Surrounded by snowcapped Andean peaks, the Ecuadorean capital of Quito has long been overlooked by travelers en route to the Galápagos Islands. That’s their loss. With its innovative food scene, rich cultural heritage, and breathtaking mountain vistas, this vibrant historic city offers wonders at every turn, not least of which is the lush, bird-filled cloud forest on its doorstep.
Words and photography by Matt Dutile.
It’s Holy Friday in Quito, and tens of thousands of worshipers have gathered in the city’s 16th-century Centro Histórico for the annual procession of Jesús del Gran Poder. The conical purple hats of the cucuruchos—costumed penitents with chains fastened to their ankles or crosses of prickly cactus on their bare backs—bob up and down above the shoulders of the crowd like a rolling violet wave. Navigating the narrow, hilly streets through the flow of devotees is made even more challenging by the rarefied Andean air. At 2,850 meters above sea level, Quito is the world’s second-highest capital city, and I quickly find myself doubled over in an attempt to catch my breath. A passing trumpeter in a straw hat casts me a sympathetic gaze, uttering a single word of understanding: “Alto.” High, indeed.
Capturing a final shot of the parading cucuruchos, I make my way downhill to the cobblestoned Plaza de San Francisco. Concierge Alfonso Díaz is there with a smile and a handshake to usher me into Casa Gangotena, a century-old former mansion that, after three years of painstaking restoration, reopened in 2013 as a 31-room hotel with its original art nouveau and neoclassical architecture intact. Exhausted, I sink into a chair in the plant-filled atrium before heading upstairs to the rooftop terrace to watch the tail-end of the procession as it pours out of the Church and Convent of San Francisco.
At last the float carrying the Jesús del Gran Poder—a 17th-century wooden statue of Christ on the path to Calvary—emerges, flanked by priests and a shoulder-to-shoulder cordon of riot police. Supplicants press in, calling out invocations and dashing their foreheads in the sign of the cross. Díaz passes me a basket of rose petals and I join the dozens of other guests gathered on the roof in showering the parade below with floral offerings.
Quito, and indeed all of mainland Ecuador, has long been overlooked by travelers on their way to the country’s most famous destination, the Galápagos Islands, which lie 1,000 kilometers off the South American coast. The pull of those islands is understandable; I felt it myself three years ago, when I gave Quito barely a thought on my way to the archipelago that inspired Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking research on natural selection and evolution. I’m back now to correct that mistake.
Crouched high in the Andes along a narrow, volcano-flanked valley, Quito has an undeniably dramatic setting. Its city limits stretch to within one kilometer of the equator and are fringed by lush cloud forests and the Guayllabamba River Basin, while its historic center bristles with churches, chapels, convents, and pretty plazas, making it Latin America’s best-preserved colonial city—and one of the earliest entries onto the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Quito’s 2.6 million residents beckon visitors to understand why they’re not only at la mitad del mundo—the center of the world—but also an exciting convergence of ecology, ancient culture, innovative cuisine, and art.
The latter brings me to Casa del Alabado, where I’m to meet the museum’s curator, Maria Patricia Ordoñez, as part of a private tour arranged by Casa Gangotena, just a short stroll away. Quietly sipping a cup of guayusa-leaf tea in the courtyard café as the morning light cascades across a peristyle of worn stone columns is the perfect antidote to the previous day’s frenzy.
Inhabiting one of the oldest buildings in Quito, Casa del Alabado houses an impressive collection of ancient Ecuadorian art that represents almost two dozen coastal, highland, and Amazonian cultures. Adobe walls painted red or yellow—or in one case, covered by a lush green vertical garden—provide a beautiful contrast to the decorative stone and clay figures on display, some dating as far back as 6000 B.C.
“We organize our collection thematically, not chronologically as other museums might,” Ordoñez explains as I focus in on a particularly ornate piece from the prehistoric Jama-Coaque culture. “The idea is to approach these objects as works of art, rather than as archaeological artifacts.” In the gallery with the vertical garden, I’m transfixed by how a collection of anthropomorphic figures appears against the backdrop of living greenery. Quito is a city that marries its relationship with humanity and the natural world as few others do—the vestiges of an enduring Andean cosmovision.
From Casa del Alabado, I hop a cab for the 20-minute ride up to Bellavista, a hillside neighborhood whose key attraction is La Capilla del Hombre (“The Chapel of Man”). Designed as a modern interpretation of a pre-Columbian temple, the stone-clad cultural center was conceived by Ecuador’s most celebrated artist, Oswaldo Guayasamín, as a tribute to the suffering and resilience of the Latin American people. Completed in 2002, three years after Guayasa-mín’s death, it is home to dozens of his large-scale paintings and murals. One, painted on the inside surface of the upper level’s conical skylight, depicts the struggles of the workers in the silver mines of Potosí, Bolivia, where countless indigenous miners perished in the 17th century.
