As the 2nd largest city in Ecuador, Quito is bustling and full of life. Downtown is busy with lots of cars and exhaust and Old Town is predictably a popular place for tourists to look at all of the stunning old architecture and take in historical landmarks. While I would recommend spending time in both locations, the less touristy neighborhoods of Quito stole my heart.
Guápulo is a Bohemian artist neighborhood nestled onto a hill, which provides great exercise for when you’ve had one empanada too many. There are small artist galleries, bars, and restaurants that are tucked into the hills providing exceptional eastern views out into the hills and of Cotopaxi.
What to do in Guápulo:
First I would suggest orienting yourself with the neighborhood by going on a Quito Street Tour. This provides you with the opportunity to check out the barrio with a local to really find the hidden gems, but if you’re not able to do that, here are the spots I would recommend:
Start at El Mirador de Guápulo. At the top of the lookout there are many locks and all over the steps are little painted hearts, it is a common place for couples to sit and watch the sunset. It is also referred to locally as lovers park. From here you will start down the steps to check out the awesome local graffiti and art.
Directly underneath El Mirador de Guápulo is Tandana, a non-profit vegan restaurant whose mission is to help underserved populations, including minorities and women, as well as promote animal rights. There are not many vegan options in Ecuador, and it is very rare to find a full vegan menu. The restaurant has also planted community gardens around the steps of underneath the mirador, which is awesome. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be one of our favorite meals in Quito. We would definitely recommend the bruschetta to start and finish with the figs and “queso.” It is a restaurant that even non-vegans find delicious. Besides, they also serve local craft brews and have full windows looking out into the mountains!
After checking out El Mirador, walk down the steps and you will reach the narrow cobblestone steps of the barrio. Take your time walking down the steep street and stop in at Ananké for pizza and live music or Bar Palo Santo for a warm jar of canelazo. The canelazo is a must-have, it is a warm sugar-cane alcohol drink with cinnamon and naranjilla, it will be the perfect thing to warm you up during the cold Ecuadorean nights. It’s not too sweet and tastes rather similar to mulled wine.
If you keep walking down the hill you will hit the Iglesia de Guápulo, a beautiful colonial church that is definitely worth checking out. We were lucky enough to arrive at the church while a procession of the Virgin was occurring. The Virgin, which is a replica of the one within the church, is shared amongst the townspeople and she will rotate to stay with various families. Upon her return to the church there is a procession and fireworks. The fireworks are lit out of an old beer bottle, so pay attention.
At this point we worked up a significant appetite, so from here we took a 25¢ bus to Parque Navarro in La Floresta neighborhood about 1.5 miles (2.4km) away. This is park is also known as La Parque de Tripas, or tripe (stomach/intestine) park. As soon as you arrive at the park you are met with the overwhelming aroma of fried meat and the smoke from the tripe covers the park in fragrant clouds.
The food carts are regulated by the local government so there are some food safety regulations, but from what I saw, those are pretty loose. But the place is absolutely packed with locals grabbing a bite after work before they head home. As far as I could tell, we were the only foreigners there, which gives you an idea of the quality and authenticity of the food. We waited in lines at every cart to try a bite of everything (except the whole stomach soup), all the dishes we tried were phenomenal.
For dinner, Sergei opted for the morcilla (morcilla is typically blood sausage, but here he had a morcilla blanca, which is a sweeter sausage made with pork intestines, onions, eggs, and spices.) with potatoes, corn and fried plantains. We also had the pleasure of trying seco de carne, roasted fava beans, chicharrones, empanadas, and morocho. Morocho is a definite must-have if you like horchata. It is very similar, but instead of rice, they use corn. It is a wonderful warm dessert. Corn (mote) is a staple here and you will find it in almost every traditional dish.
Once we had our dinner, we left the parque de tripas and headed up the hill towards Parque Genero Larrea, but we made a quick pit-stop for some homemade tortillas. There are sweet and savory tortillas, and we got 3 for $1. We tend to give everything a try when we explore new places, but next time I would skip the tortillas.
After consuming way too much fat and sugar (which is very typical of the Ecuadorean diet) we made our final stop at Botánica for a coffee. After the busy streets and fried meat smells stepping into Botánica was a treat. There is outdoor patio seating filled with beautiful succulents and birds of paradise. Inside is an art gallery filled with work by local artists, homemade jams, pickled vegetables, and chocolates. But more than anything, they take their coffee very seriously here. One of the co-owners has spent significant amount of time in the coffee industry and now even judges national barista competitions. Until recently, most of the coffee roasting has been done outside of the country, even though they produce incredible coffee beans. The industry is now shifting to create more local roasters. All of Botánica’s coffee is single-origin and they know the farmers and roasters for the coffee beans that they use. The pour over at Botánica was done at our table with precise measurements and temperatures, it was truly the combination of a passion and science coming together in a cup.