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.
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.
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.
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.