Latin America on a budget: Quito, Ecuador

Old cities are at their most pure and honest in the early morning. Before the crowds draw out to transform the peace with the trappings of modern existence, an old city seems frozen in time. Wandering through Quito in the morning feels like visiting an old stranger’s house with no one home. I inspect the pictures and look in rooms, attempting to solve the riddles my mind creates. It is lonely and haunting. Morning clouds drift though the damp cobbled streets as Indian women in black felt hats and red scarves set up their hawking stations for the day – selling loteria tickets and cigarettes and gum. Footsteps of an unseen Ecuadorian echo out across a square, and a faint motorbike exhaust burns off towards the mountains that hold Quito like a bowl. Church Bells ring and just beyond their noise, dawn fades.

Quito is certainly an old city. Originally settled thousands of years ago, many speculate that Quito is the oldest city in the western hemisphere. The Quitu tribe of the Incan civilization settled this valley between towering mountain ranges and volcanoes thousands of years before conquistadors ever set foot in South America. They built a stronghold and the Quitu kingdom prospered. When the Spaniards arrived, the Quitu decided their city would be wasted on the invaders. Led by the Incan warrior Rumiñahui, the Quitu threw their treasures into a volcano, killed the temple virgins, and burned the city to the ground.

Lucky for me, I was not an arriving conquistador. The city welcomed me into the cool night with open arms. Arriving by plane from Atlanta at midnight, I gasped a little for air as I exited the airport. The altitude is immediately evident, and my pack felt a measure heavier. At almost 10,000 feet into the clouds, Quito is the second highest capital city in the world. Locals chew coca leaves to mitigate the effects of altitude.

At this late hour, I was too tired to hassle with the cheap but efficient bus system. At about $.25 to the tourist zone from the airport, it is a great bargain. The buses marked J.L. Mera head to this popular zone, known most commonly as La Mariscal. Mariscal is occasionally called “gringolandia” or La Zona as well. It is where many foreigners find lodging and go out for drinks. It is a place of late night laughter and Salsotecas.

The seriousness and desperation of a cab driver follows a significant correlation with time of day. In the morning, a crooked smile and casual banter, but at the dead hour of midnight, these cabbies pleaded for a customer with nervous eye contact. I was someone’s last shot at the $5 fare back into town. I found a young driver that appeared to speak English, and we sped away into the empty night.

City districts
Quito is separated into several districts. Some of the most notable are Mariscal, Centro Historico (Old Town), and Norte de Quito (New Town). Mariscal is located in central Quito with Old Town to the south and New Town to the north. Mariscal plays hosts to many visitors and expats. The bar and club scene is very lively in Mariscal and hums into the night while the rest of Quito sleeps. Centro Historico or Old town is the southern part of Quito and is filled with gorgeous Spanish colonial architecture and narrow cobbled lanes. For day time strolls though history, Centro Historico is the place to explore. New Town in the north is an area of green parks and modern office buildings.

Where to stay and Nightlife
The best lodging options are found in La Mariscal and Centro Historico. Since this series is titled “Latin America on a budget,” and I was limited to a $150 budget during my weekend stay, I found a quaint hostel in Centro Historico – Hostal Quito Cultural. It is a quiet colonial hostel with a beautiful courtyard and rooftop views overlooking a stretch of Old Quito gradually fading into the hills. The nightly rate is $20 for a private room with shower. This includes a breakfast of tea, fresh fruit juice, tasty Ecuadorian bread, and an omlette. The beds are comfortable enough, but the pillows are similar to the Ecuadorian flat bread served with breakfast. My pillow had a deathly appearance – flattened with no life left. It was more a suggestion of a pillow than an actual comfort device.

My principal gripe with the Centro Historico district is its nightlife. There isn’t any. For those that want to stay close to the nightlife scene, Mariscal is the place to lay your head. The Mariscal bars and clubs pulse with energy. The sounds of Cumbia jousts with the rhymes of Lil Wayne and the night air fills with a cultural soundclash. Some of the more popular dance clubs are Bungalow 6 and Seseribo. The latter is a great place to get aquainted with the term Salsoteca.

