Old town on top of the world

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 July, 2011, 12:00am


It's true what they say about toilets flushing, you know. In the northern hemisphere, toilets flush anticlockwise, and in the southern hemisphere, they flush clockwise.

Fun fact, yes, but you're suspicious and want to test it? You can do just that in Quito, the capital of Ecuador.

The city stretches to within 1km of the equator. From there, it is easy to take a bus to a museum that shows you all the cool stuff you can do on the equator, like balancing an egg. And yes, flush the toilet.

But Quito has more to recommend it than its proximity to the equator. Located in northern Ecuador, Quito is the second highest capital city in the world, lying at an altitude of 2,900 metres. This can lead to altitude sickness so it is important to stay hydrated.

Quito is also a perfect site for history buffs.

The city was founded in 1557 by the Spaniards, but the site had long before that served as a commercial centre for the local Quitu tribe.

The city still bears the hallmarks of the 300-year Spanish occupation. In 1978, Quito was the first city to be declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco along with Krakow, Poland.

The most noteworthy building in the city is the Church and Convent of St Francis, or San Francisco as he is known in Spanish. Construction on it began only a few weeks after the establishment of Quito City and it was officially inaugurated in 1605.

It is built on top of what was once the palace of Inca rulers. The Spanish deliberately chose the site to signal their dominance over locals, whom they set out to convert to Catholicism.

The church is a masterpiece of baroque architecture.

Standing atop El Panecillo, which means 'small piece of bread' in Spanish, is a statue of the Virgin Mary, known locally as the Virgin of Quito. The 200m-tall hill is so named because its top is shaped like flat bread.

The statue of the Virgin Mary, which was designed by a local artist in 1976, has been constructed entirely out of aluminium with a blend of both traditional and modern features.

Jesus' mother is portrayed standing on a dragon with angel wings on her back and her right hand raised in blessing. It is an image of good triumphing over evil.

From her spot, she watches over the city like a guardian angel.

But it is time to try some local delicacies.

Empanadas are stuffed pastry dishes that are popular throughout Latin America. In Quito, they can be had for as little as 50 US cents. They come with fillings such as beef, cheese and vegetables.

The adventurous may feel like heading over to a restaurant that, for about US$20, serves guinea pigs. Their meat is said to taste like chicken but it is chewier. The small mammals are prized by Ecuadorians as a staple of their diet because they're cheap to raise and breed fast.

Ecuador also produces a very light, savoury cheese that goes well with a cup of hot chocolate. Many restaurants serve this cheese.

You can either dip the cheese into chocolate before popping it in your mouth, or drop it into a chocolate drink and knock it back.

Many of the city's old buildings are protected by law so they are not at risk of being knocked down for redevelopment any time soon. That means you'll have plenty of time to visit this faraway but fascinating wonder of the world.

Pearl Chan is a Young Post cadet



A visa is required to enter Quito. A tourist visa grants a stay of up to 90 days. Your passport needs to be valid for at least six months and you must have a return ticket.

Health and safety

Quito is considered one of the safest places in South America, but it is wise to keep an eye out for pickpockets. Stomach problems are quite common for travellers to the city, so bring some medicine just in case.


The US dollar replaced the Ecuadorian sucre as legal tender in 2000. Credit cards are accepted in most restaurants but travellers are advised to bring some cash.

Weather and climate

The climate in Quito is considered to be eternal spring. The average temperature all year round is 15 degrees Celsius. On the warmest days, the temperature reaches 23 degrees and the coolest days are about 7 degrees.