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QUITO ECUADOR
by Mark Chesnut

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Perched at 9,200 feet above sea level, Quito is a city that soars. Its countless church spires seem to compete for attention with the mountains that surround it, while the giant volcano Pichincha, which rises more than 13,000 feet above sea level, sits majestically nearby. The city’s altitude, of course, may leave some visitors a bit light-headed at first, but Ecuador’s capital is more visitor-friendly than ever, thanks to an impressive push for historic preservation, exciting new hotel offerings, expanded gay rights, and entertainment options for gay travelers. I’ve visited Quito several times in the past decade, and with every visit there seems to be more reason to return. With my latest visit, I’m discovering even more, as I stroll the spruced-up streets of the UNESCO-recognized historic center, indulge in the luxuries of the city’s new boutique hotels, and speak with local gay residents. Now more than ever, Ecuador’s capital is well positioned to be a hotspot on the GLBT map.

THE HIGH LIFE
Quito’s goal to make itself more attractive to visitors isn’t limited to its landmark historic buildings and hotel offerings. Even flying into the city will become a smoother experience when a new airport opens in 2010 on a 3,700-acre site just outside the city limits. Travelers, however, will still have to grapple with the altitude upon arrival. I usually get a bit of a headache during the first day, and have to avoid running across streets, dancing furiously, or drinking alcohol for the first 24 hours or so. During this visit, I’ve found a great way to prepare for the altitude change: indulging in a business-class flight on LAN Airlines, which has revamped its premium service to feature lie-flat seats and improved entertainment and cuisine. When you arrive relaxed, after all, you’ll be in better shape to adjust and enjoy Quito’s sunny, temperate, high-altitude climate.

For many globetrotters, Quito was for years no more than a quick stopover en route to the Galápagos Islands, that wondrous nature preserve that lies off Ecuador’s coast. Quito’s historic city center, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, didn’t warrant much more than a quick daytime visit, as the ambiance of its stunningly ornate Colonial and Republican-era architecture suffered from the effects of unkempt, crowded streets.

Today, travelers are spending more time in the historic heart, thanks to a major cleanup that has brought new life to several sections of the city. The attention is well deserved; it was here that Quito was founded in the 16th century and much of the early architecture still stands. A quick visit to the Museo de la Ciudad (Museum of the City), set in a restored former hospital that dates to 1565, provides a good overview of the city’s storied past. The museum’s exhibits document the culture of the region’s indigenous groups, including the Incas, which had settled the region long before the arrival of the Spanish, as well as Quito’s rising influence, both as a Spanish colonial outpost and later as the capital of an independent Ecuador. Today, the coastal city of Guayaquil may be larger, but Quito continues to wield power as the nation’s capital, and as a hub for tourism.

The city center has also hailed the opening of several boutique hotels set in lovely historic buildings. Among the best are Patio Andaluz, housed in a restored Colonial-era structure, and the Plaza Grande, which opened in 2007 in a beautifully renovated old hotel. The property, run by the owners of the Swissotel Quito, has 15 suites with perfectly executed conservative luxury, including details like 900-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets and feather comforters. Gazing from one of the plaza view suites toward the Plaza de la Independencia, a square that’s anchored by the city’s cathedral, the government palace, and the city government building, it’s easy to feel you’re living history with every breath.

Just outside the historic center is one of the city’s newest cultural attractions: the Centro de Arte Contemporaneo (Contemporary Art Center), which opened in 2008 in a former military hospital. A massive renovation has converted the old building into an impressive exhibition center that features rotating exhibits as well as high-tech presentations about the nation’s history.

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If you’re already adjusted to the altitude, it’s time to head even higher for some of the most impressive views of the city. Since 2005, the Telefériqo, an aerial tramway, has taken visitors to a lookout of just over 13,000 feet. Or book a table at El Ventanal, an upscale restaurant that opened in May 2008, high on a hillside, with floor-to-ceiling windows that offer stunning views of the city below.

For centuries, Quito has also been a center for artistic expression. A necessary stop for any art lover is the Capilla del Hombre Guayasamín, a strikingly modern piece of architecture that serves as a grand tribute to the dramatic, disturbing, and sad work of Oswaldo Guayasamín, one of Ecuador’s most famous artists. To pick up decent handpainted reproductions of some of his work, as well as original contemporary art at reasonable prices, head to Parque El Ejido, a large city park that also has stalls with handicrafts; it’s especially good on weekends.

RAINBOW QUITO
“Quito is becoming a more open city; it’s very gay,” says Marcos David Endara, general manager of Zenith Travel, a gay-owned travel agency that was founded in 1999. We’re sitting at Red Hot Chili Peppers, a Mexican restaurant in the heart of La Mariscal, a neighborhood also known as the Zona Rosa, or Pink Zone.

Continued
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Nice info, but you need more gay info for the site, very interesting
- henry , ct, usa


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