Well, you can’t win ’em all.
That’s what I told myself as we waved goodbye, and good riddance, to Quito. I had such high hopes for the high altitude Ecuadorian capital and its beautifully preserved colonial center! Hopes that were positively buoyant when we arrived at the Secret Garden Hostel and, gasping for breath after climbing five flights of stairs at 9,350 feet, and were met with this beautiful view.
Things started going downhill when the rain started an hour later, and kept going for the majority of our five days in the city. Still, the problem went deeper than a downpour. Upon reflection, I made two major mistakes in Quito. The first was letting the city’s reputation precede it — Quito is perhaps only second to Johannesburg on the list of “Cities About Which I’ve Heard The Most Horrifying Traveler Anecdotes.” From having thousands of dollars of camera equipment swiped to being held up at gunpoint to being smeared with human feces in a robbery attempt — yes, a sign in our hostel warned us not to stop should we be assaulted with any liquid, including poop — I had heard a lot of eyebrow-raising tales about Ecuador’s grand capital. Considering a fair amount of these warnings came not from the pages of sensationalist guidebooks but from the reliable mouths of friends, I took them seriously.
You could say I was a little on edge.
The second mistake was staying in the wrong part of town. I read and heard plenty of debate over which was the better area to base oneself out of — the New Town or the Old Town. While my friends and fellow travelers strongly suggested staying in the more modern area, close to restaurants and nightlife, and taking day trips into the colonial center, I hesitated. After all, Lonely Planet pretty much implied that I was a superficial tourist who cared more about access to international cuisine than authenticity if I didn’t stay in the cobblestone streets of the Old Town!
So while I loved the idea of staying in the Old Town in theory, it wasn’t as great in practice. The area is completely dead at night and on Sundays, which meant if we wanted any action we had to take a cab towards the New Town. Because we were being cheap and lazy and rain-averse — and if I’m honest, a bit fearful of cabs after hearing our friend’s story of being held by one at gunpoint — we just stuck to the after-dark ghost-town that was the colonial center. I didn’t actually realize what a mistake we’d made until our final night, when we finally made it to the New Town. There was so much energy and excitement and style — and yes, international dining options — I knew we’d have had a completely different experience there.
Now that I’ve gotten all that negativity out, perhaps I could tell you the few things I did enjoy about Quito. The first was the free walking tour we took through Secret Garden. For two hours, the clouds parted and we were treated to beautiful blue skies while our cheerful guide Gabby shared her city with us. She revealed Gothic Cathedrals with Galapagos-style gargoyles, showed us floor tiling outside a city bank interspersed with bone mosaics, and excitedly pointed out the President of Ecuador, who was presiding over a changing of the guards ceremony.
Though the clouds soon returned to douse us with another downpour, we got a fantastic look at the beauty of Old Town Quito. And to top things off, we did so with a lovely group of people — and for free! The tour is open to all, so I highly recommend joining in on one if you happen to find yourself in Quito (and tipping your lovely guide.)
Another activity I enjoyed in Quito was meeting with a Spanish tutor at our lovely hostel rooftop. I mostly used our time in the city to catch up on work after our Baños debauchery, and so it was nice to take a break from the computer and have one-on-one language instruction while flexing a different part of my brain. At $16 for two hours, it was a great value. Anders took some lessons too and it was fun to hear his Danish-accented Spanish. And did I mention we had a pretty amazing classroom?
We were pretty ready to leave Quito when the time came, but we had one more “must do” on our itinerary — visiting the equator. While I had heard somewhat mixed reviews, we figured we couldn’t pass up the chance to see the world’s most famous line, right?
Well. Our visit to the equator was much like our visit to Quito — I’m glad we saw it because I would have always wondered had we not, but I can’t say I loved it. Luckily it wasn’t exorbitant — we paid $17 each for a taxi driver (who was lovely and the best part of the day) so we could be dropped off at the bus to Mindo afterwards, $3 each to enter the Mitad del Mundo monument, and $4 each to enter the Mitad del Mundo museum, and $4 each for a local lunch.
While the museum had some fun displays to show the physical effects of the equator line on things like which way water gets flushed down the toilet, the monument was, literally, a massive statue plopped in the middle of nowhere. And, laughably, more precise scientific instruments have shown it isn’t even sitting on the line. Well, um, now we’ve seen it?
Quito is a pretty inescapable part of a visit to Ecuador — you’ll typically arrive or depart there, or at least transit through. And as always, I would never counsel someone to skip a place just because I didn’t jive with it. But, I do have a few pieces of advice if you do find yourself heading towards the world’s most high altitude capital.
1. Stay in the New Town, and take a day trip to the Old Town for the free walking tour mentioned above. Give serious side eye to anyone who sneers at you for your accommodations choice.
2. If you do want to visit the equator, take public transit or pull together a larger group to keep costs down. That way, if you find it as amusingly boring as I did, you’ll have only wasted your time!
3. Don’t let the fear of poop attacks allow you to ruin a perfectly lovely holiday! Okay, but seriously. Yes, Quito is riddled with crime. But in the end, nothing happened to me, and I let the fear that it would put me in a foul mood while I was there.
4. Leave. Okay, we’ll wrap things up now that I’m just being snarky.
Have you ever been to Quito? Did you like it more than I did? If so, tell me — what did I miss?