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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.

 

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45 Responses to The Problem with Quito

  1. ayngelina December 18, 2011 at 2:24 PM #

    I spent three months in Ecuador, I would have stayed longer but my visa ran out. As much as I adore Ecuador I am not a fan of Quito either. My sister got robbed her first day visiting me in broad daylight right outside our hostel.

    But the rest of Ecuador is so much better. And Cuenca is 10 times prettier 🙂

    • Steph December 22, 2011 at 3:16 PM #

      Thanks! I am already loving the rest of the country and can’t wait for Cuenca.

    • Paul Kron December 23, 2011 at 2:52 PM #

      The charm of Quito used to be how safe it was. It was Colombia that was meant to be so dangerous at the time (90’s). It was so bad all my friends in Ecuador said don’t go, you will be robbed and murdered and lose a kidney. When I got to Colombia it was fantastic but the people were shocked I had come from Ecuador and managed to escape with my life, my money and my kidneys. It’s a long tradition to play up the danger!

      • Steph January 10, 2012 at 7:13 AM #

        It’s funny though- All the ecuadorians STILL say bad things about Colombia- quite a rivalry there!

  2. Peggy McPartland December 18, 2011 at 2:52 PM #

    So sad to hear. I was planning to head to Quito for a few weeks after the first of the year. Maybe I’ll head for Cuenca instead.

    • Steph December 22, 2011 at 3:13 PM #

      oh no it’s still worth visiting for sure! You just have to be cautious.

  3. Miguel December 18, 2011 at 3:02 PM #

    I heard it was bad… but that bad??… anyway i’m glad you manged to confront the “fear” and make it out alive. I geuss the whole concept of what you can and can’t do in a city changes radically on the planet. We’ll be making it over there sometime soon next year. Hopefully, we’ll be lucky and not find any trouble too.

    • Steph December 22, 2011 at 3:12 PM #

      It’s definitely still worth a visit for sure!

  4. Courtney December 18, 2011 at 8:26 PM #

    I spent 2 week in Quito alone in 2007 and felt/saw none of this. I believe the “new” area of town (touristy area) was much more dangerous, I really didn’t take any extra precautions then I do elsewhere. I walked around with my ipod/camera/money alone all day. Sad to hear this as I loved the city.

    • Steph December 22, 2011 at 3:10 PM #

      Hmm interesting, i wonder if there’s been a big change in the past couple years.

  5. Tom Bartel December 18, 2011 at 9:59 PM #

    I lived in Quito for 8 months and was robbed 5 times. Cops are completely corrupt and incompetent and the government doesn’t care at all about tourism. Skip it and go to Chile, Colombia and Peru. All those are great.

    • Steph December 22, 2011 at 3:07 PM #

      Yikes! I really am enjoying the rest of Ecuador though- haven’t felt nearly so threatened anywhere else.

    • Felipe January 18, 2016 at 9:58 PM #

      Really? You just have to be cautious, I’ve lived in Quito, Ecuador almost my entire life and never gotten robbed, the thing is, that you just went full out unconcerned mode, just keep your valuables hidden and always keep an eye out, no need to hate an entire country, just for some accidents that could’ve been avoided

  6. Ali December 19, 2011 at 12:53 AM #

    I spent a week in Quito last year for a Spanish class and lived with a family. I never felt unsafe at all, though I was warned by the school and the family to be aware of my belongings and never carry credit cards, large amounts of cash, or anything else valuable. So my credit cards stayed in the apartment when I went to class. Then I had 2 fraudulent charges on a credit card I only have for emergencies, including one for an $1800 plane ticket. Possibly someone I was living with that week who could’ve easily gotten my credit card info? Who knows. At least I didn’t have to pay for those charges.

    • Steph December 22, 2011 at 3:06 PM #

      Huh, that’s bizarre.

  7. Amanda December 19, 2011 at 1:33 AM #

    I certainly looks very pretty. But it’s sad to hear that it’s got such an ugly underbelly. 🙁

    • Steph December 22, 2011 at 3:05 PM #

      Indeed. Luckily the rest of Ecuador has been grand!

