The first people who came to live in the Andean highlands of what is now Ecuador were probably the Caras Indians. Before the Incas, before Columbus, before the Conquistadors, they made their way up the Rio Esmeraldes to this high mountain country. They built their huts, planted their crops, tended their flocks - and watched the sky.

They developed a cult around the constellation Pleaides, which they called "the sky's granary." They believed the moon was inhabited by other human beings. And the sun they saw as the source of all life.They tracked this giant star as it moved in the sky and watched as it crossed the equatorial line. This line they called "the pathway of the sun," a sacred, mystic division line.

And along this pathway, they found a wide mountain valley where tiny hummingbirds came to sip the nectars of mountain flowers. Quitolt, they called it - place of the hummingbirds. And here they built their main village.

Times changed. Civilizations came and went. Life was interrupted by earthquakes and volcanoes. The city was destroyed and rebuilt countless times. But Quito, as it came to be known, survived.

The Incas made it their northern capital. The Spanish used the Inca gold stolen from Peru's Atahualpa to decorate their shrines and churches. In fact, they lavished such attention on the cathedrals, monasteries and palaces that Quito came to be considered a centerpiece of colonial artistic achievements in the New World. Today, many people consider it the "Florence of the Americas."

Eventually, along came Bolivar, and away went Spanish rule. Out of the emerging nationalism came a country, Ecuador, with Quito as its capital.

The modern city takes threads from all these past tapestries to weave a charming, captivating personality of its own - a feat that was recognized internationally in 1978 when UNESCO proclaimed Quito a "World Heritage Site."

At an altitude of 9,250 feet above sea level, Quito is one of the world's highest capital cities. Surrounded by hills, with snow-capped volcanoes in the distance, it also boasts one of the most beautiful natural settings. Despite the fact that Quito sits very close to the equator, this high altitude provides a spring-like climate year 'round, a place where day and night are equal, varying little throughout the year.

In the early morning and early evening, clouds often creep in to fill the valleys, creating swirling mists and striking silhouettes of the landscape.

The surrounding hills are richly embroidered with patchwork fields as high as possible, evidence that for all its beauty, land is precious here.

Quito divides naturally into sections. The narrow, cobbled streets of the old city are full of history. Here you will find spacious plazas, bustling with enterprising natives selling their wares - everything from weavings to ice cream and chocolate. The streets, in fact, are often blocked by workers and animals trotting under heavy loads.

Here, too, are the spectacular cathedrals of the Conquistadors. Among them, La Compania, a church whose richly carved facade is the most ornate in the city, and whose interior is a spectacular dazzle of gold. Everything is gilded - the altars, the columns, the balconies. With its spectacular colonial art collection, La Compania is regarded the richest Jesuit institution in South America.

Inca gold also enriches the altars and ceilings of the San Francisco Cathedral, the first great religious building on the continent. The walls are decorated with sculpture and paintings produced by the famous Quito School, a group of Indian artists trained by the church friars.

The Monastery of San Agustin, Santo Domingo Church and the Moorish Basilica of La Merced are other outstanding examples of Spanish pride in their new colony.

Quito's artistic legacy is also on view at the National Museum, the Museum of Colonial Art, the Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana and the Banco Central's Archaeological Museum, which contains a collection of Indian ceramics dating back to 3100 B.C.

From the top of Panecillo Hill, named because it is shaped like a loaf of bread, you can get a panoramic view of the city and the patchwork farms climbing the hills across the valley. On top of the hill is the statue of the Winged Virgin, an impressive aluminum sculpture of the patroness of Quito.

In the heart of the city is Independence Square, with its "Monument to the heroes of August 10, 1809 - the first ones to utter the cry for independence." Along one side of the square is the royal palace, home of Ecuador's government.

For all its gilded history and lavish art, however, Quito is not a city that puts on airs. It is a personable, comfortable place, filled with friendly people - about 800,000 of them. True, you need to keep a close watch on your valuables at the marketplace at San Francisco Plaza. Pickpockets are known to work the crowd. But for the most part Quito is a safe and enchanting place to wander around in.

Nor is history all it has to offer. Here and there throughout the city you will find shops filled with marvelous crafts. Ecuador's centuries of artistic heritage are carried over into the embroidery and weaving and wood carving of today. The folkloric shops and galleries of Quito contain what many people consider among the finest crafts in South America.

Restaurants, too, abound, featuring such Ecuadorean specialties as cerviche, marinated fish served with toasted corn, langostinos (crayfish) or corvina (sea bass) from the coast; locro, a rich potato soup topped with avocado slices - and all at surprisingly low prices.

Quito also makes a nice jumping off place for excursions into the surrounding countryside.

To the west, the snow-cone volcanoes line the Pan-American Highway to the Equatorial Monument. The monument is of little artistic interest itself, but few visitors can resist posing for pictures with one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and one in the Southern Hemisphere.

This is also the main route for excursions to the colorful Indian markets that are held on different days in different towns of the high mountain country: Latacunga, Otavalo, Riobamba. There's one for every day of the week - and all are lively centers of commerce. Visitors are welcome, of course, but for the most part, this is where the Indians do their weekly shopping.

For even more adventure, take the Quito-Riobamba Express that takes you along the rooftop of Ecuador on what is considered one of the world's most scenic rail journeys.

Just a camera shot away from the Pan-American Highway are Cotopaxi and Chimborazo, two of the continent's highest volcanoes. At Cotopaxi National Park, you not only get a closeup view of a long-dormant volcano, but also a look at the flora and fauna of the Andes.

And speaking of the natural environment, Ecuador is becoming known as a birdwatcher's paradise, and Quito a natural starting place for day-trips in search of feathered friends. More than 1,400 species of birds - either year-round residents or migrants - have been recorded within the country's boundaries.

And the hummingbirds? Alas, they no longer flourish in and around Quito. An occasional hummer is spotted, but encroaching civilization has gobbled up the habitat, pushing them farther and farther into the countryside. Still, the country boasts more different species of hummingbird than any other place.

And the small bird, adapting to the changes of countless centuries, richly colored, with hidden strength, is not such a strange namesake for Quito, after all.