THE BUDGET TRAVEL CHALLENGE

Last-Minute Long-Haul: Quito

With airlines slashing fares at the last minute, we pitted two travelers against each other in a competition to have far-flung adventures on seven days' notice. The mission: fly eight hours and stay four nights—for $1,200.

At the sacred Peguche waterfall in Otavalo

There was a time when taking an affordable long trip at the absolute last minute was dif­ficult, if not impossible. For instance, anytime before now. Airlines have typically required seven days' advance purchase on their cheapest tickets, but dire circumstances have forced them to be more flexible. "I've never seen so many no-advance-purchase tickets available," said George Hobica, founder of bargain-hunting website Airfare Watchdog, when I called him for advice. "If you have money, travel."

Amen, George! My first choices were North Africa and Turkey, because they're exotic and I had never been. Marrakech had cheap hotel deals, but searches on all the major discount engines crushed that dream: It was at least $1,000 to get there, or for that matter, to Cairo or Istanbul. Hobica suggested Rio de Janeiro, where new routes had sparked a bidding war, and suddenly the clouds parted. Flights were under $500! But then I realized I'd need a visa, which would cost an extra $130 and take as long as five days. I made a half-hearted $400 offer for a ticket on Priceline and was rejected. No time to waste—I moved on.

A detour to wholesale-flights.com only fueled my frustration. There was a $437 flight to Santiago, Chile, but the site doesn't let you book online. I called the 800 number.

"Sir, that will be $900," a woman told me flatly.

"But your website says $437."

"That's before taxes and fees. If you can get those fares, sir, good luck to you."

Gee, thanks. I hung up and pushed onward, bouncing from site to site, city to city, with increasing mania.

Hobica had told me that he preferred to use Orbitz or Cheap Tickets for international fares, because their search options are more flexible. I varied departure times and dates, and one city kept popping up as the cheapest: Quito, Ecuador, which I'd heard was not only spectacularly situated but also as well preserved as any colonial city in the hemisphere. No matter which way I finagled it, the fare hovered around $580, on American, with a stop in Miami. I made a last-gasp attempt at Priceline, offering $400 and getting a $560 counter, with two stops—and promptly went back to Orbitz and plugged in my credit card info.

¡Hola, Hugo Chávez!
It was night when I strolled into my Quito hotel, La Casa Sol (Calama 127 and 6 de Diciembre, 011-593/2-223-0798, lacasasol.com, from $56 with breakfast), in a landmarked building in the town's nightlife center, La Mariscal. I had selected La Casa Sol by cross-referencing the reviews and locations of under-$80 spots on a number of sites (TripAdvisor, Yahoo Travel, Frommer's).

I decided to begin my first day in the planet's second-highest capital city (behind La Paz, Bolivia) by ascending to the loftiest point in the area: the 15,419-foot volcano Guagua Pichincha. There was virtually no line when I arrived at Telefériqo (011-593/2-225-2753, $8), the gondola, even though guidebooks warn that the wait can be up to four hours on weekends (I was there on Sunday). At the summit, the view was amazing: The city is long and thin and extends in two directions in a valley that sits between rows of green peaks.

Quito's Centro Histórico is a warren of cobbled streets with enough churches to occupy an entire afternoon, making the area a prime draw for tourists-and those looking to target tourists. As in any crowded city, it's wise to keep an eye out for pickpockets, but I never felt threatened. I visited several churches, my favorite being La Compañía de Jesús (Calle García Moreno and Calle Antonio José de Sucre, Quito, 011-593/2-258-4175, entry $2), a massive baroque affair with an ornate white exterior and an inside that could raise Liberace from the grave. Gilding its surfaces is said to have taken seven tons of gold and over 163 years of construction.

From the church, I wandered into the city's verdant Plaza Grande, where a crowd was buzzing outside the steps of the Presidential Palace. Traffic was blocked off, and the steps of the grand edifice were teeming with military personnel decked out in ceremonial feathered hats, brass swords, and the like. I lingered for a while, waiting for something to happen. Then a motorcade whisked into the plaza. Commandos hopped from trucks, a band broke into song, and out stepped Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, and his guest of honor, none other than a smirking Hugo Chávez.

It was the kind of bizarre surprise that makes a trip memorable, and I celebrated with some goat stew (a national specialty) at Tianguéz (Plaza de San Francisco, Quito, 011-593/2-257-0233, sinchisacha.org, entrées from $6), a restaurant inside the base of the gigantic monastery on Plaza de San Francisco. Dessert was a bowl of tropical fruit topped with crema and raspberry sauce at the decadent Frutería Monserrate (Calle Espejo, near Plaza Grande, Quito, desserts from $2), a short walk away on Calle Espejo. And I topped it off with a pisco sour at Café Mosaico (Manuel Samaniego N8-95 and Antepara, Quito, 011-593/2-254-2871, cafemosaico.com.ec, cocktails from $5, entrées from $5), a bar/restaurant on a hillside across from Parque Itchimbía with city views so awesome that they justify the overpriced (for Quito) $5 cocktails.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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