Ahh Quito, what the hell’s wrong with you? So enticing you are to your visitors and yet you treat them so poorly. Your tourist brochures flaunt ‘A city that cares for it’s visitors’; so then how is it we were mugged on your turf and treated to ambivalence by your police force? My only conclusion is that is this sort of thing happens all the time, and you have your head in the sand; a sinister smile behind the drawcard of your beauty. Truly one of South Americas most notorious cities for crime, and it’s in Quito where our luck finally ran out. Here’s how it unfolded.
Reina del Camino runs a direct night service from Canoa to Quito, the capital. We were wary of taking night services given the reputation Ecuador has for bus related crime, but the doors are sealed once the service is underway, and there’s evidently strict documentation of passenger’s on board. Plus, other than a daily local service, which is arguably just as, if not more unsafe, it was our only option outta there. The bus was late, but we had the pleasure of watching the local police pull up to a group of gents drinking on the street across from us, and join them for half an hour or so. To our surprise he was interrupted only when our bus arrived, and, called by duty, ushered us onto the bus.‘Necesita nuestro pasaporte?’ I asked. ‘No’ he said and ushered us on. Let’s pretend I’m a serial killer. No-ones checked my bags, person, or even passport. I’m on the bus. I have 32 victims lined up! Look, we’re pretty accustomed to bus travel by now and the bus was fine.I don’t want to get into the habit of complaining but there were few difficulties.
Very-little to no leg-room, I had my legs in the aisle. And my bag on my lap, and the person in-front of me’s head on-top of that.
Insane driver – twisting mountain paths no match for his kamikaze driving, making it impossible to sleep.
Very loud selection of Salsa and emotional hits of Ecuador playing constantly.
Fluctuation in climate control meaning one moment you’re sweating and the windows have fogged up, the next they’re clear and you’re shivering cold.
So we got into Quito at some ungodly hour, like 4:30am. Disembarked and were met by an awaiting mob of taxi drivers. Ignoring them completely and watching our stuff we gathered our bags, moved off to the sidewalk and then negotiated a taxi fare to our hotel. The hotel had indicated that we could be checked in at the earliest 7am but we wanted to see if there were any lights on at all before deciding what to do next.
Our driver took us through some quiet streets lined with colonial style buildings until we were out the front of our hostel. It was most certainly closed for business so I asked if there was a nearby cafe to kill some time until we could check in. He obliged and took us down the road to a 24 hour chicken shop. Saldys or something like that, neon with bright reds and greens and booth style seating like the old Red Roosters. I asked for an American breakfast combo but it was too early so the best they could conjure up was a coffee from the Nescafe machine.
We killed a good hour and a half there, people came and went and the volume of the in-store music increased gradually until it was so loud it vibrated your ear hairs. Ecuadorian salsa and interludes of high-energy radio advertising. We had to get out of there. We stood out the front for a bit, watched the private security guard fall asleep and eventually flagged down another cab to take us back to the hostel. We’d have some 10 minutes before 7 o’clock but that should be okay. How wrong we were.
We’d waited some 5 minutes or so I suppose. A group of rowdy toothless drunks had made their way past us, and now the only company we had was a mother and her two kids on the corner just up from up as they waited for the school bus. I glanced down the road and saw 3 black guys making their way toward us. They seemed pretty hip, well-dressed, generally unsuspecting, and besides we were accompanied by a mum and kids. I turned back around. Suddenly I’m struck across the shoulders.. ‘Money! No problem!’ they all yell, not together in unison but all in their own time. ‘Huh?’ Rebecca looked at me.. ‘What’s going on?’ ‘We’re being mugged.’ The group hustles me toward the wall of our hostel. I clam up a bit, I’m wearing my day-pack on my back. It has everything in it. Laptop, wallets, cards, money, passports. But they seem more interested in my pockets. They’re patting my legs and waist and I’m resisting, trying to sus out the threat. They’re unarmed but they’re making fists and threatening to hit us. Even Rebecca. Their faces all up in ours, their dreadlocks swirling around and this one guys so close up in my face I can see his freckles. I notice Rebecca starts slamming the doorbell and yelling out. The three of them turn their attention to me and I try to keep them back from the hollows of a doorway. One of them feels the iPhone in my pocket and like a dog on a scent dives his hand in. I grab his wrist but all that advice to just relent gets the better of me and I accept the loss. He takes it out and they quickly turn to leave. One of them yells ‘mochilla’ as if my day-pack has suddenly grabbed his attention. I feel chills but another of them grunts something and they all turn and leave quickly around the corner. I look up to see Rebecca, she’s white in the face. ‘Are you okay?’ I ask ‘Yeah..’ I turn to the side to see the mother without her two kids just staring after the mob of guys, shaking her head with this terse expression on her face. A man wanders over to her with a little girl, they talk and look over us; a woman on a balcony across the road completes the audience. Nobody does anything. No consolment, no calling the police, nothing. And I get these sudden horrible lonely feeling.
