Lately, I’ve made it a mission to spend more time in South America’s cities. I want to experience these hotspots of culture, gastronomy, and history as more than just jumping-off points to other adventures – I want to give them the credit they deserve.
As part of this newfound passion, I decided to spend much more than a one-night layover in Quito on my way to the Galapagos. In total, I spent 6 days exploring, using that time to test out a variety of methods for South American city exploration.
How do you prefer to explore a city?
The most budget-friendly way to visit any city is to do-it-yourself.
Staying in Quito’s Historic Center made it easy for me to explore the beautiful churches, grand old mansions, and literally awe-some architecture of the main district that helped the city earn World Heritage Status. Yes, the entire city of Quito has earned UNESCO World Heritage status, for its “unique and transcendental” qualities, in addition to its authenticity and integrity. According to UNESCO, Quito has the “best-preserved, least altered historic centre in Latin America”.
And that historic center, with its cobblestoned pedestrian walkways and plazas, is best explored on foot. Some major (free) spots not to miss on your own DIY walking tour would be Plaza de la Independencia. There are a row of sandwich and snack shops alongside the church that are perfect for grabbing a midday meal and doing some people-watching.
I also used my wandering time as an opportunity to try as many restaurants as possible. I came upon a favorite called El Maple, serving both Ecuadorian and international favorites but vegetarian and vegan style!
Free Walking Tour in Historic Center
Depending on how stingy you are (please, do tip your guide a reasonable amount!) the Free Walking Tour can be a lot of city sightseeing bang for your buck. It’s also a very dependable option, even outside of Quito, as the concept has spread like wildfire throughout South America’s cities. A Free Walking Tour will get you to all of the same sights as a DIY Wander, but provides more historical and cultural context.
The tours start from Community Hostel, and are run by local Quitenos who speak excellent English on a tip-only basis. The local guides lead the large group tours (sometimes too large for my liking) on a historic and cultural highlight tour of the Historic Center. They stop off at main plazas, inside of one colonial church, and bring tour guests to a workshop in La Ronda. Because the tour guides are usually youngish and open, this is a great opportunity to ask questions about culture and what it’s like to live in Quito.
How much to tip? That’s up to you, but rule of thumb is at LEAST $5 and usually more. Personally, I tend to tip walking tours around $15, depending on the length on quality of the tour. Remember, the tour itself was free, so you can be more generous in your tips.
Hop-On, Hop-Off Tour Bus
While a slight step up in price from the previous two options (depending on how well you tip), a Quito City Tour Bus is still incredibly cheap at only $15 per pop for adults.
The Tour Bus has stops throughout the main attractions of Quito, spanning the Historic Center and La Mariscal (a tourist and nightlife hotspot). A major benefit to this tour is the English narration projected throughout the bus, providing valuable, well-researched information about the city. While the bus is double-decker, there’s a rain cover to protect the top seats in case of inclement weather, a major benefit over walking-based tours during Quito’s rainy afternoons.
My favorite stop on the Tour Bus, and one I didn’t make with any of the other Quito exploration options, was to the top of El Panecillo. While the hilltop itself is a major tourist attraction (home to a particularly creepy monument to the Mother Mary), getting up there is said to be a bit tricky. Walking poses the risk of robbery (as bandits supposedly wait in the sidelines for unsuspecting tourists), and taxis will rip you off on the way back down, knowing you’d otherwise be stranded at the top. With the Tour Bus, a half-hour stop to the attraction was included in the regular route, allowing more than enough time to wander around and snap some photos.
Private Local Guide
Definitely the priciest option (starting around $100 for a half day tour), hiring a local guide for a private (or slightly less expensive: small group) tour is also the most customizable and personalized.
My visit to Quito was the first time I’d ever used a private guide, and it was an incredibly informing experience. My guides (yep, I had two) were local Quitenos. Dolores spoke incredible English, and Paula was super sweet and knowledgeable. My guides led me to VERY off-the-beaten track attractions, including a traditional hat and mask maker, a man who does double duty as a doll-repairer and a bruise-coverer, and a natural healer.
My experience with the local guides was tailored to my interests, and I had so many opportunities to ask questions. I was able to ask Dolores about family life in Quito, political issues, and questions about equality – sensitive topics that I normally would not feel comfortable asking, yet she encouraged me. It was really an inquisitive traveler’s dream.
The price for a local guide really ranges widely. I went with Metropolitan Touring, who offer a range of options from small group to totally bespoke, custom private tours.