The official slogan of the ministry of tourism in Ecuador is “Ama la Vida”, or “love life”. It’s an incredibly positive outlook, and where, in my experience, most ministries do not really focus on their slogans, Ecuador does. However, it almost seemed to me as though the phrase was derived from the place, and to create an industry around it was natural. Ecuadorians are friendly, open, and have colourful personalities. Loving life is so easy, especially with such a great social atmosphere.
I stayed in Villaflora, a neighbourhood in southern Quito, for almost three months, and while all things south of Panecillo are deemed dodge, poor, and even dangerous, it detractracted nothing from my stay. In fact, I would even argue that I had a much more engaging and utterly wonderful time seeing this side of the capital. Sometimes the best experience doesn’t come from picturesque locales, but from sharing in everyday struggles and day-to-day life, on any level. I lived with a family for most of my time, but I’ll tell you plenty about the hostel life (some of my favourite yet), and most of my food was simple and came quite cheap - especially because I didn’t stay in the northern part of the city - i’ll mention this too!
Quito is unique for many reasons. It’s a very geographically narrow city, and a trole or bus from one end to the other can take up to two hours (depending); the elevation is something of a change for many, and it can take a few days to really acclimate before you feel truly comfortable; plus, the collective melding of new and old is something quite fascinating in its own right. Each South American country has a different array of offerings for visitors and inhabitants alike, and to fully reach that capacity all you have to do is talk. Everyone in Ecuador is kind-hearted, and they’re almost always willing to help you out; despite the negative rep that seems to permeate most opinions about South American countries, Ecuadorians are warm. I won’t deny the very real danger that lies in some of the more broken parts of the city, or country, but I will say that to judge too quickly is a greater harm to yourself than anything else.
That said, I’ll get the scary stuff out of the way so the good is even brighter. Here are some things to remember, in Ecuador as well as the rest of the world:
Do not walk alone at night if you aren’t comfortable with the area, and even then keep a cautious eye out at all times.
Don’t wear flashy things, recognisable brands, or have anything of value in plain sight. Most often crime is isolated to robbery (though the degree of threat does get quite scary sometimes, all most people are after is your foolish foreign money. If you seem to have nothing to offer them, you’re likely to fare better).
Know where your passport is at all times. I recommend keeping a colour photocopy in each bag you have. It’s also a good idea to have an emergency card, or cash stash hidden somewhere really safe, just in case.
Don’t walk alone at night. I know I already mentioned this, but it really needs to be stressed. Don’t do it. Especially in places you aren’t familiar with.
When you leave the hostel, house, hotel, wherever, only take what is really necessary to have. On day trips I brought my phone, three quarters (one for the trole there, one for the trole back, and one tucked in an inside pocket on my jeans in case something really did go wrong and I needed a way home), $5-10 cash (I’d make sure I had only exactly enough to get into where I was going, or pay for what I wanted to do), a water bottle, and my keys.
Don’t take your phone out in public unless you need to, people are always watching. A friend I was out with once had her phone swiped by a child who was selling sweets along Plaza Foch, keep it safe.
Keep your rucksack, backpack, handbag, what-have-you, in front of you when on public transport or in crowded areas.
Perhaps most importantly, if you feel unsafe, remove yourself from the situation.
Now that’s over, we can move on to the good stuff.
There are many ways to get to the lovely Quito: you can fly in to Mariscal Sucre and pay for a taxi to your hostel (it’s at least $20 to get outside the airport, but plan on $25, especially if your spanish is a bit rough around the edges), alternatively, there’s a shuttle service during the day which will take you to Parque Bicentenario. The cost for this service is $8, and you’ll be able to take a taxi, trole, bus, or a walk to your accommodation. If you arrive via bus, there are a few main stations: one in the very north (Carcelen), one more in the north (Ofelia, often used to get to Otavalo), and one in the south (Quitumbe, for any all all bus transport further south). Trole stops accompany these terminals so you will be able to find them fairly easily. A bus trip to Quito from outside can cost you anywhere between $4 and $50, depending on where you come from (these estimates are for Andean countries). Check that the destination terminal is close to where you stay, or whether you will need to take another form of transport to get to your accommodation. The same price range applies leaving Quito.
When travelling in an unfamiliar country, I’ve always taken a huge amount of pride when I feel confident in my ability to navigate the city using its local transport. Honestly, it’s a freeing thing. Like most countries, you will always have the option to take a taxi. They’re yellow, they’re easy to find everywhere, and they’re quite convenient. However, it’s a more entertaining (and not to mention cheaper) experience if you hop on a bus or trole. One tip for taxis though, before I move on: you do not need to pay the first price. Either go with the meter price or negotiate, often I paid $4 to get somewhere, and friends would pay $7 to go the same distance. The better way to get around Quito, and in similar large cities in S. America, is to take advantage of the trole (pronounced trolley) system. You can find trole stations on most maps online (here’s a page with station order and line information), or, if you’re without a phone, you can pick up a city map at any tourist info centre. The easiest to find is right on the edge of Plaza Grande, which is lovely in its own right - and on Mondays the president gives a speech to the square (provided he's in town). You’ll be a bit confused at first, but remember you’ll stand most of the time, and that if you mess up it only really costs you an extra 25 cents to get on a new trole. Be patient you’ll get it. Your other option is the city buses, which aren’t like buses you and I are probably used to. There are usually no official stops, and you have to have a very clear idea of where you are going and where you need to get off. Until you know the area, I don’t really recommend these. If you’re really keen on trying it, just ask the driver if you are on the right bus and if they can let you know when to get off. Busing also only costs a quarter for one direction, and you can pay with pennies! If you’re backpacking, or getting to cities like Cuenca, Otavalo, Banos, Latacunga, etc. you’ll head to a main bus terminal and go to a vendor with your destination listed. If you don’t see your destination, ask a security officer or someone at another window where to go.
