Visiting Quito was never really on my radar.
But taking a trip to the Galapagos? Hell yes! Those bastions of biodiversity been on my Travel Dream List for pretty much as long as I can remember, and definitely for as long as I’ve been traveling.
My recent visit to Ecuador’s second city was tacked on before and after my Galapagos trip, and absolutely full of surprises… probably due in large part to the fact that I spent the majority of my pre-trip research
googling cute sea lion photos focusing entirely on Galapagos preparation.
9 Things I Wish I Knew Before Visiting Quito, Ecuador
1. Vegetarian food is harder to find in Quito’s Centro Historico…
But not impossible.
At first, I was starting to regret my decision to stay in the Centro Historico versus Mariscal.
Why? It’s all about food, as usual (for me). Mariscal is the “tourist” neighborhood, and absolutely bursting with vegetarian options, including a few all-vegetarian and all-vegan restaurants. In fact, El Maple in Mariscal became one of my favorite vegetarian restaurants ANYWHERE in the world. I could eat there every day… and I mostly did!
After a bit of searching (and asking) I did find a few great places in Centro Historico that offer vegetarian options, but at “regular” restaurants, and strangely enough most were hotel restaurants.
2. Traffic is pretty bad in Quito…
Especially at peak hours and around the historic center.
In fact, some tour operators don’t work with certain hotels due to the difficulty of drop-offs and pick-ups in the Historic Center.
I stayed in the Historic Center (twice, both before and after my Galapagos trip), and while it took me a while in any cab coming back from Mariscal, even at night, the cost was always under $5.
3. Street harassment in Quito is pretty much zero…
Especially around the Historic Center.
I’m a seasoned street harassment receiver (this makes me feel sad and deflated just writing it, but it’s true). I lived in Rio de Janeiro for a year and a half, which might as well be enough said right there.
I’ve also traveled around Latin America extensively (most of it solo), and have come to expect to be wolf-whistled, leered at, and bothered on occasion when I venture into public alone.
Quito was a very welcome anomaly in that respect. I never once got hassled or harassed in the Historic Center. Not even once!
BUT, every time I was passing around Plaza Foch (which was a lot – my favorite restaurant is nearby), I was catcalled and propositioned and felt transported in time back to Rio. The lewdness and aggressiveness increased as evening approached. If you’re not into street harassment, stay in the Centro Historico and avoid Plaza Foch, especially at night.
4. Quito is friendly to non-Spanish speakers…
Especially in the the tourism industry.
So many people I encountered spoke IMPECCABLE English. My tour guide Dolores from Metropolitan Touring and ALL of the staff at Hotel Carlota and Casa Gangotena were incredibly impressive in their language skills (and most spoke a few other languages, too!)
When I got the nerve to ask a particularly American-sounding volunteer at the walking tour if she’d ever lived in the US because her accent was so spot-on, she told me that she’d only studied English in high school, she just practiced a lot and watched a LOT of “Friends”… which made me laugh, because that’s exactly how my husband learned, too!
While a lot of Latin America is pretty difficult to travel through without at least basic Spanish skills, I found that in Quito they really weren’t necessary. I’m definitely an advocate for learning Spanish BEFORE visiting Latin America, though, because it’s an awesome place to practice and it will really deepen your experience. That being said, Quito could be a perfect place to “get your feet wet” using your Spanish skills abroad, as there’s always someone around who can help you out in English.
5. The entire city of Quito is a World Heritage Site…
The UNESCO World Heritage website highlights the combination of indigenous and European art (specifically “Quiteno” style Baroque art, architecture, and sculpture), along with the unique combination of natural and man-made features of the city, as reasons for preservation.
The beautiful historic buildings are impossible to escape in the Historic Center of Quito — everywhere you turn, another appears. Recent rejuvenated interest in preserving historic homes means tourists can even stay in a little piece of Quiteno history during their visit (Hotel Carlota and Casa Gangotena are two of my favorite examples).
