The capital city of Quito will most probably be your entry point in the country.
Quito sits at an elevation of 2.820 m above sea level, making it the second-highest capital city in the world (after La Paz in Bolivia). Once you step out of the airport, you will immediately feel that the air is much thinner. As a result, you might get slight difficulty in breathing. This is absolutely normal, as your body needs time to acclimatize to the high altitude. Take it easy and start by exploring the city at a slow pace on the first days.
Aside from the points of interest within the Old Town (which I am not going to analyze as they are pretty straightforward and flagged on any city map), there are several other places around Quito that can take extra time and effort to reach – especially as a budget traveler. Considering how widespread the city is (40km in length and 5km in width), it comes without saying that you will need some pretty good planning to fit them all in one day.
My budget travel guide for Quito will first cover the very hot topic of ”Airport Transfer”. Then, I will walk you through 3 of the most important and iconic sites for the city, namely:
- El Panecillo
- The TeleferiQo of Quito
- Mitad del Mundo
If you are interested in using Quito as your base for visiting other nearby locations, please refer to the dedicated article I have created on the topic. This article serves as the side-alternative to the numerous pricey group tours departing from Quito in various directions. Read through for full details on how to organize such day (or multi-day) visits on your own. In this way, you can make the best out of your travel time and money!
Your Airport Transfer
While landing in Quito, you should be aware that the new Airport is 43km away from the city itself. Unfortunately, the only way to get directly to the city center is by using a taxi (25-35$).
No matter what you might have read on the web or what people might tell you onsite, the Aerobus service DOES NOT take you any closer to the Old Town. There is either a misconception on what is considered as a city’s center or a clear intention to mislead tourists. In short, the Aerobus will drop you off at the old airport (approx. 10km away from the Old Town). From there, you will be prompted to take a taxi. Personally, I recommend against using the Aerobus because they are neither honest (they claim that they have brought you to the city center) nor do they offer a budget friendly service (the cost of the ticket is 8$ per person).
What seems to be the only alternative for budget travelers is the use of public transportation. However, this is the most time-consuming option as it may take you up to 2 hours until you reach your final destination. If you are not discouraged and still want to give it a go, then you can opt between:
- Heading to the North Bus Terminal of Río Coca, by using the SOTRANOR bus. For reaching the Old Town, change with an Ecovia* bus.
- Heading to the South Bus Terminal of Quitumbe, by using the COSIBO bus. For reaching the Old Town, change with a Trolebús*.
I have not used/tested any of these two routes myself, but I was told that it will cost you no more than 2$ in total to get from the airport to Quito Old Town / City Center via public transportation.
* Ecovia, Trolebús, and Metrobus are the three official transportation pillars of Quito. For detailed information on the various transportation routes within the Metropolitan District of Quito, please refer to the official page.
© Victor Vargas
El Panecillo (translating into “the breadbun”, because of its resemblance to a small bread) is a viewpoint located in the very heart of Quito. This is the perfect spot for enjoying panoramic views over the city from high above. Atop sits the magnificent giant aluminum sculpture of the “Virgin of Quito”, which is even taller than the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro! Amazingly, the statue was put together like a puzzle, out of 7.400 numbered pieces, offering some kind of guidance to the constructors! Inside the statue, you will find a small museum, while you can also climb to its viewing platform. Both for just 2$. Maximum time needed here: 30’
Even if it’s so close to Quito’s Old Town, for safety purposes it is highly recommended that visitors do not go uphill on foot. Your alternatives (starting from the most to the least expensive) are:
- The touristic red double-decker bus, as part of the Quito City Tour (15$ for a day-ticket)
- Taxi: Depending on your departure point, your ride might cost around 3-4$ one way
- Public bus: Depending on your base location in the city, you can connect with bus line 208 (Panecillo – Pululahua) that will take you straight to the top of the hill. Download and consult the Moovit app for real-time updates on the various public transportation routes while in Quito. The same app works for all other major cities around the globe. Urban buses in Quito will cost you only 0.25$ per ride. You can pay directly to the driver or the conductor while stepping in the bus.
