Mainland Ecuador is a place of mystery and wonder — whether you’re seeing it from the heart of Quito or the cloud forests of the Andes.

View of the Quito, Ecuador skyline
The Quito skyline, with the neo-Gothic Basílica del Voto Nacional on the horizon, from the terrace of the hotel Casa Gangotena.
| Credit: Peter Bohler

There was a moment, on my first day in Quito, when I lost the ability to breathe. At 9,350 feet above sea level, the Ecuadorian capital is the world's highest — an improbable city where walking up a flight of stairs can put an ill-adapted pair of lungs in a vise grip. But I was higher even than that. After being driven through the blue-black of early morning to a grassy airfield on the outskirts of town, I was in the cockpit of a helicopter, rising to a hover just minutes after the sun had broken the horizon, so overwhelmed by my first glimpse of the landscape that I began involuntarily gasping as the pilot maneuvered into a 360-degree turn.

Expanding from the pastel sprawl of this city of 2.6 million was a primordial panorama that brought to mind computer simulations of the big bang. Worlds that were not supposed to coexist, at least in my understanding of the natural order, spread before me in implausible harmony. The jagged, snowcapped peaks of the Andes blurred into lush, tropical basins that glowed an almost neon green. Goats and cattle grazed on cascading hills of farmland that morphed into inhospitable lunar expanses. There were glaciers and waterfalls, rocky gorges and velvety highlands, tundras and rain forests, all crowned by pink-tinged clouds that skimmed the earth like stretched cotton.

And then there were the volcanoes. The hour-long flight, a new excursion by Metropolitan Touring, Ecuador's oldest travel outfit, followed part of the Avenue of Volcanoes — the majestic string of summits south of Quito named in the 19th century by the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt. They seemed to be everywhere, these mysterious formations that rose from valleys of green and gold to poke through the clouds like breaching whales. The pilot pointed out the craggy silhouette of the long-dormant Chimborazo, Ecuador's tallest mountain at 20,458 feet. Natives speak of it with particular reverence, and for good reason: because of its location on the equatorial bulge, Chimborazo's peak is the farthest terrestrial point from the earth's core (as well as the closest one to the moon).

The pilot banked into a sharp, swooping turn, and suddenly we were following a river toward Cotopaxi, a solitary marvel just shy of 20,000 feet that is one of the world's tallest active volcanoes. We rose along Cotopaxi's ice-shrouded face to hover just above the perfectly conical summit. Looking into the crater, I felt a visceral sensation that remained with me throughout my week-long stay in Quito. There I was, still technically within the boundaries of a major city, yet consumed by the unnerving impression that I was looking directly into the soul of the planet.

For some, Ecuador is less a country than it is an idea about the world before countries — or even before mankind. It is best known for what lies some 600 miles off its rugged Pacific coastline: the Galápagos Islands, the storied archipelago containing one of the planet's highest concentrations of endemic species. Many travelers see Quito as little more than a way station on a trip to go see giant turtles and pink iguanas. While neighboring capitals like Lima and Bogotá have become increasingly popular, Quito has remained something of a question mark. From my helicopter tour through my days wandering the city streets — and during an excursion to a place in the cloud forest that is, somehow, still a part of greater Quito — I found a metropolis whose intimacy belies its vastness. It is both humble and feral, a city that accepts nature's powers rather than trying to overcome them. There are few destinations that still deliver the intoxicating jolt of true discovery, but it is one. From left: Cotopaxi, one of the world’s tallest active volcanoes, as seen from a helicopter; a Quechuan mother and child in Quito’s Centro Histórico. Peter Bohler

I stayed in the Centro Histórico, a hilly, staggeringly beautiful labyrinth that 40 years ago was designated UNESCO's first World Heritage city. My hotel, Casa Gangotena, was an immaculately preserved Neoclassical mansion typical of the area. Overlooking the Plaza San Francisco, one of the city's main squares, it had floors of Egyptian marble, a flower-filled atrium, and opulent, high-ceilinged guest rooms.

After checking in, I roamed the delightfully cacophonous urban center. Motorbikes slalomed through the catacomb-like streets, dodging stray dogs, diesel buses, and rusted-out trucks filled with freshly slaughtered chickens. On every corner someone was selling something: fresh fruit, vegetables, quail eggs, ice cream, braised pork, spit-roasted guinea pigs, chocolate, and more varieties of corn and grain than I knew existed.

Even by Latin American standards, the density of churches was astounding; around every bend there seemed to be another weathered Gothic façade, Baroque spire, or intricately tiled dome. During a flash thunderstorm — Quito's weather changes dramatically by the hour — I unknowingly took refuge inside the most famous church in the city, La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, colloquially known as La Compañía. It's an apt metaphor for a city that requires a bit of patience to appreciate: the modest exterior opens into a vaulted room painted entirely in dazzling gold leaf.

Hungry, I ventured toward San Roque, one of the oldest sections of the Centro Histórico. It is home to the Mercado San Francisco, a no-frills, uorescent-lit bazaar that has been in operation since 1897. Here, indigenous women in embroidered skirts and men sporting handmade cowboy hats squeezed between fruit stands overflowing with mangoes, passion fruit, and custard apples. Butchers hawked cow's feet and miscellaneous innards. I made my way to the food court in the rear, possibly the best spot in town for sampling Ecuador's traditional cooking.

