Travel Postcard: 48 hours in Quito, Ecuador

Mon Jan 16, 2012 10:14am EST

An aerial view of Quito city is seen from an aircraft flying above Mariscal Sucre Airport, which is located 2,813 meters (9, 229 feet) above sea level in the Andes Mountains, March 31, 2011. REUTERS/Guillermo Granja

An aerial view of Quito city is seen from an aircraft flying above Mariscal Sucre Airport, which is located 2,813 meters (9, 229 feet) above sea level in the Andes Mountains, March 31, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Guillermo Granja

(Reuters) - Perched 9,350 feet above sea level, Quito is a gateway to sweeping Andean panoramas and a UNESCO world heritage monument.

The centre of the capital of Ecuador, which takes its name from the nearby equatorial line, is a living museum of Spanish colonial architecture, freshened by over $300 million in recent restorations.

FRIDAY

6 p.m. - Board a cable car to climb to 13,500 feet for a bird's eye view. Looming above is the summit of the Pichincha volcano, which belched ash as recently as 1999.

7 p.m. - Soak in colonial-era ambience with a drink outdoors at Tianguez, at the foot of twin-towered San Francisco monastery, whose facade recalls Spain's Escorial.

8 p.m. - Dine at nearby Hotel Majestic. As a guitar duo strums folk tunes, try turnover empanadas made from yucca root and banana flour, spiced with Pico de Gallo sauce using peppers, onion, and garlic. Grab a window table for a view of the cathedral. Its floodlit cupolas are sheathed in a checkerboard of green, beige, yellow and white tiles.

9 p.m. - Head to La Ronda, a cobblestoned 1,000-foot (300 metre) walkway, festooned with red geraniums in vases fastened to wrought-iron balconies. Live music pours from a profusion of bars. Handicraft stores and art galleries are open late.

To warm up drink canelazo, stirred in knee-high ceramic pots resting on fire-lit grills. Brewed from sugarcane-derived liquor, it is flavoured with cinnamon, lime and oranges.

SATURDAY

8 a.m. - Ride the rails to Cotopaxi, Ecuador's highest active volcano. The newly restored train trundles on a route away from populated areas, offering unspoiled views.

9 a.m. - At the Tambillo stop, order a $1 breakfast of steaming corn cobs, fresh white cheese and nearly 1-inch beans.

10:40 a.m. - At Boliche take a guided drive up Cotopaxi to a 14,760-foot (4,500-metre-) high perch. View glaciers slashed by lava-reddened earth. Rest on the soft volcanic ash, bathed by moist breezes wafting up from the Amazon jungle. More than a dozen mountain ridges fan out below.

2 p.m. - With weekend traffic light, zip back by taxi to central Quito within 45 minutes.

3 p.m. - Visit La Compania. Some guidebooks describe it as one of Latin America's most beautiful churches. Walls gleam with gold leafed carvings under a windowed blue pastel dome. A vaulted nave is crisscrossed by countless Arabesque geometric shapes.

4 p.m. - Tour the Santo Domingo church which is blends Renaissance, Moorish and Baroque styles.

6 p.m. - Dine at high-end La Choza, which features highland specialties, including locro de papa which is a creamy rich potato soup with avocado slices. Caldo de patas has a tender cooked beef hoof.

9 p.m. Check out the La Estacion club for blends of rock and highland Andean folk music (<www.laestacion-quito.com>).

SUNDAY

9 a.m. - The equator runs about 10 miles north of Quito. A 100-foot high (30-metre) monument claims to sit on the equator. Topped by a globe, it is the hub of an equatorial theme park called "Middle of the World."

The 1736-1744 equatorial mission by French scientists is documented in a nearby pavilion. Its finding upheld Sir Isaac Newton's assertion that the globe slightly bulged at its middle. 11 a.m. - Over 100 yards (metres) away, the Inti Nan museum also claims to straddle 0 0' 0'' latitude. On separate sides of the line, it shows whirlpools drain in opposite directions. In nearby Catequilla the equator runs through pre-Inca ruins, according to Google Earth and GPS readings. Non-profit research group Quitsato (<www.quitsato.org>) can arrange a visit.

2 p.m. - Abutting Quito's largest park is the Chapel of Man, a domed art temple housing monumental work by the late Oswaldo Guyasamin, Ecuador's most famous artist, who was brought to world attention in the 1940s by Nelson Rockefeller.

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