As if perfectly on queue the hostel door opens and a caucasian man who I assume is the Australian owner, Matt, stands there, looking irritated, as if we’d woken him up. ‘How you going?’ he asks. ‘Could be better mate..’
Inside we jump on his computer and I quickly go about changing passwords to anything I’ve accessing using the iPhone. Banking, Facebook, email etc.. this seemed to go pretty well until later when I attempted to use the passwords again and they were all wrong. Something about the layout of Spanish keyboards. In the end, I was able to get them all changed by using our laptop. Which, thankfully we still had. Reflecting on the whole outcome we drew consolment from the fact that considering what we actually had on us; the loss of one iPhone comparatively speaking, wasn’t a big deal. I had debated whether to leave Australia with it in the first place; I’d said to myself ‘..just be prepared to lose it.’ And lose it we had.
We were still a bit shaken up and to be honest Matt hadn’t really done a thing. He’d made us a coffee and went to go change but then went out and sat on the computer at reception. We’d need a police report we’d determined, so that was the next item on the agenda after getting security sorted out. Matt at least told us where we could find the tourist police (directions were a little off actually) and that they’d be open now. We got in a cab.
El Mariscal is the newer area of Quito, wealthy, kitsch and full of establishments the well-to-do might like to spend money at. Ironically, it’s the only area in the LP that is determined to be ‘a dangerous neighborhood after dark’. We asked a local tourist police officer stationed in the center if there was a tourist police office. He said there was and that it was about 5 blocks up and to the right. When we got there we took the stairs to the second floor and sat down in front of this slick-haired
yet goofy looking guy with wingnut ears. He didn’t speak any English. Not a word. He was a tourist policeman.
Thankfully with the broken English from another officer and our broken Spanish we managed to get a report out of him, though I don’t know he managed what with this other police offer pinching his ears whenever he put finger to keyboard. I suppose the first time we were there, we were there for a good hour or so, and though we explained that we needed him to personally write ‘This document is an original’ and sign the thing; he just could see why and refused. We explained that it’s requirement of our travel insurance company; but this just wasn’t sinking in. It took us probably half an hour of persistence before he relented and wrote in child-like script ‘Este documentivo es original’. Great. Thanks.
We left and found some gringo restaurant to get some lunch. We hadn’t eaten since dinner and it was 2pm or something. We looked around us; all over there were foreigners with massive daypacks, loaded to the brim with goodies; cameras; bum-bags; neck-slung wallets. So why us? There seemed to be some many better targets. We’d been unlucky that we had absolutely all our luggage with us, but thankfully they’d just ignored that. We’d been in this travel game for a while now. Ecuador was the 40th country we’d visited. How could we be such obvious targets. We discussed so many different ways to improve our personal security, it bordered on the ridiculous at points, but we at least established a strategy of dispersment and separation. Separate valuables, cards and cash, and only carry the absolute cash needed for the exercise. That way, if this ever happens again, we could simply throw down a wallet full of a small amount of cash, and that’s all.
To make matters more complicated, the slicky-wingnut tourist cop had written ‘Austria’ as our country. This needed to be changed. So back we went and an hour and a half later, after again explaining the hand-written clause we needed at the bottom, we had a police report that for all intents and purposes was correct. We were really tired.
