Technically speaking, the urban area of Quito is 400 meters higher than the neighboring valleys of Cumbayá, Tumbaco and Puembo. And those 400 meters make a difference you can feel in your bones. It’s the same city, but in “the valleys” the climate is warm, welcoming… constant sunshine! I’ve heard more than one Cumbaya-local grab tighten their grip on their sweaters as the vehicle leaves the Guayasmín tunnel, the official entry point into the city’s urban north, shuddering: “it’s so cold in Quito!”
As soon as an American hears the name Cumbayá, the first thing that comes to mind is the old spiritual chant “Kumbaya, my lord, Kumbaya…” If you ask the tourism department of Cumbayá about the origin of the name, however, they will probably tell you one of the many versions they know: when the Yumbo people – a pre-Inca culture – arrived in the area, a man named Cumba married a yumba woman named Ya.
Now, if you ask a Quito city dweller about this suburb, they will scoff and call it “Cumbayork”, alluding to the luxurious housing complexes, wealthy neighbors, and the ever-expanding number of restaurants and small shops found around its central plaza.
The truth is, this rural village is full of contrasts, and they quickly become quite evident: you will notice locals from humble backgrounds who have lived here all their lives, who maintain their small businesses and sell their products in the street; at the same time, there are those who have migrated from the hustle and bustle of city life, preferring the suburbs in search of fresh air, more space and, of course, a warmer climate.
There is no denying that Cumbayá is an important commercial hub; that the Quiteños who built dozens of gated housing complexes, modern malls, and chic stores are looking, dreaming and every day getting closer to creating their idyllic bubble, one in which they won’t have to be returning “to Quito” any time soon. The valleys of Tumbaco and Puembo, on the other hand, seem to not yet have the same ambitions. That feeling of being in a village persists; though more residential, certain parts have also begun to glimpse at the obvious tourism potential having Quito’s International Airport so close by.
So, if we’re setting out to explore these valleys, let’s start at a specific site where you can easily orient yourself: Cumbaya square (plaza or parque de Cumbayá). A leafy, colorful public space with three of its four sidewalks crammed with restaurants (sushi, BBQs, ceviches, Italian food, hot wings, including the classic Bambú Bar, that offers good Ecuadorian food. The only side without “businesses” is the eastern side, where the beautiful town church rests placidly. With its tile roofs, its high tower and spacious dimension, it offers a counterpoint to the activity that prevails elsewhere.
From the plaza we have some must-visit eats and hangouts to recommend, including Casa de Experiencias Paccari (Paccar’s house of experiences, with its spectacular open-air terrace, only 100 m down Calle Francisco de Orellana. And if you walk another 100 m down Calle García Moreno, find Casa Alfaro, a restaurant serving top-notch Manabí food. For the best local food (a classic here, present when Cumbayá was still more a village than a trendy suburb) there’s Palacio de la Fritada, on Calle Salinas (parallel to Calle Manabí).
If you are looking for exercise outdoors and nature, from the square walk up Calle Francisco de Orellana (in the opposite direction of Paccari) to the main entrance of the Chaquiñan. Here, the first leg of a beautiful 20.5-km-long walking trail takes us all the way to the town of Puembo. Chaquiñan is a linear park, an ideal place to bike or hike, that links the three valleys featured in this article in an almost poetic way, as you meander along what was once the old train tracks heading towards the craft town of Otavalo.
For a deeper eco-experience visit Los Algarrobos Park, located within the Chaquiñan, just past km 2. This extremely picturesque park is a remnant of an inter-Andean dry forest on the banks of San Pedro River. There are three trails inside, one called “Salomé Reyes” in honor of a cyclist who died nearby and now, in her name, pink bracelets have been placed on branches and trunks. You can also visit the Cumbayá Reservoir, a popular place to jog. From October to April, this large body of water receives many migratory bird species.
Another popular site here is Centro Comercial La Esquina, an open-air mall where you can find shops, bookstores, restaurants, and Cyrano, one of Quito’s beloved bakeries. To get here from Cumbayá square walk west to the top of Calle Francisco de Orellana (towards the entrance of the Chaquiñan), turn right onto Calle Chimborazo; it’s diagonal to the reservoir. If you seek gourmet Italian food, walk down Avenida Manuela Saénz to delicious La Briciola.
