City In The Clouds…
Standing at 2,850 metres, Quito is the highest capital city in the world and the second largest city of Ecuador. It was also the next place we visited on our journey through South America.
As the majority of our overland group hurried through Quito on their way to the Galapagos Islands (a side trip our budget wouldn’t stretch to) we unpacked our bags, kicked off our shoes and settled back in our hotel room with the wonderful feeling that we would be staying in the same place for a whole week!
Panorama looking to the south of the city.
A Week In A Hotel
On a jam packed itinerary such as ours, a week in Quito came as as a welcome relief providing that little bit of respite needed to recharge our batteries. Continual travelling and living out of a backpack can actually make you a little wearisome at times. After 19 weeks overlanding with 24 others, a whole week away from the group was very appealing to us. No truck jobs, no camp dinners, no putting up and packing away tents, no early morning alarms and no 10 hour+ driving days!
So to the next task, how could we fill a whole week in Quito? Would there be enough for us to do? The answer was a resounding yes! From standing on the middle of the world to hiking around the rim of a volcano, read on to see our top picks for spending a week in and around Quito, Ecuador’s city in the clouds.
Choosing What To Do…
The city boasts of 40 churches, 16 convents and monasteries, 12 museums and a rich cultural heritage. No wonder Quito was the first city in the world (along with Krakow in Poland) that was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO back in 1978. Not only this, nestled in the clouds of the Andes Mountains, Quito is also a fantastic place to enjoy outdoor activities like walking and hiking as it is blessed with beautiful countryside and great hiking trails. Perfect for us!
The Basilica del Voto Nacional
Surrounded by cloud forest and numerous volcanoes we were hard pressed deciding exactly what we wanted to do, realising that a week to discover all that Quito has to offer wasn’t nearly enough. So understanding that we needed to allow some time for a bit a acclimatisation before we attempted any major hikes, we started with a visit to the middle of the world!
1. Place Your Feet On ‘Mitad del Mundo’ – The Middle of The World
Did you know that the ‘Equator’ lies twenty two miles north of Quito? After heading all the way down to the town of Ushuaia in Argentina on the southern most tip of South America, (known as ‘Fin del Mundo’, the ‘end of the world’), we just had to visit the middle of the world too!
This is the 0°0’0” latitude, the place where the Equator divides the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. It’s cheesy, but we wanted to take the famous photo of us straddling the yellow line to show that we were stood on both hemispheres at the same time!
2. See Quito From Above – Ride the Teleferiqo
To the west of the city is the Teleferiqo, a cable car system that takes you 4,100m above Quito. On a good day the view from the top is spectacular and it is even possible to see Volcano Cotopaxi standing tall in the distance. Unfortunately for us there was a little rain on the day we went up and the clouds were coming in, so we weren’t rewarded with that view!
The ride up takes approximately 10 minutes. From the top the whole city looks like it has been squeezed in between the surrounding mountains. From here, you can hike to the summit of the lesser volcano Ruca Pichincha.
3. Set Off Early & Hike To The Summit Of Ruca Pichincha
After taking the Teleferiqo as soon as it opened at 9.00am we set off on the trail up Ruca Pichincha at 9.30am. At the start the trail is well marked and easy to follow, although it is a demanding walk going uphill. The total elevation gain is around 650m and we could feel it both in our breathing and legs!
The hike presents some great views when the cloud clears. It can be a complete white out one minute, then the next moment some beautiful scenery pops into view. Be sure to take a photo of it straight away as just as quickly the cloud returns.
We didn’t make it all the way to the summit as the final section involves a lot of scrambling and we found no markers at this point to show the correct trail. (Some dots of spray paint would have been helpful!) With a sheer drop the other side of the rock and cloud coming in obscuring our way, we decided to take the safest option and head back down. In total the hike took us around 5 hours, 3 to go up and 2 to come back down walking at a steady pace.
4. Take An Afternoon Stroll & Explore The Old City
There are numerous plazas and churches to wander around and explore in the old city. We walked from the Marascal area to Plaza Grande and enjoyed the stroll, especially through the Parque el Ejido where there was an Artesan Market with some fantastic paintings for sale.
