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An Insider’s Guide to Quito, Ecuador

Travel Editor Elizabeth Hansen taps a local expert to explore the Ecuadorian capital

Both the Basilica and Convent of San Francisco stand in the middle of the historic center of Quito
Image Credits Farmer: Photo courtesy of Yumbos Chocolate All other photography courtesy of ADAMS / HANSEN Photography

It was meant to be an expedient layover, a few days to get our bearings before continuing on to the Galápagos. I’d done the research and knew that Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is located high in the foothills of the Andes and is renowned for its well-preserved colonial center. Because my husband, Richard, and I value the input of local experts, I contacted the wonderful Peruvian guide who’d shown us his country and asked for a recommendation in neighboring Ecuador. I was soon connected to Johanna Herrera, a Quito native and experienced guide, and we were chatting back and forth via WhatsApp and email to plan our visit.

Old Town Quito

The city’s historic highlights surround Plaza de San Francisco, a cobblestone expanse fronted by the Church and Convent of San Francisco (Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco). Here, we climbed the stairs to the top floor and enjoyed the panorama across this UNESCO World Heritage destination. The view included our hotel, the gorgeous Casa Gangotena, once the mansion of a local family. We also toured the Jesuit Church of the Society of Jesus (Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus), with its massive gold altar. 

I appreciated Herrera’s information on the sights, and I was grateful for her familiarity with local restaurants. Over the course of several days, she steered us to the most memorable meals of the trip. Lunch on our first day was at La Vid Restaurante in the Bishop’s Palace overlooking Independence Square. I thoroughly enjoyed the local specialty Locro de Papa Quiteño, creamy potato soup made with cheese and avocado, and Richard loved the La Vid lamb stew, which was slow cooked and accompanied by steamed potatoes, yellow rice, and avocado. His dessert, Paseo Por Los Andes, consisted of soft purple corn sable pastry with babaco cream and cabernet sauvignon maillard over a white wine emulsion. 

Herrera also had the inside scoop on genuine Panama hats. They’re made of toquilla palm, and the very finest ones are handcrafted by artisans in the small Ecuadorian town of Montecristi.

Beyond Quito

In addition to sharing their knowledge, most private guides also provide transportation, which is great because it’s hard to savor the surroundings while trying to read a map and drive safely. We walked around Old Town Quito with Herrera, but she drove us to the Mindo Cloud Forest, which is about 60 miles from the city. This scenic area has a unique ecosystem that’s known worldwide for its biodiversity and birding. Here we walked through a beautiful jungle-like forest and rested in front of a waterfall. 

Yumbos Chocolate was our delicious second stop. This small artisanal factory offers tours and tasting of their delectable products. We also visited a butterfly sanctuary, and on the way home we stopped at the equator line and stood with one foot in the northern hemisphere and the other in the southern. 


Shortly before we left for the Galápagos, Herrera mentioned that Ecuador is a major producer of roses. This seemed incongruous and I wanted to see for myself, but she said that growers don’t welcome visitors out of a need to protect their trademarked beauties. Then, while we were away, she worked her magic and, on our one remaining day in Ecuador, we headed out bright and early for Sacha Rose. The farm, located at 10,500 feet above sea level, claims to grow the biggest roses on earth. Why so tall? Because that’s how their best customers — residents of Russia — like them. In fact, Sacha Rose and other farms have suffered financially since Russia went to war with Ukraine. Want to see the flowers for yourself? An order placed on SachaRose.com will arrive in San Diego in three days. 

A Farewell Lunch

I was thrilled with the farm visit, but Herrera had one more surprise: a wonderful Italian lunch in one of Quito’s most affluent suburbs. Cumbaya, I learned, is home to wealthy Quiteños and expats from North America and Europe who live in gated communities with golf courses and country clubs. They also, apparently, appreciate good food, because they were seated all around us at La Briciola Ristorante Italiano. The menu and the wine list were both extensive, and I loved our al fresco table overlooking beautiful gardens. 

Pizza at La Briciola
Pizza at La Briciola Ristorante Italiano

It was with a grateful heart that we said farewell to Quito and our outstanding host.

Want to connect with guide Johanna Herrera to plan your own Quito excursion? Email her at johaherrera17@hotmail.com.


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