It's easy to get paranoid or confused when reading about Quito, with some making it sound like a hot-bed of crime and others an up-and-coming city for South American travellers.
We spent over a week in the city and want to help bust some myths and give some practical advice to help you make the most of your visit.
#1 – are you an old town or new town sort of person?
99% of visitors will base themselves in either the historical area or the new town, better known as La Mariscal. What's the difference between the two?
Well, the old town has narrow streets and plazas lined with local restaurants, bakeries and fruit sellers. Quito's cathedral rises above the rest of the buildings and the Virgin statue looks over all from its position atop El Panecillo hill. During the day it's bustling with activity, but at night the area is pretty quiet. Although not the prettiest part of Latin American by a long shot (and certainly not the most appealing UNESCO World Heritage Site) it's the most authentic and charming area Quito has to offer.
La Mariscal, on the other hand, looks like the 21st century vomited on concrete. Full of karaoke joints, some dodgy clubs and bars, lots of gringo-centric restaurants and more than a few dodgy characters, it's noisy and ugly. However, for those wanting a proper night out, some western food or cool coffee shops, it's the place to be.
We chose to stay in the Old Town (at The Secret Garden Hostel) and take taxis ($3-4) to La Mariscal, and were very happy with the choice.
#2 – lunches are cheap and filling
On our budget, eating out is often a luxury. However, in Quito we treated ourselves to lunch out most days. This is because almost every local restaurant offers an 'almuerzo' deal: a starter of hearty soup followed by a plate of rice, beans or lentils, fried plantains, salad and your choice of meat or fish. A fresh juice is also thrown in.
At around $2 per person, it makes lunch out the sensible and economical option!
#3 – watch your bags on buses
On any bus in, out or within Quito, you really do need to be aware of the risk of bag slash thefts:
- keep your small backpack on your lap at all times
- never put it below or above your seat
- if someone tells that you must put your bag elsewhere, politely decline, no matter how insistent they are.
Public buses in Quito are very cheap ($0.25 per person) so are a great budget traveller choice for getting around the city. Just take sensible precautions like those above so it doesn't cost you a lot more than you planned!
Read more about how to stay safe in Latin America in this post.
#4 – take a copy of your ID everywhere
After many a drunken night out in Central America and Colombia, we had completely forgotten showing I.D. to gain entry was even a thing. However, in Quito, it's a necessity.
We learned this on our first night out in La Mariscal where our group, none of whom had I.D., were refused entry to four or five different bars. The reason places require it is not for age-verification, but more to do with local regulations on security - and this is pretty strictly adhered to. One afternoon, we wanted a 3 p.m. beer in a studenty bar but they refused to serve us until they saw identification.
Most bars will accept a photocopy, so make sure you get a few done and carry them with you.
#5 – fake taxis are a real risk
Quito has to be applauded for recognising that it had a crime problem and taking some positive action to address it. Express kidnappings and robberies of taxi passengers were prevalent.
When we crossed the border from Colombia to Ecuador, we were handed a pamphlet by the immigration officials. On one side is a handy map, on the other – rather than lovely information about the country – was a guide on how to avoid fake taxis. We had read numerous stories on-line, but this official correspondence from the government made us think that perhaps it wasn't all paranoia.
The key tips to know a real taxi versus a fake taxi are:
- only take a yellow taxi with orange licence plates
- the taxi should have 'transporte seguro' stickers on the outside (usually on the back window)
- real taxis will be fitted with two security cameras and a small red panic button.
- the security cameras should have white tape over them showing they have not been tampered with
- real taxis will have a meter, the use of which is compulsory
- do not take taxis which already have other passengers
Now for the reality. The first taxi we got from the bus station ticked all these boxes, but he refused to put the meter on and said they don't do that in Quito. We insisted and showed him the pamphlet, but to no avail. We therefore stopped and agreed the price with him.
Other taxis we took in the city all put the meter on as soon as we entered.
