NESTLED amid snowcapped Andean peaks, Ecuador’s capital has long been overlooked by travelers on their way to the country’s most famous destination, the Gala’page Islands. But visitors who bypass this lively historic city of some two million people are missing out. At 9,350 feet above sea level, on the eastern slopes of the Pichincha Volcano, Quito offers breathtaking vistas around nearly every corner. Its historic center, a Unesco World Heritage site, is one of the largest in South America, with 40 colonial churches and chapels, 16 convents and monasteries and picturesque plazas.
In recent years, museums have been opened; mansions restored; hotels, restaurants and cafes opened and safety improved. And this year, in recognition of Quito’s rich mix of architectural heritage and cultural traditions, the International Cultural Capitals Bureau chose the city as its 2011 American Capital of Culture.
Quito Ecuador Vacations
With a rich pre-Colombian history, Ecuador’s capital was founded on the ruins of an Incan city but offers everything a modern traveler might need. It remains the least-altered historic center in Latin America. Quito’s important sites include baroque gems like San Francisco and Santo Domingo monasteries, as well as La Compañía church and college. This huge city sprawls across a breathtaking Andean valley surrounded by volcanic peaks.
Writers and poets have long flourished in arts-oriented Cuenca, the country’s third-largest city and the capital of the Azuay province. Cafes and galleries are tucked among the narrow cobblestone streets. The main plaza hosts both the old cathedral, started in 1557, the year the city was founded, and the blue-domed Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, dating to 1885. Locally made Panama hats get top billing at the markets, with centrally located Casa de la Mujer a shopping standout.
Normally, one wouldn’t equate “relaxing spa vacation” with “hanging out near an active volcano,” but if you’re up for something more exotic than facials and massages, Banos might be the perfect place for you. The thermal mineral pools here are heated by the volcano, and while there are several, offering different amenities, the easiest one to visit is Las Piscinas de la Virgen. Banos also has plenty of outdoor activities, like rafting and biking on scenic paths.
Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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