6. The Quito airport is pretty far from the city center…
And quite pricey to get to or from.
Though an hour’s drive in a taxi for around $30 isn’t exactly a crime, it is definitely more than I’d want to pay. The airport is quite far from the center of Quito, and the regular taxi price reflects that.
When I visited, the airport pickup and hotel drop-off (and vice versa) was less than $10 with a shared transfer on Viator! I see now that the prices have increased, but keep an eye on it to try and score a similar deal for your Quito arrival transfer.
If you don’t get a sweet deal on Viator, there are also shared and private shuttles you can book on arrival that are cheaper than taxis. The airport “Information” desk can help you out.
7. I felt surprisingly safe in Quito…
Despite the pretty negative stories I’d read online.
Every single blog article I used for research before visiting Quito painted a pretty bleak picture of the city, emphasizing the risk of pickpocketing and even express kidnappings. My husband, an international security consultant, also warned me of the risks and reminded me of safety precautions.
Needless to say, I was pretty nervous on my way to Quito. But I was VERY pleasantly surprised – I didn’t get ANY of those dangerous vibes (and it’s not because I’m naive, I’m well-versed in feeling unsafe).
I did maintain normal safety standards — including carrying a slash-proof, theft-preventing purse, keeping my passport in a safe, not wearing valuables, and not drinking excessively or walking alone in empty streets at night — but I was honestly shocked by how safe I felt, especially considering I’d ramped myself up for a scary experience.
I hung out in the Mariscal and Historic neighborhoods the vast majority of my time, and I can highly recommend both as safe for solo female travelers. The area in between can apparently be a bit sketchy in places, so instead of walking (my normal preference), I did take a radio cab (called by a restaurant or hotel).
8. Quito (and Ecuador in general) uses American dollars for everything…
And the $1 denomination isn’t a bill, it’s a Sacagewa coin!
As a kid, I super excited any time I would get a GOLD(colored) Sacagewa coin. I remember seeing advertisements for the coin on cereal boxes and TV, and feeling SOOOO cool to have a few. Receiving one as change in a routine transaction felt like winning the lottery!
The coins were extra interesting to me because I learned about my supposed (and genetic-testing-proved false) Native American heritage as a child, and my mom had Native cultural items, but I never saw Native people recognized on TV or in general society aside from the Disney movie Pocahontas. Seeing a Native woman on something as cool as a gold coin felt very important.
Childhood memories are weird, and when they come back they’re strong. Every time I received a Sacagewa coin as change in Quito, I felt a little surge of excitement, just as I did as a child.
9. Quito is a worthy destination in itself…
Not just as a Galapagos stopover for a night.
I was lucky enough to spend not one, not two, but FIVE nights total in Quito. I felt like I was just brushing the surface, and I could have spent so much more time there, especially because the vegetarian food was just SO surprisingly good!
Taking the Quito Tour Bus one of the days was an awesome and time-effective way to make sure I saw all of the highlights.
If I could go back, I would try to work in day trips to Otavalo Market, the Quilotoa Lagoon, the Mindo Cloud Forest, and Cotopaxi. There’s just SO much to do and see around Quito!
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Great to find you loved my city! Hope to see you around sometime in the future …
Quito was amazing! It is definitely one of my favorite cities of all time… I especially loved the food! So many vegetarian options! 🙂
I see that you lived in Bangkok at one point during your journeys. I currently live here and am getting a bit fed up with the pollution and overall hustle and bustle of the mega city. I would like to hear your opinions on the differences between the two Quito and Bangkok and what you did/didn’t like about Bangkok while you were there. Thanks for the great article!
I haven’t lived in Quito, so I don’t really feel able to compare the two as places to live… I think living in a place and visiting it are two VERY different experiences. As far as Bangkok, though, I’ve written up all the pros and cons I can think of about my experience in Bangkok here.