IT ALL STARTS IN QUITO! THE GATEWAY TO ECUADOR
Whether you’re visiting the Galapagos islands, Amazon jungle, or exploring the highlands, it all starts in Quito, the gateway to Ecuador! It is the second highest capital city in the world and sits at 9,350 ft above sea level. Quito is also one of the first World Cultural Heritage Sites declared by UNESCO and your flight to Ecuador will more than likely arrive at UIO (Mariscal Sucre International Airport). And that’s where I’ll begin part one of our 10 day journey in Ecuador.
GETTING THERE // IAH to UIO
I was able to score a deal through Aeromexico for about $2K for all 5 of my family members ($400 per person RT). This included all taxes, checked luggage, and all those other nickle and dime charges! As they say in the Godfather, “it was an offer I couldn’t refuse” and I jumped on it with a quickness. Flights in June/July to Ecuador normally run around double that amount from Houston with short layover and triple for direct flights so I knew I had to pull the trigger.
AVOID MEXICO CITY
Speaking of layover cities, try to avoid Mexico City at all costs. The customs/arrival area is a complete and total nightmare. Shit reminded me of Gladiator and Hunger Games combined. There was no order or control as far as where lines ended and it was all one big convoluted mess. They also make every single person go through customs and had the transfer only passenger area closed off. I have no idea why they did this (no it wasn’t covid related because they don’t even review any covid docs) and it only added to the confusion and mass number of people. All their machines were down and the arrival area is tiny for a city that’s one of the largest in the world. This was built for a Laredo size city, not Mexico City.
To add insult to injury, when we finally did arrive to the front to have our travel docs reviewed by their customs, they took me into the back room because my name set off some red flags. Apparently there are some bad hombres with my name and they had to make sure I wasn’t part of a cartel. This took about 45 minutes to clear up and we almost missed our connecting flight. So in short:
- Avoid Mexico City layover
- Don’t name your kids Jose!
Mariscal Sucre International Airport
We all breathed a sigh of relief when we arrived at UIO and seen how organized their international arrivals processing area was. There would be no repeat of the fiasco in DF. By the time we retrieved our luggage and exited the baggage claim area it was now close to midnight. As with all trips that have me leave the airport in the middle of the night, I booked us rooms at a hotel as close to the airport as possible. I don’t like driving between 12am – 4:30 am here at home so I’m sure as hell not going to travel with my whole family to another city’s downtown (especially in a foreign country).
It had been a long day of travel and we were ready to get some sleep. Our shuttle driver Gonzalo was all smiles and had a great attitude as he drove us to the Holiday Inn Quito Airport property. The great service and warm welcome we received our first night in Quito exemplified the type of hospitality we would receive everywhere we went in Ecuador.
WHERE TO STAY & WHAT TO DO // CENTRO HISTORICO (HISTORIC DISTRICT) – DAY 1
I always recommend that first time visitors stay in a city’s historic district. Especially when visiting an older city such as Quito with it’s rich history and background. We decided on making the Friends Hotel & Rooftop hostel our home base for the next 3 days. This property is centrally located and managed by the nicest and most helpful staff. Not to mention you’ll have great views from your room and some really good daily breakfast offerings.
GET ACCLIMATED AND TAKE IT EASY
Remember those 9.350 ft. I mentioned earlier? Yeah, you’re going to feel that now. That’s why for your “official” day one, you should only book a walking tour and nothing else. We had the absolute fortune of booking our tour with Johanna from the Friends Hotel. Not only does she manage the hotel but she also does the 3 hour walking tours! Trust me when I tell you fam that if you visit Quito and stay at Friends, then you need to ask for her by name. My family (especially my kids) grew fond of her during our stay and she was an absolute joy to be around. I recommend having this booked prior to arrival.
THE WALKING TOUR
This paid tour is scheduled for 3 hours but can easily go over depending on the amount of stops and pace. While it may seem like a long time, it doesn’t feel like it at all due to the variety of places we visited and wonderful stories our guide told. She let us linger and move around at will and nudged us when it was time to go. We also made some side stops along the way to buy ice cream, small items from street vendors, and I even got fitted and bought myself a real Ecuador hat (popularly known as the Panama hat).
