Ecuador ’s capital is a city that scales many heights, not least in terms of elevation. The second-highest capital in the world after Bolivia’s La Paz, Quito sits at 2,850 meters above sea level in a valley hemmed in by mountains, including the twin peaks of Volcán Pichincha.
Quito’s dramatic geographical position has led to its long thin shape: spread out over 50 kilometers long, but just eight kilometers wide.
Quito (pop. 1.6 million) is an intriguing mix of old and new: colonial squares and concrete office blocks, traditional markets and modern malls, indigenous artisans and fashion-conscious professionals—and this diversity allows visitors to have the best of both worlds.
The centro histórico (historic center) delivers a delightful trip back in time to the colonial era with narrow cobbled streets, elegant plazas, and spectacular churches. New Town, on the other hand, looks firmly forward and is so cosmopolitan that parts of it are nicknamed gringolandia.
With a vibrant cultural scene, great nightlife, a vast array of hotels, travel agencies, and the country’s best range of restaurants, it’s no surprise that Ecuador’s political capital is also its tourism hub.
Much of the population of Ecuador’s second-largest city lives in barrios (neighborhoods) or shantytowns, either up the slopes of the mountains or spread north and south of the city center. The people themselves are historically more conservative than in the rest of Ecuador; the capital has always clung to traditional, conservative values, in contrast to the outward-looking merchants of Guayaquil .
However, a new generation, a large student population, and modern businesses have all injected a healthy dose of open-mindedness. Most importantly, visitors will find Quiteños helpful, welcoming, and justifiably proud of their city.
Quito’s residents have plenty to be proud of: In 1978 it was the first city in the world to receive World Heritage Site status from UNESCO. Although there have been problems with upkeep, in recent years a multimillion-dollar regeneration program has left the city in better shape than ever. A new feeling of cleanliness and security pervades Old Town, with an increased police presence and a burgeoning cultural and nightlife scene. Interior patios have been tastefully renovated, and street artists have replaced beggars and hawkers. New Town is also increasingly well-kept, although it has some way to go to solve its security problems.