Filled with diverse Andean culture, Quito has become a top travel destination. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due to the Old Town and all it has to offer: Colonial plazas, museums, monasteries, convents, and churches, including the gold-covered Iglesia de la Compania and the city’s largest and oldest church, Monasterio de San Francisco. The central plaza, Plaza de la Independencia, is also located here, next to the Presidential Palace.
Rich in culinary options, Quito’s famous dishes include ceviche (a dish typical to coastal Latina America that is made from fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices, such as lemon or lime, and seasoned with herbs); loco de papa (a creamy potato soup); and seco de chivo (a Quito specialty of goat meat battered in beer and served with citrus sauce from a fruit called naranjilla). During a recent trip, I had the chance to dine in Old Town, La Mariscal, and outside of the city in the Cotopaxi National Park.
CAFÉ PLAZA GRANDE
The Hotel Plaza Grande, located in Old Town near the Plaza de la Independencia, is a five-star luxury boutique hotel in a restored 1930’s Spanish-colonial mansion that is home to Café Plaza Grande. Enjoy your meal here among traditional colonial Ecuadorian ambiance provided by the wood-paneled space and botanical prints. If you love posting photos of your meal, they provide Wi-Fi for all your Instagram-ing needs. No outdoor seating, but through their large windows, you get a nice view of the plaza. Listen to live music from a traditional Ecuadorian guitar duo every Monday to Friday from 1:30 P.M. to 7:30 P.M. Serving international and Ecuadorian cuisine, the restaurant offers selections from every region of the country. A great starter here is the locro de papa, which you can top off with slices of avocado and Andean toasted corn nuts called cancha. Also, make sure to try their ceviche that is served Ecuadorian style with lots of lemon and tomato for a tangy taste. (Popcorn, nuts, and/or cancha accompany the dish.) Main courses include seco de chive that has a rhubarb and lime taste, sea bass fillet that’s served with asparagus and other veggies, and a simple, but popular, cheese sandwich served with warm honey. For dessert, make sure you order the hellos de paila. This traditional ice cream treat is brought out by a purple- hooded religious figure known as the cucurucho, who dings a gong and turns down the light of the restaurant as he serves you the smoking ice cream in a copper pot. If you’re visiting with friends, tell them to order this, but don’t tell them why. García Moreno N5-16 y Chile San Francisco de Quito. Tel: 593-2-251-0777. www.plazagrandequito.com
LA BOCA DEL LOBO
Filled with cafés, restaurants, markets, hostels, hotels, and several nightlife options (including gay bars and the popular karaoke spots), La Mariscal district is often referred to as “Gringo Land” because of the North American influence here (as evident in many of the Americanized shops and bars). Among the international restaurant options is the gay-friendly La Boca del Lobo, a bohemian European-Ecuadorian bar and restaurant with kitsch and colorful décor that includes everything from mushroom plushies and Super Mario video games to several glass chandeliers. Located near Plaza Foch (the centrally located area of La Mariscal), the vibe depends on the crowd and the music that ranges from Celia Cruz to electro. With a cheeky menu of 50 pages, you’ll be sure to find some- thing you like, or want to pass around, as many of the options are shareable appetizers such as yucca stuffed with shrimp, or chicken with a cream cheese and white wine sauce. Meat and seafood lovers can enjoy dishes such as beef sautéed with peppers and served with steak fries or the Moby Dick salad (green salad with fried tuna). Manabi 415 y García Moreno. Tel: 593-98-703-6727. www.labocadellobo.com.ec
Combining the styles of a trattoria, a French bistro, and an English pub, Pim’s (www.grupopims.com) is a mini-chain of four restaurants across Quito with providing some spectacular views of the city and surrounding mountains. Just southwest of Old Town is Pim’s Panecillo (Calle Melchor Aymerich. Tel: 593-08 452-5127), that gives you a perfect view of all north Quito from the 3,000 meter elevation of the hill El Panecillo (where the Virgen de Quito monument is situated overlooking the city). East of Old Town is Pim’s Itchimbia (Centro Cultural, Parque Itchimbia. Tel: 593-2-322-8410) in the Itchimbia Park and Cultural Center, which is just under 3,000 meters above sea level for another stunning panoramic view of the city. It is a bit more romantic than Pim’s Panecillo as there are walking paths and space outside the Cultural Center for a romantic stroll with your significant other. The food selections are the same at both locations, and there is plenty of great seat- ing for the unique views. The huge menu ranges from hamburgers (with names like The Princess or The Super Queen depend- ing on the amount of meat and add-ons) and sandwiches to a wide selection of meat, poultry, and seafood, such as goat or filet mignon, chicken with naranjilla sauce, crêpes with mushrooms, trout in almond sauce, or grilled corvine fish with a green salad. Located in popular tourist areas, these restaurants are often filled with tour groups, but the food and views make it more than worthwhile.
Just 30 minutes via car outside of Quito overlooking el Crater del Pululahua (a collapsed volcano filled with trails to explore and over 1,000 plant species) is Hotel El Cráter. This popular boutique hotel (a TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice award winner in 2013), offers a spectacular view of the Pululahua crater, and the restaurant attracts both locals and tourists. Along with traditional starters of ceviche and locro de papa, are empanadas de morocho (a variation of corn) and tortillas de maiz (corn tortillas). For a main dish, fuente de fritada is a platter of fried pork, white corn, plantain, mote (boiled corn kernels that are best eaten with various chili sauces), and potato with cheese inside. Chicken dishes include milanesa de pollo (pan-fried breaded chicken) and pollo a la plancha (stove-top grilled chicken). For dessert, try the figs and cheese (a traditional choice), or the light and flavorful mousse de maracuya (passion fruit mousse). Mirador del Pululahua. Tel: 593- 2-239-8132. www.elcrater.com
If you’re feeling adventurous, head for the Cotopaxi National Park. About an hour and a half south of Quito, the Cotopaxi volcano is the second-highest summit in Ecuador at over 19,000 feet, and it is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. Other than climbing the volcano, which can have up to 100 people attempting it each weekend, the park offers pre-served terrain for trekking, a hostel, and a restaurant called Tambopaxi where you can dine while watching the wildlife around you such as horses, cows, and hummingbirds. The menu can change daily but includes various highland dishes. The omnipresent Ecuadorian potato soup is served here, but make sure to try their tasty broccoli and cheese soup. For entrées, try the skillet-cooked pork chop that’s tender and served with rustic pota- toes and veggies, or the delicious fondue made with a variety of mature cheeses according to traditional Swiss family recipes. For dessert, the naranjilla mousse topped with marble sprinkles is an airy and fluffy sweet treat not to be missed. Cotopaxi National Park. Tel: 593-2-222- 0241. www.tambopaxi.com