On the same grounds is the artist’s former residence, now a museum showcasing his private collection of pre-Hispanic artefacts and colonial art alongside more of Guayasamín’s own work and memorabilia. One of its directors, a Russian émigré named Tatiana Romanienko, shows me around, pointing out a leather briefcase given to Guayasamín by his friend Fidel Castro. A particularly colorful cubist cityscape catches my attention. “Guayasamín always said the color of Quito depended on his mood,” Romanienko says. “Today it could be rose, the next, it’s black or green.”
By this point, my mood is pointing me toward food, so I head back down the hill for a late lunch at Z-Food, a four-year-old pescaderia that trumpets the importance of fish as a staple of Ecuadorian cuisine. It’s part of the Z Restaurants group founded by chef/owner David Picco, whose fine diner Zazu—where I’ll gorge myself that night on prawn-and-plantain cazuela (stew), poached egg in veal jus, and deeply flavorful guinea pig ravioli—is the only Relais & Châteaux restaurant in the country.
The atmosphere at Z-Food is festive. Every patio table is filled with patrons sipping wine and nibbling bites of fried fish or grilled octopus. Inside, a group of revelers spontaneously burst into dance around the open dining room. And well they should: the food is that good. My ceviche selection includes a creamy avocado loaded with ribbons of stone crab, smoked shrimp in a sweet, rich tomato salsa, and sea bass with velvety peanut undertones, all made with seafood bought directly from small-scale fishermen and cooperatives.
I return to Bellavista the next day for a meal at Somos, a place so new they are still in the throes of opening. “We like to say we are Ecuadorian-born, but globally inspired,” Alejandra Espinoza—a Paris-trained chef whose résumé includes stints at top kitchens in France and the United States—tells me of her restaurant, which she runs with her American husband Signo Uddenberg. “We want to make food that’s accessible to locals, using local ingredients with international techniques.”
The space is a mid-century modernist’s dream, filled with decor from around the country: woven lamps from the coastal city of Esmeraldas, white-oak chairs by Guayaquil designer Pedro Bahr, a giant mural courtesy of Quito-born street artist Apitatán. But it is Espinoza’s imaginative menu of reinterpreted Ecuadorian classics and globally inspired plates that ensures Somos will be a rising star in the city’s culinary firmament. Topped with zesty tomato sauce and chopped cilantro, my brick oven–baked guaguas flatbreads are delicious, as is a gazpiche—a cross between gazpacho and ceviche—of poached shrimp resting in smoky watermelon juice.
Back at Casa Gangotena, Díaz the concierge also recommends the tasting menu at Urko Cocina Local, where chef Daniel Maldonado has been at the forefront of contemporary Ecuadorian cuisine since he opened the restaurant in 2015. In Urko’s upstairs dining room, I sit down for a seven-course dinner based on the ancient astral cycles —raymis—that once defined the Andean agricultural calendar: harvest, fertility, sowing, and flowering.
From the Andes through the Amazon and even the Galápagos (where Maldonado operates another restaurant), it’s a gastronomic journey through Ecuador that makes good use of the herbs and vegetables grown in Urko’s rooftop garden. There’s a complex, heartening llama-bone broth soup, and cocolon—scorched rice that has stuck to the bottom of a pan—dashed with cacao nibs in a pork broth and paired with a sweet taxo juice finisher. Mushrooms rest in a green-tea kombucha opposite a tart apple cocktail; a flaky fish coated in a sourdough tempura arrives atop a bed of creamed corn. And for dessert, I’m served a chocolate bonbon filled with coffee and a halved achotillo (rambutan) crowned with honeycomb.
More Ecuadorian chocolate awaits me the next day in La Floresta, the city’s bohemian neighborhood. I’m here to join a free three-hour walking tour with Quito Street Tours, which takes in historic hacienda houses, artists’ workshops, and a profusion of street art. Our guide, Martín, leads the group past intersections where turquoise-painted zones function as open spaces for graffiti artists from around South America and the world to leave their mark. “For the people who live here, it’s a way for them to design their own neighborhoods,” Martín says.
Circuiting La Floresta we discover an unending array of murals as diverse and vibrant as the city itself. At the entrance to Ocho y Medio, a local arts cinema, is a psychedelic floral pattern by artist Ana Fernández. Against residential walls the animated, geometric characters of Apitatán come to life. There’s even a work by renowned New York street artist Daze.
We also make time to taste organic “tree-to-bar” chocolates at Pacari. Operations for the Ecuadorian chocolatier are based in La Floresta, with a shop and tasting room across the street from its production facility. We sample bars flavored with sweet fig, Andean mint, and Peruvian pink salt, all of it made with rich, earthy dark chocolate from the coastal province of Manabí.
