January 16, 2012 / 3:11 PM / 6 years ago

Travel Postcard: 48 hours in Quito, Ecuador

(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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