  8. Jade Johnston - OurOyster.com December 19, 2011 at 1:40 AM #

    Thats a shame that you can not let your guard down! it would definitely change your impresions of a place

    • Steph December 22, 2011 at 3:02 PM #

      Yeah it can be exhausting after awhile! I t was a releif to get to Banos which is so much more relaxed.

  9. Heather December 19, 2011 at 8:14 AM #

    It such a gorgeous town too! But that seems to be the case with many of the capital or major cities whatever the country. Sigh.

    • Steph December 22, 2011 at 3:02 PM #

      Yeah, it’s a very cool place- just a shame about the crime.

  10. Nicki December 19, 2011 at 10:56 AM #

    That’s too bad to hear you weren’t able to enjoy the festivales de quito! It’s such an awesome time in the city! I spent about 4 months living there in 2004 and it was certainly a mix. My bag was slashed my very first week there, but otherwise I made out ok. Our professors told us to watch out in “gringolandia” where all the hostels and tourists are, but in the rest of the city things were ok. Though I never had any issues at night, I don’t think I would have ever gone out alone. If you get the chance, be sure to head out east towards Tena and the rain forest! It’s beautiful!

    • Steph December 22, 2011 at 3:00 PM #

      Oh we did enjoy it pretty well- most people were super nice and welcoming!

  11. DTravelsRound December 19, 2011 at 2:34 PM #

    You would never think that Quito is dangerous in looking at your photos. I’m glad you escaped unscathed, but sorry you weren’t able to experience the city more. It looks absolutely beautiful!

    • Steph December 22, 2011 at 2:59 PM #

      It was super pretty- when it wasn’t raining!

  12. Karen December 23, 2011 at 3:25 PM #

    I’m so glad I didn’t do any research before I went to Quito, otherwise I would never have gone there! I had a great time, took Spanish lessons for a couple of weeks and stayed with a lovely family. Having said that, because I didn’t do any research I stupidly tried to walk up El Panecillo and, yup, got robbed at knifepoint. Fun! I did manage to carry $1500 dollars from an ATM to a travel agents to pay for my Galapagos cruise though! I would still recommend going, but definitely do your research on the do’s and don’ts.

    • Steph January 10, 2012 at 7:12 AM #

      Yeah I definitely didn’t intend to discourage people from going- I think it’s much safer if you are just aware of what you are up against.

  13. Tawny @ Captain and Clark December 23, 2011 at 11:52 PM #

    We were just there in September and heard so many horror stories of people getting robbed at gun point. One of the friends we made told us about getting hit over the head with a blunt object and waking up bleeding in the middle of the street.

    We played it safe while there and left most of our possessions locked up in our room and carried a dummy wallet with us. We also took in all the advice we could and didn’t walk around anytime after dark.

    Quito truly beautiful and steeped in history, you’ve just got to be alert and cautious.

    • Steph January 10, 2012 at 7:10 AM #

      Yikes! that’s crazy. I agree- it’s a gorgeous place you just need to be aware.

  14. Runaway Brit December 24, 2011 at 1:52 AM #

    I have heard so many stories about Ecuador, Quito in particular, while I have been travelling around South America. It seems that everybody knows somebody who has been robbed there.

    I have had to skip Ecuador because we were meeting friends in Colombia before Christmas but seems like it might not be such a bad thing after all. I’ll go there one day for sure but maybe they’ll have followed Colombia’s lead and cleaned up their act by then!!

    • Steph January 10, 2012 at 7:09 AM #

      I actually really liked the rest of Ecuador but yeah, it has a ways to go!

  15. Osvaldo March 22, 2012 at 12:31 PM #

    Quito is dangerous, Medellins is dangerous, Panama City is dangerous, the whole world is dangerous. People are used to hear something and to magnify things, sadly.

