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Standing almost 3,000 metres above sea level, Quito – the Ecuadorian capital – is one of the highest cities in the world. Cradled in a long valley no more than three miles wide, the place is hemmed in by a wall of mountain peaks. One side offers views of the magical Old Town with its winged Maria statue, the other has volcanoes, forests and swooping birds of prey. Its sprawling and well-preserved colonial centre dates back to 1534 when the Spanish ousted the Incas as rulers.
Known for decades as a halfway house for wealthy Americans or straggly backpackers on their way between Andean treks, the Amazon and the Galápagos Islands, Quito has in recent years become a destination in its own right. As well as the mysterious Old Town – with its plazas, baroque churches and narrow passageways – barrios like the bohemian Guápulo beckon. Here, pastel houses and bars tumble down steep cobbled streets frequented by local artists and musicians, offering the magnetic appeal of a bygone era.
Quiteños are reserved and painstakingly polite: residents will greet each person they pass with a formal buenos días. But behind their mild manners lies a vibrant political tradition. A mural on the highway celebrating the dynamic women of the city’s history, like independence heroine Manuela Cañizares, acts as a testament to Quito’s revolutionary spirit.
Recently a Left-leaning government has prioritised social issues, so while health and education have improved immeasurably since 2007, high taxation on imported luxury goods still frustrates the locals. A bottle of Chilean wine might set you back £12; the latest iPhone £650.
The city is currently shrugging off a tradition of fusty services with thrilling new restaurants, young, creative types are hanging out at the new coffee, cycling and indie- film joints springing up in the La Floresta area, while a crop of bars and microbreweries are bringing nightlife to Old Town. That said, the best of this new crowd is limited to a handful, so foodies might not be impressed every night. Brilliant hotels are also limited and pricey, although the salon glamour of Casa Gangotena is worth the extra money.
The so-called city in the clouds is undoubtedly moving forward, but seems determined to do so at its own pace.
This renovated 1926 mansion in the centre of the Old Town is by far Quito’s best hotel. In looks and service Casa Gangotena sets a high bar – beautiful high-ceilinged designs are complemented by flawless service. With 31 rooms, the place is small enough to feel like a private abode but with all the trappings of a 5-star hotel. A room filled with exotic flowers is ideal for afternoon tea, there’s a wood-panelled bar perfect for late-night drinks, while the restaurant serves up delicious Ecuadorian food. Rooms are spacious and elegant, furnished with a neutral colour palette and outfitted with oversized bathrooms. Take advantage of the concierge who knows everything there is to know about Quito.
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