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Quito, Ecuador: South America's Not-So-Hidden Gem

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QUITO ECUADOR
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I knew very little about Quito, Ecuador and had rarely seen it appear in Canadian vacation websites, but a short visit made me realize it's a not-so-hidden gem. South America's smallest capital packs a lot of adventure within its modest borders. From architectural wonders and world-class art galleries to charming backstreets and picturesque hiking trails; from scientific marvels to religious sanctuaries, Quito has something for all types of travellers.

For the Cultural Explorer

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Quito's Central Square is the heart of the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Quito has one of the best-preserved historic centres in Latin America and the entire old-city has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage city. Many of the city's churches are architectural and artistic wonders. You'll feel you've stepped back in time as you walk through the checkerboard-patterned streets that interconnect in colonial squares.

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Recently restored La Ronda street is lined with colonial-styled houses, local restaurants and bars and artisanal workshops.

Along La Ronda, the city's oldest street, I found a quaint hat shop belonging to Luis Lopez. His family has been making hats for almost a century. Down the pedestrian-only boulevard, I popped into the woodworking studio of Jose Luis Jimenez. Jose creates wall hangings and intricate bargueños (cabinets with hidden compartments) that he told me can take months to make.

For the Art Lover

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The interior of the Chapel of Man. Courtesy of capilladelhombre.com.

I was completely captivated by La Capilla del Hombre or The Chapel of Man. The gallery is one of the most famous in South America, featuring the work of Ecuadorian painter Oswaldo Guayasamin. The artist focused much of his work on the history of human suffering and violence in Latin America.

For the Spiritual Pilgrim

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The spectacular interior of the Iglesia de La Compania de Jesus.

It's hardly surprising that a city that sits at the base of a statue depicting the Virgin Mary would be one of the religious centres of South America. The Iglesia de La Compania de Jesus (Church of the Society of Jesus) is hard to miss. Its ornate exterior stands in contrast to the flat facades of adjacent buildings. But as elaborate as the exterior is, it pales in comparison to what lies inside. The large central nave is lavishly decorated in gold leaf and gilded plaster that took more than 160 years to complete.

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The Basilica de Voto Nacional, with its twin towers, looms over Quito.

Other notable churches in Quito worth visiting include the Basilica de Voto Nacional, the largest neo-Gothic basilica in Ecuador, the 16th-century Iglesia de San Francisco, the Iglesia de Santo Domingo overlooking Santo Domingo Square and the Catedral Metropolitana de Quito, the Catholic cathedral in the city's central square.

For the Science Nerd

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The Middle of the World Monument with the yellow line highlighting the Equator.

Quito is a science mecca. The Equator crosses Ecuador, just north of Quito, and is where the country takes its name. The Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) monument pays homage to the discovery of the Equator in 1736. Here, you can literally cross the line that divides Earth into northern and southern hemispheres.

Interestingly enough, recent discoveries suggest the Equator falls more precisely a short distance north of Mitad del Mundo. The Intinan Museum, a much smaller and campier site has been erected on what is believed to be the true north-south divide.

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Visitors to the Initinan Museum can try balancing an egg on a nail head.

My phone GPS confirmed it! If you visit one place in Quito, this should be it. I managed to balance and egg on a nail head and was fascinated when the tour guide pulled the plug on a portable sink near and on the Equator. (Spoiler alert, the drain funnel rotated in opposite directions).

For the Thrill Seeker

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The view of Quito from the Teleferico. Photo courtesy of Quito Tourismo.

You can't visit a city surrounded by the Andes and not visit the Andes themselves. While true thrill seekers undertake hikes to the top of the steep mountains, there's a much easier way. The Teleferico, at the base of the Rucu Pichincha Volcano, is the tallest cable car in South America, living up to its promise to let you "touch the sky." The starting point is at 9,678 feet above sea level, but, within 10 minutes, you will climb to Cruz Loma at 13,287 feet where you can get a real view of the sheer size of Quito, sprawled below.

For the Nature Buff

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The view from one of the Cloud Forest hiking trails.

Quito's a nature lover's paradise. From the beautiful lagoons to the eight surrounding volcanoes, there is so much to see and do. One must-stop is the Cloud Forest in Mindo, in the western slopes of the Andes. This tropical forest is almost always covered in a layer of fog. In Mindo, you'll see leaves the size of small adults, countless types of plants, including thousands of orchids, and hundreds of species of birds. I couldn't stop taking photos of hummingbirds.

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