Quito. 6:30 pm. July 21st, 2017.
‘Is there anywhere to eat nearby? I asked the receptionist upon check-in.
‘Yes, in the square about 100m away, but you shouldn’t go out alone,’ he replied in a serious tone.
‘What? Why?’ I demanded in frustration. After a long day of travel, I felt hungry enough to eat my fingers.
‘It’s not safe to go out on your own,’ was the grim reply.
‘Perhaps I can eat here,’ I ventured. At this stage, I was starting to feel desperate.
‘The restaurant’s closed, but I can sell you some snacks.’
Minutes earlier, as my taxi pulled up in front of the hotel, I had noticed that the street was empty. Now, looking at the selection of snacks in the glass cabinet beside the reception desk, I had to accept a harsh reality. My food choices were some packets of nuts, a few bars of chocolate and mineral water. It was going to be a long and hungry night. My trip to Ecuador was clearly getting off to a flying start (NOT!).
Quito: The Official Travel Advice
The following is the official advice of the US State Department website:
Crime is a widespread problem in Ecuador.
Pick-pocketing, robbery, and hotel room theft are the most common crimes. Tourists have been robbed at gunpoint on beaches and along hiking trails. Passengers arriving at the Quito and Guayaquil airports have also been targets of armed robberies.
The advice then goes on to mention a few more minor issues such as theft on public transport, express kidnappings at ATMs, carjackings, sexual assault, violent assault, and the use of ‘incapacitating drugs’.
If that isn’t off-putting enough, then take a look at the UK Foreign Office website which includes these choice words about Quito:
Muggings and pick pocketing are very common. In Quito, take particular care in ‘La Carolina’ and ‘El Ejido’ parks, the districts of ‘La Mariscal’, ‘La Floresta’ and ‘La Marin’, the bus terminals and the old town including the main square and ‘El Panecillo’ hill.
Just about everywhere you might want to go in the city…
The question is clear: Should you go to Quito?
With my few nibbles and a bottle of water, I climbed to the roof of the hotel. My initial feeling was: What the hell am I doing here?
However, on the roof and despite my hunger, this quickly softened. The rooftops of a Spanish colonial city were visible all around me. In the distance on a hill directly opposite, bathed in a bright white light, shone the Panecillo. It is a symbol of Quito.
The next day I discovered a city that was hard to hate. Its streets provided hours of exploration- steep climbs, religious art, and exquisite colonial architecture. Quito became the first UNESCO World Heritage Site on the planet in 1978 and it was easy to understand why. Plaza Grande must be one of South America’s most impressive central squares. The benches between the palm trees and pink cherry blossoms proved to be the perfect spot to admire the imposing whitewashed buildings that dominate the area.
However, with so much more to see, it was impossible to stay long in one place.
Quito’s attractions clearly deserve a standalone article. But, amidst the incredible cultural offerings, two places stand out. La Ronda, a vertical street of brightly painted colonial buildings, could be one of the continent’s most charming urban retreats. Meanwhile, Casa del Abalado is a veritable celebration of indigenous culture. And these are only two of the many places to visit in the centre. In truth, I visited so much more.
Days in Quito followed a similar pattern: sightseeing, museums, cafés, and lots of walking. During the hours of daylight, the city was heavily policed, particularly in busy areas. After dark, those same streets would empty, the police would disappear and I would dash off to quickly grab a bite to eat. Nights were spent in my hostel. Locked in. Literally.
The New City
Following a trip to the north, I decided to make a detour to Mindo. From there, I expected to visit Otavalo. However, Quito was on my route and it called me back. This time I stayed in the Yellow House in Mariscal Foch. Again, I was not disappointed. The New City was vibrant and modern, a complete contrast to Old Quito. Also, La Capilla del Hombre, reflecting the artist Guayasamin’s focus on indigenous suffering, must be one of my favourite art museums in South America. Despite all these positives, the area also had an edge. The German owner of my hostel warned me not to venture too far on foot. Quito, it seemed, could never feel perfectly safe.
What to Do
Should you go? I don’t know. However, I can say that I’m glad I went. In fact, I even hope to return. That said, it’s not the safest destination in South America. As a solo traveller, I felt more vulnerable there than I did in many other cities on the continent. Ultimately, it’s a choice between experiencing a stunning city and the potential threat to your personal security. Remember that most visits are trouble-free, but look after personal possessions, and safety must always come first.
The Old City is a great place for sightseeing, but it’s not without its problems. Rincon Familiar is a choice spot for travellers looking for good value accommodation. The Yellow House, mentioned above, is safe, secure and friendly. Light sleepers should avoid it on weekends.
Quito is accessible by bus from destinations throughout the country. The new airport is about 45 minutes from the city. Travellers going to and from Colombia should look at this article to get an insight into bus travel between the two countries.