Getting around Quito is very cheap by cab and even cheaper by bus. Cabs are measureably safer, especially if traveling with luggage or anything of value. Buses are a notorious stage for theft in Ecuador, and most cab rides only cost a few dollars. However, for those freewheeling around without valuables, the extensive bus network will suit the traveler fine.

Ecuadorian cuisine is tasty, affordable, and quick. Whether grabbing a bite at a street stall or in a sit down restaurant, it is easy to have a feast on a budget. Since I fancy myself a bit of a gourmand, I always budget a significant portion of my funds to eating. In this department, Ecuador did not disappoint and hardly put an dent in my funds.

Empanadas are stuffed with beef or delicous cheeses and served steaming in a crispy shell. Spicy soups are served as an intense first course, opening up the sinuses for the feast to follow. Crispy Guinea Pigs are blackened over fires on spits. Potatoes are ubiquitous; chicken is dark and flavorful.

For a sit down dinner, I ate at Cafe del Teatro on a square open plaza. I ordered a spicy onion and tomato based soup, cheese empanadas, corn tortillas, and half a chicken for under $6. My stomach did not so much as hesitate with its regular function and everything was delicious.

Street stalls serve some of the best food in Ecuador. The center of the Quito street food universe is Mercado Central where stalls line up and serve regional delights for a few dollars or less a serving. Locro de Papa is an excellent introductory Ecuadorian soup with potato, cheese, and avodcado. I highly suggest grabbing a bowl of this to build faith in the Quito street market enterprise. From there you can gnaw on a guinea pig or sample fritada – fried pork. The market is open from morning into the late afternoon.

Quito has a number of great museums though just walking around the “Old Town” is free and provides a worthy museum experience. Some of the better Quito museums are La Capilla Del Hombre, Museo del Banco Central, and just north of Quito at the equator, Museo de la Cultura Solar. La Capilla del Hombre houses the largest collection of art by master Guayasamin.

Like any large Latin American city, Quito is home to a fair number of thieves. In fact, on my last day in Quito, I was mugged for my camera in a heist that involved a bucket of feces.

Before heading to Quito, read my primer on the top ten types of travel theft. If any sort of theft takes place, find a police officer and file a report. Definitely purchase insurance if travling with a large DSLR camera or other valuables. Almost all types of travel theft are of the nonviolent variety and 99% can be avoided by just traveling smart.

At night, it is wise to always take cabs, espeically around Centro Historico.

Getting there
Quito is five hour flight from Atlanta on Delta Air Lines. Quito is also serviced on American Airlines from Miami and Continental Airlines from Houston.

U.S. dollars are the principal currency though centavo coins are also printed by the Ecuadorian government and used for small transactions.

My budget
On a tight budget, opportunity cost plays a prominent role. With $150 to spend over an entire weekend, I was forced to govern my choices based on the utility each opportunity would likely provide. Luckily, Quito is not a huge tourist destination and getting by on a budget was extrememly easy. I spent $20 per night on my hostel with a private room. My most expensive meal was $6, and it was a legendary spread befitting royalty. My other meals all cost under $4. Prices for food are more expensive in La Mariscal and cheaper in Centro Historico. I brought Clif Bars with me for mid-day snacks. Beers were a dollar at my hostel. I drank a few ice cold Pilseners in a rooftop hammock that overlooked Quito at night. Relaxing, but hardly expensive.

Cabs are also inexpensive. The cost to or from the airport is $5. Most fares around town are just a few dollars as well. It is very refreshing to pay a $1 cab fare.

I decided not to spend any money on museums and planned to climb a nearby volcano on the day I was robbed. Instead of paying a cab driver to chaeuffer me to the volcano at the edge of Quito, I spent the afternoon sitting in a police station feigning pleasantries with policia while covered in shit. The dynamism of travel is readily evident when best laid plans are burst asunder for unknowns.

I spent a little over half of my budget on my affairs in Quito – $86. I blew the remainder on a stuffed Alpaca made with real Alpaca fur for my fiance. At the end of the day, it is all about priorities. The best travels are those without any.

Hungry for more budget travel ideas? Be sure to check out Gadling’s budget travel archive.