Latin America on a budget: Quito, Ecuador

budget quito 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.

budget quito

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.

budget quito

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
budget quito 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.

Transportation
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.

Food
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.

budget quito 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.

Museums
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.

Safety
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.

budget quito 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.

Currency
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.

budget quito

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.

Delta accused of making business decision for bad reason [RETALIATION]

DeltaI love the Business Travel Coalition. I really do. I see a press release from this organization in my inbox, and I start to smile. It’s like reading Business Insider headlines without stopping to think that they may be click-bait (not that I’m ever guilty of that, of course …). Well, the latest is downright hilarious. If you hate Delta, you’ll love the Business Travel Coalition.

In its latest statement, the BTC draws attention to a “predatory” move by Delta. In response to Frontier Airlines’ decision to open a route from Minneapolis to Kansas City, it says, the largest airline in the United States has pulled the trigger on routes from Kansas City to Boston, Columbus and New Orleans. According to the BTC, that’s some heavy-duty payback, intended to help Delta “maintain its monopoly position at Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport.”

Ummmmm, really? It’s a pretty costly “retaliation” play.

Of course, Delta couldn’t have come up with this idea on its own. The BTC explains:

This is a page from Northwest Airlines’ playbook reminiscent of its 1993 response to entry by tiny Reno Air when Northwest announced it would overlay the carrier’s routes from Reno to MSP, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Yeah, of course it is. The people with aluminum foil on their heads and hanging from their ceilings are doubtless nodding in violent agreement right now. Fortunately, it gets better when you hear what BTC chairman Kevin Mitchell has to say about all this:

“As we saw in the U.S. during the 1990s, strategies of predation seek to drive low-cost competitors out of markets and create barriers – literal barriers of fear – for potential new entrants. Consumers may benefit from below-cost pricing in the short term, but once a new entrant is driven from a market, the incumbent airline can raise prices above competitive levels and recoup the “investment” in its strategy of predation.”

As the ol’ infomercial folks say, “But wait! There’s more!”

“Just as importantly, the anticompetitive behavior sends an unmistakable message to other competitors to not trespass on the incumbent’s markets anywhere in its network, negatively impacting consumers even more broadly. Make no mistake, Delta’s heavy-handed, punitive attack on this low-cost carrier is meant to chill all other low-cost airlines that might otherwise try to mount competition at one of the most concentrated hub airports in the U.S.,” added Mitchell.

Look, the BTC may have a point in all this. It won’t be communicated effectively, though, if they take this approach. In case you need a chuckle, here’s the full statement. First, though, you need a break, largely because these people are so bat-shit crazy. So, to break this up, I offer you some singing skeletons from Canada.l


Okay, now here’s the statement:

It’s deja vu all over again as Delta Air Lines seeks to maintain its monopoly position at Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport (MSP) by retaliating against Frontier Airlines for deciding to initiate scheduled service from Kansas City to MSP on June 6, 2011. In a response that can only be considered retaliatory and anticompetitive, Delta beginning on June 6 will start flights from Kansas City to Boston, Columbus and New Orleans, and from Omaha to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport – all overlaying Frontier’s schedules. This is a page from Northwest Airlines’ playbook reminiscent of its 1993 response to entry by tiny Reno Air when Northwest announced it would overlay the carrier’s routes from Reno to MSP, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Diego.

“As we saw in the U.S. during the 1990s, strategies of predation seek to drive low-cost competitors out of markets and create barriers – literal barriers of fear – for potential new entrants. Consumers may benefit from below-cost pricing in the short term, but once a new entrant is driven from a market, the incumbent airline can raise prices above competitive levels and recoup the “investment” in its strategy of predation,” said Business Travel Coalition chairman Kevin Mitchell.

“Just as importantly, the anticompetitive behavior sends an unmistakable message to other competitors to not trespass on the incumbent’s markets anywhere in its network, negatively impacting consumers even more broadly. Make no mistake, Delta’s heavy-handed, punitive attack on this low-cost carrier is meant to chill all other low-cost airlines that might otherwise try to mount competition at one of the most concentrated hub airports in the U.S.,” added Mitchell.

In 2008 testimony before the U.S. Senate and House, in opposition to the proposed Northwest – Delta merger, BTC forewarned about the consequences of creating mega carriers and driving radical consolidation of the U.S. marketplace for commercial aviation services:

Strategies of Predation. “The resulting mega carriers would fortify their hubs with near-exclusive contracts with corporations and travel management companies, and other well-tested practices such as gate hoarding, schedule bracketing, triple frequent flyer points and travel agency override programs, making the barriers-to-entry for low-cost carriers of the 1990s seem low. Congress should be concerned with the market power of super-mega airlines and their incentive and means to frustrate new airline entry at hub airports.”

Indeed, the Delta-Northwest merger created the largest airline in the world; one that possesses the market dominance necessary to frustrate new entry at its hub airports, and one that can project its considerable power into adjacent markets, as also noted in BTC’s 2008 testimony:

Adjacent Market Power. “Congress should be concerned with these mega carriers’ ability to drive supplier prices to below competitive rates for travel agencies, travel management companies, airports, global distribution systems, parts suppliers, caterers and all manner of supply chain participants. Likewise, these carriers would have the power to accelerate the transfer of costs onto the backs of consumers.”

