Quite the Landing: Quito’s Mariscal Sucre Airport

Named after Antonio José de Sucre, Quito’s Mariscal Sucre airport is located in the heart of the city, which makes for quite the descent. I wanted to devote a post to the stomach-lurching, wide-eyed feeling that landing there inspires.

mariscal sucre airport
About to begin our descent.

Landing at Mariscal Sucre Airport

At 2800m above sea level, Mariscal Sucre is one of the highest airports in the world. And its location in the centre of a sprawling metropolis bordered by volcanoes makes for a difficult expansion plan. The new airport, which has many of Quito’s residents grumbling because of its distance, should open in late 2011.

mariscal sucre airport landing
Quito through the clouds on the approach.
Getting closer to Quito and Mariscal Sucre airport
Getting closer to Quito.
landing at mariscal sucre -- right in the middle of Quito!
And closer….
Landing at Mariscal Sucre - not for the faint of heart.
And we’re just about sitting on some houses now.

Of course on the way out, I had to try and take a picture too. Quality not great as it was night and we were, obviously, moving – but imagine this connect the dot snapshot of lights multiplied fortyfold and spreading out in front of you:


And finally, the runway itself, nestled between the city. Photo is not mine, and no credit to the photographer could be found, but it illustrates how zany the airport was:

I say “was” because in 2013, the government moved the airport far outside the city for (understandable) safety reasons.

Per The Economist, it’s not all smooth flying:

Getting to the airport can also be tricky. In a straight line it’s only 13km from the north of Quito—just over three times the length of the runway—but the whole circuitous route there totals 42km through some of the city’s worst traffic. Although the route has been partially expanded, two new shopping malls have thoughtfully just opened along the way, joining several existing ones. The worst bottleneck is a rickety, mid-1970s Bailey bridge across a small river. Hopefully nobody will need an ambulance ride across to the nearest hospital before a wider bridge is finished in the second half of next year.

For more on the original airport, see Craziest Airport Runways, or YouTube’s long list of Quito Flight Landings. For now, the bigger threats are traffic to get there and the crazy geography of glaciers and volcanoes that makes Quito majestic — yet difficult to land in.


16 thoughts on “Quite the Landing: Quito’s Mariscal Sucre Airport”

  1. That is indeed bonkers. Less built than *dropped* on the city, BANG. With a corresponding experience for anyone landing there…

    Lurchy & bumpy landing, or smooth?

    Also – if the pilot is forced to do a touch & go and power up into the sky again….well, I hope that photo is deceptive about how close those high-rise buildings are to the end of the runway. *gulp*

    As much as I hate flying….I’d love giving that one a go.

  2. When living in Quito, we used to go to the roof of our apartment building to watch 1) soccer 2) airplanes landing at that crazily positioned airport. I think it’s best not to know about this the first time you land there. It’s a stomach-dropper for sure.

  3. Awesome pics! I’m planning a trip to Quito soon and had no idea the airport was surrounded by city like that. No worries though. Just can’t tell my wife since she’s already scared of flying! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Have you landed in Guatemala City? Holy crapola! The runway is actually elevated from the houses and buildings so as you come in for a landing you are almost certain you are crashing in the middle of the city and then SCREECH the tires hit tarmac. What the….

  5. Mike: landing was actually fairly smooth, but fairly abrupt. “Oh HAI! We’re landing now!” The descent is rapid, the runway (as you can see) disturbingly short. The wikipedia entry for the airport has a list of ‘incidents of note’ however – of which there are several.

    NVR: In 2002, when I first visited Quito, I would stop in the street transfixed at the planes veering straight for downtown. This time around I did the same thing. It’s just insane.

    Bryan: you can always put off the trip till the new airport opens? But as Kevin says below, Guatemala City is even crazier.

  6. Ha! I like your style. If you like mountains, you will love visiting – the city is surrounded by them on all sides and I never get tired of the view. Be sure to go to Amazonas for pan de yuca and the best yoghurt in town!

  7. “The wikipedia entry for the airport has a list of ‘incidents of note’ however – of which there are several.”

    Funny you should mention this. In a recent post regarding travel insurance, we wrote about not being able to fly out of Quito because a plane ran off the end of the runway.

  8. NVR: Good article – thanks for referencing it. Travel insurance is definitely a good idea! When my brother and I went down to Mindanao in the Philippines, we didn’t realize our medical insurance stopped covering us (because of the conflict there) – always good to read the policy thoroughly. Luckily we didn’t need it but our friend got bit by a blood-sucking cockroach and wasn’t so fortunate.

    Brooke, I’m just happy I read the Wikipedia entry AFTER I landed!

  9. I’ll never forget my friend pointing at a row of houses on a mountain toward the approach and saying “that’s where all the planes crash”. Made me feel better hearing that after I was on the ground :)

  10. Oof! Anil, I’m glad no one pointed this out to me on the descent. It’s understandable why they’ve decided to move the airport a little further out of town. :)

  11. It’s not in active use anymore, but I think Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong had the craziest approach and landing of any airport in the world. One runway between mountains and a harbor with frequent intense crosswinds, in one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

    The approach required fully laded 747-400s to descend over the city, then make a 30-degree turn in front of a mountain just before landing.

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