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.