The Lowdown on South America's Capital Highs

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quito While Lima sits at sea level, Quito (9,300 ft. up) is the highest capital city in the world. For culture aficionados, it’s a favorite, with a rich treasury of baroque cathedrals, monasteries and palaces that made it the centerpiece of artistic achievement in the New World and indeed, the first city to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Since the turn of the 21st century and an investment of $220 million in cultural preservation projects, Quito is born again, now celebrating its role as the 2011 American Capital of Culture. The Historic Center—100 square blocks of white-washed buildings, flowering courtyards, wrought-iron balconies and grand stone plazas—has been wonderfully restored, and sweeping changes in this old town district have paved the way for cafes, restaurants, shops and art galleries. One of the newest restorations in the Old City is the excellent Museum of Colonial Art, and many of the historic center’s mansions are now converted to boutique hotels. Just opened this month is Casa Gangotena overlooking Plaza San Francisco. The historic mansion is beautifully reappointed with 33 rooms (eight with plaza views), featuring painted tin ceilings, antique furniture and marble bathrooms. A third floor terrace offers the best seats in the house for viewing the panorama of city life. Rooms start at $425.

Everything old is not all that is new in Quito. In fact, the capital has a new international airport, and the arts scene is very modern at Fundacion Guayasamin and the Capilla del Hombre, part of the artistic legacy of world-renown artist Oswaldo Guayasamin. Another must is a visit to the House-Museum of Eduardo Kingman, as well as the studios of Ecuador’s living artists, Jaime Zapata and Enrique Estuardo. Joining the arts scene in the “New Town” is the eye-catching Mindalae Museum, dedicated to traditional arts and crafts, while the lively quarter of La Mariscal is home to the Central Bank’s superb National Museum and its glittering Golden Court.

Peruvian chefs have become a significant export commodity throughout South America, and Quito has imported its share, injecting new flavors and flair into the capital’s now-serious dining scene. Everyone’s talking about (and eating at) Zaru, one of Quito’s sleekest upscale restaurants whose nightly 7-course tasting menu is drawn only from local ingredients; La Gloria, whose inspiration is heavily rooted in Spain; and Segundo Muelle, a cevicheria specializing in an endless variety of raw and citrus-cured seafood dishes. Nuevo Latino restaurants are clustered in the La Mariscal neighborhood in and around Plaza Foch, along with nightspots that keep the vibe going until dawn.

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bogota Bogota is back, getting a healthy boost from Colombia’s major efforts to promote itself as secure and fun, historically fascinating and scenically stunning, and double-digit increases in foreign visitors show the capital’s return to many travelers’ wish-lists. Air service has increased dramatically, with seven airlines offering nonstop flights from seven U.S. gateways, and LAN-Colombia makes its debut in December. And nowadays, hotel builders continue to bet on Colombia as a hot destination for the leisure and business traveler, most recently in Bogota. Last year the luxury 264-room JW Marriott Hotel Bogota joined the Marriott Bogota, and this year the 126-room Sonesta Hotel Bogota opened in the lively north end of town, as did the new NH Bogota 93, which made its debut right next to the capital’s top leisure area, Parque 93. Also in the upscale Northern District, the 245-room Hilton Bogota Hotel is scheduled to debut in January 2012, and look a bit further ahead to find a Hyatt is coming to town.

What Bogota’s guests are finding is a trendy capital of Colombian cool: three great museums—the Gold Museum and the Botero Museum, the Art Museum of the Bank of the Republic—anchor a cultural complex in the old city; boutique shopping bursts out all over, particularly in the Zona T (a combo of Zona Rosa and Parque 93); and Zona G—a.k.a. zona gastronomica—is the primo dining area. It takes at least half a day to explore the historic La Candelara district, and out of town, another half day to visit the subterranean Salt Cathedral in Zipaquira.

“This is an exciting time to be promoting Colombia,” says Camillo Duque, tourism director of his country’s marketing and information ProExport office in Miami, “and we are particularly pleased that good U.S. tour operators—Avanti DestinationsBrendan VacationsGeneral Tours, to name just a few—climbed aboard the Colombia bandwagon. This gives Colombia recognition and helps us to present a comprehensive and upscale travel product.”