Ecuador Culture / Living in Ecuador / Moving to Ecuador / Quito

How to Get Robbed in Quito

During the past three months of Quito-living, Simon and I have managed to remain unscathed – no robberies or kidnappings that we’d heard so much about.

But as safe as Quito may have become in the last few years, we made a mistake when we decided to go bargain hunting!


After months of searching for a suitable apartment, fate led us to our “secret garden” in San Sebastian. Nestled on a hill with stunning vista, the flat was 5 minutes walk from Quito’s oldest street La Ronda in the historic center (el centro historico).

Although the Spanish-style, shoebox-flat was furnished beautifully, we needed a few things for the apartment. So Simon and I decided to visit a “second-hand” market near our home called Mercado San Roque.

Mercado San Roque Complex - Photo by dmc_quito

Mercado San Roque Complex – Photo by dmc_quito

About a 20-minute walk from el centro historico in Quito’s south, the market was a beehive of sellers, buyers and browsers on that Saturday morning.

We approached the massive structure across a long footbridge, passing happy Ecuadorians with their varied purchases. Things seemed promising.

As we drew nearer, vendors had spilled out of the official market grounds selling snacks from food carts, stands of sunglasses and tables of clothes.

Furniture vendors outside Mercado San Roque - Photo by hoy.com.ec

Furniture vendors outside Mercado San Roque – Photo by hoy.com.ec

Before reaching the main building, multiple furniture vendors and warehouses adjoined in a mismatched, disorganized/organized-chaos, where tiny Ecuadorian men carried huge wardrobes on their backs like little worker ants.

I itched to take photos but we were the only foreigners so I kept my compact camera concealed, hoping that would somehow draw less attention to us.

Dodging our way out of the rabbit warren of furniture, we followed our noses to a row of very small, blue-painted, food-huts dispensing delicious “almuerzos” (lunch plates) of Ecuadorian food.


Most people appeared indifferent, a handful actually welcomed us.

To my disappointment, we didn’t stop to sample any food, as we decided it was safer to keep moving and pretend we weren’t lost.

But I felt more and more lost, swallowed up by the sheer immensity of people and activity.  Perhaps it was my constant feeling of impending doom, and heightened awareness at every person staring at me.

Eventually, we found treasure… Piles and piles of second-hand clothing… Second-hand electronic goods… Multiple sellers with their goods laid out on the floor.

Despite our misgivings, we enjoyed the next hour hunting through heaps of sweaters, jackets, jeans, skirts and dresses. I felt a man staring at me, but I kept telling myself I was being paranoid.

He loitered for a while pretending to look at some jackets, but eventually wandered away.

Mercado San Roque Market Stalls - Photo by elcomercio.com

Mercado San Roque Market Stalls – Photo by elcomercio.com

In hindsight, I don’t think we even entered the “official” market that day.  Swayed by second-hand bargains, we failed to enter the building that towered over the outdoor stalls due to unfortunate, unpleasant circumstances…

Loud music blared from distorted speakers, where we spotted some kitchen knives. Perfect!

As Simon and I struggled to bargain with the disgruntled knife-owner over the terrible noise, my senses and sensibility were becoming overwhelmed.

Finally, she accepted a price and I handed over our coveted dollars to Simon from my “secret” pocket sewn into the inside of my pants.

It was the first purchase of the day, so we reveled in our sense of accomplishment – for all of ten minutes.

Something wasn’t right. My “secret” pocket felt empty against my leg.

My purse was gone and everything else with it. My feeling of dread was founded. I had been robbed.  Never in all my travels had I been robbed.


I was angry. Feeling helpless and violated, we searched fruitlessly for my purse on the ground.

There was nothing else to do but return home straightaway, cancel all my credit cards and report the incident to the police.

At the police station, we learnt that Mercado San Roque was notorious for stolen goods, thieves and pick-pocketing. They advised us the next time we paid a visit to organize an officer as secure accompaniment.

Since our wayward experience, I have also learnt that San Roque is the cheapest market in Quito selling the best and lowest-cost produce and food, a very popular hot-spot for Ecuadorians who love a bargain. Many cautious locals attend with a friend designated as the “security guard”.

But don’t let my story deter you from seeing it for yourself.  Just make sure you follow our travel safety advice, and you’ll be fine!  And if you plan on buying anything, perhaps bring a look-out or police officer with you…

Update: There’s a safer, second-hand market in centro historico called Plaza Arenas. They have a Facebook.

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16 Comments

  1. I wasn’t going to bring furniture down there, and buy new/nice stuff there. Are there furniture stores near Malacatos, Ecuador??? Still haven’t found out about hardware stores, Building Contractors., Nursery (plants). Dishes, dentist, pet supplies. Isn’t there a list someplace????

