Quito, Ecuador, is readying to reel in the tourists, intent on enticing visitors to stick around for more than just a quick stopover en route to the Galapagos. A new international airport just debuted in February, plans for a metro system are in the works, and the old colonial center – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is fresh from a $250 million makeover, adding luster to the city’s picturesque plazas, colonial churches, and cobbled streets, all surrounded by scenic snow-capped Andean peaks and distant volcanoes. Freshly back from a week on the ground there, these five Quito attractions simply can’t be missed – best of all, in affordable Ecuador, they all ring in at under $5 (and a couple are even completely free!).
1. Casa del Alabado: Pre-Colombian Art Museum
A heralded newcomer to Quito’s cultural scene, this fantastic collection of pre-colonial period artifacts comes thoughtfully presented in a little jewel box of a museum, set in a 17th-century colonial building just off of Plaza San Francisco. The exquisite works displayed showcase the culture and spirituality of Ecuador’s ancient indigenous peoples, with a fluid self-guided circuit through rooms that highlight topics like ancestors and shamans, with the help of nifty interactive high-tech installments. Admission $4/adults; $1/kids.
2. Mindalae Museum
This six-year-old, little modern arts-and-crafts museum in the trendy La Mariscal district is a delight to explore, with five easily digestible floors of traditional Ecuadorian arts and crafts (pictured to right). Start off your visit from the top – the site of a shamanism exhibit – and work your way down through engaging displays of hand-crafted baskets, pottery, textiles, musical instruments, and more. Admission $3/adults; $1.50/kids.
3. San Francisco Cathedral
This 16th-century baroque stunner, built atop an ancient Incan temple on what is now the Plaza San Francisco, is the city’s oldest church, and still very much a place of worship. Look for Moorish influence on the ceilings, an intricate central altar, and iconography rich with both traditional Catholic and indigenous symbolism, all capped off by a majestic dome overhead. Free admission.
4. Central Bank Museum of Ecuador
The nation's most important collection of art and artifacts highlights chronologically displayed artworks and archaeological finds to showcase Ecuador’s historical and cultural evolution. The permanent collection includes pre-Colombian ceramics, stonework, and gold (pictured to right), a colonial art gallery, artworks from the Republican period, and contemporary pieces. Free admission.
5. La Compañía Church
The over-the-top ornate Church of the Jesuits is a shimmering baroque beauty (depicting some Moorish influence), dating back to 1605, though it took some 160 years to complete. Gold leaf envelopes nearly every inch of the rich interior, with gilded pillars, domes and altars, broken up only by interludes for carved religious figures and intricate frescoes. Admission $3/adults.
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