After days filled with meaningful work with children who need extra care and attention, in the evenings and on weekends Global Volunteers in Ecuador have the chance to explore the highest capital city in the world – Quito, where Global Volunteers has partnered since 1996. For those who love culture, gastronomy, architecture, history, and nature, you will never be at a loss for something fascinating to explore during your free time while on a service program in Ecuador. Read on to learn about some of the most interesting sites to visit in Quito, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Quito: The Highest Capital City in the World
Perched high in the Andes Mountains at 9,350 feet above sea level, Quito is proudly the highest constitutional capital city in the world (La Paz, Bolivia is higher, but is not the constitutional capital). Flanked by Pichincha Volcano, this Andean city offers breathtaking views. And the options to take in the heart-stopping panorama are endless — rooftop restaurants in Old Town, lush parks throughout the city, or from the crest of Pichincha itself. All offer beautiful, unique views of the city and its Andean skyline.
A city of about 2.9 million residents, Quito sprawls from north to south, with the mountains and cliffs limiting the city from growing east to west. Quito is located about 0.62 miles south of 0° latitude. Its altitude and latitude are two characteristics that make this city very distinct. Situated at the bulge of the Earth, Quito is often referred to as “The Middle of the World”, a synonym for “equator”, which is what ‘Ecuador’ means in Spanish.
Quito has a subtropical highland climate and because of its elevation and proximity to the equator, has a fairly constant cool climate. The average temperature at noon is 66° F and the average nighttime low is 49° F. Due to its geographical location and elevation, Quito receives a great amount of solar radiation. However, due to the elevation, the air does not heat up so there is a noticeable difference in temperature depending on whether you are in the sunlight or in the shade.
Due to its well-preserved and sizeable historic center, Quito was the first city ever, along with Krakow, to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Quito’s colonial district, or Old Town, is considered to be one of the most important and least altered historic areas in Latin America. It houses about 130 monumental buildings, including dozens of churches. Quito is the largest city in Ecuador and is the head of government. It is home to the presidential palace, named Carondelet; the National Assembly, which is the legislature; and the Supreme Court. It houses gorgeous baroque churches, picturesque plazas, and cobblestone streets. Volunteers can spend days wandering the cloisters of 16th-century monasteries and churches, contemplating masterpieces of the Escuela de Arte Quiteña, and pondering pre-Colombian carvings at fine museums.
Here, we present just a few of the many attractions Ecuador volunteers visit during their free time in Quito:
La Basílica del Voto Nacional (The Basilica of the National Vow)
Quito’s Basilica is a gigantic Roman Catholic church located in Old Town and is the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas. Due to its structure and style, Quito’s Basilica is compared with two of the great cathedrals of the world: Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The two front towers are each 115 meters (377 feet) high, making it one of the tallest structures in the city.
An important feature of its façade are the gargoyles, which are the main hallmarks of the Basilica. These are found on the upper sides of the central nave, forming an unprecedented contribution to the neo-Gothic style by Ecuador since the animals that decorate this temple are not only mythological (like those of European temples), but they are endemic and exotic animals that are representative of the Ecuadorian fauna — Galapagos tortoises, blue-footed boobies, armadillos, howler monkeys, pumas, among others. Visitors to the Basilica can climb high up into its clock towers and revel in a bird’s eye view of Quito’s Old Town and the intricate detail of this neo-Gothic edifice.
La Virgen del Panecillo (The Virgin of El Panecillo)
The Virgin of El Panecillo is a winged virgin who is claimed to watch over Quito and is located on top of a 656-foot-high bun-shaped hill in the heart of the city. The name “Panecillo” means “little bun” and is the name of the hill on which this 135-foot monument sits. She serves as the backdrop to the historic center of Quito and is the highest statue in Ecuador, as well as one of the highest in South America (taller than the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro). It is also the tallest aluminum statue in the world. A short taxi ride up the bun-shaped hill will take you up to the Virgin, where you can learn about the building of the monument, which was designed by Spanish sculptor Agustín de la Herrán Matorras. It is made from 7,400 pieces of aluminum, with each piece clearly numbered. The statue was shipped to Ecuador from Spain and was reassembled. From this hill top, visitors can take in the sprawling size of the city of Quito, and see how it stretches for miles south of the hill that borders Quito’s Old Town. Snow-capped volcanoes such as Cotopaxi, Antisana, and Cayambe mark the skyline of this privileged view.