Delta’s move against Frontier adds further evidence and warning that the U.S. commercial aviation market is failing. Indeed, some two and one half years into the widespread implementation of programs that unbundle airline services from the base ticket, market forces are inadequate to drive airlines to make fee information available to the travel agency sales channel. As a consequence, not only were many consumers surprised at the airport by some $9.2 billion in airline fees in 2010, but because those fees are withheld from travel agencies and cloaked from the pricing discipline of a comparative shopping process, they are artificially high. This resulting economic inefficiency is a strong indication of market failure and cause for concern.

The U.S. Department of Justice and State Attorneys General should be on high alert to the return of strategies of predation and other anti-competitive practices in the airline industry. As serious as predation was in the 1990s as a threat to consumers and the competitive structure of the airline industry, today consolidation has made potential consequences worse by orders of magnitude. The U.S. DOJ and State AGs should send an equally unmistakable message back to Delta that it is being watched and that abusive, anticompetitive behavior in the airline industry will not be tolerated. Business travelers and consumers have been pummeled by a series of airfare increases, many of them hidden, over the last few years. They need — and deserve — more airline competition and not the return of old tricks of the past that are designed to kill it.

[photo by Rainer Ebert via Flickr]

Delta airlines puts elderly woman on wrong flight due to boarding pass mix-up

Delta elderly womanIn a Top 10 of phone calls you probably don’t want to receive from an airport official: “Your grandmother was found in baggage claim.”

Eighty-year-old Nefissa Yesuf’s Sunday Atlanta to Dulles flight didn’t go quite as planned. CNN reports that airline and airport staff failed to notice that a Delta employee had allegedly given her someone else’s boarding pass by mistake. Yesuf, who is from Ethiopia and doesn’t speak English, instead ending up landing in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Yusef’s granddaughter, Melika Adem, says she received a call from the airport telling her Yusef had been found in baggage claim, crying. According to Adem, Delta gave her grandmother someone else’s ticket, and an airline employee then wheeled her through security, where no one caught the snafu. Adem also states that the name on Yusef’s boarding pass wasn’t even “close” to her grandmother’s. Fortunately, the two women were reunited Sunday evening.

The incident is under investigation by both Delta and the TSA. TSA officers are required to match boarding passes with a passenger’s driver’s license, passport, or other photo identification. Says TSA representative Greg Soule,”Every day TSA screens nearly two million passengers and utilizes many layers of security to keep our nation’s transportation systems secure,” he said. “Every passenger passes through multiple layers of security to include thorough screening at the checkpoint.”

[Photo credit: Flickr user kappuru]

Delta plane engine breaks apart over Port Everglades

A Delta plane heading to Minneapolis had to abort its journey from Fort Lauderdale- Hollywood International Airport today as one of the plane’s engines broke apart in the air.

Pieces of the engine from the plane fell over Port Everglades where they are being recovered by investigators from the Broward Sheriff’s Department after the 7:30am attempt to take off. The plane quickly returned to the airport, making an emergency landing with no injuries reported.

Photo: Delta Airlines

Breaking: Delta Air Lines to add Seattle’s Best Coffee

DeltaYou don’t have to fly first-class to get the best coffee on Delta Air Lines. Starting March 1st, Delta’s brand will be Seattles Best Coffee. That might not sound like a really big deal but it took a lot of work to make that happen.

Coffee is best when brewed with water that is 197 degrees, just shy of boiling. The problem with brewing coffee in flight (you were right, there was a problem) is that at 30,000 feet, the altitude affects barometric pressure and how hot water reacts to coffee. Enter the Green Coffee Quality Team at Seattles Best Coffee.

Coffee expert Kim Giroir from Seattles Best quality team told Gadling they experimented with a bunch of different blends and finally came up with what they call “Level 4” coffee that is just right for brewing in the sky.

When Seattle’s Best says they want to “bring great coffee everywhere” that’s not just a slogan. Back at the Research and Development labs at Seattles Best, they brewed test blends in a barometric chamber, mimicing the conditions of brewing in the air.

It’s been a meticulously tedious process finding the right blend but taste tests in November had all the cabin crew buzzing about the new coffee. That’s nothing new to the coffee company that relaunched it’s brand at Starbucks headquarters in May.

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Seattle’s Best thinks they have come up with the perfect cup of coffee, no matter where it is served. A big hit on Royal Caribbean cruise ships, it just made sense to take to the air too.

Delta is no stranger to fine cuisine either, taking in-flight dining seriously for quite some time now, especially in their BusinessElite product.

As the official airline of the Food Network New York Wine and Food Festival, Delta Air Lines brought along its roster of six consulting chefs to venues throughout the event.

In 2006, Delta revealed an on-board menu created by celerity chef Michelle Bernstein. As Delta’s consulting chef, Bernstein designed entrees and side dishes which became part of Delta’s continued effort to enhance its BusinessElite product, creating a more inviting and entertaining experience.

In 2007, Delta tapped top chef Todd English to create selections for its food-for-purchase menu being developed for customers flying in its Coach Class on flights within the United States.

“The back of the plane is where the real challenge is,” said English, adding that he plans to help Delta devise business-class meals in the future.

In 2009 hand-served entrees and signature dishes created by Miami celebrity chef Michele Bernstein and master sommelier Andrea Robinson, expanded dessert options and improved Japanese meal options created by Delta’s flight kitchen in Tokyo.

After all that, a good cup of coffee just made sense.