As our name suggests, we are never very good at following itineraries – even our own! Originally we had intended to stay in Panama for a longer period of time and then visit Quito for a short while before setting off to other parts of Ecuador. However, this adventure is all about allowing life to get in the way of the best laid plans, so here we are in Quito months earlier than anticipated, and for a much longer stay than we thought we would want.
My point? Because of the change in plans and resulting time crunch, I hadn’t spent too much time investigating things to do here. We landed with a vague idea that there was an old historic center, some beautiful churches, and lots of thieves. When I finally sat down to do some serious research, I was surprised by what I found. Pick up any guidebook or read any travel post about Quito and you will find that most people simply stop by here on their way to the number one tourist spot in Ecuador, the Galapagos, and while they are here they are absolutely terrified that they are going to be robbed.
In no way do I mean to argue with people who have had bad experiences in Quito (and there seem to be many), but we have been here five weeks and haven’t had a single thing stolen from us (knock wood). I believe there are a couple of reasons for this. One is that we are traveling with young children. While this hardly makes us immune to crime, the sight of a wide-eyed two year old watching might give some petty criminals at least a brief moment of hesitation.
I also think that security measures in Quito seem to have improved vastly compared to descriptions I read from travelers a few years ago. All of the taxis we have been in have panic buttons and video cameras, deterring the infamous “express kidnappings”. There are literally hoards of police and red-shirt security guards all over the colonial center and Plaza Foch 24 hours a day. While riding buses, we have often seen transit police randomly boarding buses to make sure everything is ok, and the busier bus stations are also staffed with guards or officers.
Lastly, we are staying in a middle-class apartment complex in a residential neighborhood that we rented on Airbnb. With the exception of our first week, we have avoided the touristy (and crime plagued) Plaza Foch area. We are living adjacent to La Ronda, one of the oldest streets in Quito, which has been restored and turned into an artist district. While this area does seem to attract some tourists, we see mostly Ecuadorian families strolling around and enjoying the area, which means slim pickings for thieves. While there are unsavory types all over any big city, we haven’t witnessed any of the blatant drug sales, prostitution, or violence that we saw during our week in Plaza Foch. We have never felt unsafe here, even while walking around at night.
We have found Quito to be an absolutely great place to visit and stay with children. Please don’t be deterred by the scary stories. If you can spare the time, this city is full of things to do that our children have really enjoyed. We have visited many of the destinations in Quito that tourists are normally directed to, but we also have found things on our own to do with our kids that are far off of the usual gringo trail. Quiteños are extremely family oriented as a rule, and their city definitely reflects this. Here are a few things that you won’t find in your guidebook, but that you might want to venture out and try if you are visiting with your children.
Art Classes on La Ronda
There are several studios on La Ronda where artists of every type practice their trades. Woodcarving studios, toy-makers, weavers, actors, chocolatiers, and painters, just to name a few. We wandered into a painting studio one day, one that promotes works by the now deceased Gonzalo Endarra Crow. A painter there invited my daughter to try a children’s painting class, so we signed her up for three hours a day, five days a week for three weeks at a cost of $100 (including all materials and supplies). The class is taught by two female painters, and there are several other Ecuadorian children taking it as well. They offer flexible times and class lengths depending on how long you will be in town. Her minimal Spanish skills haven’t been a problem (in fact she seems to be picking up vocabulary quickly – as children are inclined to do), and she is loving the break from us (long family trips can be a little too claustrophobic at times). I haven’t looked into the other studios too closely, but I know there are also adult tours and classes in this studio, and likely others as well. La Ronda is an absolutely wonderful area to simply walk around and soak up the atmosphere, and we have enjoyed countless hours on this street eating good food, watching the kids play, and talking to other families. There are outdoor games for the kids throughout the street and you don’t have to worry about traffic. If you do nothing else in Quito, please at least visit La Ronda!
Knitting classes near Calle Espejo and Guayaquil
There are tons of fabric and yarn shops around this part of town. Many of them offer formal or very informal classes to learn how to knit and crochet. We wandered into one when my daughter wanted to buy some yarn to finger knit. For the crazy price of $6.50, we were able to get her new knitting needles, yarn, and about an hour long private knitting class! I thought that was a great deal until they told her to go home and practice and come back in a day for another class which was included in that price! She went back to that class again, and also to another knitting store nearby for a refresher class for $2. Most of the stores seem to have people available to tutor customers who drop in for classes anytime, or I imagine that you can schedule classes as well. The stores have prices listed outside for learning to make various items such as scarves, purses, sweaters, etc. If you find yourself with some time to kill and want to learn a new skill that you can practice on the plane ride home, drop in! Once again, my daughter’s beginning Spanish skills didn’t seem to be an impediment to learning at all, and the teachers were happy to work with her.
We love love LOVE this park! Adjacent to the east entrance of La Ronda, and near to both Ecovia and Trole bus stops, this is an old GIANT bus station that has been converted into a indoor/outdoor public park. Apparently, this used to be a sketchy area of town, but that is absolutely not the case anymore. We have literally gone to this park every single day for the past four weeks, and have nothing but good things to say about it!
There are numerous outdoor play areas for the kids that are open all the time including little obstacle courses, a maze, a climbing wall, a splash pad, hopscotch, wooden rocking horses, and various structures and sculptures that can be climbed on. Inside the park, which is open and free Tuesday through Sunday, there is a giant sand box with a climbing area, an elaborate monkey bar setup, an old bus that my son can’t get enough of, wooden blocks, ping pong tables, and a giant relief map of Ecuador. For a small fee ($1 for adults, 50c for kids) you can use one of the seven pools that are inside, the only requirement being a swim cap and a towel. Swim caps are available for purchase on the rooftop of the park for $2. There are also aerobic classes, salsa classes, a cardio area with treadmills and other equipment, and a weight room. All of these are available for use for $1. There is a running track that circles the perimeter of the building, a nice rooftop area with great views, and a covered soccer field outside. Oh, and there is a theater inside which shows all sorts of movies and documentaries for free (or almost free).