On to the most interesting material: what to do in this gorgeous city! First thing’s first: nearly every transaction you make in Quito must be done in cash, preferably smaller bills. Everything is in USD, so all you US travellers will be just fine using your own cash from home if you want (pro tip: if you’re looking for a way to use up your hoard of coins, here’s your chance!). Quito has a wide range of things to take up your time, from tourist locales, to really interesting off-the-typical-radar attractions.
There are three main parts to Quito: the North, where you’ll be paying a pretty penny more for accommodation, food, and museum entrances; the Old Town, just north of Panecillo, where you will find old municipal buildings, plazas, markets, and throngs of people on the move; and the South, where I stayed, and where most travellers do not venture. Honestly, southern Quito doesn’t have much for you to do in the way of exploration and experiences. Though, the food in the south is some of the best, and not to mention cheapest. Meals, and I mean FULL meals, start at about $2.50, and don’t get higher than $6.50 in most cases. So if you want authentic home cooking, and you aren’t in a home, I say bite the bullet and take a trole down a bit. Restaurant owners are friendly, and have amazing culinary ability if you have good enough spanish; plus, the street food near El Recreo terminal is delicious, once you’ve acclimated your stomach. (Quick note here: water, to my knowledge, from the pipes is totally clean, but most pipes are old and will contaminate the water. To avoid this, buy huge jugs, 2-6 Litres, of water from super markets and use these to fill your own smaller bottle.)
Food wise, you can do your own research, and just experiment. Along La Ronda, a street famed for old Ecuadorian authenticity, you’ll find “typical” foods like Guinea Pig and Canelazo. I do recommend trying canelazo at least once, especially as it’s a warm drink and Quito can get chilly at night. This street is a great place to go on weekend evenings for a meal and some drinks, and it’s a cute place to take photos. Though, you can do that anywhere in Quito, really. Try an empanada, morocho (rice and milk drink), canelazo (aguardiente, a sugar cane alcohol, naranjilla juice, and spices), humitas (similar to sweet tamales), emborrajados (plantains made with magic), and a good old fashioned Ecuadorian Pilsner. Check around for prices and authenticity from the servers. They often stand outside and entice you in, but don’t feel too bad for smiling and saying no to a place. Never pay more than $8 for a full meal, you can get really good food for far less. Once a week I’d go to a fruit market and take $5 to buy apples, avocados, bananas, tomatoes, and a pineapple, which would serve as various meals, or additions to meals, through my stay. Honestly if you cook for yourself you can get by on about $10-15 a week for food if you really want to. Panederias offer baked goods for amazing prices, and you can get great flavours with new ingredients. For a fancier night, provided this place is still there, I highly recommend the restaurant on the corner of Plaza Borja Yerovi, it’s a gem with fantastic upscale food, at a somewhat reasonable price.
Going out at night can be really fun, and quite the entertainment in its own right. Plaza Foch is famous for its wild times, clubs, and discos. My friends and I went to bars a little further from the FOCH YEAH! statue/ sign, where they served drinks for far cheaper than places on the main strip. This is a really fun thing to do, and I highly recommend it. After warming up with some cheap cocktails, visit the clubs. There are plenty in the area, but some require your actual passport to get in, it’s really risky to carry that around so don’t bother, most places will allow a photocopy to suffice. A taxi to get you back to your hostel can cost up to $8 so be prepared with cash and go dance your heart out.
In the daytime there’s plenty to do, and most of it is super interesting.
If you’re a fan of walking outdoors, head up Teleferico. There’s a cable car which will take you to the top. If I remember correctly, that’s $6-8. Go in the early morning, you’ll run into less people, and the clouds won’t have completely covered the sky. You can also check out Panecillo, or the little bread roll. The angel statue at the top, facing the northern part of the city, is said to be facing that direction because she has only blessed the north. They (mostly) jokingly claim this is why the south is far more impoverished. Regardless of whether this legend is true, El Panecillo has a gorgeous view of both sides to Quito. You can walk up, which I recommend doing only in daylight and with plenty of water, or you can take a taxi for a few dollars. Either way it’s a lovely view. Take a day to explore Quito’s plethora of parks, too. There are vendors, families out enjoying the weather, and rowboats, in addition to the green views and gorgeous pathways. I’m making these parks seem absolutely stellar, but on days I needed a breather from everything they gave me clarity and grounding. Take a book, find a tree, and sit for a while. I find that the constant life around me, and the green space helped give me a break. Sometimes travel is taxing, and that’s okay. Alameda, Ejido, Bicentenario, and Carolina are notable.
