Ecuador is best known for the Galapagos Islands, but the Latin American country offers rich cultural experiences as well as beautiful mountain landscapes and tasty ceviches. Ecuadorian airline Tame offers direct flights from JFK Airport to Guayaquil, the country’s largest city in the country, and mountain city Quito is just an hour flight away.
Spend a day in this colorful port city and stay at charming boutique hotel Oro Verde. Don’t miss the Parque Historico, where you can see tropical animals ranging from bright macaws to furry sloths in the endangered wildlife zone. The rest of the park is similar to Colonial Williamsburg, where staffers walk around amidst colonial homes and churches in traditional outfits from the early 1900s.
Parque Seminario, better known as the Iguana Park, is a bright plaza in the center of town and it is heavily populated by – you guessed it – iguanas. Don’t be afraid, though: These iguanas have had their teeth removed and are harmless. It’s a fun spot to watch both people and reptiles.
Drink lots of water and bring medicine in case you suffer from altitude sickness in this mountain city. Luxury chain Swissotel offers a full spa and fitness center, but for a more romantic escape, stay in the cozy Hotel Plaza Grande, which offers gorgeous views of the city’s Old Town’s Independence Square.
Quito’s Old Town is a must-visit. Take a stroll through the narrow, hilly streets lined with Easter egg-colored buildings and stop into the San Francisco Museum and Convent, where you can see an array of 17th century paintings and walk through a beautiful courtyard and garden. You can browse preserved manuscripts and devotional paintings in this quiet space.
The Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus is one of Quito’s most famous churches, and for good reason. The interior of the church is covered in gold leaf and elaborate woodcarvings. The baroque church is flooded with gilded patterns and portraits of saints – the level of detail is enough to make your eyes hurt.
For an insightful look into Quito’s modern art scene, visit the Guayasamin Museum. The late artist Oswaldo Guayasamin is considered the Picasso of Quito, and his home is open to visitors next to the museum. Guayasamin is the pride of Ecuador and you’ll see his paintings in the airports and copies in gift shops. His home offers a unique perspective into his revolutionary work as well as the classist landscape of the country during his early career.
The city offers more than just art and architecture. The views here are, with the high altitude, literally breathtaking. Treat yourself and dine at El Crater restaurant, where you can eat traditional Ecuadorean food at the mouth of a dormant volcano. Try a hearty potato soup and fritada (fried pork) with plantains for a filling meal as you watch mists pass through the “crater” next to your window. For kitschy fun, head to the Middle of the World park, where you can see shrunken heads, replicas of indigenous homes and walk right on the equator line. Your tour guides will challenge you to a few games on the equator: This is your chance to make an egg stand on its end.
Unwind in La Mariscal, the nightlife center of Quito. La Boca del Lobo is a fun restaurant that offers Ecuadorean food with a twist in a flashy atmosphere with disco balls and Warhol-esque Chairman Mao statuettes. You can try unique dishes like cuy empanadas (guinea pig empanadas) or chicken in mango sauce, but picky eaters don’t need to worry: They offer steak and fries and other non-eccentric standbys. Get down on the restaurant’s dance floor after dinner.
If you have time, take a day trip to Cotopaxi, one of the world's tallest volcanoes. The air is cold and thin and it's a steep incline, but if you can manage the hike, the snow-capped volcano is truly awesome, as are its surroundings. At Cotopaxi National Park, you'll see lakes, horses and Andean cowboys in this tranquil, raw setting.