Until recently, few sophisticated travelers opted to linger in Quito. But times are changing fast: In recent years, the magnificent Old City has been extensively restored; Quito was designated the 2011 American Capital of Culture; and a new airport is scheduled to open at the end of 2012.
Quito is located at an altitude of 9,350 feet on the side of Pichincha Volcano. During June, July and August, the Andean sky is generally clear, and the grand snowcapped volcanic cones of Cotopaxi, Cayambe and Antisana — all more than 18,000 feet high — are also clearly visible. Quito was founded in 1534 on the ruins of an Inca city in a long, narrow north-south valley. Nowadays, because of a burgeoning population of more than 2 million, its suburbs have spilled over the confining ridges. But its center of gravity remains the Old City, a World Heritage site since 1978 and containing arguably the most splendid and homogeneous array of Spanish Colonial architecture in Latin America.
The Hotel Plaza Grande enjoys a perfect location facing the cathedral and next to the Presidential Palace. The neoclassical building was originally the home of Juan Díaz de Hidalgo, one of the original Spanish conquistadors. It first became a hotel, the Majestic, in 1943 and subsequently served as both a bank and the administrative offices for the municipality of Quito. It was not until 2005 that a group of investors decided to restore the structure and reopen it as a hotel.
We arrived late one evening, tired by the final leg of our journey — the four-hour flight from Miami. I cannot remember the last time that we were received with such warmth and sincere hospitality. We were shown up to our Plaza View Suite (#25), one of three that commands a compelling view of the animated main square. Its décor was in the style of a grand Spanish mansion. Heavy wooden furniture, tapestries, a canopied bed and a color scheme of gold and autumnal browns all contributed to a patrician atmosphere. The traditional elegance of the main salon was augmented by complimentary Wi-Fi and English-language cable television, while the well-appointed marble bath came with both a strong walk-in shower and a small Jacuzzi.
The hotel offers La Belle Epoque for French and international cuisine, and the Café Plaza Grande, located on the ground floor with windows overlooking the square. The latter specializes in Ecuadorian dishes such as ceviche, suckling pig and a delicious hanger steak served with avocado and salsa. And its local breakfast and hot chocolate both enjoy justified renown. The hotel’s other amenity is a small spa.
Alas, our stay at the Plaza Grande was all too short. With just 15 suites, it is a perfect size, so that you soon get to know everyone and everyone gets to know you. It is a property that manages to be both elegant and warmhearted, and I could happily have stayed for a week.
Hotel Plaza Grande 94 Royal Suite, $550; Plaza View Suite, $650. Calle García Moreno N5-16 y Chile, Quito. Tel. (593) 22-566497.
Feeling that we had fulfilled our mission in Quito by discovering such a delightful boutique hotel, we were bemused to find a second, less than five minutes’ walk away. The 31-room Casa Gangotena overlooks the lively Plaza San Francisco and stands on a site that has also been occupied since the time of the Incas. The current three-story building dates from 1926, however, and opened as a hotel on September 1 after a four-year, $10 million renovation. The mansion’s architecture is Renaissance-inspired, but the interior now combines art deco and postmodern styles.
Once again, our first impression was of a staff that was extremely anxious to please. Our exquisite, high-ceilinged Plaza View Room (#108) was on a corner, and hence featured tall windows overlooking both the square and adjoining Cuenca Street. A refined and delicate palette of ice blue, cream and beige was complemented by veined marble columns, ornate moldings and a dramatic art deco ceiling light. A dark-wood art deco armoire contained adequate hanging space, with a flat-screen television perched awkwardly on a desk being the only discordant note. The marble bath was well-lit and well-appointed, though it contained only a single basin and a shower over the soaking tub.
Downstairs, we discovered a glassed-in patio and a delightful small courtyard garden. Steps led up to an elegant restaurant. There, chef Andrés Dávila serves international cuisine, plus Ecuadorian dishes from both the Andes and the Pacific.
Of course, the obvious question is, “Do you prefer the Plaza Grande or the Casa Gangotena?” The truthful answer is that I couldn’t choose between them. The only useful comment I can make is that the Plaza Grande will appeal to those who prefer traditional hotels, whereas the Casa Gangotena is likely to please travelers attracted to a more contemporary ambience.
Casa Gangotena 94 Junior Suite, $425; Plaza View Room, $480. Bolivar Oe6-41 y Cuenca, Quito. Tel. (593) 2-400-8000.
If Quito is just a stopping point on your South American journey, you may wish to consider the Swissotel Quito, located in a residential area 15 minutes from the airport (though farther from the new one currently under construction). Although its brochure claims that the property has “easy access to the Old Town,” this depends on the state of Quito’s chaotic traffic, and at rush hour, the trip can take close to an hour.
However, the Swissôtel is an extremely comfortable and well-run modern hotel, with a consistently helpful staff. Its 232 rooms feature marble baths and a full range of amenities. The hotel offers no fewer than five restaurants, including those serving French and Japanese cuisine, plus indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts, a gymnasium and a spa.
If you want a full-service hotel of an international standard, you are likely to be very happy here. And the Swissôtel is also more suited to those traveling with children, a taste for Spanish Colonial splendor generally being acquired later in life.
Swissotel Quito 90 Executive Room, $285; Junior Suite, $315. Av. 12 de Octubre 1820 y Luis Cordero, Quito. Tel. (593) 2-256-8260.