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 THREE | You’re up early, and your new addiction to fresh juice made from fruit you’ve never heard of lures you to the capacious Santa Clara Market, an easy drive in your rental car. Local shoppers are here for meats, produce, flowers and spices, but you make a beeline for a juice stall and order a rejuvenating concoction containing alfalfa, egg and naranjilla juice. After downing it where you stand, you join diners huddled over steaming plates of chicken and rice at one of the endless countertop eateries.
While Quito has seen an explosion of high-end brand-name stores, along with curated shops like Tianguez and Olga Fisch, the real deal is a 90-minute drive up the Pan-American Highway, in a town called Otavalo. There, the Otavaleños, an industrious ethnic group known around the world for Andean handicrafts, have created a browser’s paradise. At Poncho Plaza, you wind through a maze of vendors hawking vibrant tapestries, hammock chairs, armadillo-shell guitars and herbal remedies. You come to a stall covered with tiny paintings on drumlike squares of canvas, pick out the brightest one and break for lunch.
Just up the road is the 300-year-old Hacienda Pinsaquí, once the site of a textile manufacturer and now a 30-suite hotel and restaurant. You order potato soup and the regional specialty carne colorada: meat (in this case, pork) marinated in a mixture that includes ground achiote, giving the dish its red color as well as its name. You wolf it down.
A mile north in the village of Peguche, you meet José Catacachi, an Otavaleño who demonstrates a traditional loom-weaving technique and shows you how he makes dye from the blood of a cactus worm. Around the corner, musician and craftsman José Luis Pichamba plays from his collection of handmade Andean musical instruments, and lashes together a pitch-perfect pan flute for you in five minutes. You try to improvise a few quick “melodies”; it doesn’t go so well. The look on Pichamba’s face confirms this, so you bid him farewell and drive back to Quito.
Dinner tonight is at Pim’s Panecillo, where the menu is almost as expansive as the restaurant’s view of the city from just below La Virgen de Quito. You secure a counter seat by the window and opt for shrimp ceviche and locrito, a simple Ecuadorian potato-and-cheese soup that goes well with sliced avocado. Both dishes are served in typical Andean fashion, with popcorn, roasted corn and ají, a hot sauce, on the side.
Dropping the car off at the hotel, you stroll to nearby La Ronda, a narrow, sloping pedestrian thoroughfare, where the strains of live corta vena music (literally, “vein cutting,” so named for its melancholy melodies and lyrics) flow from bars and cafés that seem hand-car ved into the Spanish architecture. One of colonial Quito’s most privileged streets, it became a bohemian center in the 1930s, then hit the skids in the ’70s before being reborn in recent years as a nightlife hub.
It’s a brisk evening, so you pop into an unassuming spot on the corner and order a mug of canelazo, a hot, fruity herbal drink often spiked with aguardiente, a sugarcane alcohol. You decide there’s probably nothing better in the world for shaking off a chill. As the warmth washes over you, a Quiteña at an adjacent table nods your way. “Buenas noches,” she says, as revelers stream past on the cobblestone streets. “You have found one of our huecas — one of our authentic places.”
You want to tell her that you hope it stays this way, that authenticity can be a tricky thing to hold on to in a city changing this quickly. But you simply raise your glass and smile. Quito seems to be on the right track.
From now on, Hemispheres executive editor SAM POLCER is buying only dinnerware with jaguars on it.
YEAR FOUNDED: 1534
POPULATION: 2.2 million
SIZE: 4,633 sq. miles
MILES FROM EQUATOR: 15
SPECIES OF BIRDS: 542 (in the metro area)
ELEVATION: 9,200 feet
VOLCANOES: 12 (in the region )
CHURCHES: 40 (in the colonial district)