I’m no stranger to foreign cities with bad reputations for being dangerous. When I studied abroad in Costa Rica during college I didn’t live at the beach or near a cloud forest. Rather I lived in San Jose, a nitty gritty urban jungle. Prior to traveling in Costa Rica, I had read some negative reports about crime there-vicious purse snatchings, muggings, express kidnappings (when an assailant kidnaps you and takes you to the nearest ATM where you are then forced to withdraw large sums of money)-all things that had left me feeling incredibly worried and paranoid. Once I arrived I was inundated with even more of these accounts, the most disturbing involving a foreign student like myself who was robbed and sexually assaulted at her host parents’ house by a neighbor who watched her comings and goings in order to time his crime just right.
My first host family’s home in Costa Rica was in a decent enough looking neighborhood (well, for Central America that is), but the actual house was anything but safe and secure. While there was a fence, it was barely taller than I am (around five feet so easily scalable), and the front door was anything but iron clad. I also slept on the ground floor facing the street and if you know me, I have an intense paranoia of sleeping on the ground floor of any domicile. When I changed host families about a month later, I moved to a much more secure house, one whose gate (most houses in San Jose have gates due to the large number of robberies) was entirely too high to scale. Also, it had not one but two doors that a wolf most certainly would not have been able to blow down. As for San Jose, the scariest moment I ever encountered there was not walking the streets by myself or returning home in the evening, but rather at the end of a cab ride outside of my host family’s house in the early afternoon. The taxi driver told me that I owed more than what appeared on the maria (San Jose cab drivers are infamous for not wanting to start the maria or sometimes claiming it was roto-broken). When I attempted to say this to him, he became instantly menacing and started to say all sorts of unflattering things to me. Not knowing if he was armed or even mentally unstable, I paid him what he wanted and quickly exited the taxi. I thought to myself that haggling over some colones (Costa Rica’s form of currency) was not worth getting caught up into a potentially dangerous situation.
I’ve written countless times before about Mexico City, a place with one of the largest populations in the world and also a city that I feel that unfairly receives a bad reputation year after year. When I travel I never traverse in bad areas and so I can’t speak to Mexico City’s dangerous barrios (neighborhoods). And yet, in the United States, how many tourists go deep into the heart of the Bronx, where there are nothing but run down housing projects and derelict streets? In Rio de Janiero, how many tourists venture into a favela (slum neighborhood), without an organized tour for protection? The same can be said for innumerable cities around the world that have abnormally large populations. As a visiting tourist to Mexico City on three different occasions, I never felt unsafe, even when traveling on the subway near midnight following an RBD concert at the city’s Palacio de Deportes arena.
As for places to travel to next year, I’ve often considered Ecuador as it’s one of the least expensive flights to South America from the United States. In addition, it looks like it would have a lot to offer to visitors including the capital city of Quito. It has one of the least altered and best preserved historic centers in the Americas. However, it also has a reputation as being an incredibly dangerous place, even in areas frequented by tourists such as the Old Town, home to the city’s colonial and Republican/Independence era architecture, dating as far back as the 16th century. Sadly, it’s not just random travel forums where I’ve read these reports. I recently borrowed the Moon guidebook to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands and the author’s advice on caution and safety in Quito is a bit intimidating-“Quito has rising crime rates, and although you shouldn’t be alarmed, bear in mind that there is more crime against visitors here than in any other region of Ecuador.” I’ve read on some travel boards that visitors should not carry around a large camera but rather a smaller, less conspicuous one (i.e. a point and shoot type that can fit into one’s pocket, but not necessarily what a serious photographer enjoys using). I’ve also seen people claiming Quito to be one of the most dangerous cities in Latin America, surpassing even a place like Bogota, which mildly surprised me. A co-worker traveled to Ecuador last year and while she and her fiance had no issues while there, not to mention an overall great time, her precautions left me slightly leery, especially her saying that what we consider in the United States to be a small purse/bag, is considered a “prime target.”
Pictures I’ve seen of Quito look stunning, the true epitome of a beautifully preserved Spanish colonial city. I know that the tourism sector clearly wants to increase the number of visitors to Quito; the September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler featured a full page advertisement on the capital, complete with persuasive text and accompanying images to make you want to come and visit.
There are cities that I know are dangerous-Kabul, Baghdad, Mogadishu. Then there are cities I know have dangerous areas but should not be written off entirely. I’m sure Quito falls into the latter category. While I fully subscribe to the belief that the best experiences in traveling are had upon stepping outside of one’s comfort zone, the droves of safety warnings on Quito, “el peligroso” (Quito, the dangerous one) has me wondering. Is the negative hype just another Mexico City or San Jose? Or is it valid?