No longer just a gateway, the second-highest city on Earth is coming into its own, writes Steve McKenna.
EVEN those who usually breeze past street musicians without giving them a second glance would find it hard to ignore this couple. Both are blind, seated on matching red plastic stools and busking with all their heart. The man, a squat Andean in a sky-blue cap, check shirt, grey cardigan and navy slacks, strums away vigorously on his acoustic guitar; his other half, dressed in a dark overcoat, skirt and bright pink tights, is singing with unbridled passion, a mix of angst and joy etched across her face.
It's a slightly mournful but brilliant folksy performance and it's clear I'm not the only one touched by this endearing act. As spectators bring this cobblestone alleyway in Quito's Old Town to a virtual standstill, a flood of coins and notes tumbles into the buskers' money pot. The Ecuadorian capital is an incredible place for people watching and has become a much more absorbing place for tourists in recent years, not least because the city's magnificent collection of Spanish colonial architecture has been spruced up.
Once considered just a convenient hub for transferring to more exotic pastures such as the Amazonian jungles or Galapagos Islands, Quito has become a popular stopover in itself, appreciated for its historical and cultural treasures, delicious Andean-European fusion cuisine and vibrant nightlife.
Nestled in a lush Andean valley, Quito is 2850 metres above sea level and is surrounded by a chain of towering snow-cloaked volcanic peaks. I take a ride on the city's teleferiQo, a flash new gondola that zooms passengers to the top of Cruz Loma (4100 metres). The views are wonderful but it can get chilly up here and some may find the air a bit thin, preferring lower-lying options with panoramic viewing points, such as Parque Itchimbia and El Panecillo, a landmark capped by a huge statue of the Virgin of Quito.
Down at ground level, Quito is ostensibly split into two: the gorgeous but frenetic Old Town and its modern, flashier counterpart, the New Town.
The former dates from the 16th century, when the conquistadors, aided by indigenous artisans and labourers, laid a classic Spanish-style grid over a ruined Inca city, decorating streets and plazas with lavish mansions and churches. Four centuries later, Old Town is now on UNESCO's World Heritage list.
Upmarket restaurants, swish cafes and boutique hotels have opened inside previously dilapidated buildings, with the Hotel Plaza Grande, the former home of conquistador Juan Diaz de Hidalgo, now a picture of elegance.
The revitalised Teatro Sucre showcases jazz and classical music, opera and ballet in a glorious setting, while La Compania de Jesus church is a dazzling example of the Baroque school of Quito, which, between the 16th and 19th centuries, melded European and indigenous influences to create memorable art and architecture. The church's gilded walls, ceilings and altars are said to be laced with tonnes of gold. Recently revamped, the Museum of Colonial Art houses a fantastic collection of works from Spanish-ruled times.
Despite the gentrification, the Old Town hasn't lost its character. Long-running working-class establishments such as Cafeteria Modelo are still in business, dishing up empanadas for next to nothing, while bargain joints serve three-course lunches for less than $3.
Quito's New Town seems like another world. Streets and avenues are wider and the skyline is dominated by high-rise financial blocks, five-star hotels, shopping malls and sleek bars and restaurants. While it lacks the quaintness of its older sibling, there's much to enjoy here, too. The New Town's heartbeat is Plaza Foch, a staging point for concerts and cultural shows and an almost 24-hour hive of activity, where tourists and affluent locals mingle.
The square and the pedestrian-friendly strips that shoot off it are lined with eateries and bars injected with Latino, European and North American flavours. La Boca del Lobo, a funky restaurant-cum-art gallery, has a colourful exterior, bizarre interior design and serves Novo Andino, a fusion of sophisticated cuisine and traditional Andean fare. The New Town also has a handful of stylish hotels, among them uber-cool Nu House and Le Parc. However, the area isn't all about drinking, eating and sleeping. There's a sprinkling of modern art galleries and exhibition centres, plus a double helping of eclectic work from the late Oswaldo Guayasamin, an Ecuadorian of indigenous descent who was regarded as the country's finest contemporary artist. The Guayasamin Museum and the Chapel of Man house some spell-binding art dedicated to portraying, in Picasso-esque style, the various injustices wrought on Ecuador's indigenous people.
Many people round off their trip at nearby Mitad del Mundo, which means the middle of the world but is, quite simply, the equator. Put one foot in each hemisphere simultaneously. It has to be done.
LAN flies from Sydney to Quito via Santiago, priced from $2919. 1800 558 129, lan.com.
Suites at the Hotel Plaza Grande are priced from $US550 ($560) a night. plazagrandequito.com. In Old Town, Hotel Real Audiencia has rooms from $US55 a night, realaudiencia.com. In New Town, Nu House has doubles from $US129. nuhousehotels.com.