Things to do in Quito: A Local’s Guide to the Historic Heart

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One of the first things to do in Quito when you have arrived at Casa Gangotena is to explore its surrounding neighbourhood. The historic mansion isn’t just a luxury hotel, but an integral member of a buzzing and vibrant community, which happens to be one of the most fascinating and idiosyncratic ones in the Ecuadorian capital.

San Roque is one of the most traditional neighbourhoods in Quito’s Old Town. Here, you’ll find practitioners of traditional medicine, the last miller in the Historic Centre, fruit and chicha pedlars, all sorts of religious trades that you didn’t know existed, and makers of century-old sweets. Many of these colourful characters are part of the Guardianes del Patrimonio (Heritage Guardians) project. This project aims to preserve the customary trades that are dying out across the rest of the modernised country, all while introducing travellers to old Quiteño ways.

The beauty of this San Roque Walking Tour is that you barely need to set foot out of the hotel to begin. For guests of Casa Gangotena, it is one of the most rewarding things to do in Quito with minimum effort.

Before you begin

  • Rise early and begin your tour in the morning – rain is more likely in the afternoon, making it more important to tick off your outdoor things to do in Quito before lunch
  • Wear comfortable shoes and get ready to walk
  • Bring a bottle of water
  • Put on plenty of sunscreen and wear a hat
  • Keep a rain mac or small umbrella in your bag
  • Bring small change to buy the herbs, juices, and treats you encounter along the way
Inner Patio Area at Casa Gangotena
Casa Gangotena’s inner patio is the perfect area for you to relax.

Away We Go!

Setting out from Casa Gangotena’s garden, take some time to explore Calle Cuenca, inhaling the rich aroma of spices coming from the shops opposite the hotel. On this historic side street, you’ll find the Casa del Alabado museum of Pre-Columbian art – worthy of a couple of hours of exploration in its own right.

Casa del Alabado museum
Casa del Alabado is a museum that features a large collection of Precolumbian figurines and objects.

As you arrive at Calle Rocafuerte, across the road you will notice Santa Clara, a beautiful temple with altars from the late Renaissance and early Baroque period and an unusual number of sculptures from the Quito School of Art. Unfortunately, it remains closed most of the time (catch it open on Sunday mornings for mass).

Santa Clara church
Santa Clara has been opened to the public since 2011.

Turning right and heading up the hill, you suddenly have the sensation of having stumbled into the real Quito, where day-to-day normalities for the residents might seem charming and exotic to visitors. This is the street on which Quiteños come to buy their groceries and necessities, to eat and socialise, and to run errands that are often dictated by the depth of their Catholic faith.

Herbal Healing

You’ll pass shops stuffed with herbs, tufting out as if they were growing from some inner forest. Colours are rich: purple amaranth, bright green lemon verbena, white and yellow chamomile, golden mashua (a wrinkly tuber in the same family as the potato and is beneficial for the prostate gland, as locals will often inform you), the deep green of guayusa leaves (a plant that from the Amazon which is traditionally made into a tea and acts as a stimulant).

The scene is clustered with meat in cabinets, puffed up empanadas, and a seafood café with fresh clams on a counter waiting for a scrub.

There’s a clutch of herbal pharmacies, shops set up like normal chemists, except that instead of pills and chemicals, the treatments for ailments are plants. The entrance displays bunches of flowers and herbs that you can buy to take away and make your own tea with, or drink there. Agüita de la vida, or the ‘water of life’ is a beverage made of 25 medicinal plants including linseed, oregano, valerian and “horse tail”. The innumerate health benefits listed on a shiny placard include soothing inflamed kidneys and the liver, purifying blood, and calming nervousness and stress. Imbibing one of these miracle drinks is a traditional and widespread thing to do in Quito – give it a shot and feel the healing effects.

Passing the party shops, selling unicorn piñatas and garish party decorations, step into El Buen Café, one of the most beloved traditional coffee shops, for a quick caffeine hit – you’ll need it to continue up the hill.

The Last Traditional Miller

Last miller of San Martin, Quito
Visit the last miller of San Martin and take a look at his traditional work process!

Upon heading up the hill, you’ll reach Molino San Martin – the last traditional miller in the Old Town. The mill is a neighbourhood stalwart that has occupied the same spot for over 50 years and its customers include local families, bakeries and even Casa Gangotena (the hotel acquires ground maize and various flours for its daily baked bread from here).