  2. Erydiam Wofsmoom says:

    If you visit next time Ecuador cities look for a local friend as a guide, because foreigners are easy prey of thieves. Remember it’s a wild third world yet, so in order to survive keep a low profile.

  3. I never had problems in San Roque. I do all my shopping there.

  4. During my two week stay in Quito I had two attempts at being robbed. Neither time they got any money but was pushed down on the first attempt and held up with flimsy steak knife the second. Anyone that says there is NOT a crime problem in quito is lying.

    • Hi Bill, I’m very sorry to hear that happened to you twice. Not only do robberies happen to visitors and expats, they also happen to Ecuadorians. Everyone we’ve spoken to has a similar story to tell – whether it was their phone on the bus, money from their handbag or their parents mugged by knife-point… However, besides the incident in San Roque we have never been accosted. Then again, we rarely walk around after dark, and if we do, we never walk alone; we never carry any valuables, and we avoid certain streets. We still enjoy living in Quito but we also accept those precautions as part of our routine.

      • Hola,

        Here is my favorite “getting mugged” way to get even. We live in Otavalo very different then Quito, any way a good friend was in Quito again late at night, wrong street and by himself all the wrong things. So long story short he has lived in Ecuador for several years and has this “trick” for the mugger. He carries an old wallet with a buck or two and an old out of date credit card. He happily gives up his wallet he leaves safe and sound and the mugger makes an even faster retreat and all ends well. The old wallet is great for those that want to walk away safe and without a hassle.

        Saludos
        M Gibson

  5. I don’t understand about converted dollars. Converted from what? US dollar is still the currency used in Ecuador, right? Thanks.

    • Hi Reid, Yes we use the US dollar in Ecuador – the exact same bills and coins. In 2000, Ecuador converted from their original currency of “Sucre” to the U.S. dollar, which may be the source of your confusion. Hope that helps!

  6. Ummmmm ? I’m usually aware if someone sticks their hands on the inside of my pants ! But this came as a surprise to you ? The story doesn’t sound right. Maybe you tried to put your purse back in your “Secret compartment” in your pants and it actually went down your pant leg. Not buying the story that someone put their hands inside your pants without you knowing. Next time..put it in your Bra. Thats what the woman there do. Pretty hard to steal from there. One person carries the money,the other person is a lookout..NOT shopping.

    • Hi Kevin,
      For the sake of the story, I couldn’t delve into every detail. I didn’t actually take out my purse from my secret pocket that day. I simply removed the money needed for the knives. My error was that I did this in public view rather than go to a discreet location.

      I would definitely have felt the purse fall down my pants! What I wanted to share with people was that although second-hand shopping in Quito can be fun, you need to be wary of second-hand markets; often goods are stolen and therefore attract petty thieves.

      Cash is frequently stowed away in my bra, though unfortunately I’m not well-endowed so not much fits down there…

      And good point about the “lookout”, a disinterested-shopping friend makes an ideal lookout, someone tough-looking helps too.

      Thanks very much for your feedback! Hope you enjoyed the read…

      • Hi Su-yin, you poor thing! I completely understand how this can happen with you noticing. When I was in Bolivia (in fact this happened all over Sth Am) my friend had her wallet and passport stolen from under the front zipper of her pants and it all happened so quickly neither one of us noticed. These pick pocketers are so well trained in the ‘sport’ they have all sorts of tricks (like spilling mustard on you!!), they do it in the blink of an eye and they do it without anyone noticing! And to top it off the police are often in on the corruption. In fact in Bolivia there was a store selling police uniforms and badges! That’s when we knew who NOT to trust! Hope you are OK, and you wrote this very well. Becky

    • james pierson says:

      shopping with body guard or police officer required? What sort of life style have you traded into????

      • Hi James, I’m sure you could visit Mercado San Roque without a police officer and be safe. You would just need to be much more vigilant than I was that particular day. If you live in Quito, if you’re a foreigner, and you want to buy second-hand goods, you need to take care. Not all markets are like that in Quito, especially the food markets. We frequently do our grocery shopping at Mercado Santa Clara, the nearest fresh-food market to the city centre, with no problems at all. Living in Quito’s south, we take precautions everyday but we love where we live, amongst the history of Ecuador. We love the fresh food, fresh milk from the cow delivered to our doorstep and our Ecuadorian neighbours who all look out for us. That robbery was an isolated incident and I certainly would not discourage people from moving to Quito because of petty crime.

  7. I hope you don’t mind, but you missed a couple of things during your final proof-read, so I thought you might want to know what I found: browers instead of browsers, ” he loitered from a while”, .”where we spotted” instead of when. This is a great post, and I’m so sorry you had such an unpleasant experience.

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