The Real Deal – Taxi Prices In Quito

Quito is unique among major South American cities in that it has metered taxis. What is not unique is that 4 in 5 drivers refuse to use them, quoting you inflated prices to get from point A to point B. Moreover, most travel guides give lousy advice as to what taxi rides ought cost in Quito.

For example, at least three web-sites state that it costs about $8.00 to get from La Mariscal (“Gringolandia”) to the northern bus terminal, “Terminal Terrestre Carcelen”, where you can catch buses to Otavalo and Imbabura, but this is cr*p! On the meter, from the “Centro Historico” which by the way is further away from Carcelen than Gringolandia, this trip is $5.80. From La Mariscal, it should be no more than $4.00.

So…as a public service, we’ve cooked up a little table that’ll give you the skinny on what it should cost to get around Quito by taxi.

Where to Where… On the Meter… Negotiate for… You got soaked!
Aeropuerto Mariscal Scure to el Centro Historico ~ $4.00 $5.00 >= $7.00
Aeropuerto Mariscal Scure to La Mariscal (i.e., ‘Gringolandia’) ~ $2.50 $3.00 >= $5.00
La Mariscal to el Centro Historico ~ $2.00 $3.00 >= $4.00
Terrestre Carcelen to el Centro Historico $5.80 $6.00 >= $8.00

Keep in mind that taxis in Quito charge by time, not by distance. So a trip from Gringolandia to the old city, is a bit more expensive than the distance would normally indicate, given the horrible traffic. Also, most taxi drivers will quote a couple extra dollars at night. So keep that in mind when you negotiate. In addition, *USE SPANISH* when negotiating with taxi drivers. They’re much less likely to try and soak you if you use a well placed, “…demasiado!” (“too much!”) and a counter offer. And finally, if you have to negotiate the fare…don’t tip the driver! He (she) has already included a percentage for themselves.

Por Qué No Ecuador?

Though the Muse has adequately answered the question, “Why Ecuador?” I’m going to take the opposite tack and ponder the question: “Why not Ecuador?”

You see, we Americans like the familiar. That’s why we’re so apt to head for Europe—if it weren’t for the fact that the Euro makes a trip to France an impoverishing experience—or to take a cruise—yup eating 24/7 and lying in the sun is really my idea of a good time. Hell, I’ve got relations that won’t go to Canada because it’s too foreign.

So in deciding where I wanted to live (note that I didn’t say ‘vacation’) for 10 weeks, I measured many factors, but perhaps the most important was the notion of ‘foreignness’.

Now you’re probably saying to yourself, “But Mooch, if you really wanted to get ‘foreign’ you could have headed for Nepal or Laos, Tokyo or someplace in the Middle East.” And you’re right, though I did say that foreignness was the ‘most important’ factor, not the only factor. So…how did I settle on Quito? Well first off I wanted to head someplace where I could practice my lousy Spanish, and that meant Central or South America. I’ve already been to Central America, and judging from the reactions of my friends, Quito is quite sufficiently foreign.

I wanted a city with a lot of history and that meant one of the old Spanish colonial capitals: Quito, Lima, Santiago, Asuncion, La Paz. I wanted a place where I wouldn’t hear a lot of English, and I wanted altitude. That eliminated Lima, Santiago, and Asuncion. Of La Paz and Quito, I knew that the latter is a bit safer for Americans just now. So Quito got the nod!

Was I right? Who knows, but here’s the thing. In Quito, I can go a whole day without anyone speaking English to me unless I ask. In Quito, I can live for about $30.00 a day, and that includes the cute little apartment that I’m renting in the Centro Historico. In Quito, I get beautiful weather every day along with stunning views in every direction (take that Lima!) In Quito, I get a World Heritage Site that hasn’t morphed into some kind of Disneyland for backpackers (take that Cuzco!).

In short, the question “Why not Ecuador?” answers itself.

The Real Deal – Extranjero Pricing

One thing you learn fairly rapidly after touching down in a South American country is that the concept of “extranjero pricing” (‘foreigner pricing’) is everywhere.

You’re probably already familiar with this from Europe…the few extra euros non-citizens have to spend to get into a famous museum, for example. But here in South America, this is a plague, and I’m not talking about the taxi driver in Lima who doubles the price for the “gueros”. That little issue is easily taken care of with a little Spanish and a well placed, “…muy caro!?”

