Quito: Home of the End, Gate way to Galapagos

Story & photos © Raghbir Jin

Part five: The Incan Empire

Quito is a city of many titles. The Ecuadorian metropolis is the highest legal capital in the world at 2,800 metres above sea level. Its historic centre is the largest in Latin America and holds the titles of best-preserved and least-altered. It was the first city to be included in the UNESCO world heritage list. But Quito's record of importance started long before these modern times.


Since its capture from the Caras in the middle of the 15th century, Quito and its surrounding area served as an important military base for the Incas. The town of Tumebamba outside the city was often referred to as the "second Cusco" for its similar style and the craftsmanship of its buildings.


After the arrival of the Spanish, a wave of new diseases such as smallpox and influenza washed over the indigenous populations. Spreading south from Central America, the diseases eventually reached Incan territory, killing emperor Huayna Capac and his heir in 1527.


With the throne empty and no rules or precedent setting situations to decide who would fill it, Huayna's two sons began a civil war over who would become the next to rule over the empire. Huáscar, the elder of the two, was based in Cusco; his more popular brother, Atahualpa, was stationed in the second-most important Incan city after Cusco: Quito.


Huáscar first took the title of emperor, but after provoking his brother in the north, Atahualpa declared Quito and the nearby town of Tumebamba the new capital of the empire and claimed the role of emperor himself. Soon after, the fighting began.


Though Atahualpa did eventually win the war, he hardly had a chance to enjoy his new kingdom before the Spanish conquest led to his death and the destruction of nearly every Incan structure in the area.


But the Spanish left behind an extraordinary legacy of their own. In fact, one of the main tourist activities in the city is simply walking around the 320-hectare historical district in the city, admiring the European-style architecture and visiting numerous Spanish churches and museums.


In Quito's main plaza, palm trees stretch up from green patches separated by a spiderweb of stone walkways against a backdrop of historic buildings. The impressive Cathedral of Quito's main doorway stands gaping at the southwest side of the plaza, inviting guests and worshippers with the monument of the Virgin Mary clearly visible on the hill behind.


Streets in all directions from the plaza lead through a labyrinth of narrow streets, past brightly-coloured cement and adobe structures adorned with decorative balconies. The aerial tramway, TeleferiQo, runs up from the city centre to the Pichincha volcano and an area full of everything from hiking trails to shopping malls and paintball.

Just north of Quito is another popular attraction called "La Mitad del Mundo," or "The Middle of the World." The area is a group of monuments, restaurants and a museum located at 0 latitude.


For those looking for a real glimpse at unbridled wildlife, Quito is also the starting point for trips to Ecuador's Galapagos islands. The Galapagos islands are a group of islands straddling the equator off the coast of Ecuador, known for their untouched natural beauty and abundant exotic fauna. From giant tortoises to sea lions, blue-footed boobies to marine iguanas, centuries of isolation lead to unique species of animals that contributed to Darwin's theory of evolution during his visit. 97.5 per cent of the islands are protected as a national park and are surrounded by 70,000 kms of marine reserve.


Cruises can be arranged either in Quito or with travel agents back home, leaving by plane from Quito every day and landing at the Galapagos airport where passengers transfer to ships. The cruises often include activities such as snorkeling and wildlife safaris on and around the islands.


Given its northern location on the continent, Quito serves as a good starting point for any journey through the old Incan empire. And, given its historical importance, it's a destination that can't be given a miss.