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Quito: when a hotel becomes the beating heart of a historic neighbourhood

Ecuador’s proud capital city of Quito has many attractions; its unforgettable backdrop of Andean peaks and misty volcanoes, its beautifully preserved historic centre with elaborate churches and cobbled squares – not to mention the opportunity to travel a little further out of town for the experience of standing with one foot on either side of the equator!  However, Quito can often be overlooked by travellers not fully aware of how much the city has to offer. Often travellers choose to spend just one night in the city as a hop-off point for visiting the Galapagos Islands. The owners of Illa Experience Hotel felt this was a great shame and wanted to make the difference. It was their passion for the city and their desire for visitors to spend longer there, interacting with its people and cultural traditions. That’s how they got inspired to open the hotel. Also a long-standing love affair with a very special community was the motivation to choose the place. Despite being barely two blocks from Quito’s main square with its hustle and bustle, the historic neighbourhood of San Marcos gives the feeling of stepping into another world – a traditional community where children still play ball games on the street, artisans showcase their works in open workshops and small galleries, and long-standing residents of the community gather in the small square after Sunday mass to catch up on local politics. Visiting this community regularly with their children and attending church weekly there first sowed the seed in the minds of the owners of opening a small hotel in that place. One thing was clear from the very outset – that the hotel needed to have a positive impact on San Marcos, and the community had to be involved from the very start. Direct permission was sought from the residents of San Marcos themselves before the hotel project had even begun, long before the more official business of local authority approvals and paperwork had to run its lengthy course. But the community engagement at the Illa Experience Hotel did not just end when the hotel finally opened its doors in December 2017. Though offering all the comforts and amenities that travellers would expect of a 5-star hotel, choosing to name this an ‘experience hotel’ belies just a little of the very special interaction guests can expect here. Illa’s Experiences Experiences are on offer throughout a stay at Illa, focusing around a complimentary cultural activity on offer to guests each afternoon. But whether this is ice cream making, traditional wooden toy making or water colour painting of the city skyline, the difference with the experiences on offer at here is that they are drawn right from the heart of San Marcos itself – quite literally the hotel’s neighbours! They are proud to share these experiences with guests, getting the opportunity to demonstrate traditions and crafts that have in many cases been passed down through families across generations. Illa’s focus on experiences is the reflection of a deep interest on offering visitors much more than a regular trip to a foreign land. For Illa it is essential that guests become family members and that travellers have the possibility to experience a culture from the inside, that people become part of traditions so they can understand a place from a deeper perspective, not just from the most superficial characteristics which in many occasions contribute to destroy real meanings. Illa carefully chooses the best ways to put together authenticity from hard working locals with curiosity from adventurous visitors. Experiences have the power of not just presenting a final product, but also to value its process and the human side of it. Every artisan collaborating with Illa has a story behind their craft. Experiences are about taking a step further to offer better value. San Marcos The neighborhood seems to present the perfect picture that can transport its visitors to older times when the city was much smaller and traditional too. Its main street is called Junin, a long and quiet street where lifelong neighbors greet each other cordially, just as their families have for generations. Most of the buildings’ architectural features are very interesting and worth to take some minutes to appreciate their details.  Many houses have been restored to their neoclassical design with facades painted in elegant blues, greens, yellows and reds.   Magnificent wooden, carved doors invite you into the several restaurants, museums and shops that dot Junin St., including the Muñoz Mariño Museum of Watercolors and Drawings (Muñoz Mariño Museo de Acuarela y Dibujo). This museum was begun by the famed Ecuadorian watercolorists and architect – Oswaldo Muñoz Mariño – who once lived in this building. One of the neighborhood’s first structures, the museum displays Mariño’s huge body of work that spans several decades from the 1950s to just before the artist died in 2016 and whose subjects depict the buildings and landscapes of the over 70 countries Mariño visited during his lifetime. One can take painting classes there, and enjoy a beer and delicious Ecuadorian dishes at the museum’s restaurant. Taking a walk can be a relaxing experience to feel the real essence of the Old Town, to dream about the past and to appreciate those details that make of Quito a city full of stories and hidden gems preserved by centuries. Details that mark the difference San Marcos has a growing number of elegant, intimate hotels, including the Illa Experience Hotel. Although the building went through a restoration, the most important features were preserved and many brought back to life. Most of the elements have a story behind and it is worthy paying attention around. The hotel is distributed in three stories, each of them reflects the different eras of the neighborhood – colonial, independence and contemporary. The exquisite decoration goes accordingly and each room is unique. As with many houses at Quito’s old town the facade might not tell you much about what you will find inside. It is like unfolding a box to present unique spaces and unexpected views. Heading to the terrace unveils an astonishing view of some of the mountains surrounding Quito and the most iconic landmark, the statue of El Panecillo. The terrace is one of the spaces that visitors can enjoy at any time just to get delighted with the view or even better the perfect place to have a meal in front of one of the most amazing views of the city. Look up to the room´s ceilings, the throw blankets, illumination, the doors. Nothing has been left to faith. A features description is not enough to express the offer at Illa. The material beauty that displays is just a part of other immaterial characteristics responsible to shape Illa’s identity. What is special about Illa is that this place not only offers the highest quality of services, it goes further and offers authenticity in a participative way. Illa cares about offering the best standards by working as part of a wide context. The quality of this hotel is not just reflected on a picture or a video, but as part of life and memories. Marcel Perkins is CEO at Latin Trails. Latin Trails is an incoming destination management company specialized in bespoke tours, with a focus on offering unique experiences throughout Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, and Peru. If you would like to be a guest blogger on A Luxury Travel Blog in order to raise your profile, please contact us.

