Church Hopping, Volcano Hikes, and Equatorial Experiments: The 4-Day Weekend in Quito

Vacqueros on horseback in Cotopaxi National Park in Ecuador
Sunart Media / Shutterstock


So you’re finally planning that bucket-list trip to the Galápagos Islands? Then it’s also time to rethink the length of your inevitable layover in Quito. There’s no question that your journey to the center of the earth should comprise a few days in Ecuador’s capital city. But your visit shouldn’t be restricted to the hilly cobblestone streets of its UNESCO-recognized Old Town. There are several natural wonders lying not far beyond the city limits.

Here’s our four-day guide to an adventure-packed long weekend in Quito, Ecuador.

Casa Gangotena
Casa Gangotena Courtesy Image

Where to Stay in Quito

For the plushest accommodation in Quito, book one of the 31 rooms at Casa Gangotena, an opulent 20th-century estate on the edge of Plaza San Francisco in the historic district. The Relais & Chateau property is worth the splurge to marvel at its stately mix of neoclassical and art deco architecture, from the crimson courtyard to the lush garden. If design hotels are more your thing, check into LEED-certified Carlota for a boutique stay in a historic house refreshed with contemporary interiors. Travelers in transit often favor the JW Marriott Quito for its convenient location in the buzzing Mariscal district, but it’s also a great option for those who prefer a resort-style experience complete with a three eateries, a giant pool and spa, and fitness center.

Thursday Afternoon

Drop off your bags at the hotel and take an Uber straight to the TelefériQo (a portmanteau of teleferic and Quito) to survey the city from above. The gondola rises up the flank of the Pichincha Volcano to Cruz Loma, a panoramic lookout. It’s also an access point to some great hiking atop the volcano.

For sunset, hit up Centro Cultural Itchimbía, which sits on a hilltop above Quito’s San Juan district. Constructed in 1889 of zinc and steel, the Parisian-style building houses a rotation of arts exhibitions that’s worth checking out. Continue admiring the view with an al fresco dinner at Pim’s a few steps away. Take it easy tonight, allowing yourself to acclimate to the second-highest capital city on earth.

Friday Morning

Roll out of bed and into the popular Cyrano bakery on Avenida Portugal. Take your pick of excellent homemade pastries and breads like the pan de pesto—or go for the artisanal ice cream should you shamelessly wake up with a sweet tooth.

La Merced Church, Old Town, Quito, Pichincha Province, Ecuador
Karol Kozlowski/imageBROKER / Shutterstock

After breakfast, make your way to the Centro Histórico—the epicenter of Quito’s colonial past—which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. Land your feet on the cobblestones of Plaza San Francesco, where street performers create a welcoming soundtrack as you begin to tour the 16th-century district. From there, succumb to the temptation of walking through the narrow streets of Old Town, gazing at the mix of whitewashed and pastel facades and the centuries-old decorative accents adorning them. As you round back toward the plaza, pop into Chez Tiff Artesanal, an easy-to-miss café and chocolate shop where you can sample bars made of Ecuador’s world-famous cacao beans.

Friday Afternoon

Stop for lunch at Hasta La Vuelta Señor for traditional lamb stew and a pint of local pilsner, all while enjoying the view from the top floor of a Spanish colonial courtyard.

This city’s jewels are arguably its landmark churches that dot the historic district, with two standing out the most. Start at Compañía de Jesús—nicknamed the Gold Church—for its jaw dropping gilded interior. With emerald-and-gold domes, 19th-century frescoes, and gold leaf motifs that seem to endlessly intertwine, it’s by far the most ornate example of Quito’s baroque attractions. The Basílica del Voto Nacional is another unmissable house of worship as the largest neo-gothic church in the Western Hemisphere (although it’s technically still incomplete). While its architectural grandeur competes with the great cathedrals of Europe, you’re firmly placed in South America after glancing the exterior stonework of dolphins and turtles in place of traditional medieval gargoyles.

Friday Evening

Book in advance a multi-course tasting experience at Urko Cocina Local, an acclaimed upscale restaurant that serves elevated Ecuadorian fare. If you’re staying in Old Town, stop for a pour of pumpkin ale at Bandido Brewing, which was founded by expats from Oregon aiming to redefine craft beer culture in Quito.

Wild horses on a plain below the Cotopaxi volcano in Cotopaxi National Park, Ecuador
Wild horses on a plain below the Cotopaxi volcano in Cotopaxi National Park, Ecuador Angela N Perryman / Shutterstock

Saturday Morning and Afternoon

Sip some coca tea before heading on your full day trip to Cotopaxi National Park, less than two hours from Quito proper. As the second most visited nature reserve in Ecuador after the Galapagos, and the home of the world’s highest active volcano (it rises to 20,000 feet!), Cotopaxi will take your breath away—and it’s not just the elevation. A wealth of wild animals roam the park, like horses, deer, and even bears, with giant condors and black-hooded Andean gulls flying overhead.

Stroll through the botanical garden near the entrance before embarking on the Zig Zag trail toward the Jose Rivas Refuge on the volcano, ending at the scenic lower glacier. Be mindful of the altitude, which will make your hike more strenuous than you might expect.

Saturday Evening

Grab dinner at the award-winning Zazu, where regional ingredients meet global flavors in dishes like guinea pig with peanut ravioli and duck with szechuan peppercorns and Andean potatoes. If you’re not suffering post-hike exhaustion at this point, walk over to Reina Victoria Street for bar hopping and live music in the Mariscal Sucre district, stopping at the rock and roll–themed Bar Rocky, Kings Cross, and Dirty Sanchez Cafe.

People visit the Middle of the World Monument in Quito, Ecuador
People visit the Middle of the World Monument in Quito, Ecuador JopsStock / Shutterstock

Sunday Morning

De La Llama serves outstanding meals throughout the day, but breakfast is a definite standout with a traditional spread of eggs and pork cracklings. We suggest their self-proclaimed hangover cure: shrimp ceviche and beer.

La Mitad del Mundo—the Middle of the Earth—lies just north of Quito as one of Ecuador’s most famous attractions. There’s a monument commemorating the determination of the equatorial line here in 1736, but you’ll want to head to the Intiñan Solar Museum for the full showcase of intra-hemispheric experiments. While it actually isn’t the precise location of the true equator, demonstrations of egg balancing on a nail and water flushing to show the Coriolis Effect are surprisingly fun to participate in, whether it’s true science or not.

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