The TeleferiQo of Quito
The TeleferiQo of Quito is one of the most spectacular gondola lifts, that will take you from the foothills of the Rucu Pichincha volcano all the way up to the summit of Cruz Loma. The ascent takes around 18’, while traveling a distance of 2.5km! On a clear day, you will be able to view and count all 14 peaks of the surrounding Andes, including Cotopaxi, the most iconic volcano of Ecuador.
This is a very popular spot for those that want to reach the summit of Rucu Pichincha volcano (the trail starts from Cruz Loma peak). However, this is not a particularly easy hike for inexperienced hikers, and most people will advise you to take a guide to be on the safe side. I spoke with many travelers that did the hike on their own (but not alone), and it does seem possible.
Clearly, the decision needs to be made based on your fitness level and prior hiking experience. Some additional parameters that you should not underestimate are: the high elevation level (you will need to hike from 3,945m to 4,698m), the weather conditions (the higher you get, the colder and foggier it will become), the need for proper hiking shoes (and gear), and last but not least that some amount of climbing will be additionally required. The hike usually takes 6-7 hours to complete (round-trip).
Another quite adventurous activity is getting a mountain bike up the TeleferiQo and from there taking a kamikaze ride down the hill!
If you do not feel that adventurous, you can simply enjoy the unparalleled views over the Andes, the valley, and the city down below from the various viewpoints around Cruz Loma. By no means, should you miss the spot with the two swings that give the perfect photo click of you literally flying over the city of Quito!
Budget-wise, the TeleferiQo ride (round trip) will cost you 8.5$. From the Old Town of Quito, you can reach the TeleferiQo by taxi (should be around 5-6$ each way).
If you are planning to do a same-day visit with El Panecillo, then the taxi ride between these two sites should be around 8$. Alternatively, you can simply hop on the 208 bus that departs from Panecillo approximately every 30’. This bus will take you pretty close to the TeleferiQo. Once you have boarded the bus, tell the driver (or the conductor) where you are heading and they will make sure to drop you off at the junction road that is heading to the TeleferiQo. From there you can either do an easy walk uphill for around 20’ or take one of the taxis that are waiting at the junction (not sure how much they charge though – I walked).
Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) Monument
This is basically the place where the invisible equatorial line divides the Earth into two hemispheres. The monument itself is supposed to be standing at latitude zero, and your GPS should show the 00°00’00” coordinates. In reality, it will not, as the monument has been misplaced (for unknown reasons) approximately 240m away from the actual equatorial line. However, this should not discourage you from taking THAT iconic picture while standing with one foot on each side of the yellow line that has been painted on the ground, marking the equator.
Inside the monument, you will find a very interesting museum that can be explored at your own pace and while you are making your way up to the viewing platform. Take a short break on each floor to learn about different topics, such as: the French mission that did explicit studies on the Equator, how the monument was constructed, the various indigenous tribes that can be found across the country, and how their traditions have been maintained until today.
If you want to get a bit closer to the real equator (still, you will not get the precise zero coordinates on your GPS), then you should head to the nearby Museo de Intiñan. As you cannot enter the site unaccompanied, you will have to join one of the guided tours. Getting an English-speaking guide, though, can be a bit challenging, so be prepared to wait longer. During the tour, you will walk around different exhibits (including some solar clocks used by indigenous groups in the past), and you will get an ethnographic history lesson on Ecuador’s different regions. At the end of the tour, you will participate in some fun activities around the Equator spot itself. The aim is to prove (or not) that the gravity is lower at the equator, that the earth is rotating faster at the equator than at the poles, etc.
Without any intention to confuse you even more, but for those that are particularly interested in the “real” Equator, do note down another spot for a possible visit; the Quitsato Sundial. This is a less popular location, sitting in Cayambe, 80 km away from Quito, yet it guarantees that your GPS will show precisely zero latitude.