One stand specialized in stuffed potato patties called llapingachos. Another served encebollado, an oniony fish soup that is a popular hangover cure. But what about that goat stew simmering in a cauldron over here, or that platter of chicken and plantains over there? Since almost everything was less than three dollars (Ecuador has used the American dollar since 2000, following a banking crisis that destroyed the value of its former currency, the sucre), I decided to try everything, washing it all down with a juice made from tamarillo, a tart Andean fruit better known as tomate de árbol, or "tomato of the tree." From left: Encebollado, or fish soup, at the Mercado San Francisco in Quito’s Centro Historic; traditional Ecuadorian papier-mâché masks for sale in Quito. Peter Bohler

Returning to Casa Gangotena just before dusk, I was grateful for the respite from the fray: a horizontal recharge on luscious bedding, an exquisite cocktail made from chamomile-infused gin and fermented sugarcane juice, which I sipped in the cozy wood-paneled bar. After taking in the sunset from the hotel's rooftop terrace, I ventured out of Quito's historic core for dinner.

Navigating the city beyond the Centro Histórico can be a small adventure. Though Quito has become safer, walking at night is still frowned upon, so the streets take on a slightly desolate cast after dark. Taxis are really the only way to get around — at least until next year, when a 15-station metro system is set to open. The taxi system, however, could charitably be described as quirky: licensed yellow cabs are indiscernible from their fake counterparts, which often charge double. Thankfully, the city is so affordable that getting hoodwinked, as I did, means parting with only a few extra dollars.

From the window of my gypsy cab, the Centro Histórico's Spanish-colonial decadence gave way to what locals call "the modern city": a dense grid of concrete towers and wider avenues illuminated by the dim yellow glow of the street lamps. My destination was Laboratorio, a restaurant on a residential block at the edge of La Floresta, the city's bohemian neighborhood. A loftlike room with poured-concrete oors and polished-wood benches, Laboratorio is, as the name suggests, a kind of experiment. Rather than offering a set menu or even a consistent culinary experience, it hosts chefs from Ecuador and beyond to showcase their talents in pop-up restaurants that stay open a few months at a time.

Laboratorio is the brainchild of Camilo Kohn, an easygoing young Ecuadorian with a fierce entrepreneurial streak. "The food scene here was a bit stagnant," he told me, explaining how he came to open the place three years ago after attending culinary school in the United States. "The fanciest restaurants were basically the same food you could get on the street, but served on a white tablecloth for ten times the price."

Kohn was the chef for Laboratorio's first pop-up, Banh Mi, which introduced Quiteños to the joys of the Vietnamese sandwich. It was such a success that Kohn turned it into a stand-alone restaurant nearby. When I visited Laboratorio, Rodolfo Reynoso, a chef from Veracruz, Mexico, was helming the latest pop-up, MX.593, which served a menu featuring Mexican classics (pork adobo tacos) with nods to Ecuadorian cuisine (a gordita filled with llama meat). The margaritas came in beakers. Everything was as delicious as you'd find in any trendy spot in a major global city.

"We're trying to reclaim our heritage in a new way," Kohn told me. "Things that are common in other places, like using high-end ingredients in casual settings, are still kind of foreign here. It's exciting to be able to push those trends and introduce new ideas."

On my third morning in town, I was greeted in the lobby of Casa Gangotena by Klaus-Peter Fielsch, a tall, affable Quito native who works for Metropolitan Touring. He had come to take me to Mashpi Lodge, an upscale eco-hotel in the cloud forest at the northwestern edge of Quito's expansive municipal boundary, which runs far outside the central city. The four-hour drive passed through the same shape-shifting land I'd seen days earlier from above. As we followed the vertiginous mountain roads along the spine of the Andes, deciduous trees were replaced by towering palms and the crisp, cool air turned swampy. From left: Looking down on the forest canopy from Mashpi Lodge’s Dragonfly cable car; a guest room at Mashpi, an eco-resort in the cloud forest of northern Ecuador. Peter Bohler

"And yet, technically speaking, we are now traveling from summer to winter!" Fielsch laughed as we passed the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo, where a vaguely Brutalist monument on the equatorial line marks the center of the world. (Constructed before GPS technology, it is technically a few degrees off the mark.) Paved roads soon gave way to dirt. Suddenly, Fielsch brought the van to a halt. "Look!" he said in a shouted whisper. A scarlet king snake was slithering off the road into the forest. "Keep in mind that you are still in Quito," he told me.

Arriving at Mashpi was an experience in itself, the muddy, axle-rattling road opening up to a sleek structure of sharp angles and soaring glass walls that could have been airlifted from the Hollywood Hills. The hotel was developed by Roque Sevilla, the preservation-minded former mayor of Quito, on a 3,200-acre site previously owned by a logging company. It sits within one of the world's most biodiverse regions, the Chocó rain forest, which snakes from Panama through Colombia to northern Ecuador. Since it opened six years ago, Mashpi has played an integral role in raising the profile of Ecuador's mainland. "It will never be a Galapágos-size economy — nothing will," Fielsch told me. "But, more and more, we have visitors who want to do both."