The twin Calvopiña brothers – both grey, bearded with mischievous and twinkling eyes – are third generation millers, whose grandparents began the business in the middle of the last century. The great slab of a stone of their traditional mill machine is from Denmark. The motor is from Germany, a relic of World War II.

Slab stone from Denmark
The same technique has been used in this miller for generations.

“It’s tricky to maintain antiques like these, but luckily my son is an electronic engineer who keeps it all running smoothly,” explains one of the twins. “But he’s pushing the family to update the equipment in line with technological advances. We’re going to have to modernise.”

One popular, exceptionally Quiteño product is machica, which consists of a mixture of ground barley and panela, traditionally given to children in milk and juices or on bananas to help with digestion. It’s also packed with calcium and iron for growing bones and, not to mention, incredibly delicious.

Quito’s First Covered Market

Up the street we go, pausing at the big beautiful roses that are worthy of any grand gesture and sold for a pittance, until you finally arrive at the market. Built in 1893, Santa Clara was the city’s first covered market. Its original roof, designed by Gustave Eiffel’s company, is now the striking art deco roof of the glass palace at Itchimbia park

San Francisco market might be one of the most eye-opening things to do in Quito for visitors, but it’s very much a functioning marketplace, where locals come to pick up their essentials and grab meals on the go. Here, vendors wear smart uniforms and the space is kept rigorously clean. Signs are trilingual: Spanish, English and Quechua. Many of the buyers and sellers are indigenous.

Like alien pet shops, there are stalls of fruits of all textures, shapes and colours: spiky soursop (guanabana), hairy coconut, papery melon and golden taxo (banana passionfruit), shaped like a little banana.

You’ll find a beaming vendor standing on a podium behind her shrine of fruit. Opposite that, a woman stands behind a counter of chicken placed with their feet up in the air, a trick that local folklore suggests will make them taste better. It might even be a legend you yourself can put to the test as one of your things to do in Quito.

San Francisco Market
San Francisco Market is one of the oldest markets in Quito.

You might well bump into Pati, a sparky tour guide for Guardianes del Patrimonio. “There’s pretty much nothing going on in this neighbourhood that I don’t know about!” she says with a chuckle.

On the frontline of the battle to protect traditional jobs and crafts, she runs a stall selling juices and chicha de jora, a customary drink containing seven types of grains. The recipe and process, learned from her grandmother, involves leaving the mixture of ground grains in a dark, humid place to ferment, and then boiling it for six hours with roots, spices and herbs. This one’s not alcoholic (nor does it contain the saliva of the maker, unlike in the Amazon Basin) but there are dozens of variations of chicha found across Ecuador.

Love Potions and Medicinal Eggs

On the far side of the great hall, you find the Ancestral Medicine section of the market, a row of stalls bursting with bushy herbs that are often found competing with each other with their neon disco lights and dubious-looking love and heartbreak potions. At Mama Rosita’s stall, a baby is being cured of espanto, a state of shock and fear that the Andean indigenous community says is brought on by bad energies and spirits. Except that the baby doesn’t look very shocked or fearful, gurgling and bouncing as Mama Rosita runs a bunch of specially selected herbs and flowers over its chubby, little body.

Andean herbal cleansing
Andean herbal cleansings are performed by “curanderas”, who are women that usually learned this traditional cleansing from their mothers or grandmothers.

A fourth-generation healer, Rosita makes a living from ridding people of all kinds of bad vibes via a process called a limpia, or spiritual cleansing. Helping with ailments that range from stress to envy, the process begins with being hit or brushed with stinging nettles. Then, bitter herbs such as Santa María and flowers like rose petals are used. Sweet herbs like mint and lemon verbena often conclude the session. Sometimes, she even uses eggs on older people.

“My limpias have an instant effect, people sometimes even get dizzy and start crying,” she says.

You can have your own limpia either here in the market or in the privacy of your bathroom at Casa Gangotena. It may very well be one of the things to do in Quito that will manage to connect you to local spirituality and beliefs. Tuesdays and Fridays are the most popular days, as the process is said to be most powerful on these days in particular.

Patience, Sweet Patience

With your alien fruit and love potions purchased, head back out into daylight and down the hill, cutting across Calle Chimborazo until you reach Calle Simón Bolívar. As you descend, stop at Colaciones Cruz Verde. Here, Luís Banda stands in the doorway of the shop that his family has owned for 103 years, his large copper pan hanging by a rope from the ceiling. In this great cauldron, peanuts and sugar roast over red hot coals, as is the process of making a favourite Quiteño snack, colaciones. It will take three hours to make a decent batch, but Luís is patient and has nothing he’d rather do than stand at his doorway, watching neighbourhood life go by. Behind him, a row of framed newspaper articles from the last century lines the walls.