Cotopaxi Volcano is located about 31 miles south of Quito, but it’s cone-shaped snow-capped peak can be seen from many parts of the city. Cotopaxi is the second-highest summit in Ecuador at 19,347 feet and is among the highest active volcanoes in the world. “Cotopaxi” comes from Quechua — “coto” means “neck” and “paxi” means “moon”, referring to the crater of the volcano that looks like a crescent moon. Even before the Inca invasion in the 15th century, the volcano was honored as a “Sacred Mountain” by Andean people. It was worshipped as “rain sender”, guaranteeing the land’s fertility, and its summit was revered as a place where gods lived. While Cotopaxi is not the only volcano clearly visible from Quito, I have heard Cotopaxi referred to as the most vain of the volcanoes – always wanting to be seen. Also commonly seen from Quito are El Reventador, Antisana, and Cayambe volcanoes. Climbing Cotopaxi to the summit is quite popular, and volunteers commonly use the middle weekend of a two-week service program to go on this adventure with mountain guide companies that offer guided climbs of the mountain.
La Iglesia de La Compañía de Jesús (The Church of the Society of Jesus)
The Church of the Society of Jesus, a Jesuit church known colloquially as La Compañía, is one of the best-known churches in Quito because of its large central nave that is intricately decorated with gold leaf, gilded plaster, and wood carvings. Inspired by two Roman Jesuit churches — the Chiesa del Gesù (1580) and the Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola (1650) — La Compañía is one of the most significant works of Spanish Baroque architecture in South America. It is Quito’s most ornate church and, according to many quiteños, the country’s most beautiful. Because it took 160 years to build, the church’s design encompasses four styles in its architecture, although the Baroque style is the predominant style.
The Artisanal Market
The artisanal market located on Jorge Washington Street in Quito cannot be missed. Bright colors, embroidered clothes, weavings, paintings, and fine designs in silver and jewelry are just some of the unique gifts that shoppers can find at this friendly marketplace. Leather goods, hammocks, ponchos, blankets, and hats are also favorites for the 1,500 to 2,000 shoppers who visit the market daily. Goods brought in from the Ecuadorian Amazon and the northern Andes can be found at this market. Friendly, smiling faces of vendors offering discounts are seen throughout the rows of stalls.
Quito Dining & Nightlife
Although Quito is home to almost three million people, it maintains a small-town feel while offering the modern conveniences and cosmopolitan air of a large metropolis. Quito offers many culinary temptations such as tangy ceviche, rich seco de chivo (goat stew), and baked pork, as well as international flavors. Dozens of restaurants in Old Town offer views of the sparkling lights of the city. Quito nightlife offers bars and night clubs for salsa dancing and more.
Quito’s “eternal springtime” weather coupled with its zero latitude offers gorgeous sunny days to visit lush parks with palm trees and others with towering eucalyptus trees. Carolina Park in the middle of the modern area of the city has bikes for rent, paddle boats, dance classes, soccer games, aerobics, a running track, and more. On the weekends, it’s a great place for people watching — families spending time together, dads buying their children cotton candy from a cart, moms throwing balls and swinging their kids around lovingly. You’ll feel immersed in Ecuadorian culture at this lively park. Or, visit Parque Metropolitano, with its long walking trails among thick groves of tall eucalyptus trees. Walk to the eastern side of the park and get a breathtaking view of the valley below. Enjoy Quito’s temperate climate and sunny skies in these great outdoor areas right in the city.
These are just a handful of the beautiful and interesting sites that Quito offers and which are enjoyed by quiteños and visitors alike. To get an even better idea of what the highest capital city in the world looks like and imagine yourself volunteering in and exploring this gorgeous city, watch this two-minute video:
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