Marcel Perkins

Marcel Perkins is CEO at Latin Trails. Latin Trails is an incoming destination management company specialized in bespoke tours, with a focus on offering unique experiences throughout Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, and Peru. If you would like to be a guest blogger on A Luxury Travel Blog in order to raise your profile, please contact us.

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  1. What you write about, leaving a main square and finding another world, is one of the great adventures of travel. I’ve often had that San Marcos feeling in many places all over the world. Leaving a main square with hawkers selling tat to tourists and restaurants hiking up prices to be in the authentic city is a great feeling. Taking the road less travelled definitely has advantages.

    1. Absolutely! It is amazing how many places are looking for offering the most authentic experiences. Exploring less known spots offers new possiblities and perspectives.

  2. More and more true travellers want experiences when they travel so that they have a chance to mingle with the local people and to get authentic flavours of the place. Personally, I love doing any experience where you are learning. It puts the local teacher, whether you are making ice-cream or wooden toys, in charge. I also like it that it is a proper organised and economic transaction. You are helping create a job for somebody and putting money into the local economy. Also it is important that you may be helping to preserve traditions that might otherwise die out.

    1. Freya, I agree with you and think learning is a very important part of tourism, not just for travelers,but for the different actors involved too. Integrating inhabitants when promoting a destination has a positive impact in the whole society.

  3. I haven’t come across Quito as a destination before per se, so I agree in thinking it’s rather overlooked by travellers. It’s brilliant the Illa Experience Hotel wanted to do something about this because of their passion for the city. A complimentary activity that helps you experience the culture is a brilliant idea, I think that really engages visitors and makes for something to talk about and remember, too. What I particularly find interesting is the way the hotel itself is decorated. Each floor reflecting a different era, that’s so novel!

    1. Gemma, thanks for pointing out the relevance of passion when creating this kind of experience. That is exactly the feeling Illa’s stakeholders embrace and reflect.

    2. And that passion is what makes the experience all the more authentic and enjoyable. I find you can really notice when you visit somewhere that doesn’t have that kind of passion behind it.

    3. Absolutely, the imporant thing is to find the places that do have that passion and ILLA is one of them.

  4. This hotel is just so me that I want to go to the airport right now, this very minute, and fly there. It is so real and authentic and adorable, the beating heart of Quito. I’ve been to a lot of awesome hotels but I’ve never wanted to go to one as badly as this one.

    1. Glad to hear that! We really encourage you to visit Quito and discover its hidden gems. The historic town is full of traditions, architecture and renovated spots that can offer the full experience.

  5. This is a very interesting article, I would be thrilled visiting a place like that. Having a true experience is what travellers want more and more.I hadn’t known much about Quito in the past, but lately I have been checking this destination.

    1. So happy to hear know have been checking Quito as a destination. It is a rich city that surprises visitors in a very positive way and touristic offer keeps evolving!

  6. I agree with Freya Taylor about the development of experience tourism. Even the name of the hotel, Illa Experience Hotel, announces its intentions to the world.

    I wouldn’t say that the days of the whistle stop tour based on “sights”, quickly seeing something and ticking the box, are over but many people are moving towards slow travel where they immerse themselves in a region. Participating in an activity is a good way of understanding what makes the local community tick.

    1. You are right Gerald, tourism has many facets, which is a great way to offer possibilities to different travel needs. Getting involved with a community offers a deeper experience, so different to what others might experience.

  7. Quito, for me, is a wonderful city to visit and explore. If the culture and amazing food doesn’t catch your attention right off the bat, then maybe visiting the highest capital in the world would. It is true that many tourists do not really spend a lot of time in the city and tend to jump to nearby destinations instantly. Quito has a rich history and by interacting with the locals in the city, tourists will be able to appreciate it more. The architecture and landscape in Quito will also leave you in awe and makes you want to go back every year. I hope more people will be able to visit Ecuador and have this amazing experience.

    1. Dear Chaim,

      Thanks for these lovely comments, I do hope we can connect next time you are in Ecuador. Quito is more beautiful than ever with many cultural venues opening every week.

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