It was a Sunday morning and we were pleasantly surprised to find that many of the city’s roads were closed to cars, becoming a cycle route for people to make use of. It was very popular with locals and tourists alike. We saw families cycling along the route, pulling their dogs in little trailers attached to their bike, and a number of tourists who had hired bikes for the day all cycling through the now empty city. Thumbs up to Quito for this great way to encourage exercise and to help the environment!
5. Get A Head For Heights – Climb To The Top Of The Basilica del Voto Nacional
Whilst strolling through the old part of the city the Basilica is one of the buildings that really stands out along the way. Positioned up the hillside in the north eastern part of the old town it offers great views of the surrounding area if you are brave enough to climb the steps to the roof and then take a ladder up to the spires.
We could see the La Virgen de Quito statue high on the El Panecillo hill (the little bread loaf) to the south of the city and enjoyed a lovely coffee in the cafe at the top! For only $2 dollars entrance fee, the Basilica is well worth the effort of all that uphill!
6. Head For The Hills – Take An Overnight Trip To Quilotoa
We had Googled things to do around Quito and the little village of Quilotoa with its turquoise crater lake looked a perfect place for us to visit. It’s possible to do a day trip with a tour company for around $40 p/p but to save on cost and allow us more time there we wanted to organise the trip ourselves.
We took local buses and decided to stay over in the village for 1 night to allow us time to hike down to the lake on the first day and then get an early start the next morning to make the 6 hour hike around the crater rim.
Pushed For Time – Hike Down To The Laguna & Back
Hiking down to the waters edge is a simple walk downhill on a well marked path. It only took us around 30 minutes to reach the bottom. When we first set off however the lake became clouded over in mist and you couldn’t even see it. It also started raining quite heavily. Don’t let that put you off though. We debated on turning back, but instead we pulled on our waterproofs and continued on.
No sooner had the rain began, it was just as quick to stop again with the clouds clearing a little. It was like this the whole afternoon, but we managed to get a few good shots of the lake during intermittent breaks in the cloud.
The walk back to the top is more demanding and took us around an hour with lots of rest breaks at the end of each switchback. If you’re intending on staying over in the village there’s little else to do after you’ve hiked back to the top so there is no hurry, you can take your time! Alternatively, if you don’t fancy the walk back up there are mules at the bottom near the lake that you can hire for $5 to do the work for you!
Not For The Faint Hearted – Walk Around The Crater Rim
We set off clockwise around the crater rim after breakfast at 8.30am. The trail is well marked but it is easy to go off track as there are also a number of other trails that skirt around the valleys. If you keep the lake in sight of where you’re walking the majority of the time though, this helps you to pick the correct trail.
It took us around 3 hours to reach the halfway point. There is a lot of uphill and the rim walk is not for the faint hearted as at times you are very exposed on the ridges and it can seem like walking a knife edge! The views of the lake all the way round though are stunning and we were lucky to have much better weather the second day.
We stopped at the highest point of the rim for around half an hour for lunch and met three guys hiking in the opposite direction who were happy to take our photo.
It then took us another 2 hours to hike back to the start, the last section being much flatter and less demanding, which gave our tired legs a little reprieve. In total the rim took us 5 and a half hours in good weather conditions. We don’t recommend hiking the rim if it is cloudy, misty or raining as it is easy to lose the trail if vision is obscured, plus the trail is very narrow in places and could be really dangerous when wet. But overall, for us this was a fantastic hike, and one of those really memorable moments of our time in Ecuador.
Staying In Quilotoa
We were not sure what to expect but were pleasantly surprised by the standard of accommodation. We stayed at one of the better hostels, Cabanas Quilotoa, for $15 p/p for the night. This included an evening meal of soup, then the standard Ecuadorian dish of meat, rice and vegetables, and a simple breakfast was also included the following morning.
We found there is a new and older part to the hostel which is actually more like a hotel. We stayed in the newer part that looked recently refurbished and it was extremely comfortable. Our room had 2 double beds and an ensuite shower and toilet. There was also a wood burner in the room which is lit around 7.00pm as it gets very cold at night. TIP: We took our sleeping bags with us, and despite the beds having quilts and thick blankets and the burner being lit in the room, we still used the sleeping bags as it was so cold!
