Published on March 2nd, 2012 | by Mark Chesnut
Quintessential Quito: Great Galapagos Cruise Extensions
|Divine destination: The Basílica del Voto Nacional is one of many attractions in Quito, Ecuador.
Photo: Martin St-Amant
BY MELISSA RUTTANAI
While many visitors plan a trip to the Galapagos Islands, they often don’t allot enough time to explore Ecuador’s mainland. Since many tours begin and end in the capital, Quito is a great base to see some of the best sights of the Sierra region.
History and Nightlife in Quito
The capital city of Quito is a sprawling metropolis with neighborhoods to suit a variety of travelers. Here, visitors can explore two iconic neighborhoods. Old Town encompasses the heart of the first UNESCO designated city. Spanish colonial architecture and looming cathedrals offer a historical walk through time. Musicians and entertainers linger in the main square, making a great destination for a sunny afternoon.
As its name suggests, New Town or La Mariscal is home to modern buildings and youthful nightlife. Hotels lean toward western standards while restaurants, cafes, and bars in Plaza de Fochs hum to their own techno-beats. If possible, find a homestay, where a local can introduce you to Quito’s charms. On the corner of Avenidas Colón and Almagro, Maria Pillar Porras has been hosting foreign travelers for years in her flat. Breakfasts are homemade and heartfelt.
Bargain Shopping in Otavalo
Two hours north of Quito, Otavalo is a small town, boasting the biggest market in the Andes. In the Plaza de Ponchos, indigenous craftsmen sell their handmade goods to savvy shoppers. Rugs, textiles, clothing, and an array of accessories are tucked into every nook and cranny of the market. On Saturdays, Otavalo bursts with commerce as a market trifecta opens early for the day. The textile market swells over into adjacent avenues, spilling into the fruit market and almost reaching the northside’s animal market. On Friday nights, hotels can be full — so confirm a reservation well in advance during high season. The Hotel Riviera Sucre has single, double, and triple rooms surrounding a colonial courtyard. The oldest hotel in town, Riviera Sucre even has a few balconies that offer a bird’s-eye view of local streets.
Stand on Two Hemispheres at Mitad del Mundo
Ecuador dons its name for good reason. It straddles the equator and enjoys a residence in both the northern and southern halves of the planet. A 45-minute bus ride from Quito, Mitad del Mundo is the middle of the world. On earth’s bulging waistline, visitors can stretch their arms wide for an iconic “I’m on two hemispheres” photo. Scales are available by the museum. Step on and rejoice! You weigh less on the equator, so feel free to have another empanada con queso for breakfast. With its proximity to the capital, you don’t have to worry about packing up and moving to a new hotel. Buses run frequently to Mitad del Mundo. Once there, just follow the crowd.
Bathe in the Hot Springs of Baños
A beloved locale for tourists and Ecuadorians alike, Baños is a small town with international flare and curative spas. Almost every corner of the world has made its mark in Baños. French, Swiss, Indian, Thai, and Italian eateries have sprouted up along its avenues. Little cafes serve premium coffee and mountain peaks surround the main square. Chivas or tour buses lead excursions around town and out to the Ruta de Cascadas, a path lined with waterfalls. They even have animal-themed buses for the little ones.
Above all, people come for the hot springs. Heated by the volcano and enriched by fertile soil, the waters of Baños will work out all the kinks and stress in your muscles. Early in the morning is best, especially during high season. For eco-friendly travelers, La Casa Verde sits on the Rio Pastaza and is the only ecologically minded hotel in town. Breakfast is homemade and a great time to see hummingbirds in the garden outside.
The best way to see these sights is to plan ahead. Many people try to do too much in a short amount of time. Remember that many of the best places in Ecuador are located at high altitudes. If you feel short of breath or have headaches, relax and drink plenty of water. In a day or so, you’ll be ready to explore the best of central Ecuador.
This is a sponsored post.
Any of these destinations can be combined with a Galapagos cruise, or alternatively one of the most popular trips is a combined Machu Picchu and Galapagos tour. Both can be organized by a reputable travel agency.
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