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.
Our one night — and only two photos — from Quito’s New Town
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?
We’re in Quito right now and definitely feel paranoid about our safety moreso than we have elsewhere (including all through our time in Colombia). Luckily we’ve picked the right end of town to stay in and so that’s a perk. We will be doing the trek to the equator because it is one of those things that you just have to do even if it is a bit underwhelming (which was how I felt when we went and saw the leaning Tower of Pisa).
I feel the same way about the equator 🙂 Anders and I were kind of laughing about how underwhelming it was, but both admitted we wouldn’t have changed a thing, because it’s just one of those things you have to do!
I’m so sorry to hear this…quito can be an amazing city! I lived here for two months. Maybe some recommendations for other travellers:
– go to capilla del hombre. Normally I am not into museums, but this one is wonderfull and the location is great.
– use the trolleybusses. They are crowded, but fast and easy to navigate.
– when you are at the Equator, close to it (on the point where gps also tells you where the equator is) is a little museum. It is more about the native culture and more interesting (and cheaper) than the big museum.
Enjoy the rest of Ecuador!
Thanks for those tips for fellow travelers, Esther! I ran into a few people on the road who adored Quito and so I know that my experience was not representative of the majority.
Okay Quito might be dangerous, but oh my goodness, that place is beautiful!! Love the clouds that look like they are hanging so low! Thoroughly enjoyed your pictures, thanks!
It was indeed! I’m so grateful we had a few hours of sunshine for me to take these photos!
What a shame there’s so much crime in Quito that it’s difficult to enjoy. It’s certainly no fun being paranoid and taking extreme safety precautions all the time but I certainly would too after that poop story! At least you managed to have some fun and cross standing on the equator off your list!
The funny thing is I had heard the “Quito poop story” warnings from my mom’s boyfriend, who had traveled there a few years ago. And I was recounting all this to Anders, who was very skeptical and told me he thought it was a rumor. And then we walked into the hostel, and there was a warning sign about it! I almost died laughing.
LOVE your pics!!! I’ve heard such mixed reviews on Quito. I’m dying to visit!
I would love to see your photos of Quito, Andi!
I loved Quito but was only there for few days because we scored a last minute Galapagos tour. Stayed in the old town and got all of the warnings so didn’t take anything of value with us. The sunday bicycle rides from the old town to the new town and back was my favourite
I’m really bummed we missed the Sunday biking! I heard great things about it but it was pouring on the only Sunday we were there.
I’m headed to Joburg in a couple of months and am already a little worried its reputation is going to affect my attitude toward the city as well. You’re so right though – probably (hopefully) nothing will happen, so it would be a shame if worrying about it affects my mood while there. In the mean time I’ll try not to stress about stressing about it, haha.
Ah, well, for what it is worth, I’m still super jealous you’re headed to South Africa 🙂 Wishing you the happiest (and of course safest!) of trips xoxox
I went to Quito in 2008 and I think it wasn’t as dangerous as it seems to be now. We were told to be on our guards as well, but there was none of that ‘being hold at gunpoint’ horror. We stayed in the new town and loved it for the nightlife. During the day I preferred the old town though.
I always think it is better to stay in the place you want to be at night, and then move around during the day — so it sounds like you did it right! Ah well, hindsight is always 20/20 🙂
Awesome post, very informative. I’ll keep that in mind when I visit Quito.What is the deal with the heads of the dead animals??
Ha, probably should have explained that one! Those are shrunken heads, which was a practice used to preserve dead bodies by ancient Ecuadorians. Seeing them was probably the coolest thing about the Equator trip!
Despite the bad weather you photos are gorgeous Alex. It looks like a really pretty place.
Thanks Jen! I was so happy when the sun came to play for a bit so I could capture these photos!
Hey, you can’t love every place you visit! Nice post though – it’s always nice to read both the good AND bad!
I would be suspicious of any full time traveler who told me they loved every place all the time!
oh dear… what a shame, I love Quito and we were lucky and had beautiful weather which always helps… but on the trolley buses I did get my bag slashed with a knife… nothing was stolen but the thoght of it afterwards shook me up … it was so tightly crammed with people and we had been warned about this so i wore my bag around my neck and was literally hugging it tightly… have no idea how they slashed it… i felt less safe in colombia actually although i would love to go back to colombia one day… much loves and thanks for sharing…
That’s pretty amazing they managed to get in there! I’m glad you loved Quito. I didn’t make it to Colombia on this trip but heard so many amazing things about it, I can’t wait to go someday!