The outdoor areas of this park are also the site of tons of free events such as art fairs, outdoor concerts, movies, and farmer’s markets.
Seriously, if you have kids – go here!
Interesting Activities at other Parks
Quito is a city of parks. They come in all shapes and sizes and they are absolutely everywhere. Besides our favorite Parque Cumanda, we also have spent a great deal of time at Parque El Ejido and Parque Carolina. El Ejido is right on the trole line, and sits in the middle of the city roughly on the spot between the old and new parts of town. There is a daily market here at the north entrance where Indigenous families sell various items such as clothing, purses and jewelry, and you can stroll through and watch the weavers and knitters doing their thing. There is a giant art fair here on Saturdays too, that is worth checking out if you are interested in buying paintings or carvings directly from local artists.
My kids’ absolute favorite thing to do at this park is to rent these little pedal cars for $1.50 for 1/2 hour, and ride them around the park. This is a perfect chance for you to explore the park while following behind the kids. Rental kiosks can be found all around the park on weekends and all week during the summer.
At Carolina, the paddle boats on the big lagoon (about $2 for 1/2 hour) were another favorite, along with the horseback riding available on weekends (also $2, I believe). (FYI – the people leading your the horse around for you expect a tip when done, so be sure to bring along some change.)
These parks are great for people watching and just getting out of the apartment or hotel for a bit Especially on the weekends there is no shortage of things to do that will keep every member of the family occupied and happy. Sometimes, heading to a city park for a low key day of hanging out is a better choice than trying to cram in one more museum visit.
Quito has some impressively terrible traffic and resulting pollution problems, so I was therefore quite surprised to realize it also has a large and progressive bicycling community. Since narrow and gridlocked streets don’t always combine well with bicyclists, every Sunday morning, about 20 miles worth of major north/south roads in Quito are completely closed to traffic so that cyclists and pedestrians can better enjoy the city. We were shocked to wake up our first Sunday morning in Quito, and see absolutely no traffic on a major street that had been jammed with cars and buses the night before.
You didn’t bring your bike to Quito? No problem! There are rental kiosks all over town staffed by real people who can help you out! If you want helmets for your kids, you may have to buy them – but there are tons of bike stores and sporting good stores in Quito, especially near the bigger parks.
Ciclopaseo is also a great opportunity to walk all over the old historic center without having to dodge buses or car fumes. Check out your tourist map (which you can pick up from tourist offices or even from some police officers – just ask!), as the route are posted there, or just walk around until you find a traffic-free street. Every Sunday from 8 am to 2 pm, we try and get out to stretch our legs and enjoy walking down the middle of the streets!
FYI – the bus routes change on Sundays and some buses in the old historic center don’t operate until 2pm. Sundays, taxis will also only be able to take you to the outskirts of the historic center, but walking is a better way to see this part of town anyway!
The Trole or Ecovia
If you are relying on taxis to get everywhere in Quito, you might consider giving the Rapid Transit System Trole or Ecovia a try. It is cheap (25 cents for adults, 12 cents for kids over 3), extremely fast, and reliable. We have found that this is a much better way to get from one side of town to the other as the Rapid Transit buses have their own lanes and signals and can cut through the gridlock. Enter any of the bus stations (they are marked on the tourist map), and buy a token from the person in the kiosk. The stations usually serve both the north and south routes, so pick a spot on the platform depending on which way you want to go. When the bus pulls up, get on QUICK as the doors close in a hurry. It’s ok to be a little pushy while getting on (sometimes its very necessary). If you miss your stop, just exit the bus, stay in the station (so you don’t pay again) and get back on a bus going the opposite way. Keep an eye on your purse or backpack though, as the tight fit is perfect for pickpockets.
Another upside of the buses are that my kids LOVE riding on them! Usually you will be standing up due to the crowds, and kids love nothing more than swinging around hanging from poles as you zoom through the city. We have been known to get on the Ecovia and ride all around town just for fun. Seriously.
As far as the Major Tourist Sites in Quito, these are the things that our kids especially enjoyed:
Changing of the guard at the Presidential Palace, Mondays at 11 am. Get there early, grab a seat and watch the show! There is a band, lots of pomp and circumstance, horses parade through the middle of the Plaza, and you can see the President come out on the balcony to wave to everybody. My daughter especially loved that part, and it was a great opportunity to discuss polarizing North American politics and why this could never happen at home!
The kids enjoyed this, and the views are killer. It isn’t cheap though, and the line can be ridiculously long if you wait until mid-morning. There is an amusement park at the base of the mountain that was a little too pricey for our budget (I think most people must agree because it was completely empty when we were there). We hiked up the trail a bit where there are horses for rent, but opted not to go much further with our two year old. The guardrails are flimsy or nonexistent, so keep an eye on the little ones.
It’s beautiful from the outside and full of interesting nooks and crannies on the inside. $2 to get in and wander around. Instead of the usual gargoyles on most gothic structures, this one has Galapagos animals which are fascinating! You can climb to the top of the belfry, and both of the towers, but this is NOT for tiny ones or anyone with a fear of heights. You must climb steep stairs, ladders and spiral staircases to get to the highest parts. My husband took my 8 year old daughter, who loved it, and loved gloating that “Mom wasn’t able to climb all the way up to the top”. I chickened out at the main overlook, and didn’t go any further, but still got some great pictures. Inside, there is a gift shop with snow globes – always a favorite – and a little restaurant.
So get out there and enjoy Quito with the kids – we certainly have!