas and a mug of coca leaf tea. The latter, a gringo favorite, is known to ward off altitude sickness. While it works its magic, you hail a taxi and venture north.
You let yourself out at the flagship location of Olga Fisch Folklore, a shop selling tapestries, sculptures, wall art, clothing and jewelry by local artists. Fisch, a Hungarian who immigrated here in 1939, saw great value in Ecuador’s rich heritage of crafts and became the country’s first and most influential art promoter. Her granddaughter, Margara Anhalzer, who runs the place, invites you upstairs to check out the private museum, where a small but extensive collection of pre-Columbian artifacts and post-colonial art testifies to Fisch’s love for her adopted country.
You wend your way several blocks to Galería Ecuador Gourmet for yet another well-curated collection — this time, of locally produced coffee, chocolate, liquor, sauces and other tempting food items. You pick up some bars of dark chocolate as, er, souvenirs. Right as you start tearing open a wrapper, you realize it’s lunchtime.
Luckily, just steps away is the Mediterranean-fusion eatery La Boca del Lobo. Filled with chrome and neon and pumping dance music, it’s the polar opposite of the other restaurants you’ve been to so far. In fact, if it weren’t for the floor-to-ceiling windows with a view of Foch Plaza, you’d think you were in Miami at 3 a.m. But it’s the afternoon, so, despite the extensive and imaginative cocktail list, you responsibly order “Zucchini Lamborgini” (sliced zucchini and artichoke dip) and “Moussaka Kan” (moussaka made with eggplant tempura). Then you call for a mojito anyway.
Next, you grab a taxi to Capilla del Hombre to take in the powerfully severe work of Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamín. A contemporary of Diego Rivera and a keen scholar of South American history, Guayasamín made paintings that were often epic in subject and scale. He was particularly concerned with the plight of the continent’s indigenous people, which made him a national hero before he passed away in 1999. You take your time exploring the cavernous space, and are transfixed by Toro y Condor, a massive mural depicting a pre-Columbian Peruvian ritual in which a condor was lashed to the back of a bull.
You have reservations at the upscale Zazu, which was the first of a veritable invasion of Peruvian-themed restaurants in Quito. You order chef Rafael Perez’s pork confit taquitos, followed by a mammoth seafood plate featuring grilled grouper. You may have skipped the beef dish, but there is something unmistakably condor-like in how you go about attacking the seafood.
Per your waiter’s recommendation, you take a quick taxi ride to Guápulo, a hip neighborhood and street-art mecca perched on a hillside on the eastern edge of town. You duck into Ananké, a bar and pizzeria with a ramshackle bohemian vibe and oversize, colorful works by local photographers. Couples canoodle in darkened corners; obscure electronic music pipes through the speakers. It could pass for a European loft, but as you settle into a table by the window and take in the view of the Iglesia de Guápulo, past colonial houses arrayed along narrow cobblestone streets, you realize you couldn’t be anywhere but here.