It’s a shame when somewhere has a bad rep for safety because it completely changes that way you would see it!
I went to the equator in Uganda and yeah… it was thrilling! So you’ve gone to the wrong one. JK it was super lame! lol
Nice talk.Like to agree with you!thanks for your comment. 🙂
Hahaha. Sounds like the equator needs to up its game if it wants to stay on the traveler’s radar!
Every time I see the equator monuments I keep thinking some country in Africa should switch its name to whatever the Swahili word for “equator” is, and then build a bunch of neat stuff there too. Ecuador has a weird monopoly on the equator that no one else seems to capitalize on.
Actually, another commenter mentioned she visited in Uganda! …And that it was also lame, ha.
Shame you didn’t enjoy the city so much. Zab and I stayed in the Old Town, in an apartment we rented with my mum and her husband who were over to visit, and oh my god, talk about dead: on a Saturday night we walked up and down empty streets just trying to find somewhere open to eat! Of course, since we were in an apartment and had a kitchen it wasn’t the end of the world!
Yes! We had the exact same experience Saturday night, and ended up eating at KFC and feeling gross after. Luckily our hostel served dinner so we took advantage of that most nights after, but we hadn’t signed up on time that day. Yikes.
Holy hell, who even think to throw poo at someone unless they are 3 years old and have no clue what you’re doing?!?!? Sick. Note taken on where to stay when I visit Quito! It looks beautiful, what a shame it’s a bit dangerous. :-/
Yeah…. it is seriously the gross-est robbery tactic I’ve come across in my travels! No thank you!
Quito is still on my list? Any specific season that you can recommend?
Hey there! Unfortunately I don’t know much about the seasons in Quito, though I heard locals indicate the weather was unpredictable year round. You might want to consult a guidebook for more detailed info on the weather!
We’ll be staying at the Secret Garden Hostel this week – I’ll be on the look out for the poop signs!
Ha ha Emily if you find it PLEASE take a photo for me 🙂
I’m sad to hear that you didn’t love Quito! We’re volunteering and staying in Old Town and it’s just absolutely charming. I’ve actually felt more safe here than in either Santo Domingo (DR) or Lima, so I must say I don’t think it has to be terrifying. Also, my husband and I speak Spanish and have been able to see so much of the city just on our own. I’ve found that the locals are really nice and generally mind their own business– no awkward staring or yelling, no pushy salespeople, etc., all of which I’ve encountered in other cities. On the other hand, I actually found “gringolandia” kind of lame with its endless clubs and tattoo parlors– maybe that’s because we were there during the day, haha. But strolling through the streets of La Ronda (in Old Town) at night– it’s been awesome!
Yeah, Quito just didn’t do it for me — it was probably one of my least favorite places in all of South America! But hey, different strokes for different folks! I’m glad you’ve had such a great experience there.
We’re currently in Quito and were held up at knife point. We admittedly were walking at night but we had left a salsa bar in the old town and there were no taxis (also told not to hail on the streets. It’s really hard to enjoy a city when you have to be on your guard all the time.
So sorry to hear that, Helen. I didn’t love Quito either. My perception of my safety was a huge part of that. Hope you can enjoy the rest of your trip despite that terrible experience!
I know this post is pretty old but just in case anyone is still reading it…
I’m currently in Quito and really enjoying it!! I don’t know whether the city has changed a lot recently, or if I’ve just been lucky, but despite hearing plenty of (old) horror stories and travel warnings I feel perfectly safe. Yesterday I had my (very expensive) camera out all day and didn’t feel at risk at all. Most other tourists I’ve seen have cameras or phones out too. Right now I’m sitting in a Juan Valdez coffee shop (good wifi!) on my MacBook and again don’t feel like anyone cares – there are plenty of locals around on laptops / expensive phones too. I haven’t heard any recent gunpoint or knifepoint robbery stories from other travellers and the only warnings have been to watch out for pickpockets on the buses – to be fair that goes for every large city in the world though! Maybe the city has changed for the better with the influx of foreign visitors.
We’ve also been super lucky with the weather, so wandering the Old City in blazing sunshine with perfect blue skies probably helps too 🙂
Glad you’re having such a good time Sarah! Quito just wasn’t for me but luckily that was a rarity for me in South America — I loved almost everywhere I went!
I was surprised reading your article as we loved our time in Quito and the people. We had a very positive experience, but we understand as we have hated some other cities which others have enjoyed.
Absolutely — and that’s the beauty of travel! It would be boring if we all saw every single place the same 🙂