Quito, Ecuador

Between this weekend’s New York Times Travel section’s front-page story and President Correa‘s recent stand-off with the police, Ecuador is in the news.

This is a follow-up to an earlier post, one laden with advice about how to stay in touch with the US or Canada from Quito (or elsewhere in South America). Like the one before, I wrote this originally as advice for a college friend who moved to Quito a few months after I left. Some of what’s below is relevant to tourists visiting Quito briefly, but mostly it is meant to be practical advice that you won’t read in a guide book for people who are considering moving to Quito or spending at least a few months in this high, Andean city.

Get High

Since you’re already dealing with the altitude — altitude sickness comes in the form of exhaustion, headaches, and sometimes nausea — I recommend living higher than most of the town. Quito is situated in a bowl, with most of the business district in the floor and some residential neighborhoods climbing the slopes to the east and west sides. Add to the mix a heavy dose of bus/car pollutants and burning trash (mostly at night), and the air in the valley floor is thicker, if you know what I mean. Living higher up in a neighborhood on one of the slopes lets you breathe easier while you sleep. I lived in La Floresta and loved it. There are small neighborhood shops, designer studios, restaurants, hotels, panaderias, bars (with great live music) and an art house theatre all within walking distance of the apartment where I lived. It was one of the few places in town where I felt comfortable walking at night. I also heard nice things about the neighborhood Bellavista. Inevitably, someone will recommend that you look in the Mariscal, the main tourist neighborhood of Quito, because they think you will feel more comfortable around other gringos. Unless you’re coming here to meet other Americans (or Europeans — lots of Germans in Quito) who love to travel, I strongly recommend you not live in the Mariscal. The crime rate is higher (especially at night), the air is distinctly dirtier, and there is constant noisy construction (and often at night). Plus, there’s no sense of neighborliness in the Mariscal; it’s essentially a transient zone. In the outer neighborhoods, you’re going to find more professionals and fewer students, fewer parties than in the Mariscal.

And if the altitude sickness does hit you, try drinking mate de coca (coca tea). Yes, it’s exactly what you think it is. Just don’t try bringing any back to the United States.

Personal Space

Personal space in Ecuador is very small. People will crowd up right next to you on buses (more on that below), they will walk almost into you on the sidewalk, cars get very close to other cars and to pedestrians, and you will be stared at. It’s not rude; it’s just the Ecuatoriano way.

The staring is probably the most unnerving at first. It’s nothing personal, except that it has to do with how you look, how you speak, how you dress, how tall you are, and everything else that has flows from your essence. Kids, adults, las personas mayores, Quiteños and indigenous all will find you visually interesting. Get used to it as soon as you can.

In the street, the disappearance of personal space is a little more dangerous. Pedestrians (peotones) are virtually ignored. Buses stop in the middle of crosswalks, drivers will not slow down for you as you are crossing the street, cars park on the sidewalk, and motorcyclists ride on the sidewalk.

blue heart

When crossing the street at a corner, after looking both ways, don’t forget to also look behind you. The “hook,” a term used to describe collisions where cars turn a corner into unsuspecting victims, is the most common traffic collision. Blue hearts painted on the sidewalks or roads mark where a pedestrian was killed, and near parks — most prominently in Parque Carolina — you can see “ghost bikes” chained to lamp posts. Read more about these tragic memorials here.

The city has just implemented a new traffic mitigation program that prohibits personal car owners from driving their cars through certain zones of the city on alternating days. Called pico y placa, the program is based on similar programs in London and Mexico City where a car owner cannot enter certain high congestion areas on days determined by the last digit of one’s license tag (which is theoretically assigned at random). The preparation for the program’s commencement was entertaining; you’d think the world was supposed to end, but the actual enforcement remains to be seen. It could, in its first year, bring much needed relief both in terms of traffic congestion and pollution.

Language

estudiantes de ingles

Although English is the main foreign language taught in high schools and universities, the Ecuatoriano grasp of English is equivalent to the average American high school graduate’s grasp of Spanish. In other words, Quito is not one of those countries where Americans can travel and rely on their foreign hosts to show off how cultured they are by speaking English. With very few exceptions, you need to speak Spanish from your ingreso to your salida.

How strong is your Spanish? If not very, I recommend taking some refresher classes before you go. Otherwise, you’ll feel like you’re completely at the mercy of others, whether a friend’s translation or a stranger’s patience, for a while. And once you get down there, even if your Spanish is strong, I still recommend about 2 weeks of classes in a local school to learn some local expressions, local pronunciations, and local sense of humor. At most schools, classes are highly individualized (I was the only student in mine), and they can be tailored to what ever you want to learn. For example, I tailored mine toward reading Latin American literature.

