Hanging lanterns illuminate La Ronda Street, a cobblestone walkway dating back to the colonial era, where couples and children stroll past coffee shops and courtyard restaurants, and pots of red and pink flowers rest on wrought-iron balconies overhead. A woman stands in an arched doorway, stirring a spoon in a big wooden jar of hot orange juice for canelazo, a local warm beverage made with cinnamon and sugar-cane alcohol.
Perched at 9, 000 feet on a narrow Andean plateau, Quito was one of the first cities to be designated a World Heritage site back in 1978. Unesco calls its Old Town section, filled with ornate Spanish-colonial churches and monasteries from the 16th and 17th centuries, the “best-preserved and least-altered historic center in Latin America.” But until recently, crumbling buildings, diesel-fuel pollution and a high local poverty rate outshone the city’s charms. Most visitors in Quito were simply stopping over on their way to the Galapagos Islands or elsewhere in Ecuador, and many tour books and guides deemed the historic section too dangerous for tourists after dark.
“It was like adventure tourism to go to the Old Town, ” says Patricio Gaybor, marketing manager for Ecuador’s tourism ministry. Street gangs controlled the chaotic markets, and pickpockets were common. Even locals venturing there would leave purses and jewelry at home.
Hoping to overcome its rough image and draw more international tourism, Quito has spent hundreds of millions of dollars cleaning up the historic center, restoring plazas and centuries-old landmarks and beefing up lighting and security. The rehabilitation accelerated in 2003, when Fonsal, Quito’s municipal cultural-preservation agency, began working with illegal street vendors—Quito calls them its “informal sector”—to move them peacefully into smaller markets created outside the district.
The efforts have helped revive tourism in Ecuador, where the industry’s revenue grew to $766 million in 2008 from about $400 million in 2000. Much of the gain, tourism officials say, has come from Americans, who seem to find Ecuador exotic yet accessible. Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar, it operates on Eastern Standard Time (though not daylight time) and there are direct flights from a few U.S. cities, including Miami, Atlanta and Houston.