Alternatively, you can walk up Avenida Pampite toward the university (Universidad San Francisco de Quito) and stop by 227 y BluMaría, a fine pizzeria and excellent coffee shop, great for breakfast; or Los Tacos del Gordo, an authentic Mexican taco dive.
Universidad San Francisco de Quito is undoubtedly an important point of activity in Cumbayá, in front of which we find one of the most modern malls in the area, Paseo San Francisco, which combines outdoor areas and indoor corridors with stores. We recommend Farmers Market here, a community-oriented and sustainable collection of prime quality locally made and sourced food products, open only on weekends.
You can’t visit Tumbaco and not notice Mount Ilaló, a quiet and imposing protagonist that watches over the villagers every day. It is an excellent weekend plan to climb the mountain and reach the cross. You are sure to meet several amateurs jogging at their pace trying to reach the highest elevation possible. You can also venture into the very bowels of the dormant volcano and visit Cuevas del Ilaló, a unique cultural center that offers immersive music and art experiences.
If you wish to come face to face with the hustle and bustle of town, head to Plaza de Tumbaco where you will find stalls of local shoemakers, seamstresses, farmers, etc. The Chaquiñán also crosses this valley and if you head north you will reach the trail, heading north to the old train station, of which only an abandoned house remains; this transect of the railway once connected Quito and the northern craft town of Otavalo.
For a more cultural outing, near the tiny village of Chiviquí in Tumbaco and you will come to Calle La Cerámica: Barroquema is a pottery workshop and gallery open to the public with an extraordinary history, run by Juana Lloré and Marco Ullauri.
Puembo’s eternal spring
Known for pretty gardens, exclusive clubs with swimming pools and spas such as Los Arrayanes, and several beautiful properties that rent out their spaces for wedding and private events, Puembo has, convincingly, been coined “Quito’s garden”. Away from the city, a short distance from the International Airport, the town itself offers a beautiful landscape in which to find seclusion.
Plaza de Puembo is perhaps the quaintest of the three valleys. Filled with pots of colorful geraniums against white walls and a warm climate, this spot in the world seems to be eternally stuck in Spring.
The history of the geraniums is recent. Three years ago, geraniums began to appear in the main square. At first there was resistance among the neighbors, but soon they also joined in to care for these colorful flowers and now many have painted their façades white, water the bright red, orange and purple geraniums, now fully embracing the town’s blossoming identity.
One of these pretty façades, located just across the main square, is owned by El Deli, an exquisite delicatessen with a beautiful, green patio, where you can sit for hours under the morning or afternoon Puembo sun. Walking 300 meters up Calle Manuel Burbano take us to San José de Puembo, a first class hotel (with excellent food) known for its nature and handsome gardens. A few meters from here, find Portal La Lomita, where the first 20-km-leg of the Chaquiñan trail ends.
In recent years, intense efforts to reforest this specific sector of the Chaquiñan trail – from Los Arrayanes to Oyambarillo – have reintroduced natives species such as the “churo yuyo”, the “guavo tree”, and many others; one quickly notices the results of this project, as this area of the Chaquiñán is one of the most lush and green.
Continuing along the old road to Tababela, down the banks of the Guambi River you can also visit the Casa Hacienda Molino de Guambi, now a small tourism complex with a swimming pool, a craft brewery, and a stone mill that was available to the Puembo natives in years past where they went to grind maize, barley, jora (to make chicha), and other grains.
Puembo has another well kept secret: the church of Chiche Obraje, built in 1547 and considered the second oldest in Ecuador. Centuries of abandonment have meant that now only a chapel remains, where once rose an elegant hacienda and a larger religious temple. However, the history contained inside still remains; this was once one of the last Christian strongholds of the Quito area before descending into the Amazon Basin.
These valleys of Quito are quickly growing and expanding. People want to leave the busy metropolis in search of comfort, space, closeness with nature… Cumbayá, Tumbaco and Puembo have much to offer Quiteños during the weekend and it’s no wonder many have decided to stay and no longer return to the “colder Quito elevations”.