Mitad del Mundo can be visited as a half-day trip from Quito. The monument sits in a city that brings the exact same name (Mitad del Mundo), located around 30km away from the capital. There are a lot of shops and restaurants around the site, so aside from sightseeing, you can enjoy a relaxing time there, as well.
- The entrance ticket for the Mitad del Mundo Monument costs 5$
- The entrance ticket for Museo de Intiñan costs 4$
Your options for getting to Mitad del Mundo (starting from the most to the least expensive) are:
- A group tour: Starting from 35$ per person for a half-day tour
- Taxi: Depending on your departure point from Quito, your ride can cost you around 15-20$ one way
- Public bus: The best way is to head to the Ofelia Station (any transportation option will cost you 0.25$). From Ofelia Station, there are frequent buses heading to the city of Mitad del Mundo. It is very easy to track these buses as they carry a clear identification sign both on their front and back stating “Mitad del Mundo”. The ticket for this ride costs 0.40$, and is payable to the driver or the conductor while stepping out of the bus.
When using public transportation, keep the Moovit app handy on your mobile. It will not only direct you to the closest stop for picking up the bus/trolley/metro, but it will also indicate where exactly you are while onboard. This will help you get ready for stepping off. However, especially for Mitad del Mundo, I highly recommend that you tell the driver (or the conductor) that you are heading to the monument. Rest assured that they will make sure you are dropped off at the closest stop possible.
Side Tip: Out of pure luck, I saw the Mitad del Mundo bus getting past the exact same stop I was dropped off by the 208 bus – nearby the junction for El TeleferiQo. This made my life so much easier, as I was able to head there while getting back from El TeleferiQo. With that being said, and if you have limited time in Quito, you can literally visit El Panecillo, El TeleferiQo, and the Mital del Mundo in one single day, just by using public transportation! People will take you that this cannot be possible, but it is! To make this happen, you just need to have an early call in the morning and follow the indicated itinerary (El Panecillo first, El TeleferiQo next, and Mital del Mundo for last)! Obviously, this is not possible if you intend to do the Rucu Pichincha volcano hike!
Safety and Security
As most of the abovementioned budget tips, are concentrated around the use of public transportation, I need to stress out the importance of Safety and Security.
Indeed, this is a very hot topic that everyone should be well-aware of while using public means of transport. Little does a budget guide have to offer, if you get robbed while riding a local bus. Indeed, pickpocketing is the most serious risk you will encounter while in Quito. But it is not much different from pickpocketing in any other big city of the world. You, as a traveler, need to exercise special caution and not expose yourself and your valuables to potential risks.
Several techniques are being used in Quito, but slashing (opening your bag by cutting it with a knife) ranks on #1. Having said that, keep your bag always in front of you so that you can have clear sight of it. Do not underestimate the skills of petty thieves, as they can think of many different ways to distract you.
Keep your passport always locked at your hotel / hostel, and only take a photocopy with you. No need to carry a lot of cash or valuables with you either. If you are transiting with all your belongings, you may find that a money belt is the best place to keep your credit cards, mobile phone and money safe.
As a closing note, another safety issue I need to report on public buses is how fast the drivers go. No matter if you are sitting or standing, you need to always get ahold of something to keep yourself safe. This is not a joke, it is most probably the most dangerous rides I have taken within a city.
Aside from public transportation, Quito is reported to be unsafe when it gets dark. Even, or even more, in the alleys around the Old Town. Remember that city buses only run until 9pm, and it’s advisable that you get back to your hotel/hostel early.
If you want to use a taxi (day or night), remember to never hail one on the street. Crime incidents can easily occur on unlicensed taxis. Of course, this does not apply to all unlicensed taxis but on some rare occasions things have gone really bad for tourists. I cannot call myself a taxi expert, but I feel it is safer to use Uber since there is a record of your driver and the ride you took. The easy way to track an official taxi in Quito is by looking for a company sign on its side. Before you step in, make sure there is a meter (even if the driver will not use it on fixed rides) and a panic button in the rear seats.