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Quito

Ecuador's capital, Quito, sits on a long, level plateau in a valley between towering Andean peaks. It is a city of striking beauty and stark contrasts. Sebastián de Benalcázar founded Quito in 1534. If he were to walk the streets of Old Town today, he might still feel right at home -- notwithstanding the gridlock traffic. Many of the original colonial structures here have been magnificently preserved and restored. Quito was -- and still is -- a city of grand churches with detailed, hand-carved facades and altars. It is a place where 500-year-old buildings, which have survived earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, open onto medieval-style courtyards, complete with columned archways and stone fountains. In 1978, Quito was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first city to earn that designation.

But that's only one side of Quito. If Benalcázar were to venture a few kilometers north, the glass skyscrapers, electric trolleys, and early-20th-century mansions would make his head spin. Quito is a city of wonderful juxtapositions and stark contrasts. It's a place where you can travel to the past but still enjoy modern-day comforts. The living museum that is Old Town nicely complements New Town's modern-art and archaeology museums. Spend a few leisurely days here, and you can enjoy the best of both worlds. You can also travel to colorful indigenous markets, a unique cloud forest, or the world's highest active volcano -- all within 2 hours of the city.

Although Quito is Ecuador's capital, it is only the second most populous city in the country, with under two million residents; Guayaquil has more people and is more important to the country's economy. In fact, there's a fierce and ongoing rivalry between the two cities. Still, Quito is far more charming and cosmopolitan, and it has more museums, sights, restaurants, and clubs. The city gets its name from the pre-Inca Quitu tribe that inhabited this valley. Before Benalcázar arrived, the Incas had converted Quito into a major city. Instead of allowing the buildings and treasures to fall into Spanish hands, though, Inca warrior Rumiñahui ordered the city razed and burned in 1526.

Remember that at 2,850m (9,350 ft.) above sea level, Quito is one of the highest capital cities in the world, and the air is much thinner here. Many visitors quickly feel the effects of the high altitude. Drink plenty of water and do not overdo it as your body acclimates.

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