If you’ve read my feature on birdwatching around Quito in the Summer issue of Bird Watching, you’ll know that it’s urban birding quite unlike any you’ve seen before.
But while I’d hope it’s given you a taste of just what an astonishing variety of birds you could see without ever venturing into Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, or out to the Galapagos (they’re stories for another day), you shouldn’t miss out on the rest of what the capital has to offer.
San Francisco de Quito, to give it its full name, sits in the Guayllabamba river basin, in north-central Ecuador. To anyone coming from a country as low-lying (in relative terms) as Britain, its location alone is enough to make the mouth drop open in wonder. The centre is 2,800m (9,200ft) above sea level, with the active Pichincha volcano looming over this metropolis of nearly two million residents.
Designated one of the first two World Cultural Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1978 (the other was Krakow), it has one of the best, if not the best, preserved historic centres in South America, and at the heart of this old colonial city are some truly extraordinary churches.
The churches of La Compania de Jesus, of San Francisco, and of Santo Domingo, date back to the early 17th and even late 16th centuries, and while their exteriors are typical of the time, the interiors need to be seen to be believed.
The gold leaf that seems to cover everything in sight is a testament to the mineral wealth that the Conquistadors found and seized when they arrived in South America, but the fabulously baroque carvings are unlike anything you’d find in a European church.
Sculpted, in many cases, by Native Americans, closer inspection reveals a bestiary of Ecuador’s animals and birds, with Jaguars stalking through friezes of the local vegetation, and hummingbirds flitting around while Condors soar above. It’s a reminder not just of the richness of Ecuador’s biodiversity, but of how central that was to the native way of life.
This Old City has been cleaned up and appropriately renovated in recent years, and there are plenty of English-speaking Municipal Police on hand to offer directions, advice and the like. It makes strolling the narrow, sometimes steep streets safe, and a pleasure. The plaza outside the Church of San Francisco is as good a place as any to start (it was once the marketplace used by the indigenous inhabitants) if you want to explore the many excellent museums within walking distance, the shopping district, or the pavement cafes and bars.
The other side of Quito is La Mariscal Sucre, a vibrant area of bars, restaurants and hotels that’s hugely popular with foreign visitors. A highlight here was the Museo de Artesanias Mindalae, a really outstanding museum, with English-speaking guides available. It features an amazing range of Ecuadorian craftwork, showing you how it relates to the country’s history and mythology, and there’s a great gift shop, and a restaurant/coffee shop.
I was only able to touch, in the magazine, on the sheer diversity of Quito’s parks. Itchimbia might be the best to start with, sitting atop a hill with great views of the Old City below. It’s a relatively recent creation, and bustles with joggers, dog-walkers, school parties and the like, although never enough to deter the many birds.
La Carolina is more along the lines of London’s Regent’s Park, or New York’s Central Park. Bordered by Quito’s main business district, it contains excellent Botanical Gardens (a great place to see before you venture out into the city’s surroundings, just to get an idea of the range of habitat you’ll encounter), a vivarium, and the Natural History Museum. This boasts a superb collection of skins (many of them collected by ornithologist Juan Manuel Carrion, who was my guide around Quito), which can be viewed by appointment.
The Metropolitan Park is the ‘wildest’ of the three, with lots of tree cover (eucalyptus, mainly, but efforts are being made to reintroduce more native species) and opportunities to get off the beaten track and search for birds. It’s popular with mountain bikers, picnickers, etc., but it’s large enough that you can easily find undisturbed areas.
Of course, no visit to Ecuador would be complete without a visit to La Mitad del Mundo (literally, The Middle of the World), just over 20 miles from central Quito. Just before you visit, El Crater restaurant is worth a visit. For one thing, it overlooks the Pululahua geo-botanical reserve, which includes the only inhabited volcano crater in the world. For another, it’s a good place to sample some of Quito’s culinary specialities, such as locro de papa (a delicious potato and cheese soup), and fritada (fried pork with potato cakes, toasted corn and other trimmings).
There’s a large monument astride the Equator itself, plus a museum, planetarium, restaurants, and even a small chapel. Global Positioning System technology has actually determined that Equator is some 240m north of the monument, but who’s arguing? I bet you’ll still end up getting your photo taken on either side of the line!