Close encounters of the Quito kind

Kneeling on the floor of the utterly packed bendy bus, struggling to pick up the avalanche of coins which had just issued forth from the hole in my pocket, insult was further added to injury by the blind beggar who had just boarded, repeatedly hitting me in the abdomen with his stick, with considerable force, despite my desperate cries of “Espera!”. This was probably a moment when my love for Quito had hit a somewhat low ebb.

On the flipside, my second close encounter was rather more pleasurable, but no less strange. Saturday night had dawned, I was off to Cotopaxi the next day and I decided that I really needed to stay up late and not submit to old age again. So I joined the “party bus” to renowned gringo hangout Bungalow Six. A club which required significant pre-drinking to tolerate, but in its defence it was seriously cheap and we got free fishbowls for bringing in a large group. 2 bucks for the bus with free booze sounded good.

Dancing in an uncharacteristically ‘me’ fashion, and even more uncharacteristically enjoying it, I saw a stunning American woman across the dancefloor. I am typically rubbish at ‘pulling’ in clubs but after having caught her eye several times, I decided I was on pretty safe ground and headed over. The tall Chinese-looking guy with her was just a friend, right? She beckoned me closer, and we began dancing. Not just dancing, but dancing. Reggaeton is undoubtedly shite music, but does lend itself to getting away with loads

I was deeply confused by this turn of events, waiting for either the whiff of burundanga or wandering hands to probe my kidneys as a prelude to waking up in a Quito hotel room sans wallet, or organs. Neither of these things happened. She kissed me- And then immediately left the club, with the Chinese guy. Bewildered by this turn of events I related the situation to Alana, my American friend. “Oh yeah, I saw them at the bar, they were definitely a couple”. Jeez. I guess some people need different ways to add spice to life. Not that I was remotely complaining, the rest of the night failed to yield such entertainment.

My arrival in Quito had been pretty mellow, despite its reputation for street crime and skulduggery. Walking out of the bus station I hailed an official yellow cab. The driver quoted $10 to my hostel, which seemed steep, and when I insisted he used the meter he darkly muttered that he would MAKE it $10. Although on later reflection it was actually the correct fare and the bus station was miles from the San Blas area of the city.

Home for the few days was the Secret Garden hostel, widely regarded as somewhat of a highlight, with an amazing roof terrace:

Views from the terrace

It’s also pretty close too the historic Old Town of Quito, on my second day after getting up hideously early to hand my passport in at the Ministry for Culture (cab there and back, cheap as chips, no hassle, on the meter- This is becoming a habit!) I took the free hostel walking tour of the main sights…

The main squares are pretty hassle-free other than people trying to sell hilariously overpriced coca teabags and leaves, and people selling hundreds of identical scarves. It was a good chance to introduce the main sights in preparation for a later wander. This is how I enjoy seeing cities most- by my own steam. Not being herded from sight to sight!

Personal admin… with a local touch

I did have a few visa-related things to do, so hopped into a local shopping centre to get some passport photos. And to chat to the photographer whose shop it was, looking through his collection of photos over a career spanning decades and admiring the proud photos of his family. Sometimes when travelling it’s the little things which end up being the richest experiences…

Sorted for passport photos and photocopies, I headed around the corner to the theatre square, and a local restaurant with a bargain $2 lunch menu (2 courses)… Eating out is great value here if you avoid the Gringo hangouts and bilingual menus.

Theatre Square

Soup and popcorn- A big thing here!

I love being an omnivore over here. It’ll occasionally lead to a stomach meltdown but nothing beats walking into an unfamiliar place and taking a punt on a dish. The Mercado Central has loads of food stalls with amazing mixes of meat, fruit and vegetables. It’s lovely to have a bit of culinary diversity after the steak’n’potatoes of Argentina!

Amazing mixed dish at the Mercado Central, with extra hot sauce.

Not just bananas and watery apples for sale… Finally!

Quito wasn’t fully done with me. I had a few days enjoying the sights of the city, and climbing the vertiginous hill assisted by teleferico. The cable car takes you up to 4130 metres, and then from there you can climb another 700 or so to the peak of a (hopefully) dormant volcano. However, possibly partly due to an overly sugary breakfast, and also a slight lack of acclimatisation, I was hardly able to stay standing at the top so opted instead to return with my new friends from the hostel for some daytime drinking around the bars of the Mariscal area (also known as Gringolandia in some circles).

Clear as a bell from the bottom…

Not quite as much up top..

Sadly we’d not lucked out with the weather. The climate of Quito in some ways is quite strange, but in others fairly predictable, with nice clear mornings and then mist rolling in. Failure to awake had robbed us of a decent view!

My next day of fun came with the Mitad del Mundo. It’s literally the middle of the world, the Equatorial line. Or in fact not quite, recent calculations put it a few hundred metres away. But in any case, the eponymous town just outside Quito likes to maintain the pretence, with a huge museum complex containing loads of slices of Ecuadorian life and culture. Very, very touristy but a decent day out nonetheless, particularly if you’re a group of 4 adult children.

They do also have a photo booth where you can be superimposed on any background you like… This seemed a fun one!

I did reach the point that I’d had it with hostel life, however… Secret Garden is ace but it’s a busy place, and I wanted countryside. So, time to decamp to their sister hostel in Cotopaxi. Stay tuned for the next post. Quito hadn’t quite had enough of me however, so I ended up bouncing back more than once for admin tasks like picking up my passport, and shopping for everything I’d need in Galápagos.

I came to love Quito. It’s a good, lively city and far more ‘real’ than many of the European style enclaves you’ll find in countries further South. It has a reputation for being dangerous but generally a bit of precaution allays most of the bad stuff you’ll encounter. I ended up using the buses primarily to get around the place, mainly because they are soooo cheap. 25 US cents for anywhere in the city. Even end-to-end if you need to. As a result they do tend to be well occupied. Proper sardine-can style at peak times. This obviously makes for difficult travelling with a big bag. But hey, when it costs $10 for a taxi, it’s worth a try.

The dire warnings about Ecuadorian buses are worth bearing in mind, but not worrying unduly about. Reports of thefts from buses are frequent, and on long distance buses you need to have your small bag within touching distance for sure. I only encountered one issue on a city bus which was particularly packed… As I was getting off a crowd steamed on to the extent I lost balance, and at that point felt my phone leaving my pocket. Luckily my somewhat violent reaction to this meant it fell on the floor and I grabbed it back. There definitely are pickpockets around but hey, this happens in London to a similar extent so it’s just worth taking caution.

Likewise, I never felt remotely unsafe from a robbery point of view, but that’s because I tend to move around the city in a sensible, assertive fashion and avoid dodgy areas (in Quito, assume this is the whole city at night!). Known trouble spots include El Panecillo hill- But you don’t need to be scared in general, just don’t go to these places! Most of the ‘nice’ areas of the city are swarming with cops anyway.

So, Quito: Definitely somewhere to head to. Probably not my absolute favourite South American city, but it’s not far off the top spot. Whilst I miss the sophistication of BA, it all feels a little bit more… Awfentic!


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