Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ecuador – Quito, charmingly dangerous

Welcome to Quito
Quito is one of the most beautiful colonial cities in South America and the second highest capital on the continent after La Paz. This UNESCO world heritage site attracts a lot of tourists, be it as entry/exit point to Ecuador, transit point to Galapagos or as a base to learn Spanish.

We came to Quito to explore the beautiful cobblestone streets and colonial architecture in Old Quito. After reading several warnings about robberies and theft from hotels, we decided to stay in a "safe house" in the new part of Quito (although it seems that the new town is even more dangerous after dark). After researching for way too much time, Julane selected Casa Helbling. It is Swiss/German owned and run. We figure if you can't trust the Swiss and Germans in protecting your valuables and money, then you might as well go home.

We arrive just in time to drop our bags, run over to the supermarket and then be back in the "fortress Helbling" before darkness hits. We feel like we're back in Managua with one big difference: Quito is actually supposed to be nice – during daytime, that is.
We set off early the next morning on foot to explore, and felt a bit naked with just a few dollars and only one credit card in our pockets. No backpack or exposed fanny pack to lure any bad guys in our direction. The staff at the guesthouse highly recommends leaving everything in their safe that you don't want to hand over to a thief – gosh we love this town already!

It's actually a small miracle that this
badly scratched camera still takes
decent pictures. (if you can ignore
the occasionla glare)
We also decide to bring our camera despite the warnings that this may attract thieves, but as a safety measure we download all our pictures to the Netbook before heading out. Anyway the lens is so badly scratched up that we will ditch the camera in a couple of weeks, but of course no would-be thief knows that our camera is on the verge of death after intensive use during 9 months on the road.

Stairway to heaven? least as far as the top
of the towers.
For the first 30 minutes, we are walking down the busy streets with hawkish eyes, scanning every nook and corner for signs of shady figures and possible threats. We probably had such intense facial expressions that we must have scared even the gutsiest of thieves away. Even walking like a bunch of Robocop's, we did notice that the city is quite charming and lively, and we are not even in the old town yet.

Standing on top of the church ceiling.
Our first major tourist stop is the Basílica del Voto Nacional which was built in the early 1900 mostly with concrete, but in a typical gothic influence. For $2 one can climb up the towers of the church and get a great view of Quito.

The view from the north tower is
not too shabby.
An elevator (this is a modern church indeed) brings us up to the 3rd level which is actually at the height of the main roof already. From there, we walk across a narrow boardwalk over the ceiling of the church – cool! Then the climb up to the north tower starts: three flights of steep ladders later, we are standing on the north tower. The view from the platform is breathtaking, as is the climb up – not recommended if you suffer from vertigo.

Climbing up the south tower
is even better.
There are only a couple of other tourists up on the tower and we love the peacefulness. Although Patrick keeps thinking how easy it would be for a crook to rob people right up here – but they would need to have a parachute or be an angel and fly away.

Excuse me, do you know
what time it is?
Even more fascinating is to climb the south tower, which is taller and the access a bit harder to find (walk through the souvenir shop on the 3rd floor to get to the stairs). At first the way up is through a regular staircase, which soon turns into a narrow spiral staircase leading up to the clockworks. Standing inside the clockworks is amazing. The white glass faces of the clocks are 3 stories tall and fill the room with a bright light. The clocks are not working anymore and much of the clockwork mechanics have been removed. But hey, when do you get to actually see a church clock from the inside?
We did it, this is the very top
of the clocktower
We climb up even further; the spiral staircase ends and a simple ladder with unevenly spaced steps made from welded re-bar leads to the upper levels with the church bells. The four bells are actually rather small but they still have the clapper mounted. Julane can't resist the temptation and rings all the bells. They are so loud that, hours later, Patrick still hears a ringing in his ears.

The north tower seems
so small from up here
There's one more flight of stairs to the top platform inside the south tower of the Basilica. The views from up here are even better than the views from the north tower. Especially the decorative shapes in the outer facade create a slight obstructed but mystical sight down to Old Quito. The best part about visiting the Basilica is that there are hardly any other people. We had the clock tower all for ourselves.

Now we are like the pigeons in a pigeon hole.

Old Quito with the Basilica
in the background
From the Basilica, we wander over into the old part of Quito and soon see why it has become a UNESCO site. The narrow cobblestone streets are bordered by beautiful white-washed colonial buildings. The streets are lively and traffic quite civilized. Old Quito is situated at the base of a hill and with the buildings climbing upward so we get some additional exercise at this altitude. There are even pedestrian only areas, and we are told on Sundays, it is closed to cars entirely!
Be very careful in Quito, there are
robbers and...Aliens on the attack?
By now we are not so worried about the danger; we actually try "find" the shady characters. Somehow, thieves exude a kind of scent that makes them obvious. Both Patrick and Julane get this prickly feeling by a few characters ambling about and we avoid them by stopping or crossing the street.
La Virgen de Quito
looks like an angel, but
you may have to pay a
high price to visit her. 
By alertness to one's environment, theft is generally avoidable (but not muggings which are the realm of the night here where everyone is a target). As we sit at a busy main plaza to rest, we notice other gringos who also "follow the rules" by wearing their backpacks in the front, while others present themselves as easy targets by carrying their cameras openly hanging from their neck like an advertisement or carry a big bag loosely slung over their shoulder.

The lady at the tourist office told us that Old Quito is actually fairly safe during the daytime. In part, because they shutdown the bus terminal in the center and opened two new terminals in the very north and south of the city. And savvy travelers know that bus terminals are magnets for crooks and thieves.

We also notice that there are dozens of police officers in the old town; but anyway, we keep our guard up and stay alert as we explore the numerous impressive churches. We cover at least 10 miles (16km) of Quito streets before we get back to our "safe house" in time before darkness brings out the dangerous elements of this lovely capital.

La Ronda equals nightlife.
but is sleepy in the day time
Another nice church
Wonder where these stairs
go? to a parallel universe?

Our conclusion of Old Quito: charmingly dangerous, and definitely a must see when you are in Ecuador.

Although Julane still likes Cuenca slightly more than Quito; Patrick votes Old Quito on the top of the most beautiful cities he's seen in South America. But he agrees, that Cuenca is overall nicer to visit, especially since it's safer and no one needs to bunker up at night.

Old Quito is so charmingly dangerous

Day two brings back the clouds and rain and therefore lowers our exploration lust too. Anyway, today we want to explore the New Quito, which soon disappoints us. After seeing the old town it's hard to get excited by the new part. It looks just like any boring modern city in the world – nothing to write home about. And the appropriately nicknamed Gringolandia area of Mariscal is just a pocket in the middle that is geared for travelers to shop for souvenirs or that are missing Western food and beer.

Ok, this picture is just for the record:
This is Gringolandia
One thing that also impressed us is the incredible public transportation system. They have electric bus-trams, regular buses that ply the streets constantly. Outside of rush hours, they are not full and only cost 25 cents a ride regardless of distance. The bus-trams have designated lanes and are much faster. We notice that locals don't like to walk much as some people seem to jump on for only a couple blocks...maybe it's due to the exceptionally high heels that Latinas like to wear?! Sometimes when we try to fit in and look like a local it's an impossible task. Julane's butt isn't big enough and Patrick's light blue eyes need darker both our shoes don't cut the right local look!

There would be much more to see and do in the area around Quito, but we will head north to be in Otavalo for the famous Saturday indigenous market.