Mashpi doesn't stint on luxury: there's a day spa, a bar with floor-to-ceiling windows onto the prodigious vegetation outside, and a world-class restaurant specializing in inventive takes on the Ecuadorian staples I'd sampled a few days earlier at the Mercado San Francisco. Having such a lavish base camp from which to explore the wonders of the forest made the next three days a sublime blur. Returning to the lodge after long days spent traipsing about in rubber boots never got old: the warm towel waiting at the door, the hot shower in the minimalist room, the supple bed on which I sank nightly into a deep slumber, the experience of waking to the singsong of the many species of birds that inhabit the forest.

One morning, I sat hypnotized on a bench in the hummingbird garden watching hundreds of birds dart about, their iridescent wings flashing like sparklers in the mist. Later I took a hike that culminated with a revitalizing dip in a waterfall. On another hike, I discovered a family of toucans fighting over plantains. At nightfall, guides led guests on walks around the grounds, showing them wildlife in the beams of their flashlights. I saw neon-bright frogs, a tarantula, an iguana, and a lemon-colored vine snake resting on a steroidal fern leaf. From left: An emerald glass frog, a species indigenous to the Andes, spotted on a night hike at Mashpi Lodge; The Healing Waterfall, the end point of a popular hike from the lodge, in the foothills of the Ecuadorian Andes. Peter Bohler

After getting to know the forest from the ground, I spent my final morning at Mashpi seeing it from above, riding the lodge's recently launched Dragonfly, an open-air cable car that carries guests for more than a mile above the tree canopy. Though completed during the construction of the hotel, its opening was delayed for years because of bureaucratic wrangling. The experience was a lower-altitude version of the helicopter ride — a chance to observe Ecuador's primeval landscape from the vantage point of a pterodactyl.

While wandering Quito's streets earlier in the week, I'd noticed the many small shops devoted to "ancestral medicine" that Quiteños frequent to buy potions and undergo healing treatments. I'd been too intimidated to enter, but after my time in the forest, I felt more acclimated to the city's strange fusion between the civilized and natural worlds. So on my last day in town, I stopped in to one for an assessment of my soul.

The healer who ran the shop, a wizened woman with a beaming smile, looked me up and down before declaring that I had some "dark energy" that needed purging. Without going into detail, suffice it to say that her diagnosis mirrored that of my therapist's. She led me to a nook that could have been an interrogation chamber — concrete walls, exposed lightbulb dangling from a cord — and told me to strip to my underwear.

As she rubbed my skin with a mysterious bundle of herbs and flowers, my whole body began to itch. The main ingredient, it turned out, was stinging nettle. Pointing at the constellation of small bumps breaking out on my arms, I voiced concern in my pidgin Spanish. She was unfazed. "Bueno!" she said, explaining, as best I could decipher, that this was the dark energy rising to the surface.

If so, there sure was a lot of it. By the time I got dressed, my entire body was a continuous welt from the neck down, and I felt as if I were on fire. Walking around in a daze, I began to worry that my desire to savor Quito's authenticity was going to end in anaphylactic shock. But within about an hour the welts were gone, just as the healer had promised. As for the dark energy? For the rest of the day, and long into my last night in the city, I found myself bathed in a rare calm.

How to Visit Ecuador, from Quito to the Cloud Forest

Give yourself about a week, divided evenly between the city and the wilderness, which can be easily combined with a second week in the Galápagos Islands. Most restaurants and other businesses in Quito are closed on Sundays (and some on Mondays), so plan accordingly.

Getting There

American and Delta have direct flights from Miami and Atlanta to Mariscal Sucre International Airport, which opened in 2013 just outside of Quito.

Operator & Lodging

Metropolitan Touring: Ecuador’s oldest travel outfit, put together my fantastic itinerary, which included its latest offering, a helicopter flight along Ecuador's renowned Avenue of the Volcanoes. The company also owns both hotels where I stayed: Casa Gangotena (doubles from $450), a converted Neoclassical mansion in Quito’s historic center, and Mashpi Lodge (doubles from $1,098), a bastion of Modernist luxury in the cloud forest a few hours away. Mashpi can arrange transfers to and from central Quito.

Eat & Drink

Banh Mi: The city’s premier destination for Southeast Asian fare and well-made cocktails. entrées $9–$16.

Bandido Brewing: A hipster hangout in the La Tola precinct of the Centro Histórico serving craft beer, artisanal pizza, and draft kombucha.

Dios No Muere: A sprawling café spread across three stories of a former monastery where you can find both Ecuadorian dishes and Cajun classics. entrées $5–$10.

Laboratorio: At this chic spot in La Floresta, different chefs showcase their talents in residencies that last several months. entrées $12–$14.

Mercado San Francisco: Quito's oldest market is the best place to sample traditional Ecuadorian cuisine. Corner of Rocafuerte and Chimborazo.