No…what I’m talking about is the outright soaking that I’ve experienced in both Ecuador and Peru at the hands of the local tourist boards. This is particularly prevalent in the popular tourist destinations like Cusco, Ollantaytambo, and Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu). Consider that, to get into the 4 most popular Incan archaeological sites around Cusco, you have to buy a $45.00 pass that, for the Peruvians, costs half as much. The pass does not include Machu Picchu (a separate very expensive ticket that is also double the cost for the foreigners). It does not include the two best museums in Cusco (just a bunch of crummy ones). It does not allow you multiple entry to any site—so if you’re on a tour and get rushed through…say…Sacseyhuaman, you’re out of luck. And, you cannot visit any of these sites/museums individually. Such tickets don’t exist.

Likewise, the airlines: LAN, Aerogal, and Tame all charge ‘extranjero prices’ that can range anywhere from 125% to 300% of the price for the locals. And don’t try to purchase a ‘boleto nacional’ just cause you’re flying intra-Ecuador or intra-Peru. If they catch you, they have the option of simply stranding you with no refund or charging you a penalty equal to 2X the cost of your ticket.

One of the reasons we (especially us Americans) travel to South America is the value, but when everything from food, to flights, to sights are subject to a sliding price scale that is designed to soak the Norte Americanos, the temptation to just stay home is great. If it weren’t for the fact that Ecuador (that also has 2X extranjero pricing) is so inexpensive to start with, I’d have just stayed back in the States. I mean, sure the entrance to that church in Quito is double, but when double is $2, I can handle it.

The Real Deal – Traveler’s Checks in Quito, Ecuador

Despite what the guidebooks say, cashing a traveler’s check in Quito, Ecuador is a royal pain-in-the-ass. Take it from the guy who wasted a day walking all over the ‘Centro Historico’ and La Mariscal (affectionately referred to as ‘Gringolandia’) in an almost futile attempt to find a place to cash his checks. Here’s what I found, from big banks to tiny cambios…fees, lines, and limits.

Banco de Pichincha (Venezuella Street near Plaza Grande, Centro Historico) – Lines from hell; crowded, loud, and confusing but no indication of the “tarife” board that cashing traveler’s checks was even an option.

Banco de Pichincha (Quayaquil Street near Teatro Sucre) – Same as at Plaza Grande only longer lines, didn’t even try.

Banco Bolivariano (Garcia Moreno at Mejia, Centro Historico) – “No. Try Banco de Pichincha.”

Unibanco (Near Plaza Granda on Garcia Moreno, Centro Historico) – Yet again, “No. Try Banco de Pichincha.”

Banco de Pichincha (Avenida Amazonas, La Mariscal) – A nice young man at the front said basically, “no aqui” (‘not here’).

Banco de Quayaquil (Avenida Amazonas and Ventimilla, La Mariscal) – Every damn guidebook says Banco de Quayaquil will cash your checks for a low fee, but don’t believe them. Not only will they not cash them, but the tellers will give you bad directions to the main branch.

Banco de Quayaquil (Cristobal Colon and 6th of December) – The ‘edificio’, the real deal, the main branch; up three flights to the ‘international section’ (you won’t find it without help), and the disdainful woman there tells me, “…we do, but the not right now”. When they do cash traveler’s checks is not clear since the sign says “8:30 – 4:00”, and I’m there at 2:30p.

Banco del Pacifico (Avenida Amazonas near Ventimilla, La Mariscal) – My savior…a 2.5% commission, but a $200.00 limit per transaction (maybe per day). Head upstairs to your right for the international section.

San Francisco Food Fight – Happy Hour

Let’s talk reality for a moment…the economy is in the dumper, and so every restaurant that can is trying to woo customers with cheap eats and booze, and who are we not to partake of such bounty? Thus, The Muse and I have become aficionados of the perfect Happy Hour. From sushi to small plates, The Mission to The Marina, we know the ins and outs of every decent happy hour in the city. Here are two:

Fish & Farm — This small restaurant in the Mark Twain Hotel serves pretty decent fare and that carries over into their happy hour. Skip the Bacon Tater Tots and go straight to Juicy Lucy Burger ($5) with a side of their French Fries and Steak Sauce. Or try the Mac & Cheese, an appetizer to die for, along with a pile of F&F’s greens, just to keep your arteries from hardening. The only place F & F’s happy hour falls down is on the drinks: $3 draft beers but not a single cheap cocktail in the place.

