As an expat who has lived in Quito for around ten years, the recent article in the New York Times listing Quito as one of five destinations that call for caution is disturbing.
After many passionate conversations with expats during the last few weeks, here are a couple of things to consider about the article, its source, and what wasn´t mentioned about the capital of Ecuador.
The article quotes the Safe Cities Index, a report compiled by the staff of the Economist and a panel of experts who use Digital Security, Health Security, Infrastructure Security, and Personal Security at criteria for ranking the best and worst cities around the world. Quito is new to the 2017 report and ranks low on the list.
The report uses data from 2016, and after reading the fine print about its sources, I came up with this disclaimer.
“Where available, the data used is city-specific; otherwise, proxies using regional or national data were used instead.”
This is an important disclosure, as the factors that the NYT article mentions about Quito include taxi kidnappings in the city- which have been on the decline to the point of not hearing about it happening in recent memory. It also sheds light on the capital’s low ratings in general.
Ecuador was hit by a devastating earthquake in 2016, and the “Infrastructure Security,” section takes natural disasters into account. Quito was not majorly affected by the quakes and their aftershocks-as opposed to the coast where most of the areas hit are still struggling to get on their feet.
Prior to the quake, the government here earmarked and invested millions of dollars into the infrastructure of the country.
A new international airport opened in Quito in 2013. Presently a new subway in underway that is expected to be completed in the coming year, many of the areas that would be suspect to explore before have been revitalized, and places including the former airport and bus stations have been repurposed for the public. Convention spaces, exercise facilities, public pools, and community gathering centers have taken the place of dodgy areas that guidebooks previously called “at risk” zones. Quito is a city on the move.
“Express Kidnappings” have been an issue in the past-I personally used to keep a list of safe drivers for friends and travelers that were shared with hostels, bars, and restaurants.
To break it down simply-people would hail a taxi on the street-normally late at night-and after a block or so, the taxi would stop and dodgy people in cahoots with the driver would hop in. From the people I know to whom this has happened, the night would continue with a tour of ATM machines until cards were maxed out. Not a fun experience and one that kept you on your toes when traveling back and forth between destinations.
A few different milestones have happened that have broken the bad guys hold in these situations. Today, all taxis in Quito are required to have security cameras and a panic button installed in their cars. Cameras must have white security tape intact around them to ensure that no one has tampered with them.
The second major breakthrough is a digital win for travelers and locals. Smartphone apps like EasyTaxi and Cabify have changed the way people get around in the city. Taxis are vetted, and there are consequences to deception to the point where dishonest drivers are removed from the services after complaints. (A new development for Ecuador.)
This change has grown to the point where drivers not associated with the services have recently held strikes-saying that they don´t make the amount of money that they used to from picking clients up off the street.
The protests and the decline in taxi kidnappings mark a major shift for the better that has been taking place around the city.
In 2016, a year after the Pope visited, Quito was host to Habitat III-a conference held every twenty years by the United Nations on sustainable urban development.
In addition to participating in the conference and signing the New Urban Agenda that focuses on health in cities around the world-Quito also invested millions of dollars into sprucing up the city´s parks and neighborhoods.
These projects have been in the works for years-the capital boasts more green space than any other Latin American city. A report by the Economist Intelligent Unit-the same people who publish the Safe Cities Index- ranks Quito as number one out of 17 cities in South America for open spaces. In 2008 the equivalent of 5,000 hectares of urban spaces had been reforested as recommended by a previous report by the Green City Index.-complete with its own panel of international experts.
To put the New York Times article further into the perspective-The whole of Ecuador lowered its murder rate to the second lowest in Latin America in 2016- five per 100,000 inhabitants. Chicago, number 19 of the safest cities on the list as opposed to Quito at number 53, had 27.7 homicides per 100,000 residents in the same year.
Being from Chicago and living in Quito, I have allegiances to both places. I am proud that Windy City ranks high on the list after the negative political polarization against my hometown, but I am still wondering how much research went into Quito before the report was issued. On a different note-Quito is ranked the 7th cheapest city for backpackers by the Price of Travel in 2018.
The US State Department lists Ecuador as Level One as far as safety is concerned. The system ranks countries on a scale of one to four, with one being the least worrisome and four being a cause for important safety concerns.
Conde Nast Traveller, the Independent, and GQ Magazine put Quito on their list as a place to travel to for its up-and-coming arts and culture, historic sites, and international restaurant scene in the last year. Today, the city is more welcoming to travelers-and the projects underway will continue this trend in the years to come.
One Disclaimer-not everything always goes right when you travel. Flights get missed, credit cards are flagged and canceled, luggage gets lost, and sometimes those with ill-will towards travelers get the upper-hand. While this is the case, most of the time people who travel here find that the warnings they read beforehand are mostly cautionary, and not reflections of literal everyday experiences.
For more information about safety in Quito, check out “Security and Safety in Ecuador-The Big Cities.” To find out more about traveling in Ecuador and exploring the cities, coast, mountains, jungle, and Galapagos Islands-contact a member of our staff by clicking here.
By Jon Jared