Geography (and Topography) of Quito


When you first arrive in Quito the first thing you notice is the mountains. And there are a lot of them.  You pay special attention to this as a cyclist. Coming from a pretty flat city, when I first arrived in Quito 3 years ago, I would do just about anything to avoid biking up the hills (read mountains). In the mornings I would triple check that I had everything thing I would need for the day, because I lived at the top of the eastern edge of the city.  During the day I would go ridiculous distances out of the way to avoid going up hills.  But by the end of my time in Quito (round 1), and being back here now, I’m really enjoying the hills.  Mostly going down them, but sometimes biking up them as well.

But the mountains here also function as a way of segregating Quito.  The Panecillo stands in the middle of Quito, a small but formidable mountain that divides northern and southern quito.  It is both a physical and social barrier for Quito.  I was talking with my friend Sofy the other day and she told me a bit about the intertwined histories of the geography and segregation in Quito.  The colony of Quito sprouted just north of the Panecillo, where the historic center of Quito still stands.  As the colony grew, the colonial government obligated all workers, mainly railroad workers, to live on the southern side of the Panecillo so that they would be out of the view of the wealthy colonists.  As the city grew the divide remained.  Wealthy families, and in recent decades middle class families as well, lived in the north of the city, and working class families lived in the south.  The historic center of Quito is now some of the poorest neighborhoods, while simultaneously a center of tourism, which holds a whole other set of paradoxes.  Yet in the last 5 to 10 years, the strict class divide of Northern/Southern Quito has changed.  Southern Quito has a large middle class, and as you go to the northern most parts of Northern Quito there are many working class neighborhoods sprawling up the sides of Pichincha (the volcano). Quito sometimes defies the general urban studies logic that the wealthy live at the top of hills and the poor at the bottom.

Yet crossing the Panecillo still presents a very real barrier in Quito.  Especially for cyclists. There are only two ways to cross from North to South for cyclists, and neither are safe options at night – at least not by yourself. The last few days I’ve been teaching my ahijada (my biking goddaughter) how to bike in southern Quito, which has meant crossing the three main regions of Quito (North, Center, South).  The video above is arranged somewhat geographically – it portrays me biking from the North, Center, and South and then returning South, Center, North.  The yellow line (beautifully drawn in – really showing off my graphic design skillz here) in the aerial photo represents the general route.

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