Home » 2023 Galapagos Islands

Quito, Ecuador

Monday, March 13, 2023 - 2:30pm by Lolo
0 miles and 0 hours from our last stop - 2 night stay


Basílica del Voto NacionalBasílica del Voto NacionalOur base camp in Quito was the lovely Mercure Alameda Hotel, located in walking distance to the historic Old Town.

Although we arrived around midnight, Quito is only two hours later than San Francisco, so it felt more like 10:00 p.m., and there really was no jet lag to deal with, making for an easy transition.

Since we only had one full-day to explore Quito, we immediately went to sleep and surprisingly (for me at least) woke up at 7:30 a.m. feeling quite refreshed and ready to get going. The hotel had a delicious free buffet, which would keep us satiated for quite a few hours.

We had watched numerous YouTube videos on top things to do in Quito, so we had carefully chosen how to best utilize our short time here. Also, the guide books warned of safety issues, such as making sure you only used an Uber or an authorized (legal) taxi, as there have been issues of “express kidnapping,” where the driver takes passengers at gunpoint to an ATM, withdraws their money, and then lets them go. That was not high on our list of things to do in Quito, although it would have provided an interesting story for Lolo’s Extreme. Other warnings were about sketchy neighborhoods to avoid.

Basílica del Voto NacionalBasílica del Voto NacionalWe decided to limit ourselves to the Old Town historic district, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its narrow streets, Spanish colonial architecture, and historic attractions.

The Basilica del Voto Nacional was the top thing we wanted to see in Quito, both because of its beauty and significance, as well as for the opportunity to climb the steep rickety steps and ladders to the top of its towers for a stunning view of Quito below.

It is the largest neo-Gothic church in all of South America. Like every large cathedral we have ever visited, it was undergoing some construction, which in this case was a good thing, because according to local legend, the world will end if construction of the basilica is ever officially completed. I would hate to have that happen before we finally got to the Galapagos. We were thwarted once because of Covid, so the world ending on our second attempt would really be a bummer.

Climbing to the top of the Basilica TowerClimbing to the top of the Basilica TowerThe cathedral was designed in 1890 by the French architect Emilio Tarlier, who was inspired by the Notre Dame and Bourges cathedrals. It took over 30 years to build the basilica. The first mass and ringing of the bells took place in 1924. Pope John Paul II blessed the church in 1985, and it was consecrated and finally inaugurated in 1988.

It is an extremely impressive structure - 460 feet long and 115 feet wide, with its two frontal towers reaching a height of 377 feet. I particularly enjoyed the gargoyles protruding from the exterior: Ecuadorian iguanas, tortoises, armadillos, and Andean condors, chosen to represent the local endemic fauna rather than classic mythological or religious figures.

View of one Basilica Tower from the otherView of one Basilica Tower from the otherAfter admiring the exterior, we went around the back of the church and paid our $3 to begin our ascent to the top of the tower, which is 16 stories high. You can either take an elevator to the top or walk it. We chose to walk it. The YouTube video we had watched of a couple climbing it made it seem much scarier and strenuous than it actually was, although the fact that Quito is 9,000 feet above sea level did make our breathing a little harder.

We began ascending a few narrow, winding stairs which eventually brought us to a level from which we could look down onto the interior of the cathedral with its long central nave and stunning stained glass windows. Although we couldn’t see them from this vantage point, there are 24 small chapels surrounding the central nave, each dedicated to an Ecuadorian province.

View from atop the Basilica TowerView from atop the Basilica TowerFrom there we continued climbing up above the ceiling of the Basilica where there is a wooden walkway above the church roof connecting to the other tower, but it was blocked off at the end because of construction - or fake construction so the world wouldn’t end.

Along the way, there were windows in the tower walls where we got views of the other tower as well as close ups of the interesting gargoyles.

On the 10th floor there was a cafe serving snacks and beer. Beer in a cathedral was a novel idea, which we passed up because it was only 10 a.m.

Carondelet Palace in the Plaza GrandeCarondelet Palace in the Plaza GrandeEventually we came to the floor where we stood behind the huge clocks on the four sides of the tower. It was an interesting perspective to see the clocks in reverse.

The final ladders to the top were actually outside the tower with metal rungs that we could look through down to the ground hundreds of feet below, which did freak out the YouTube couple, but I am always okay as long as I have a railing to hold onto.

Once at the top, we had a fabulous 360 degree view of Quito with El Panecillo looming in the background topped with a huge 45-meter high statue of the Virgin Mary with wings, which can be seen from practically anywhere you are in the city. El Panecillo translates to “The Little Bread Loaf,” and it’s easy to see why.

Metropolitan Cathedral in the Plaza GrandeMetropolitan Cathedral in the Plaza GrandeThe irony to me was that El Panecillo is one of the sketchiest places in the city despite the Virgin Mary’s presence. All the guidebooks warn you to take a taxi to visit the statue because it is not safe to walk there.

Once we were ready to come down, we had to go backwards down the metal rung ladder for a bit, which can be pretty unnerving for some.

We continued down from whence we came, sadly still too early for a cerveza in the cafe. Perhaps later, at a more respectable time, after we visited some other sights in the Old Town.

Exterior of Iglesia de la Compania de JesusExterior of Iglesia de la Compania de JesusFrom there, we headed to the heart of Quito’s Old Town, the Plaza Grande, also known as Independence Square, where palm trees and well-manicured gardens line the walkways through the park, with a large fountain in the center.

