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...the most beautiful city in South America. (Lonely Planet)

The capital of Ecuador is in many ways situated on a hotspot. As a gateway between the the Pacific coast, the Sierra mountains, and the Amazon forest, the site has been a centre of the region for centuries. Quito is also the only capital in the world to lie at the foot of an active volcano.

Quito is Ecuador's second largest city, after Guayaquil. It is located high up in a sloping valley flanked by two majestic mountain ranges. This valley is home to half the country's population, and eventually leads to Cuenca, the country's third largest city. Quito is almost, but not quite, the world's highest capital. At 2800 metres altitude, it is beaten to this record by La Paz. Although it is located only a little south of the equator, the altitude makes the weather pleasant and spring-like throughout the year.

Originally inhabited by several different tribes, among them the Quito people, the city was conquered by the Incas in the 13th century and became the northern capital of their empire. During the Spanish conquest, the city was razed to the ground, possibly by the defeated Incas themselves. The Spanish, led by Sebastián de Benalcázar, re-founded it in 1534 as the City of San Francisco de Quito. In 1663 it became the seat of a territory shaped somewhat like today's Ecuador (but larger, as any nationalist Ecuadorian might tell you).

In the Old Town, the special Spanish colonial architecture has been very well preserved, despite several earthquakes in the area. Colourful buildings with white-washed walls and red tiled roofs create a vivid signature image for the city. The Old Town was declared a world cultural heritage site by UNESCO in 1978. El Panecillo ("the little loaf of bread") is a hill presenting a giant statue of the Virgin of Quito, in addition to a splendid view of the Old Town. An open-air market offering fine Quechua handicrafts takes place at its foot.

Several churches and monasteries are well worth a visit. Places like the Church and Jesuit College of La Compaña or the monasteries of San Francisco and Santo Domingo also stem from colonial times. They represent the Baroque school of Quito, a rich meld of Spanish and Moorish, Flemish and Italian, thoroughly influenced by indigenous traditions.

The other half of Quito is fittingly called the New Town. This is where modern office buildings, shops and restaurants are located. The adventurously named Avenida Amazonas is the main street of this part of town. Like the Old Town, it is a place to visit for its atmosphere, although the atmosphere here is likely to be slightly different.

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