Head up to Bellavista, and go to Capilla del Hombre. This is the house of Ecuador’s most famous painter, and his own chapel of man. Guayasamin is a stunningly deep artist, and there are pieces which will resonate with everyone. The neighbourhood is lovely to walk through, but from the nearest trole stop it’s a $1.75 taxi ride. Entrance to the house and chapel of man is $8, $4 if you’re a student somewhere in the world, and there’s a free tour in English and Spanish. Other rad museums include the Inca Art museum (Museo del Alabado) where a ticket is $4, unless you’re like me and enter in desperate attempt to escape the wild tourists celebrating something out in the streets, and the man takes pity on you and let’s you in for free. It honestly would have been worth the $4. Visit Casa Cultura, which is newly renovated and full of history, art, and cultural learning. Parque Ejido is opposite the building, and it boasts vendors of art and various small objects. If you are really in search of good souvenirs, and you don’t really want to pay very much, take a bus up to Otavalo for a day. This is one of the largest markets I went to in South America, and you can get truly amazing things. Remember to barter and chat, but also remember that whatever you pay should be what you feel comfortable paying. An object has value to you, assign the value - don’t just haggle for the sake of it. You’re boosting people’s income, and helping a community. Especially when you buy handmade goods.
Ask the front desk at your hostel if they know of anything interesting going on in the city, or if they have any personal favourite spots to recommend. You may not be staying in a house with a family, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a good down to earth experience. Doing something very similar to this is how a friend and I ended up in Latacunga, a city south of Quito, for a festival called La Mama Negra. It was a cheerful weekend, and we were the only outsiders around. Festival-goers were happy to see us, and told us such fun stories. There are two celebrations for La Mama Negra, one in (I believe) November for tourism purposes, and one earlier in September (for locals and the religious, mostly). The origin of this festival goes like this: Cotopaxi, a nearby volcano, was erupting and threatened to destroy a statue of the Virgin Mary. When Spaniards refused to help move her, villagers banded together to carry her up another hill where the eruption couldn’t reach her. Now, they celebrate with as much gusto as possible (blackface, drag, colourful costumes, throwing milk, all typical things) to illustrate the independence from the Spanish. Drinking, dancing, fireworks, and costumes are the order of the day, and if you get a chance to go to ANY festival.. GO!
I’ve moved out of Quito now, and that’s a good direction to head. Just outside Latacunga is Cotopaxi National Park, home to a large active volcano you can climb up. For $15 you can hire a guide to drive you up, tell stories, and lead your 30-50 minute hike to the refugiado. Thousands of metres in the air, the view is gorgeous and the air is frigid, but it’s one of my favourite moments in my life. Remember to bring water and some snacks. You might be able to climb the glacier, but look into it beforehand, it requires a lot more planning. We stayed in Hostal Tiana and had a wonderful time. In the same region is Quilotoa, a crater hike, which will take about four days to really complete (at a relaxed pace), and along the loop there are hostels to stay in for the night - book ahead! Views along here are stunning, and the whole walk is really rewarding.
Other places include Baños, Cuenca, Mindo, and La Mitad del Mundo. Baños is an adventure destination. You can abseil, raft, hike, quad bike, and so much more. A popular activity is La Casa del Arbol, or the Swing at the Edge of the world. However, if you want to avoid crowds, and slightly higher swing tolls, head up to Mirador del Virgen. If you keep walking the narrow hill path you’ll find a tire swing you can get on for fifty cents, and you can swing as much as you like. Go out to bars one evening and ask for a Bienvenidos, or welcome, shot. It’s a flaming shot modeled after the national flag. Cuenca is a very artsy place, and a popular place for expats, but outside the city limits there are Inca ruins you can visit, with really kind tour guides. Mindo Cloud Forest is where two famously biologically diverse regions collide. Its rainforest is stunning, with butterfly gardens, amazing foods, and gorgeous relaxed town activities. I couldn’t make it here, but a know many who did and loved it. Not so off the grid, but if you want good tropical hiking, gorgeous, lush forest, and a relaxed vibe, spend a few days in Mindo. I heard wonderful things about Casa Cecilia if you’re on the hunt for accommodation. La Mitad del Mundo is the last thing I’ll really talk about here. It’s possibly the most famous attraction near Quito. It’s a pricey venture, compared to most other Ecuadorian activities anyway, and it’s rampant with tourists. This is not necessarily a problem, but for the pure novelty of standing on the equator, I could never justify going. Nor did I really hear raving review about it. If that’s something which floats your boat, then go! However, if you aren’t keen on crowds, cheesy museums, and novelty it’s more hassle than it’s worth. That said, it is sometimes nice to just go where the people lead every once in a while - you do you, it’s your trip, not mine!
I’d love to keep going, but I fear I may have reached the limits of a blog post here. I hope I’ve helped a bit, and if you have more questions about anything Ecuadorian I’m happy to have a chat, just send an email! Cheers.