Transportation

If you will be there for a while, you may plan to get a car. I recommend not driving one until you’ve been there a while (in fact, I don’t recommend driving unless you have experience driving in some pretty insane traffic patterns). In the city, the bus systems are fantastic, and you really don’t need a car.

history meets the present | historia se encuentra el presente

You’ve probably already read in a guide book about the three main bus lines with fixed north-south routes: Metrobus, Trole, and Ecovia. Since Quito is a long city that basically runs north-south between mountain ranges (cordilleras), these three bus routes are often the most useful. All three run down to el Centro Histórico and at least as far north as the airport. I lived closest to the Ecovia and used it almost daily.

On these city buses, la gente crowd in, face-to-face, back-to-back, side-to-side. At the next parada, more people crowd on than step off. It’s unbelievable what people interpret to be space enough to justify stepping into the bus; you just have to accept it. Every available space is used by niños, grocery bags, babies strapped to women’s backs, mochillas, carteras, gringos, and Quiteños. It’s as if empty space is a luxury that everyone wants, but when everyone reaches for it or steps into it or tries to claim it, the luxury vanishes and all we are left with is all we are entitled to: just the limits of our skin and bones and not much more.

So, on the bus, I learned not make room to let someone to pass by me unless I was willing to permanently lose that room. Inevitably, when I would shift my weight to the other foot to let someone pass by me, the passerby would take this as an opportunity to stand even closer to me.

And you will want more space than the average Ecuatoriano. It’s a good idea to have it, as well, since there is currently a problem with ladrones on the three north-south bus systems. Since the buses are so crowded most of the time, ladrones take the buses as fielding grounds for picking pockets, slashing bags (I didn’t believe this was a problem until I saw the results of one incident), and lifting cameras.

During the time that I was there, El Comercio ran an article on the astounding number of on-bus thefts reported each month. Following the article, there was a noticeable increase in police presence in the bus stations. For about a week.

So, use caution on the buses. Carry your bag in front of you and close to your body, and keep an eye on it. If you have to carry something very expensive (like a laptop), take a taxi.

Taxis

For calling a taxi to your house, there are several radio taxi companies. I used Galaxia reliably. (3-400-200, 24 hours a day) When you call, they will ask for your phone number, which they then “link” to the address at which you want to be picked up. That way, they’ll remember you the next time you call. It’s also worth learning where the nicer hotels are (Hotel Quito, Suisseôtel, Sheraton, Hilton, even Holiday Inn Express) scattered throughout the city, as there is inevitably a queue of taxis waiting for hotel guests. Sometimes a driver will say that he’s not available because he is there only for hotel guests; just move on to the next one. (Hotel lobbies, incidentally, are also reliable spots for clean bathrooms.)

When hailing a cab on the streets, don’t bother with the unmarked taxis. These usually just look like someone’s personal car (which it probably is), and the driver will have a printed TAXI sign on the dash. They’ll honk and flash their lights at you to try and get your business. But just let them pass and wait for a yellow taxi, with its registration numbers in red, stuck to the inside, upper windshield.

Bus tipos

Effects of the sun

Learn to ride the bus tipos. Routes for the blue buses are impossible to understand; learn them anyway. Look for a covered overhang (marking an official bus stop) or just a bunch of people congregating on the sidewalk, and wait for one that’s going your direction. Common destinations on printed on placards that sit in the front window, and the collectors call out the stops. As opposed to the three city-run buses, these bus routes are mostly circular and fill the east-west gaps left by Metro/Trole/Ecovia. Destinations (as printed on the placards or called out by the collectors) include streets, parks, universities, and other landmarks. For example, the ones I took most often read La Floresta (my neighborhood), U Católica (a nearby university), Colon (a major east-west street), Seminario Mayor (a seminary at the far end of Colon), América (a major cross street), among other names.

Chances are, you won’t be able to understand them at first, so just hop on a bus and see where it goes. It’ll stop whenever you want it to, and you’ll notice that for many of the male regulars, the bus won’t even stop — it’ll just slow down enough for the men to hop on or off. While the buses are registered with the city and have certain routes, they are privately owned and are often family businesses. It’s not unusual to see the husband driving with the wife collecting fare at the door. And occasionally, usually on weekend, the kids might work as collectors. The curtains, the interior decorations, the music played by the driver all personalize the experience on these buses. For me, they were a daily and rewarding dose of liberty and pattern in chaos. They were one of my favorite things about living there.

Futbol

Even if you don’t give a damn about futbol, it’s worth following Liga’s schedule just so you’ll know what those spontaneous gatherings on the sidewalk are about (usually, people huddling around a TV outside an electronic shop or café).

Coffee

If you’re a coffee drinker, then you will want to order café negro or expreso doble at cafés. Otherwise, if you just order a café, the mesero will bring you a café Americano (i.e. watered down coffee). In Argentinian restaurants, a strong cup of coffee may be called a café corto and will have just a hit of milk.


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