Personally, we only took taxis driven by old guys who we liked the look of. This may sound a bit silly, but we met two travellers who had been robbed separately from taxis within a few days of arriving in the city, so we really were taking every precaution possible.
We recommend you reserve a taxi with your hostel if heading to the bus station or airport, especially after dark or early in the morning. At night, be particularly vigilant with your taxi selection. If you feel insecure, ask the driver to stop straight away, get out and go into the nearest shop, cafe etc until they've gone.
You know that article we mentioned earlier - staying safe in Latin America - we really do recommend you take a look!
#6 - it can be pretty chilly at night
This shouldn't be a surprise given the city is 2,800 metres above sea level, but a number of other travellers were a little unprepared for just how chilly it could be at night.
Make sure you've got a couple of warmer items packed to wrap up in!
#7 - know your bus stations
Recently, Quito has consolidated its previously fragmented system into two new terminals.
Terminal Carcelen is located in the north of the city. This is the place to get your buses to Otavalo, the Mitad del Mundo, Tulcán (for the Colombia border) or access the northern coast (Esmeraldas, Atacames). A taxi to/from the station will cost $8-10.
Terminal Quitumbe is in the south of the city. If you're heading to Baños, Guayaquil, Cuenca or the Amazon region, this is where you need to depart from.
Some bus companies (such as Trans Esmeraldas, PanAmericana) still have offices in La Mariscal. Buses DO NOT leave from here, but there are convenient spots to buy your ticket in advance.
Remember, you will need identification to purchase a ticket.
#8 - you can travel from the airport to the city for $2
If you want to save some money, you can take the local green bus from the airport to Rio Coca Terminal for just $2. They depart every 15 minutes or so, with the journey taking an hour.
From Rio Coca, you can take the public bus for 25 cents to either La Mariscal or the Old Town (journey time of 30 minutes). We wouldn't recommend this option after dark if you're unfamiliar with the city. Taking a taxi onward from Rio Coca will still save you money overall.
If you do take a taxi from the airport, you will find an official taxi desk next to the main Information point. State your destination and you will be handed a slip of paper to give the driver. Prices are fixed and vary according to distance, but expect to pay between $25-35.
#9 altitude adaptation is important
For those coming into Quito by bus from lower altitudes, you will acclimatise naturally. However, if flying from the coast or any other location near sea level, be aware that you could feel a little unwell initially. Symptoms such as headaches and nausea are not uncommon, and a quick run up a flight of stairs could leave you feeling a little more out of puff than normal.
A lot of people arriving in Quito intend to do at least a little trekking at one of the many surrounding volcanoes. These are not small hills, so it is probably a good idea to spend a couple of days in the city adjusting to the altitude before going even higher.
For more information on dealing with altitude sickness, be sure to head over to this post.
#10 this is where you'll find last minute trips to the galapagos and store your luggage
The Galapagos was a little out of our price range on this trip, but for those keen to go, this is a great place to find some last minute deals at tourist agencies. If you've already booked your trip, then the chances are that you might by flying out to the islands from Quito.
Remember that the airlines are quite strict with baggage limits on flights to the islands. There are a few hostels able to store your heavy packs whilst you are away - often for free, if you spent some time there before or for a nominal charge of $1 USD.
but, remember, don't let crime ruin your time in the city
As with a number of capital cities in Latin America, crime is an issue in certain areas. As we mentioned above, a number of people in our hostel had personally been victims of street thefts, bag slashings or taxi robberies.
Knowing that, it would be easy to be completely paranoid about going.
Just be sensible and aware of the risks. In La Mariscal, don't go wandering off the main streets at night. When sight-seeing take only the cash you need and little else. Do not advertise that you have a phone, iPad or fancy camera. Be aware of fake taxis. Only take a taxi up the hill to see the Virgin statue - it really is stupid to go up there on your own. Be aware of the people around you and trust your gut if it feels dodgy.