Urban Tavern — Another hotel bar and restaurant, but one that explicitly bills itself as a ‘Gastro Pub’. I don’t know about the full menu, but the only ‘Gastro’ in the fare served at Urban Tavern is the one in ‘gastro-intestinal distress’. But here’s the thing… If you want to drink, I mean really, REALLY want to drink, Urban Tavern is your place: 1/2 price cocktails people, and I don’t mean crappy half-price well drinks. I ordered a dirty Junipero martini (a very expensive local gin) and got a full-size drink that had me wobbling before I’d finished it for only $5! Along with their specialty concoctions, this place is practically an alcoholics paradise.

So what’s my recommendation? Drink like a fish at Urban Tavern from 3:00 to 5:00 and then stumble over to the Mark Twain Hotel (about 2 blocks) and gorge on Fish&Farm’s appetizers till 6:00.

San Francisco Food Fight! Dottie’s True Blue vs. Golden Coffee

They say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and nowhere is that more important than here in Babylon by the Bay.  In fact, breakfast is so important that we often roll out of bed and, without even drawing a comb through our hair, put on whatever rumpled clothes we threw on the floor last night and head out in search of sustenance.  Fortunately for the Muse and I, we have an abundance of great breakfast joints close at hand.

Golden Coffee — You know that diner that you always stumbled into after a long night of college drinking?  A place so think with grease that you were afraid that the oven hoods might ignite at any moment?  Well Golden Coffee is such a place.  14 stools, two cramped tables, and a short-order cook that serves up plates of eggs, hash, or pancakes with the speed of a Ferrari and the calm of a Zen Master.  (The fact that he’s almost certainly named “Wong”…or something…no doubt helps with the latter.)  Nothing fancy at Golden Coffee, just competent American breakfasts at prices that you haven’t seen in a decade or two–certainly not here in the second most expensive city in America.

Dottie’s True Blue — Dottie’s is unique.  Dottie’s is an institution.  Dottie’s is in a neighborhood that will make you cringe.  Dottie’s, after 8:00 am, is so overrun with tourists you’ll wait an hour to get in, but don’t let that phase you.  We locals don’t, and Dottie’s is definitely worth the wait.  Ignore the menu.  It’s irrelevant.  The only thing you should pay attention to is the “specials” board at the back of the restaurant.  And what specials!  Omlettes filled with artichokes, trout, chard, and whatever else you can imagine; scrambles that will have your arteries hardening just by looking, and scones…and muffins…and breads, all fresh, all different, every day.

Frankly I love both Dottie’s and Golden Coffee but for different reasons.  And consequently this Food Fight is a tie.  If you’re in San Francisco’s ‘Tendernob’ (that’s halfway between Nob Hill and The Tenderloin) you owe your stomach a visit to Dottie’s and your wallet a whole bunch-o-visits to Golden Coffee.

San Francisco Food Fight! RN74 vs. Wexler’s

Living, as The Muse and I do, here in Babylon by the Bay, food is an all consuming passion.  We’re always looking for the ‘latest and greatest’ dining out experience.  And so it was that we recently sampled the food at two new restaurants: RN74, a new joint opened by Michael Mina, celebrity chef and owner of the restaurant that bears his name, and Wexler’s located in the same space as two previous restaurants that were themselves favorites of ours.

First RN47… This place tries to be so painfully hip that I felt bad for having worn color.  Loud and crowded, it’s staffed by the sort of waiters that treat you with barely concealed contempt.  “I’m really an ac-tor!” Except that…this isn’t L.A!  Nonetheless, we had high hopes for the food.  After all this is a “Mina property”, high (but not screamingly high) prices, imposing wine list and all.  So on to the food… Chick peas and braised chard—a side that I ordered in lieu of an appetizer—was yummy; A tasty, though none too imaginative pork loin, was served almost cold.  Dessert was good, espresso was lousy, and at the end the waiter almost lost the half of The Muse’s meal that she wanted boxed to take home.  VerdictRN74 ain’t all that.  For the same money you could eat at Range and get better food, a more hip neighborhood, less attitude, and a Michelin star.

So why are we comparing RN74 to Wexler’s?  Mostly because we ate at both in the same week and they’re both new.  So really were talking experience here, not any similarities in the style of food.  Wexler’s is all about upscale Southern cooking, ribs, bitter greens, grits all served fine-dining style with imaginative cocktails and less attitude.  And WHAT COOKING!  I’m at an age were it’s not often that I get to say “this is the best meal I’ve had in a while.”.  My pork cheeks were astounding!  My mustard greens…delicious.  The barbecue squid salad appetizer was worth not getting kissed for the rest of the evening (The Muse has a thing about fish).  No espresso, but excellent french press coffee.  VerdictWexler’s is twice the restaurant that RN74 is—food, atmosphere, cocktails—at half the price!