The plaza is surrounded by ornate colonial architecture, the most impressive of which is the Carondelet Palace, where Ecuador’s president lives and works. In front of the palace a group of Ecuadorian military (both male and female) were assembled for inspection. That plus the presence of at least two dozen police officers made this the safest place to be in Quito.

Near to the Palace is the Metropolitan Cathedral, a Catholic church also known as the Cathedral of Quito. Construction began in 1565, with various additions and renovations made until it was completed in 1806. Rather eclectic, it has a variety of architectural styles that blend very well together - Gothic style arches, a Baroque main altar, a Neoclassical choir area, and Moorish style ceilings.

Plaza de San FranciscoPlaza de San FranciscoThe murals inside blend European Christian iconography with a unique Andean interpretation. An imitation of the Last Supper has the disciples dining on guinea pig (an Ecuadorian favorite) and a nativity scene has llamas along with the usual farm animals.

A stone’s throw away from the Plaza Grande is another large cathedral, the Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus (Church of the Jesuits), the most ornate and beautiful of all. I know Ecuador is a very Catholic country, but there are four huge cathedrals in a little more than a square mile. I wonder how filled they are on Sundays.

Religious art in Museo Fray Pedro GocialReligious art in Museo Fray Pedro GocialBuilt by Jesuits between 1605 and 1765, this church is the pinnacle of Latin American Baroque. The church is known for its gold plated interior built by artists from the Quito School, who skillfully carved and gilded every inch of the Church with 23-carat gold sheets. My biggest regret is that photography was not allowed, meaning I am going to basically forget that I have ever been here.

However, the exterior was not off limits, so we were able to photograph the lovely green and gold domes atop the church.

We continued a short distance (4 minute walk) to the Plaza de San Franisco, one of Quito’s most beautiful squares, surrounded by whitewashed walls and the twin bell towers of Ecuador’s oldest church and the Andes mountains in the background. It was our fourth and final church of the day.

Street art in Old Town QuitoStreet art in Old Town QuitoThe plaza is dominated by the Iglesia and Convento de San Francisco - the largest religious complex in South America. Established in 1536 by Franciscan monks, this magnificent architectural masterpiece features a museum (Museo Fray Pedro Gocial) in its convent with one of the most beautiful and complete collections of Quito Art from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

As with the inclusion of local fauna on gargoyles of the Basilica del Voto Nacional, many design motifs from indigenous cultures were to be found within the complex, such as faces of sun gods and harvest symbols of flowers and fruit.

There were also plenty of morbid and ghoulish sculptural works, with plenty of skulls and other metaphors for death in order to inflict the proper level of fear of consequences for a sinful life.

Herb on the streets of the Old TownHerb on the streets of the Old TownOn a more pleasant note, we stumbled into a room with beer making equipment and a large table with benches on either side. So maybe the monks were not all gloom and doom. I liked to imagine them gathering around this table together just to chill and enjoy a good beer together.

Speaking of, it was getting near beer o’clock for us, so time to move on.

We left the Old Town and headed towards the Calle La Ronda, described in the books as a narrow cobblestone lane lined with postcard-perfect 17th century buildings, festive restaurants, bars, art galleries, and elegant shops. I pictured it being like Las Ramblas in Barcelona

I navigated to a random spot on Calle La Ronda and we started walking there. I’m not sure if we were on the wrong section of the street or whether we were just tired, but we started to feel a bit unsafe and uncomfortable. Unsavory characters were getting a little too close and the neighborhood definitely looked a bit sketchy. The angel atop El Panecillo was looming over us, which wasn’t a good thing, because that was the area we were warned to avoid.

Herb enjoying his first beer in a basilicaHerb enjoying his first beer in a basilicaI did read in the guidebooks that La Calle Ronda looks more “romantic” at night, but we weren’t anxious to find out.

We pointed ourselves back to the Basilica del Voto Nacional with the hope of having our first beer in a church. The guy at the entrance recognized us and let us back in for free. I don’t think he’d ever seen anyone that wanted to climb the tower twice in one day. Beer is a great motivator.

Unsure what floor the cafe was on, we forged on. I told Herb I was pretty sure it was on the 6th, but it turned out to be all the way up to the 10th (oops!).

Lolo enjoying the swing in the Basilica cafeLolo enjoying the swing in the Basilica cafeThe lunch menu consisted of only one item: a jamón, tomato, lettuce and cheese sandwich. I thought she said “jam”, tomato, and cheese, and thought “that’s weird,” but I figured I would go with the local cuisine. Besides, there was no other choice. Oh, and, of course, a round of the nice cold cervezas.

The atmosphere was simple but cute, and we were the only ones in there. There was even a swing with a view through a window behind it of the Virgin Mary atop El Panecillo. She really was everywhere, like those crazy eyes that follow you on some portraits.

By the time we climbed the 10 flights down, it was pouring rain out, so we called an Uber which brought us back to the Mercure Alameda for $2.50.

We were pretty beat and we had to get up at 5:00 the next morning to go on the tour to the Cloud Forest, so we just showered, took a quick nap, and went downstairs to eat dinner in the hotel restaurant, the Spicy Bistro, which turned out to be very good.

Quito location map in "high definition"

Javascript is required to view this map.