We got back to the hostel, ran to the front door and got a few hours of sleep. We understood before arriving in Quito that you didn’t go out at night so we dined that night on Doritos and beer before getting an early night. We had our spirits lifted by conversation with another couple, at least now we had a pretty sweet story to tell.
And so then, what about Quito? Well it’s perched up high in the Andes at nearly 3000m, tucked into a valley and surrounded by green mountains and blue skies. A really beautiful setting. It’s related to Cusco in that it was ruled by one of the two rival Incan brothers Atahualpa; who inevitably defeated his brother Huascar in Cusco. The old town is littered with streets lined closely with colonial style buildings; broad shop fronts at ground level and narrow balconies and shutters up top, framed and painted with pastel colours. These streets wind and twist around the hills, occasionally dotted with plazas and cathedrals. The Plaza Grande is typically beautiful, lined with government buildings and for a change, palm trees. Nearby is the beautiful San Francisco Monestry and plaza, nuns in brown robes lick ice-creams and tourists with giant SLR’s snap away (why!!). Looking over the city from a nearby El Panecillo hill is an angelic statue. The second outlined danger in the LP guide. ‘Don’t climb up El Panecillo hill’. And we’d heard first hand from a German couple who did and at knife point, surrendered $200 odd US dollars. We scooted around the Old Town, feeling nervous the whole time, exacerbated by a drunken attempt to retrieve a lip-smacker out of Rebeccas pocket. What WAS going on in this town? We had to get out.
The next day we took a tour to the town of Otavalo, famous for it’s Saturday market. On the way out we took in some fabulous views across the Alps to Cotopaxi, the poignant Ecuadorian volcano. Some two hours later we rolled into Otavalo and wandered through the animal market. Farmers and traders from all over, brought in their best wares and gathered in a large public space to sell and trade with others. Chickens in baskets placed next to their freshly butchered brethren. Cats and puppies crowded together in baskets. Guinea pigs, rabbits, sheep, llamas, cows, horses. The RSPCA would have a field day. At-top a small ridge, if the pigs had glanced up they might have seen their human counter-parts feasting on a head of their own. ‘Not surprising’ I thought.. had the events of the past few days made us bitter and angry. Yeah, a bit. I suppose it could happen everywhere but we were due to fly out in the next few days and there wasn’t the slightest inkling that we wanted to ever come back to Ecuador. Tarnished? Yes.
We got to the Saturday market. It was a huge affair of what we were told were indigenous arts and crafts. Looked more like the stock standard fare from China. Bitter and Cynical? Yep. Still, it was colourful, bustling and a nice experience. We met some great people from the group. Shared a coffee with a Canadian police-officer, soon to meet with her mum for a trip around Peru before she commenced a placement with a UN Peace-keepers in the Ivory Coast. Serious stuff. On the way back we took in a nice little town selling a variety of leather goods and an otherwise unremarkable waterfall.
Back in town we reviewed our next stop. Bogota, Colombia. Arguably one of the worlds most dangerous cities. Added to that, the hostel we’d booked was right in the zone of hostels that had recently been victim of armed invasion, assault, and robbery of it’s guests. We decided it best to stay in a classier neighbourhood, and make a single day-trip to the infamous La Candeleria zone.
We’d become paranoid, perhaps it was a good thing, perhaps it would help us keep our wits, grow stronger, develop a street-wise flavor most Westerners don’t have. Maybe it would make us mistrusting of people, less friendly, hardened. Perhaps that’s what you need in order to travel here. Perhaps we’d better get onto making that happen. We resolved to keep an educated, informed and cautious, yet not restrictive approach to our decision making, and to not be alarmed. Simply be aware.
We left Ecuador early, 3:30am. Our private, organised taxi was nice and early, we ran outside into the street-light, threw our bags in the back quickly and slammed the doors shut. The driver insisted that I sit in the front, so as to appear less like a taxi carrying tourists to would-be thieves. The streets were dead quiet. A scary kind of quiet. We were glad to be leaving. And it felt like Quito was glad we were leaving too.