Quito is a hilly city so you will definitely get a workout during this tour, especially when walking uphill. You will need to monitor yourself to see how your own body is handling the change in altitude. There are many different things you can take/eat/drink to help you deal with it if you are having issues. We were offered various fruit based drinks, chocolates, and teas. Try them all until you find one that works. To me personally it’s coca leaf tea but it wasn’t offered everywhere like when we visited Cusco, Peru. Now that tea 100% works every single time so order it or buy it if you see it!
Places covered by tour:
- Various plazas and activities that take place there.
- Magnificent historical churches
- Important government buildings
- Public transportation routes and depots
- Restaurants, street food, and other points of interest for your stay
CHURCHES ARE THE HIGHLIGHT
You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the beauty of churches, mosques, synagogues, etc… To me the churches were the absolute highlight of this walking tour. The stunning interior of the Church of la Compañía de Jesús and magnificent views from the gothic Basilica del Voto National was top tier. The history behind these great buildings is equally as fascinating and worth reading about. But for my short attention span peeps, here are a few pics.
And that is the end of day one. You really don’t want to do more than a walking tour on your first day unless you’re not feeling any altitude affects. We were all tired and asked our guide to take us a to a restaurant nearby, had a late lunch with beers, and called it a day. We made arrangements with Johanna for day trips out of Quito for the next 2 days and settled in. Cue the Ice Cube, today was good day.
OTAVALO MARKET (PLAZA DE LOS POCHOS) // QUISATO SUNDIAL // CAYAMBE – DAY 2
We had overcast skies this day so our pictures don’t pop like day one but this day trip was a very good learning experience for our kids. Our new guide for the next 2 days would be Cristian and he was equally informative, knowledgeable, and entertaining as Johanna was. Back to back great tour guides, we were on a roll! We had breakfast at 7 am and Cristian picked us up at 8 in his SUV.
Getting out of Quito was a bit of a task but it was cool seeing the morning hustle and bustle of the people going on about their daily lives. We used this time to get to know our new guide and learn more about where we were heading. Cristian is a very experienced guide (about 10 years) and would drop all sorts of facts about his beautiful country. We covered a wide range of topics and by the time we got to our first stop, time seemed to have flown by.
Bizcochos con Queso de Hoja in Cayambe
Cayambe is the perfect pit stop to start your day trip. Here you will learn (and taste) about the famous breakfast pastry and the delicious fresh cheese that you pair it with that this town is known for. You add a layer of chocolate/caramel to the bizcocho and then unroll the fresh cheese and place it on top of the chocolate and then devour it. Was delicious! We ended up buying some to go and had them with our coffee every morning the rest of our trip. Also bought plenty of Ecuadorian chocolate as well.
The true equator – Quitsato Sundial
Our next stop was the Quitsato Sundial which is a giant monument literally in the Middle of the World and located exactly on the Equatorial Line. It is said to be the true equator line and not the commercial/touristy Mitad del Mundo which is close by. If you have a gps it is supposed to read all zeros at this sundial but we didn’t have one so cannot verify. Here we learned some interesting facts about the different lines of the solstices and equinoxes, and how to read the hours of the day using the shadow of the sun off the sundial. It made sense when the guy was explaining it right there and then but I don’t think I could ever show anyone how it works, lol.
It was now time to get our shopping on and put our bargaining skills to the test. Our final stop of the day was the indigenous market in Otavalo, known locally as the plaza de los pochos. This large outdoor market had all sorts of arts and crafts, local food, and regional clothing. Our kids were in culture shock as they had never been to any market like this and were getting upset with me because I would never take the first price offered. I was trying to explain to them that this is what goes on in these type of markets and that you negotiate the best deal. I think I got through to 2 of them 😁.
After a couple of hours in the market, we loaded up on souvenirs and headed back to Quito. One tip to share is to bring plenty of cash. No one accepts credit cards in the plaza. The cool thing is that the official currency of Ecuador is the US dollar so stop at any ATM prior to arriving and you’ll be okay. Try to bring small bills ($1, $5, $10) if you can. Also, try to visit the market on Saturdays. We went on a Wednesday but everyone says Saturday is the must visit day where the market doubles in size and there is usually entertainment as well.
