In The Thin Air Of Quito: A Few Pleasant Days In The City Eased Altitude Issues

When it came to altitude sickness, I was lucky. My fellow hiker, Cam, not so much.

Our group had ridden Quito's volcano-scaling gondola called the TeleferiQo, whose cars dropped us off at 14,000 feet. From there, we hiked to the peak of Pichincha volcano at 14,700 feet, sucking the thin air and marveling as clouds formed around us, obscuring the vibrant, banana-shaped city of nearly 2 million far below.

A few hours after we returned to the city, Cam was overcome with nausea. She thought she drank some suspect hot chocolate, but Sixto, our bus driver, came up with another diagnosis: "Mal de altura," altitude sickness, the bane of many visitors to South America's high spots.

At 9,200 feet, Quito is South America's second-highest capital city, behind Bolivia's La Paz. I drank gallons of water and slept long hours, but I think the key to avoiding Cam's fate was simple: My wife and I arrived in Quito three days before beginning our Highlands hiking tour and spent some easy days walking its ancient colonial streets.

Here are some highlights from a city that uses U.S. dollars as its currency and where the longest taxi ride costs $5:

—Ecuador's most renowned artist, the late Oswaldo Guayasamin, designed his own museum, La Capilla del Hombre (the Chapel of Man), to hang his harsh portraits that capture the tortured, twisted angst of Mayan, Incan and modern suffering under an oddly sunny dome.

—Quito is punctuated with wonderful churches, but its Basilica del Voto Nacional (Basilica of the National Vow) was our favorite, complete with gargoyles of Galapagos turtles, anteaters and monkeys. Ladders and staircases offer a blood-pumping climb to tower tops with spectacular views of Quito and the volcanoes that ring it.

—Eating highlights included the conch stew at Verde Esmeralda and the massive, air-filled empanadas viento (wind in Spanish) at Hasta la Vuelta, Senor. And for high-end gourmet presentations of Ecuador's countless exotic fruits and other local entrees, try the Theatrum restaurant in the old colonial part of town.