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As soon as the airplane carrying you to Quito breaks through the clouds and mist of the highlands, you'll realize that this is no ordinary capital.

Arriving in Quito by day, it is impossible not to be fascinated by the extraordinary setting of this city. It's surrounded by majestic volcanoes that seem to be either guarding it or just waiting for the right moment to bury and destroy it. Quito is located a few kilometres south of the equator, the imaginary line that divides the earth into two hemispheres at 0°0' latitude. It is perched at an altitude of 2,850m (9,350ft), making it the second highest capital in South America after La Paz, Bolivia, and the third in the world; Lhasa, the religious capital of Tibet, being the first.

Though it looks Spanish now, the area now known as Quito was inhabited by numerous indigenous peoples in the past. Among these were the Incas, who completely destroyed it before the conquistadors could get their hands on it. Under Rumiñahui, the Incas waged a merciless war against the Spanish, and preferred to raze their own city rather than hand it over to the invaders. When the Spanish got to Quito, the ruins were still smoking.

Although Quito was razed by the Incas, its colonial core was reconstructed in an opulent style and given a certain splendour befitting its role as a capital city. It was officially founded on December 6, 1534 by Sebastián de Benálcazar for the Spanish crown. The new arrivals breathed new life into the town with the Spanish world supplanting the Inca world.

Colonial Quito is crisscrossed by narrow streets. Candles and holy images are sold in front of the city's numerous religious sanctuaries, whose entrances are crowded with pilgrims. The many colonial buildings perpetuate the memory of the Spanish era and lend the area a charm conducive to daydreaming and poetic inspiration. The churches are full of priceless art. In some of those decorated in the flamboyant baroque style, the attention to detail is pushed to an almost impossible extreme.

Thanks to its architectural riches and impressive number of museums and churches, Quito's colonial core was added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites in 1978 and declared part of the State Cultural Heritage in 1984. It should be noted that the city's historic core is still undergoing major restorations as many sites were severely damaged by the 1987 earthquake.

Better known as the Plaza Grande ***, the Plaza de la Independencia is where the city of Quito was founded. Here, as in all colonial cities in Latin America, you'll find the city's major traditional monuments, the seats of civil, religious and municipal power in the colonial era.

To the west stands the Palacio del Gobierno **, the government palace and headquarters of the present President of the Republic, Fabian Alarcón. Built in the 18th century, it was the seat of the Audiencia Real (meaning a royal court of law was located here). Take a look at the soldiers standing guard; their 16th-century uniforms are those worn by Ecuadoran troops in the famous Battle of Pichincha (1822). The balustrade of the exterior gallery was imported in 1890 by the then president Antonio Flores. It was once part of Paris' Tuileries, burned a century earlier during the French Revolution. Inside the presidential palace, visitors can admire a magnificent collection of paintin

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