With all of the excitement and enthusiasm for your Galapagos vacation, don’t forget that mainland Ecuador is worth planning a couple of days of exploring. Quito is the country’s capital and second-largest city, right behind Guayaquil. Located in the mountainous Sierra region of Ecuador, it is a reminder of the country’s colonial past and natural beauty. The neighboring Pichincha Volcano and Cotopaxi Volcano distinguish the skyline of this South American metropolis.
Flying to Quito and the Galapagos
Quito’s Mariscal Sucre International Airport has flights that come in from New York’s JFK airport, Atlanta, Houston, and Miami, among many other cities in Europe, South America and across the world.
In addition Quito being an amazing place to visit, there are two very practical reasons to arrive in Quito at least one day before your Galapagos cruise starts:
To get to the Galapagos, you must fly from the Ecuadorian mainland (Quito or Guayaquil). There are no international flights to the Galapagos or boats that leave from the Ecuadorian mainland.
Galapagos cruise start dates are immovable. They cannot change itineraries due to National Park regulations. If your international flight is delayed or canceled, you are at risk of missing your Galapagos vacation entirely.
All flights to Galapagos leave Quito in the morning and most have a short layover in Guayaquil before continuing to either Baltra Island (next to Santa Cruz) or San Cristobal Island.
There are several airlines that fly to the Galapagos and the flights are almost always booked by the agency who you organize your trip through. Please see the Galapagos flights page for complete details about flights between Quito and the Galapagos.
Attractions in Quito
Ecuador’s high altitude capital city is a beautiful layover for travelers on their way to the Galapagos Islands. While you are in the city, there are certain must-see sites to check off before departing for the Islands.
High atop the city is El Panecillo, a winged depiction of the Virgin Mary, also known as “the Virgin of Quito.” She is built from 7,000 pieces of aluminum in the design of Quito’s renowned sculptor Bernardo de Legarda. The monument splits the city into north and south, giving tourists an excellent vista of the whole city. When visiting, be sure to make the ascent by bus or taxi, as the steps up the mountain climb through a notoriously dangerous neighborhood.
When you come back down, there are some great things to see in the city center, like the Jesuit church (La Compañía de Jesus), with brilliant gold covered walls which began construction in 1605 and was completed in 1765. Rivaling this magnificent building are the Cathedral of Quito and the Church and Convent of St. Francis (San Francisco), both in the same part of the city. Seeing these gargantuan churches will surely drop your jaw in admiration at the intricate stonework, vast buttresses, and gorgeous stained glass.
While paying your penitence in the tour of Quito’s Catholic giants, take a hike a few more blocks up the brick paved road to the Basilica del Voto Nacional. Try not to get vertigo as you climb the stairs of this ornate stone marvel to the overlook, where you will have a full panoramic view of Quito. If you dare, you can keep on climbing the steps up to the bell tower. This gothic masterpiece towers over 300 feet tall.
If you want the best view of the highest capital city in the world, then hop on the Teleferico – South America’s highest altitude cable car. Starting at 9,678 feet above sea level (2950m) and ascending to 13,287 feet above sea level (4050m), the car rises up the side of Cruz Loma and brings you right to the border of the recognizable and breathtaking Pichincha Volcano, so don’t forget your camera. Once you are at the top, there is an indoor food court and bathroom services as well as a stable where adventurous explorers can rent horses. Make sure you have a warm jacket for this part of your trip, as mountain winds and thin air can make for a chilly experience. For the kids, Volcano Park is at the lower station of the Teleferiqo, and features rides, arcades, and games that are appropriate for the whole family.
Of course, one of the most obvious but necessary attractions in Quito is the monument at Middle of the World Monument (La Mitad del Mundo). Stand on the equator with one foot in the northern and southern hemispheres. Get your picture on both sides of the world… at the same time. It’s all part of the experience. In addition to the monument, there is an entire town built up around it, including restaurants and souvenir shops. Since its initial declaration as the center of the world, cartographers and surveyors have pointed out that it is actually not quite the most precise mark of the equator; nevertheless, no trip to Quito is complete without a stop here.
If you want to visit the actual geographical center of the world, stop by the Intinan Museum, next to Monumental Park. The official equatorial line passes right through it, and the museum goes into great detail to show you what it’s all about: they perform experiments, explain about Ecuador, its history, and, of course, its geography.
Just as Guayaquil is the commercial center of Ecuador, Quito is largely regarded as the country’s cultural center. Take a look at some of the amazing artwork done by local painters at the Museum of Modern Art. Walls of art line the rooms, and docents can knowledgeably guide you through each masterpiece and its relevance in Ecuador’s rich cultural history.
Afterwards, relax in one of the beautiful and well-maintained parks, like Parque El Ejido or Parque La Carolina, where the stone-laid paths run through shaded grass fields, past manmade ponds and fountains, and over bridges. While in the parks, you are sure to pass by many tents and stands where artisans will be selling their wares.
Most of the above attractions can be visited in a day on a Quito City Tour but to exploring Quito more in two days is definitely worth the time.
Day Trips From Quito
The Andes mountains surrounding Quito provide spectacular vistas and opportunities for cultural encounters.
Otavalo, less than two hours north of Quito by bus or private car, is the most popular indigenous artisan market in the country, and is a great place to really sharpen your bartering skills while you haggle down that unique alpaca fur jacket that will keep you warm on the cold Sierra nights.
Cotopaxi Volcano is one of the world’s highest active volcanoes and the one and a half hour drive to the base of this glacier-covered giant has breathtaking otherworldly views.
Papallacta is a very popular hot spring and resort high in the Andes just an hour and a half East of Quito, and is an incredibly relaxing side trip with still more impressive Andean vistas.
Mindo is a small ecologically conscious town an hour and a half west of Quito in a mid-altitude cloud forest. Mindo is recognized as one of the world’s top birding spots.
For pricing and information on these attractions and more, click here
The Amazon Rainforest
Just a half an hour flight from Quito, most travelers to the Galapagos take advantage of visiting a second natural wonder of the world: the Amazon Rainforest.
As the most biodiverse place on the planet, the lush green Amazon provides a stark contrast to the Galapagos’ volcanic landscape. Though incredibly diverse, the wildlife, especially megafauna, is much more difficult to spot under the canopy of the rainforest than in the wide open Galapagos terrain. Most find that visiting the Amazon, followed by the Galapagos to provide the most satisfying experience.
La Selva Jungle Lodge is highly recommended and offers four or five day all inclusive packages from Quito.
Where to stay in Quito
There are two different neighborhoods to choose from when choosing a hotel in Quito:
The Old Town (Centro Historico) is the colonial area of Quito, and one of the best preserved colonial centers in all of the Americas with buildings dating back to the 16th century and a vibrant street culture.