On my fourth morning in town, a shuttle bus is waiting at Casa Gangotena to transport me and half a dozen other trekking-clothed passengers on the 3.5-hour journey to the mainland’s premier ecotourism destination, Mashpi Lodge. As we follow the highway north through the city limits, I can’t help but picture the azure blue skies rolling like inverted waves over the hilltops, pastel-hued colonial edifices cresting the waves. Quito, if nothing else, is bewitching.
Fifty minutes later we cross the equator and continue northwest as secondary highland forest gradually morphs into mist-enveloped primary. The big hand-shaped leaves of the cecropia trees remind me of nothing so much as a Bob Ross painting, the “happy little trees” splashed across the forest canopy in gossamer strokes.
“Do you see those white trees?” asks our transfer guide Luis Puente, pointing to white dots across an open ravine. “It’s a trick of the light. When there’s too much sun, they give it right back.”
The last hour’s descent takes us into the Chocó Rainforest on a spine-jolting road that Puente euphemistically describes as “just a little bumpy.” Amazingly, we’re still within the limits of Quito’s vast metropolitan area.
Arriving at Mashpi Lodge is an experience unto itself: massive perimeter gates swing open like the entrance to Jurassic Park. The hotel sits on 1,300 hectares of pristine conservation land on the dividing line between the Chocó Rainforest and the tropical zone of the Andes. It’s a region of incredible biodiversity, with more than 400 bird species (35 of which are endemic), 50 types of mammals, and a staggering array of amphibians and reptiles calling it home.
The brainchild of former Quito mayor Roque Sevilla, the angular, contemporary retreat blends stone, steel, and glass in an exquisite form that would appeal to the most die-hard of design minimalists. It feels at once intimate and calming, with only 18 rooms and four suites. My room is elegantly simple, featuring floor-to-ceiling glass windows with unimpeded views of the forest. Everything about the architecture at Mashpi, from the two-story-high glass walls of the dining hall to the metal viewing platform extending out from an elevated embankment, is designed around one fundamental understanding: nature is king here.
Later that afternoon, Gonzalo Espinosa, the lodge’s “explorations coordinator,” leads me on a short hike to a 30-meter-high obser-vation tower. We climb up to find the forest canopy awash in the golden glow of the setting sun, pockets of low-lying cloud hugging each curve of the primordial mountains.
“See the valley over there?” Gonzalo points to a converging dip on our right. “Our goal is to create an unobstructed biological corridor between Mashpi and its neighboring reserves, Cotacachi and Mindo. We opened with 1,200 acres and doubled that within a few years. We’re always looking to obtain more land so we can protect this paradise from human encroachment.”
Later, I join naturalist guide Juan Carlos Narváez for an hour-long night hike. Combing the foliage with flashlights for chirping insects and amphibians in the inky darkness reminds me of my adolescence in the woodlands of North America. The fauna, however, belongs to a completely different world: we spot Chocó rain frogs, wolf spiders, and tailless scorpions, as well as the furry tail of a kinkajou fleeing from our beams.
If nature is king at Mashpi, then the Dragonfly is its throne. Heights have never been my thing, so it’s with some trepidation that I strap myself into the open-air cable car with Espinosa and two other guests, all of us wearing plastic rain ponchos. A dense fog has settled over the morning and visibility is limited to about 20 meters—just as well, given we’ll be traveling a dizzying 200 meters above the forest floor. A light rain dribbles onto our ponchos as the station operator depresses the button that sends us gently gliding forward.
We pass within arm’s length of bromeliads dangling from the limbs of trees, and the triangular leaves of the aptly named elephant ears climbing their trunks. As the cable car zips along, we rise above the canopy and into the mist, suspended in a sea of fog. Then we drop below the cloud cover and the landscape opens before us.
Four, six, ten—I lose count of the gurgling streams and waterfalls cascading below. Wisps of clouds form into being before our eyes, evaporating from dew-laden leaves. For the next two hours—it’s a four-kilometer round trip—we watch the cyclical dance of precipitation and evaporation. Long-wattled umbrellabirds issue calls from lofty moss-covered limbs, bobbing their black heads in a rhythm known only to themselves. A toucanet perched on a cecropia tree shakes off a spray of water with a sudden ruffling of its feathers. It’s so close, the droplets almost reach us.
Quito—you’ve taken my breath away once again.
From many Asian capitals, the most direct flights to Quito’s Mariscal Sucre International Airport are via Toronto
Where to Stay
Av. Bolívar; 593-2/400-8088; doubles from US$450.
Reserva Privada Mashpi; 593-2/400-4100; doubles from US$1,098.
Where to Eat
331 Calle Mariano Aguilera; 593-2/254-3559.
N30-135 Av. Coruña; 593-2/223-6425.
N34-421 Av. Eloy Alfaro, Bellavista; 593/99-057-8897.
N24-862 Av. Isabel la Católica; 593-2/256-3180.
What to See and Do
N1-41 Calle Cuenca.
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Higher Pursuits”).