The Problem with Quito

Quito is a pretty city. Like really, really pretty:

 

It’s over 500 years old, built by conquistadors on the site of an old Inca City. The huge old town is full of elegant buildings and elaborate churches built by different orders of missionaries. It was the very first city to be designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site, that’s how important and striking it is.

So what’s the problem?

Quito is not a safe city. From the moment you pick up your guidebook until you finally catch a bus out of town you are constantly reminded of this. As a result it’s difficult to enjoy Quito because it’s difficult to relax.

It’s weird when a place looks so pretty, yet feels so uneasy. Like El Panecillo, the hill in the very center of Quito, topped with the Virgin Mary. If you want to visit you must take a cab: even in broad daylight hikers will be robbed blind. Yes, the neighborhood in the shadow of Mary is filled with thieves and criminals. Ironic.

 The presumably safe haven of our hostel is buzzing with stories. Someone got their camera nicked. Another was mugged down at the end of the street, 100 meters from the hostel. Another person went for a walk in a bad area and was threatened with a machete (!). Most of these stories are second or third hand but I know even bloggers who have been cleaned out in Quito.

Paired with these stories are constant warnings: don’t carry any valuables, don’t go out at night alone, don’t visit certain areas even in daylight. It’s dizzying and paranoia inducing. After coming out of Colombia, where we barely worried about safety at all, it felt strange to feel so vulnerable.

The effect is obvious: people are afraid. Few leave the hostel after dark, and definitely never alone. People seem to pass through as quickly as possible. During our week and a half there we saw dozens of people come in and out, barely pausing to look around.

Our visit happened to coincide with the annual Quito Festival: a massive, week-long, city wide party celebrating over 500 years of history. There were parades, music and carousing. One night a major community dance party broke out down the street from our hostel (the same corner where someone had been robbed earlier in the week). A few of us brave souls ventured out and were warmly embraced by the locals. We danced for hours, shouting “Viva Quito!” when the music stopped. It was perfect.

 Still, even in the festive crowd, there were issues. Two little boys, maybe six years old, running from place to place, sitting down next to foreigners and artlessly reaching for their pockets. Little pick-pockets, probably just learning their trade. They didn’t catch any of us, and probably went home empty handed but it was still pretty depressing: a whole new generation of thieves being raise to target visitors.

That’s the real shame: Quito’s scary reputation is scaring people away. Although the majority of people are awesome, welcoming and good, the nasty and violent are making their voices heard far more clearly.

In the end we escaped from Quito unscathed. Nothing was stolen, nobody menaced us. Partially this was because we took precautions, and partially it was luck (if I make it out of South America without being robbed at least once it will be an impressive feat I’m told). And although we never felt truly comfortable in our week and a half there, I still think it’s a pretty city. More than that: it’s vibrant and cool, and something we never would have experienced if we’d let fear rule us.

In my mind at least, it’s worth the risk.

 

45 thoughts on “The Problem with Quito”

  1. Hi. We just finished 3 weeks in Quito and felt safe. We kept our cell phones hidden and didn’t carry valuables. We traveled as a group at night and used taxis. We did get robbed however on the bus leaving Quito to Latacunga for the Quilotoa loop. When we boarded the bus, a very helpful man who appearred to work for the bus told us where to sit and took my son’s bag and first put it into the overhead and then shoved it under the seat. Maybe 5-6
    Minutes after this, people in the front of the bus turned around and told us to check our bags. My son had pulled his onto his lap by this time but when he checked it he had been robbed (camera, binocs, rain jacket, i pod classic). The bag (even the internal pockets) was carefully zipped up. We would never have noticed without the people in the bus who apparently noticed suspicious people exiting the bus and alerting us. The police were called and 2 people were arrested but our stuff was gone. Cardinal rule: no one touches your stuff. Period. Even nice helpful people who appear to work for the bus. These people travel in professional gangs and the bus drivers and the police know it is happening but don’t want to fix it. Ecuador allows people to get on the bus without checking to see if they are ticketed. This makes it easy for gangs to operate and exit the bus before it leaves the station. 2 other people on that bus were robbed as well and we met a couple of women on the Quilotoa loop that were also robbed in the same way “the helpful employee” the day before in the exact same bus: Quito to Latacunga. Foreigners are targeted because we don’t fully understand the language or the system. Employees who work for the bus are not identified by badge or uniform. My son did not want to insult the man by saying “no” when he took his bag. When the bag was shoved under the seat, a carefully positioned accomplice did the stealing while we were watching the nice guy!!! Hope this helps someone else!!

  2. I travelled around central America, Columbia and Ecuador a year ago on my own, and was in cities including Mexico City, Panama City, Bogota, and Cartagena. Quito was the only city where I felt unsafe walking around the center of the city at night on my own (old town or new town). During the day it felt perfectly safe. Even my hotel(Holiday Inn Express) had a warning in the room not to walk around the hotel alone after dark and the hotel is not a more dangerous area than anywhere else. That’s not to say that it felt uber dangerous, but it felt noticeably less safe that anywhere else I had been on my travels(or have ever been for that matter).

    It felt claustrophobic not being able to go out after dark, esp when it gets dark at 6pmish year round. I did go out a bit but it was uncomfortable. I did not enjoy Quito as a result although it does have a very pretty old town(pity it empties at 6.30pm every night).

    1. I should clarify that Bogota old town did not feel super safe at night but the new part of the city felt perfectly safe.

  3. I agree, my friend and I were mugged at knifepoint coming down steps from Panecillo in broad daylight. Had an exact location, residence, of my iPhone and police could not enter to inspect for the items stolen. The street thugs have no reason to stop mugging people because it is so easy to get away with it. They obviously have a spotter up by Panecillo that looks for tourists walking down the steps. Then they call their scumbag hoodlums below and they hide and jump you close to bottom of stairs into city.

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