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About the city

Ecuador's capital is an odd mix that somehow works: centuries-old colonial buildings huddle next to garish skyscrapers and fast-food outlets; business-suited and mini-skirted professionals pass beggars in rags on the sidewalk; and spanking new trolleys glide silently by ancient buses belching clouds of exhaust.

For all its contradictions, however, Quito is blessed with a near-perfect climate and one of the prettiest settings of any capital in the world. Even perpetual grouch Paul Theroux admits, "of all the mountaintop cities in South America, Quito struck me as being the happiest." It's a city you can easily fall for in spite of yourself.

After La Paz, Quito is the second-highest capital in Latin America (2,850 meters). The Volcanoes Pichincha tower to the west, trapping fleecy clouds that would otherwise drift by, creating the spectacular peach and robin's-egg-blue sunsets captured so well in the "Paisaje de Quito" paintings of Oswaldo Guayasamin. Much of the population of Ecuador's second-largest city lives in barrios (neighbourhoods) or shantytowns up the slopes of the mountains or spread north and south of the city centre.

As the seat of Ecuador's government and enclave of traditional values, Quito displays a deeply rooted conservative streak. Some residents call it the capital of El ┐que dirß? ("What would they say?"), referring to a concern with appearances and surface politeness. On the other hand, a slew of schools--including the Central University, Catholic University, and the National Polytechnic School--and modern businesses inject a fresh dose of worldly, cosmopolitan attitudes.

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