As respective jumping points for the Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu, Quito in Ecuador and Cusco in Peru are often only given cursory glances by travellers eager to move onto the main attractions.
As UNESCO World Heritage Sites themselves, however, the cities deserve more attention and appreciation for their magnificent architecture, historic centres, narrow cobbled streets, stunning views of the Andes mountains, vibrant nightlife and exciting mix of traditional and modern culture.
Visit as a volunteer
If you have the time, both Quito and Cusco offer unique opportunities for volunteering abroad from as little as one week in duration. It’s an ideal way to stop and really get to know the cities, and the local people that call them home.
In Cusco, you could volunteer at a children’s orphanage, taking part in general day-to-day care, helping with schoolwork or with teaching English. Or in Quito you could help out at a disadvantaged children’s day centre, taking part in music or art projects, teaching English or just helping out in the kitchen.
The capital of Ecuador, Quito is arguably South America’s prettiest colonial city, home to over two million people and founded in the 16th century on the ruins of an Incan city high in the Andes. And although Quito was actually the first city to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s taken until now for the rest of the world to appreciate the unique charm and beauty it has to offer.
National Geographic Traveler recently named Quito one of the must-see places of 2013. Add this to the fact that Ecuador has been put forward by Lonely Planet as one of the top 10 countries to visit and you can be sure that the city won’t be overlooked by travellers for much longer.
Quito’s historic centre – the old town – is lined with stunning plazas, 17th century churches and monasteries and beautifully restored mansions. You could easily spend days wandering the narrow, cobblestone streets and taking in the architectural gems from the Spanish colonial days.
And it’s only getting more impressive and beautiful, as over the past decade the city has invested over $500 million into improving and restoring the area. The regeneration project has seen vendors given stalls in bustling new markets, beautifully manicured parks dotting the city’s seven sacred Inca hills and derelict buildings turned into enviously beautiful homes.
Plaza Grande is the heart of Quito’s old town, where you can take in the hustle and bustle of this vibrant city. Built to honour the heroes who began the move for independence from Spain, every Monday morning at 11am there is a very colourful changing of the guard ceremony and then the President of Ecuador addresses the people.
The square is flanked by the Archbishop’s Palace to the north, the presidential Carondelet Palace to the west and the Cathedral of Quito to the south – each an additional must-see attraction of the city themselves.
San Francisco Church
A combination of Incan temple, Catholic chapels and a convent, San Francisco church takes up nearly two blocks and is the most impressive of Quito’s architectural monuments. It was the first church the Spanish built in Quito, with construction beginning in 1535, and as it was built over an Incan temple, it’s the highest structure in the city.
Travel on a teleferico
A ride on the teleferico, or cable car, lets you take in the breathtaking views of Quito and the Andes mountains without the strenuous hike. You can enjoy them for longer over a drink, or two, at one of the neighbourhood’s rooftop terrace bars.
Far from being overlooked, Cusco’s exclusive access to Machu Picchu makes it one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. But most people don’t stay long, hitting the Inca Trail as soon as they’ve acclimatized. And while Machu Picchu and the other Inca ruins are undoubtedly a hugely important part of Peru’s culture, the beautiful city of Cusco – the capital of the Incan empire and the most important archaeological city of the Americas – deserves more time and attention.
Plaza de Armas
The heart of Cusco, the elegant Plaza de Armas encompasses numerous small gardens and stone colonial arcades that house a number of shops and restaurants. Both the Cusco Cathedral and the Church of La Compañía open directly onto the plaza.
Over a hundred years in the making (1560-1664), Cusco Cathedral is a stunning, Renaissance-style building in the shape of a Latin cross. Inside you’ll find beautiful examples of colonial goldwork and carved wooden altars, as well as nearly 400 colonial paintings.
Barrio de San Blas
Close to the Plaza de Armas lies Cusco’s most picturesque neighbourhood, San Blas. The narrow streets are lined with old Spanish houses built on top of Incan foundations, housing artists’ studios, craft shops and some of the city’s best bars and restaurants.
Now a ruin, Coricancha, the Temple of the Sun, was once the most important temple in the Inca Empire.
The Spanish colonists demolished the temple and built the Church of Santo Domingo on the site, incorporating the Inca stonework into the structure of the colonial building.
Within an easy walk of Cusco’s city centre you’ll find the spectacular Incan ruins of Sacsayhuaman. A walled complex believed to be a military fortress, it’s an amazing example of Inca architecture and stone work, with 300-ton limestone boulders fitted together perfectly without the use of mortar.
Do stay a bit longer at the ‘gateway’ destinations of Quito or Cusco and wander beyond their well-trodden tourist routes – you won’t be sorry you did.
About the Author: Shannon Forbush is a freelance writer by trade, traveller by nature, with swimming in the Dead Sea currently being her most recommended travel experience.