I am ashamed to admit that I had very low expectations for Quito prior to our arrival. But as we walked off the plane into the sparkling and modern airport, I immediately began revising my mental picture. What a surprising city! Despite being at such a high elevation of 9,200 feet (or perhaps because of that), there are very few skyscrapers in the city. Our hotel with 9 floors seemed to be among the highest of the parts of the city we saw. Quito is nestled in a valley between a volcano (Pichincha) on the west and a steep canyon down to the river Machangara to the east, Quito is a long and narrow city surrounded by the Andes, many of which are active volcanoes. In fact sometimes, the airport is closed because of eruptions. In addition, because the city cannot grow up the sides of the mountains or down the canyon, it has grown out in length around the airport. It makes for quite an interesting landing as you descend over houses lower and lower and lower, and then, boom, you’re on the ground. Due to these challenges, the city is currently in the process of building a new airport 40 miles outside of town.
But back to Quito itself. Certainly, this is not a city like Paris or New York; it’s a quieter city, without the hustle and bustle of a Western city. With nearly 2 million people, however, it’s not a small town either. As you drive through the congested streets (roads mostly run north and south), you will see armed guards standing outside of some stores. You will also see pigs hanging in meat shops, as the owners cure them to prepare a special dish. However, this is a major city, and has an extensive shopping area, hotels, and public transportation system. Only 20% of the residents have cars, so the buses can get crowded.
In terms of personal safety, our guides suggested not to walk alone at night and if we went to Old Town to watch our belongings carefully. I never felt personally at risk at any time. In fact, I am more on guard when I’m in NYC. But it is always a good idea to be alert when you’re traveling. In terms of weather, despite being at the equator, it was quite cool during our trip in late September, early October. We wore sunscreen of course, but also had on long pants and jackets. It was probably in the mid-60s during the day, down to the 50s at night. Many of the native Ecuadorians were bundled up in sweaters, hats, and jackets. The nights were foggy; at least, that’s what we thought until we realized that fog was probably just clouds!
We loved our hotel, the Hotel Mecure Alameda. It was really elegant inside (see journal entry) and we felt very safe. We had three balconies in our rooms, and we opened up the doors to bring in the cool mountain air at night. We could lean out the balcony and see people going into bars and listen to the music and the singing into the wee hours of the morning. If I hadn’t been so tired and feeling slightly sick from the altitude, I would have gone down to join them. They sounded like they were having a great time. I was surprised to hear dogs barking ferociously at night. Later we learned that building managers place dogs on the roofs of buildings to prevent robberies, though we never fully understood the logic behind that.
One other note on the altitude: try to avoid greasy foods, and be sure to drink tons of bottled water. This will help. We took Diamox (prescription), and it wasn’t particularly effective for either of us. But I wouldn’t go to that altitude without it, just in case. Also, it evidently helps to eat sweet things, so if you feel a headache, eat something sweet, drink a lot of water, and hopefully it will go away after a few days.
You can buy weavings and traditional crafts in Quito, though they are more expensive than in the surrounding villages. (And you’d miss the fun of going to Otavalo.) You can find pretty much all you need in Quito, though, so if you forget your shampoo, you can buy something (though it may not be the exact brand.)
We were sorry to miss Old Town due to time constraints, which was established as a World Heritage site in 1978. It is definitely on our list for the next trip to Quito and Ecuador, as is Cuenca to the South. We plan to return to this beautiful country, just as soon as we can.