The little headache starts as soon as you hit town – that little pain across your temples that tells you you’ve flown into a city so high in the Andes that perhaps it shouldn’t be there. You may feel some shortness of breath, too: that’s your lungs, asking where the oxygen is. But spend 48 hours in Quito and that will fade. And as it does, you’ll see things remarkable enough to make it all worthwhile — a mixture of pain and delight, in a city not quite like any other on earth.
I flew into Quito for a two-day layover before heading to the Galapagos Islands, my bucket-list trip this year. And after spending the night near the airport, I took the long, slow bus ride into town. It’s a major trek, winding through dusty villages, along mountain ridges, and across plunging valleys so deep you can’t see the bottom.
The cause of this journey is Quito’s new airport, which opened just two years ago. It replaces the old airport, which was conveniently near downtown but also considered one of the most dangerous in the world. A new, bigger one was needed, and in this country, you have to go a long way to find a piece of land flat enough to put an airport.
That all became clear once again when I reached town and set off, gasping a bit for air, to revisit the city. I had been to Quito 10 years before, and as it was Sunday, I decided the place to start was Ejido Park, a large, green space in the middle of downtown where Quiteños go to enjoy life. It was alive with activity: people playing ball or gathering to see impromptu comedy shows, clowns performing in the children’s area, vendors selling fruit and snacks and the bright, distinctive Ecuadorean woollens.
Then, a walk up to the ancient streets of Old Quito, through streets that sloped so steeply you might wonder how anyone lives there. Looking up, I could see them fall and rise again, until they disappeared, replaced by a green mountainside with white houses clinging to it.
Here, there and everywhere, I saw little details that brought me back to my first visit here. The buildings with foundations made of mountain stone, fitted together like jigsaw puzzles; the amazingly ornate doorways; the fancy iron work; the pastel colours; and most of all, the churches, huge and impressive, dominating the old town with their heavenly spires.
Finally, I reached Independence Square, or Plaza Grande, as it used to be called – the tourist centre of Quito. Surrounded on four sides by stately white buildings, including the municipal hall, the government palace and the city’s main cathedral, it’s the place where every visitor comes.
But it’s not only tourists that fill the square: on the church steps, a woman with a megaphone shouted some kind of political message for a group of followers. Nearby, a group of musicians pounded out the unmistakable Andean music, while a man sold packages of coca leaves, the traditional cure for altitude sufferers. And around the corner, a woman served helado de paila — the local ice cream, made in a copper bowl.
The next day, I decided to see some more of the city, and do it the easy way, on the city’s Hop-On-Hop-Off bus, called the Quito Tour Bus. It’s better than walking in a city with an altitude of 2,850 metres (9,350 ft), and reasonably priced at $15 US – even better for seniors, who pay only $7.50.
I picked up the bus on Avenida Amazonas, Quito’s fashionable district, where the well-heeled sip coffee in good restaurants and watch the world go by. And then it was off to the historic district, and up the steep road to El Panecillo (The Little Bread Loaf), the hill that looks over the city’s south end.
The Quiteños built a huge statue of the Virgin Mary up here, looking out over the streets below and the white houses that spiral up the mountainsides in all directions. As I stood there, taking photos, I heard the sound of a thousand angry bees. Looking up, I saw a drone hovering right above the Virgin – I’d like to see the pictures it was taking.
Just below the Panecillo, we stopped in La Ronda, an old haunt of artists and artisans that the city has painstakingly restored, with modern tourist shops, interpretive signs and cozy cafés. It was pleasant, but despite the commendable efforts, Quito’s dark side showed through: every 20 yards stood a policeman, there to protect the tourists from the beggars and pickpockets Quito is famous for.
As I stood waiting for the tour bus to leave, a filthy-looking beggar grabbed my arm and refused to go away until I gave him a few coins and told him to get lost. A policeman stopped his motorcycle and pointed to my camera: “Put it in your bag,” he said, “it’s dangerous around here.”
I left the tour as it neared my hotel, and walked down the steep streets to the Plaza San Blas, where I was staying. It was time to make arrangements for getting back to the airport: the Galapagos beckoned. But later, as I went to dinner, I looked out across the Old Town to see the lights of the city glittering on the mountain, a beautiful sight on a chilly night. My 48 hours in Quito: was it worth the headaches ? I’d say so.
Here’s a handy map to help you find your way around if you decide to spend your 40 hours in Quito, this city in the sky.