TELEFERIQO // ITINAN MUSEUM // MITAD DEL MUNDO – DAY 3
The weather pattern during our entire stay alternated from mostly sunny to overcast every other day. And today we would be blessed with just perfect weather for viewing Quito from 13,000 ft above sea level! We left our hotel at 9 am and headed straight for the TeleferiQo to be at the gondola lift station right when they opened (10am). We’re glad we scheduled this excursion on day 3 in Quito and that our bodies already had 2 1/2 days to get acclimated to high altitude because we were about to take it up a notch!
Gondola and Hike to the top
Once we made the ascent to the top of the lift, there was still some hiking to do to reach the viewing platforms and swings. So up we went, slowly climbing ever so higher.
After you reach the top the incredible views make it all worth while. It’s so peaceful and quiet when you’re that high up in the sky. You just hear the light wind and your own breathing. Well that and our kids laughing up a storm and posing for like a gazillion pics & videos for their own personal memories. It was fun swinging on the swings with them and watching them play with the Alpacas. For the more adventurous there are several hikes to various peaks you can take from this point but our views were more than enough for us.
Now these are the type of museums that we like to visit. Fun, interactive, and just overall a good time to be had by all. We spent about 1 1/2 hours here and it was plenty of time to learn about and participate in the science experiments. The hosts were very cheerful and funny and kept everyone involved. And not to brag but your man here balanced the egg vertically on the nail on the very first try 😎.
You will also learn about some indigenous tribes from Ecuador and where/how they live. Towards the end of that portion of the tour they demonstrate and show some real shrunken heads. Our kids were trippin out on that part. I thought it was pretty cool.
MITAD DEL MUNDO
The last stop of the day was the Equatorial monument known as Mitad del Mundo. Now there is a whole bunch of things to do at this location but my family was tired and sun burned by this point in the day. Add the fact that we hadn’t eaten since breakfast and the weather had changed to windy & getting more cloudy by the minute and it was the perfect storm to call it a day after taking pics and walking around for a bit. I was outnumbered 🤷♀️.
After leaving Mitad del Mundo we went straight to get some food. Pollo at a local fast food joint called GUS was on the menu. We grubbed with our guide Cristian and made arrangements for him to drive us to Machachi/Cotopaxi region the following day. That is where part 2 of our 10 day Ecuador adventure continued.
QUITO WRAP UP* LESSONS LEARNED* USEFUL INFO
- If you land close to midnight, be safe and stay close to the airport that night. Make your move the next morning in daylight.
- Ecuador currency is US dollars. Try to bring small bills with you.
- The sun is extremely strong! Wear sunblock daily! The temperature never went above 65 degrees during our visit and we still got sunburned.
- While you can save some money using public transportation to all of the places I wrote about, the amount of time you will use up is just not worth it unless you are spending a month there. Hire a private guide and you will have him/her the entire day!
- On that note, I highly recommend Cristian Portilla. He is a complete professional and very knowledgeable of not just Quito but all of Ecuador (including the Galapagos Islands.) His website is www.journeyecuadorec.com
- Johanna from the Friends Rooftop property is a gem of a guide. Just tremendous customer service.
- Get your tours done early! The weather seems to always get dreary by late afternoon.
Wow, I really enjoyed reading your article. I laughed at Mexico city customs held you hostage (Don Jose). Mexico City custums swallows tarter sauce.
I also enjoyed the city view and historical buildings. Sun dial was interesting. I’m a big fan of cultural food. Thanks for sharing travel experiences. I will for sure utilize your articles for advice and guidance.
I noticed your family wearing mask. Is that a requirement while visiting? If you test A symptomatic? Will that be sufficient pass to board plane and enter city?
Reading your article had me feel as if I was there (realistic experience). I admire that you mention your host and travel guide. Including their hospitality, gave me a since of security.
Thanks for the read and support! Yeah the customs team over there was over the top. They just might like that sauce.
With regards to Covid rules (as of this writing), to get into Ecuador and to move around the city they are as follows:
If you are a US citizen visiting from the US, you can enter Ecuador with your covid vaccine shot card and bypass their testing at their airport.
If you are not vaccinated then you need to produce a negative covid test result that was taken no more than 72 hours prior to flight. And you may be subject to a random test at the airport.
To move around in the city the rules are that you have to wear a mask unless eating/drinking and obviously a whole set of exceptions for medical/breathing difficulties. Hope this helps.
We had great hosts and guides and I will always support good people that go above and beyond. Come back soon for my posts on Cotopaxi and Banos (parts 2 & 3 of our journey)!