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Quito, Off the Beaten Path

Quito

Photograph by Matthew Williams-Ellis

Beneath towering volcanoes and amid cobblestone streets, churches and Spanish plazas lies the heart of Quito. The city’s vibrant culture is found in its historic neighborhoods and up-and-coming communities that are ushering in a new contemporary era for Ecuador’s capital. A distant cry from the barrios of past centuries, Quito dares you to delve into the art, culture and character of an emerging international destination.

But first, a visit to the past: The main artisan market in the city’s New Town makes shopping for souvenirs an adventure, immersing travelers in Ecuador’s time-honored tradition. Bustling with vendors in indigenous garb selling colorful wool sweaters, watercolor prints, patterned alpaca blankets and jewelry from stalls stacked high with merchandise, the market offers an experience harkening back to a time when Spanish textile mills operated nearby. You can find the market on the corner of Juan León Mera and Jorge Washington, a few blocks from Ejido Park, where artists sell original paintings depicting bright scenes of the city.

Tucked away a 15-minute walk from New Town, the thriving La Floresta district is home to artists, musicians and the city’s trendsetters, reflecting Quito’s exploding arts and music scene. On the residential streets, small cafés, chic restaurants and specialty bakeries vie for attention around every corner. Hand-painted murals adorn the neighborhood’s buildings and a local film school and art house act as the cultural centers for local hipsters.

Exploring on foot puts you at the center of the action, but the city’s length and breadth sometimes requires a smarter mode of transportation. From New Town, there’s a “hop on/hop off” bus with stops around the city so you can easily see the crossroads of the historic and the modern. Purchase a ticket in the shops of the La Mariscal district or where the double-decker bus stops.

The small La Ronda neighborhood at the southern end of Old Town is a Quito cultural mainstay. Its pedestrian quarter is one of the oldest in the city, dating back before the Incas, and it’s been a hangout for artists, musicians and writers since the 19th century. On weekend evenings, its streets fill with people enjoying the sounds of musicians who roam the streets under the moonlit sky and the lights of Old Town. Halfway up Morales Street is a covered, outdoor theater where local entertainers, dancers and musicians perform. Stop in area shops for specialty chocolate (infused with chili and exotic local fruit), handpainted crafts, colorful textiles and wooden whirligigs made in nearby workshops.

Like La Ronda, the San Marcos neighborhood dates back to the Incas. Starting at the junction of Flores and Junín Streets in Old Town, the district was once home to the revolutionaries of Ecuador’s independence, along with artists and musicians. Today, San Marcos’ residents keep the spirit alive, working from streetside studios, bars and restaurants scattered between historic plazas and monasteries. A stroll down quiet, colonial Junín Street passes Museo de Acuarela y Dibujo Muñoz Mariño, an exceptional watercolor museum with weekly classes that spill into the street in search of inspiration. Elsewhere, the local dance company Casa de la Danza holds tented performances on weekends.

Reminiscent of New Orleans, San Blas’ quirky collection of bars and cafés bask in the limelight of Quito’s historic center. La Oficina on José de Antepara is a small restaurant serving house microbrews and specialty pizzas beneath an intricate mural of Quito. The space opens up into a full-sized movie theater, where films and live music take place weekly for a growing gathering of international patrons and travelers.

For a down-to-earth perspective of everyday life in Quito, head to Mercado Central, a short walk from San Blas. The journey starts at the local bull ring and continues through narrow, winding streets and past merchants selling whole pigs and chickens. The two-story market is the main source of food for the area’s residents, and going there will put you shoulder to shoulder with surprised locals who don’t often see travelers.

Bandido Brewing, located across from the market in a converted chapel, is an expat bar for relaxed conversation and live music. It fills up on weekends with tables of teachers, travelers, musicians and locals looking for a low-key spot to enjoy the night.

WHERE TO STAY
For an all-inclusive, extravagant hacienda on the Pichincha side of the valley, Hacienda Rumiloma hits all the right notes. The owners go out of their way to help with trips and travel plans around the city and country at large. The chef’s seasonal menu and cocktails from the cheerful bar reflect an Old-World charm. For a cheap and cheerful option a stone’s throw from the central market of Old Town, Huasi Lodge flies just under the radar. Traditional dorm and private rooms are brightly decorated with modern amenities and situated around a central open-air courtyard. 

WHERE TO EAT
Located close to the hotels of La Mariscal, Mr. Tree serves up hearty plates to hungry travelers and a nightly crowd of expats gathered around the chic bar. The menu from the Scottish chef-owner includes spring rolls, dragon stew, llapingachos and arguably one of the best steaks in Quito. Located between the areas of La Mariscal and La Floresta, Laboratorio is a sleek concept restaurant that hosts a revolving crop of chefs from Quito and abroad and their innovative menus every few months. It’s a small place that packs a punch.

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