Traditional treats of Quito
Treats are still made in the traditional way to preserve the essence of its flavor.

A little way down, turn right onto Calle Imbabura, where you’ll find a shop selling religious statues of all sizes. The shop also fixes painted saints and figures of baby Jesus. The owner also paints the faces of ‘lastimados’ or injured people to improve the appearance and healing of wounds, some 60-70% faster, they say (it has something to do with the zinc in paint). If you’ve got a wound to heal or a blemish to hide, this is one of the more unusual things to do in Quito that few Quiteños will ever experience.

An Arch Beauty

When you reach Calle Rocafuerte again, head back down the hill until you come to the white and shining Carmen Alto church. Bridging both sides of the street, from the church to the Museo de la Ciudad, is the glorious Queen’s Arch, a majestic Colonial construction where locals seek shelter from the city’s frequent bursts of rain, as was intended when it was built in 1727. Running for cover from the rain is a classic thing to do in Quito.

The Queen that its name refers to is the Virgin of the Angels, an icon that is found in a chapel over in the former hospital where the City Museum now stands. She was worshipped by Mariana de Jesús, the country’s first saint, who happened to live on the same grounds where the church now stands. When Mariana died in 1645 and left her home to the Carmelite Nuns, the church they then erected in its place became so popular with worshippers that, during Saturday mass, people would spill out onto the street, getting drenched in the Quiteño showers. The arch was built to protect them, becoming a symbol of devotion for the city’s first saint.

The City Museum

Quito's City Museum
Explore Quito’s City Museum inner patio.

If you turn right onto Calle García Moreno, set aside an hour-or-so to explore the Museo de la Ciudad, which was formerly Quito’s first hospital. It now acts as a monument to 500 years of the city’s rich and sometimes explosive history. Among the sunny yellow patios (over which the white towers of Santa Clara peep over, giving you a distinct sense of where you are) where the old pharmacy and operating room are preserved and displayed, you’ll find exceptional artworks, like the triptych in the staircase by contemporary Ecuadorian painter, Jaime Zapata. These three tortured paintings portraying the progression of the Spanish conquistadors depict beautiful indigenous warriors and hellish Spaniards, their skull faces contorted and grotesque.

There are also temporary exhibitions here, like the marvellous desMARCADOS, a tribute to indigenous protest, including a timeline, tapestries woven with revolutionary messages, and beautiful, moving photography.

In the back patio of the museum, a brilliant modern space that blends satisfyingly with the antique hospital, there’s an exit onto Avenida 24 de Mayo and on to La Ronda, another of the Old Town’s historic streets – exploring it is one of the unmissable things to do in Quito. Cross the metal bridge and take the stairs down onto the street to continue your adventure, or head back to the entrance to wind down your tour.

Back on Calle Rocafuerte, heading uphill now, spot the sweets, colaciones, and delightfully named caca de perro (dog poo), which is another peanut-based snack that will happily lead to tooth decay. On your right, you’ll pass a handful of shops selling opulent and elaborate robes, rich in the jewel tones of turquoise, mustard and scarlet, made in miniature, as if for a tiny pope.

Traditional sweet treats of Quito
Traditional sweet treats in Quito are made of peanuts and corn. You can easily find them around many stores of Quito’s Old Town.

These amazing outfits are destined to clothe the Niño Bendito, the Christ Child doll that Catholic families pass deferentially between members each Christmas. Though each family has its own specific traditions, each year has members buy brand new, dazzling garments. Some Christ Child dolls are dressed in military or police gear. These are bought by the religious armed forces, who have their own Christ Child displays.

Back to your Casa (Gangotena)

It’s only a short stretch before, once again, you come to Calle Cuenca where you can turn right and seek refuge in the oasis of calm right there in the hotel’s garden. Be sure to rest those weary feet and then quench your thirst with Casa Gangotena’s agua de frescos drink. It’s one of the most Quiteño things to do in Quito available!

Casa Gangotena reception room
Spend the rest of your day relaxing at Casa Gangotena.
Travelers exploring the unique landscape near Finch Bay, showcasing the luxury experiences offered by the Gangotena Boutique Hotel network in the golden triangle.
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