Spread across a spectacular Andean valley and flanked by volcanic peaks, Quito’s setting alone is enough to strike you speechless. The historical center – or ‘old town,’ as it’s called – is a maze of colonial splendor, an Unesco World Heritage Site since 1978. Quito is currently flush with pride after 2006 marked the final installment of a massive restoration project that spruced up buildings and churches, brought historic theaters back to life and made the old town’s formerly sketchy streets safe to explore once again.
Despite intensive restoration, the old town retains the vibrant working class and indigenous character that has always defined it. Walking its narrow streets is to wander into another world. Stray dogs saunter past indigenous women carrying impossible loads, past legless guitar strummers, blind accordion players, old men in sailor suits selling ice cream, past giant roast pigs peaking out of doorways and shops selling every odd commodity imaginable. The constant white noise of hollering vendors hangs in the air like chanting in a monastery, and the smells of cooking peanuts, car exhaust fumes, baking bread and who knows what else threaten sensory overload.
Only a 20-minute walk from the old town, Quito’s ‘new town’ is a different world entirely; a mixture of multistory hotels, high-rises and drab government complexes. For travelers, its heart is the colorful Mariscal Sucre, which has trendy cafés, international restaurants, travel agencies, cybercafés, bars and small hotels. The area definitely lives up to its nickname gringolandia (gringo land), but quiteños (people from Quito) dig it too, so it keeps its Ecuadorian flair.