    If people don’t follow the basic rule (don’t look like a tourist) the world is going to be an ugly place 🙂

  16. dave August 16, 2012 at 7:14 PM #

    I had a problem in Quito 2 days ago. I went out on my own (yes i know but im 30 and reasonably built) in gringoland to a bar called the boot. I was the last one in there and they shut the door. They said the bar girl made an error and gave me too much change, they were arguing over $20. I wasnt having it but they wouldnt let me go so i had to jump off the 1st floor balcony into a tree and run away. One of the guys followed me with a gun which turned out to be plastic because he dropped his clip onto the floor which i picked up and broke. I hobbled into a taxi. Basically fuck Quito, there are crack heads everywhere and the police dont seem to do anything or even care that crack heads smoke right next to them.

    • Gio November 29, 2012 at 7:02 PM #

      how tragic that so many bad comments come from Americans who, I hate to write this bec I live in the States, are so blatantly ignorant and poor traveled. Quito is as much filled with crack heads as NYC, meaning that you get what you can afford where ever you travel. Apparently, some of you had bad experiences because of either being unpreparedness or not understanding of the safety measures needed. Ecuador is b y far safer than Colombian, or most other Latin Am countries. Cancun is unsafe, Bogota and so many others. National Geographic got it right, but I would recommend to travel a lot more before you actually make assertions that are not only endemic to one place.

      • dave November 29, 2012 at 7:38 PM #

        Hi, i wrote the comment above yours, about me jumping into a tree. I am from England and had just finished a 4 month trip around Argentina, Paraguay, Brasil, Venezuela, Colombia then into Ecuador. I was only in Ecuador to get to the Galapagos Islands (which were amazing btw). I felt intimidated in Venezuela but did not have any other problems in the countries i visited until my incident happened in Ecuador. It took 2 months for my left heel to stop hurting but its fine now. Again, just be careful people 🙂

        • Steph November 29, 2012 at 9:12 PM #

          Thanks for following up Dave! Glad your foot is feeling better.

          And Gio- stop assuming the worst about Americans. It’s tired.

  17. Alex December 21, 2013 at 12:18 AM #

    Me and two friends just walked up those stairs the other day. It was awkward bc no one else was around, except just a few local children and their mothers. Nothing happened to us. We spent the last three nights and two days in the center of town without any issues. Although the place feels a little odd at night. It completely clears out at around 6:30pm.

    La Ronda street it very safe at night and is full of locals having a good time. I highly recommend visiting for dinner.

    -el gringo

    • Steph December 21, 2013 at 11:09 AM #

      Yes we enjoyed La Ronda a lot. Sounds like you got lucky on the stairs- I met a few people who were mugged or attacked.

  18. Megan! March 3, 2014 at 11:27 PM #

    I spent three days there I think on my trip there last year and almost got robbed. A lady was right behind me, with my purse zipped, and I think she accidentally bumped me and I turned around and caught her. My purse was unzipped, but she was unsuccessful, thankfully!

  19. Lacy March 28, 2014 at 8:02 PM #

    I’ve been in Ecuador the last seven weeks, with two of them being in Quito. We didn’t have any problem at all. I think it’s wise to carry as little valuables as possible, better to not walk at night, and always good to be cautious…but those are things I would do anywhere. Quito is definitely worth a visit (I don’t think you’re saying otherwise.) Check out Plaza Grande, climb to the top of the Basilica, take the Teleferico, and go to the Equator! Though I much prefer pueblos, Quito is a beautiful place and I’m glad we had the opportunity to visit. 🙂

  20. Amanda July 4, 2014 at 3:41 PM #

    Sorry to nitpick, but minor factual error– Quito was not an “old Inca city”– the Incas never fully exerted control over the pre-Incan peoples. The only Incan ruins you are likely to find in Ecuador are parts of the roads and in Ingapirca (much further South)– and even that was a co-opted Canari site.

  21. Rodger Cook February 7, 2016 at 6:51 AM #

    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.

  22. Robert October 27, 2016 at 5:49 PM #

    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).

    • Robert October 27, 2016 at 5:50 PM #

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

  23. Pam October 30, 2016 at 7:15 AM #

    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!!

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