Costs & Getting There From Quito
Teleferiqo – 9.00am – 7.00pm. Good to get an early start as we found Quito to cloud over and rain by 3pm each day we were there. Price for foreigners $8.50 for return cable car. Cable car takes around 10 minutes. Taxi from Marascal area to entrance $2. We took a shuttle van back to Marascal for $1 p/p. Vans wait outside fairground area just below entrance to cable cars.
Ruca Pichincha – The lesser of the two volcanoes, but still a demanding hike. Take the Teleferiqo to the top of the city then hike the volcano trail from there. A straightforward trail to start, but then unmarked to the summit where some scrambling is involved. At least 5 hours return. Allow for longer if not well acclimatised.
Old City – Public buses run to the old city which is south of Marascal for 25 cents. We walked there and back (maybe safest option as buses are rife with thieves – see our next post ‘A Cautionary Tale About Quito’). Walking took us around 30 minutes each way along main roads and through a couple of nice green parks. Head to the Central Tourist Office on Plaza Grande first to get a good, detailed map.
Basilica – $2 entrance. Climb the steps to the roof and if you’re brave enough climb the ladders to the spires. A cheap price for great views of the city including the Virgin statue. Also a lovely coffee shop at the top!
Quilotoa – Cotopaxi Region. From Marascal take the Trole bus south to Recreo Station. Change here and take connecting bus to Quitumbe, the South Station. (25 cents p/p). In the station go upstairs to counter 21 and get a ticket to Latacunga. ($1.50 p/p + 40 cents station tax). The Latacunga bus waits at Stop 23. Departs around 9.00am. Make sure you leave enough time to make the connection. We set off for the Trole bus at 7.40am and only just got there in time for the 9.00am Latacunga bus. (Approx 1hr 30 mins). At the Latacunga Station take a bus to Quilotoa. We were charged $2 each (gringo price), but the actual price is $1.25. There are plenty of people at the station who will direct you to the right bus. We were told the bus would depart at 11.00am but it actually left at 11.30am. Arrival in Quilotoa approx 1.30pm.
We didn’t have to pay an entrance fee, but have read on other blogs that tourists had to pay $2 p/p. Maybe it was off-season for us (?).
Return to Quito: We read online that the last bus back from Quilotoa is 1.30pm which is why we decided to stay overnight to allow us enough time to hike the rim of the volcano. However 3 different people told us that the last bus was in fact 3.00pm. Unfortunately for us however, there is no 3.00pm bus on a Thursday! So to return to Quito we took a camionetta (local truck taxi) to Zumbahua. Approx 20 minutes. $5 total no matter how many passengers. (A couple of taxi drivers offered us the same journey for $1 p/p). Ladies sitting near the Entrance Station will fetch you a camionetta if none are waiting. From Zumbahua take the bus back to Latacunga. ($1.25 p/p). At 4.00pm the bus was full so we had to stand all the way for 1 hour 30 mins. At Latacunga Station take a bus back to Quito. Pay on the bus. $1.50 p/p. Our bus left at 5.40pm and we arrived back in Quito at the Quitumbe Station around 7.20pm.
‘A Cautionary Tale About Quito’ – This last bus journey was where Wayne had his camera and accessory kit stolen from his rucksack. It happened literally 1 stop before Quitumbe and we didn’t realise until the thieves had disembarked the bus… The irony for us as seasoned travellers is that this became a very expensive bus journey and a costly lesson for letting our guard down just once. Never become complacent.
When travelling on public transport in and around Quito, we can’t emphasise enough that you need to be vigilant and WATCH YOUR BAGS/ POSSESSIONS AT ALL TIMES. IF POSSIBLE KEEP THEM ON YOUR PERSON in a zipped/ concealed pocket, especially money, passport, phone and camera.
But don’t let our bad encounter put you off! Our experience of Ecuador on the whole was a good one. There is so much to do and see in Quito, we easily filled a week. We didn’t make it up Cotapaxi (Ecuador’s second highest volcano at 5897m) as we thought altitude may be a problem for us and it is a technical climb. But that’s always a reason for us to return to Quito in the future!
Have you visited Quito? What are your experiences of the city? How do they compare with Ecuador as a whole? We’d love to know what you think!