Tips based on a 10 night trip, using local transportation, in 3 Ecuadorean cities: Cuenca, Otavalo and Quito.
For all I know, Ecuador is completely safe, and rumors of the danger there are equivalent to the outdated ideas people have about safety in New York. But, after reading multiple forum posts from recent travelers about knife-point robberies in broad daylight in the cities I would be visiting, I began to consider security issues beyond the usual concerns of a woman traveling alone.
As the plane began its descent into Guayaquil, the women around me began stuffing money into their bras. Normally, I would be doing the same, but I already had my money separated into 3 places and was only taking a cab 2 kilometers from the airport to my hotel. Most of my money and credit cards were in my money belt; small bills to pay the cab and tip in the hotel were in my jeans pocket, and $40 was in the tiny jeans “watch” pocket to hand any knife-point robbers lurking in the airport.
The camera debate. Normally, I refuse to live in fear, and I bring my digital SLR. Even if it will be stashed in a camera bag in my day pack until ready for use. After reading the repeated reports of knife-point robberies, I decided this was a good trip for my Canon G11. A step above a point and shoot, it also takes decent video. My lenses tend to attract a lot of attention and I wanted to fly under the radar. I did see a few people wandering around with SLRs in Quito – and I wasn’t the only one noticing them!
If this was a Galapagos trip, of course I would bring my SLR, but the majority of that type of trip would be spent on isolated islands. For the purposes of this trip, I really didn’t miss it.
Luggage. Due to numerous reports of travelers having items pilfered from bags stashed under buses, experts on Lonely Planet suggest placing backpacks in feed sacks to disguise them. This might work if everyone in the terminal didn’t see the traveler approaching the bus dragging the feed sack. Instead, I selected the oldest, most beat-up bag in my collection; the original TravelPro rollaboard that I had to buy after the 1st time I a flight attendant pulling one. It doesn’t expand, and all the zipper pulls are MIA, but it looked just like all the bags the locals were checking.
Daypack. Never worn on the back – I wear it with one strap over on one shoulder with the bag cradled below my elbow. The zippers are all closed with the tabs closest to my body. Except for the items in my moneybelt, everything of value is in this bag so I am vigilant about protecting it.
Clothing selection. Jeans, black jeans, grey jeans. Black sneakers and 1 pair of black Toms. Dark T-shirts with some percentage synthetic fibers for faster drying at high altitude. Fleece and a black rain jacket that I only wore once (as a safe; more about that later). Black plastic watch, silver bracelet and 1 pair of silver hoop earrings. Dressed like this, I resembled 80% of the Ecuadorean women who weren’t in traditional garb, except they tend to wear gold earrings. Ecuadoreans in suits were asking me for directions in Quito, so clearly I looked local, despite being tall, curly and very white.
Day bag. Normally, my Crumpler messenger-looking camera bag acts as my day bag. My sunglasses, PDA, and camera fit easily. Larger $ and a credit card, plus a copy of my passport go into an inaccessible inside pocket. Since I wasn’t bringing my “real” camera, I brought an old, tan nylon handbag with a long strap that goes across the chest and over the shoulder. There was rarely money in this bag – just enough to hand a knife-wielding thief if necessary.
Small Money – Big Money:
Most travelers to destinations considered dodgy do this naturally. The small money needed to get around for a day is in an easily accessible pocket. Larger bills for shopping or emergencies are usually in an inaccessible pocket in my camera bag. Since I didn’t have the camera bag, I had money in 3 places; small bills in the jeans pocket; a couple of $20s in the little jean “watch” pocket and another $60-80 in my bra if I planned on shopping at some point in the day.
When in transit between cities, my major money, passport and credit cards were in my money belt. Otherwise, these items were locked in the room safe and I carried a copy of the passport only.
I only needed to withdraw money from an ATM once during the trip. An ATM inside a bank is always preferable, but I ended up using a machine that was in a vestibule next to a bank. In Otavalo, probably the safest of the towns I visited, I wore my raincoat/safe to the ATM; stashed the money in the inside zippered pocket of the raincoat, and returned to the hotel with the ATM card and large sum of money before going back out for the evening.
All 4 hotels I chose were very safe and secure. Only 1 didn’t have a room safe and I locked valuables in my hard sided rollaboard.
Upon arrival at each hotel, I asked the women at the front desk about the neighborhood, and specific areas to avoid. Imagine my shock when one of the family members at the hotel in Cuenca told me it was not safe to be on the street at all after dark; and that in most cases I wasn’t safe walking around during the day! Since this hotel did not have a restaurant, they had no incentive to keep me inside. Makes me wonder why International Living is heavily marketing Cuenca as the best destination for American retirees.
Another concern I had after reading reports of it was theft when waiting for the cab to the airport in front of my Quito hotel at 6:50am. A couple of days before I was due to leave, I asked to have someone at the hotel wait with me until the cab arrived. Mario, the owner, ended up coming in a little early to help me find a cab. Good thing because it took at least 10 minutes and I could have been standing on the street, alone with everything I owned.
One of the most common issue I read about before my trip was the prevalence of bag slashing while on buses. Typically on Mexican buses, my day pack is at my feet, with a leg through the strap and I’ve never had any problems or issues. From everything I read on the Lonely Planet forum and on some pretty sophisticated travelers’ blogs; in Ecuador, people crawl under the bus seats and slash day packs that travelers mistakenly assume are safer at their feet.
In the weeks leading up to my trip, I was dreading a 4 hour bus ride from Guayaquil to Cuenca with the heavy daypack on my lap. Once I boarded the bus I relaxed. The seatback almost reached the ground and only the tiniest child’s arm could fit under the seat. It was unlikely anyone could reach my bag, let alone slash it and remove items. I really doubted the 2 elderly ladies in the seat behind presented much risk; and I could see the top of the head of the woman in front of me.
On the most likely to be robbed bus in Ecuador – the one from Quito to the Otavalo, the site of the touristy textile market, I also was surrounded by nice, older ladies who were not diving under any bus seats. I ended up in the front seat of the bus – with the bag in front of me against a barrier.
In Quito, given a choice between slow moving cabs sitting in traffic behind smoke belching buses – or riding on the crowded trolley, I opted for the trolley. Even mid-morning, the trolley was more packed than the NYC subway at rush hour and it presented some security issues. Like at home – or on the pickpocket-rife Paris metro, I did my best to be up against something like a wall or pole, so that I only had to worry who was approaching from the front.
On the Street:
I never felt in danger, but there were a couple of times in Quito where my street sense told me the person behind me could be following. In both cases, I slowed to look in store windows, so that they had to pass. In one instance, a man working a newsstand noticed what I was doing, and motioned for me to hang out with him.
On my final day in Quito, I was taking one last walk around Plaza San Francisco at about 5pm (with police everywhere) when a somewhat menacing looking man held out his hand, as if he wanted me to give him my money – but not in a panhandling way. Without thinking, I said “no gracias” and headed toward my hotel across the street. I turned to look to see if he was following, but the man was running to catch a bus.
When I arrived back in NYC, it hit me that I managed to survive 10 nights in Ecuador without being robbed! It is sort of twisted to even think this way, and to be slightly proud of returning from a so-called dangerous country unscathed. Did my arrangements to stay safe make a difference? I like to think that the danger is overblown and outdated, but I suggest travelers stay vigilant and adapt measures to keep themselves safe anywhere they go.