Ecuador was the biggest surprise of our South American trip. We didn’t have any expectations for the country because we didn’t know that much about it, but my daughter and I both agree that it was our favorite country from the trip. There’s much to see beyond the famous Galapagos Islands. Don’t make the mistake of only visiting the islands on your visit.
Galapagos Islands – This UNESCO World Heritage site is a bucket list destination. The islands are located 1000 kilometers of the coast of Ecuador and recognized as one of the most bio-diverse places in the world. Main attractions: Tortuga Bay, Rancho Primicias, La Loberia, Charles Darwin Research Station, and El Chato Tortoise Reserve. Tip: A $100 park fee must be paid in cash, but don’t fret if you don’t have money on you. The local currency is the USD, so you can pull some out of an ATM machine.
Quito – Quito has lots of accolades: It’s the second highest capital city in the world after La Paz, Bolivia; the old town was one of the first to be recognized as a World Cultural Heritage Site; and its historic center is one of the best-preseverd in the Americas. Apart from that, it’s beauty is not to be missed. Nestled in a valley in the Andean mountains, the peaks provide a dramatic backdrop to the colonial buildings. Main attractions: Old Town, Basilica del Voto Nacional, San Francisco Church, El Panecillo, and Museo Templo del Sol Pintor Ortega Maila Tip: Don’t let all the stories about safety concerns prevent you from visiting Quito.
Baños – Adventurers, this is your place. Baños, named for its many hot springs, has just about every outdoor activity: canyoning, hiking, ATV riding, bungee jumping, horseback riding, bike riding, rafting, among others. Alternatively, you can take a day trip to the Amazon Rainforest of just take in the views from the many coffee shops and restaurants that line the streets in the town’s center. Main attractions: Devil’s Cauldron, La Casa del Arbol, Church of the Virgin of the Holy Water, and all the many day trips. Tip: Allow ample time in Baños; there is a lot to do and many of the excursions take an entire day. It’s also a great place to relax after the busier destinations.
Cuenca – Cuenca, the colonial city with big cathedrals and rivers that run through the city center, has become a popular stop in Ecuador for travelers and retirees. Its laid-back culture, numerous museums and parks make it an easy city to love. Main attractions: El Cajas National Park, New Cathedral, Rio Tomebamba, the flower market, and the many churches. Tip: Cuenca is safer than many of the other big cities in South America, but you should still be careful if you are out at night.
Otavalo – Known for its Saturday market that fills the streets with stalls selling artisan goods and local delicacies, Otavalo is often overlooked as anything more than a day trip from Quito (and this is a shame). The region and its people, the Otavaleños, are beautiful and welcoming. Stay a couple days so that you can visit the smaller artisan towns surrounding Otavalo. Main attractions: The Otavalo Market, Peguche Waterfall, Parque Bolivar, and a day trip to Cotacachi with a hike at Laguna Cuicocha. Tip: If your debit card doesn’t work at an ATM, try another. We would often have to try several before we could withdraw money. They seemed to be very temperamental (there are several located in the square around Parque Bolivar).
There are a lot of Airbnb options in Ecuador with amazing views. Some of my greatest travel memories have been staying with and befriending hosts through Airbnb. If you’ve never stayed at an Airbnb, use this link to get $40 off your first stay (Disclosure: This gives me a $20 credit, so we both save a little money.)
The hotels in Ecuador are plentiful and extremely reasonable in price. You can find simple, clean rooms for as low as $10-15 a night or luxurious rooms with every amenity for $200 and up. I use Booking.com for all my hotel reservations because I like that you can often choose to pay now or at the property.
Public busses run regular routes throughout Ecuador, making travel easy and inexpensive. Bus tickets can be purchased at the station; just find the window that has a sign with your destination. On most of the busses, seats are reserved but this is not always the case. I was told that the price should match the number of hours traveling, so for an hour journey you should expect to pay $1.00, but this was not always the case.
Store your large bags under the bus and keep smaller bags with you. Make sure you don’t leave any valuables in your larger bag, and do not place your smaller bags on the floor or above you on the rack. Keep them on your laps throughout your journey. There are numerous stories about bags being stolen from the top rack or cut open on the floor. We used busses to travel throughout the country and never had any problems.
Traveling with kids
When I travel with my kids, I plan activities for the three of us. I never plan an entire trip around my kids, as I think there is value for them to visit museums and learn about things that wouldn’t have generally appealed to them. There are a lot of kid-friendly activities in Ecuador. Here are some of our favorite:
- Seeing the animals at the Galapagos Islands
- Climbing the stairs to the top of Basilica del Voto Nacional in Quito
- Discovering all the waterfalls in Baños
- Playing on the playgrounds in Parque La Caronlina in Quito
- Exploring the markets in Cuenca.
- Buying sweets from the stalls in Cuenca’s city centre
Quito is the city I was warned about. I heard so many negative things about the city before I visited, so I was very alert during my entire stay. Theft is common here, but if you’re diligent about where you are and what you have on you, you can minimize the chance of falling victim. Stay in hostels or homestays so you meet others. Don’t walk around alone at night and don’t carry a lot of cash and don’t wear expensive, flashy jewelry.
Traveling on a Budget
Colombia is a great destination for budget-minded travelers. Here are some of the country’s free activities:
- Explore Old Town in Quito and the many cathedrals
- Centro Cultural Metropolitano in Quito (free everyday)
- La Merced in Quito (free everyday)
- Monasterio de San Francisco in Quito (free everyday)
- Otavalo market
- The many hiking opportunities that are available throughout the country
- Rent bikes to visit the waterfalls in Baños (not free, but inexpensive)
- Museo de Arte Moderno in Cuenca (admission by donation)
- Plazas and parks
Petty crimes occur in Ecuador (and in many regions of the world). Follow these precautionary steps to minimize the risk of falling victim.
Be informed and look informed. As with any destination, there are parts of cities or countries that are not as safe than others. It’s important to know where these areas are so you can practice caution if visiting those. Always listen to advice given by locals. It’s important to look like you know where you’re going when traveling. Criminals are always looking for easy prey, so walk with purpose, look at maps before you head out or at a cafe, and appear confident even if you are not.
Be vigilant with your things. Don’t carry things that look expensive and make you an easy target. Carry minimum cash and belongings when out. Keep a hand on your bag at all times–in restaurants, museums, taxis, and especially subways. I travel with a small and only take it off my body in my hotel room. I like using a messenger bag because it doesn’t look like a camera bag, and I can pull it in front of me when walking on the streets and riding public transportation. Never leave your cell phone or expensive electronics out on the table during a meal. I’ve had too many friends loose their devices this way. Be much more cautious than you are at home. If you are mugged, always hand over your things. Your life is more important than whatever personal belongings you are carrying.
Don’t walk around at night. Always hire a driver if out late at night. If using a taxi, make sure it’s an authorized company. Have the restaurant or your hotel call a taxi for you; this is generally safer than hailing one from the street.
Don’t drink too much. Being intoxicated makes you an easy target, so don’t get drunk.
Be careful with ATMs. ATM skimming is common in all of Latin America. (I fell victim to this in Peru.) With this scam, tracers are placed on the ATM, so when you put your card in to withdraw money, your information is copied and later used to drain your account. If this happens to you, call your bank immediately to put a hold on your card. My bank was able to rectify the situation, but it took a couple weeks to get the money back in my account. To avoid this, try to only use ATMs that are in grocery stores or banks with a security guard present. Sometimes street ATMs are the only available option, so make sure nothing wiggles around the card reader. Also use your hand to shield your pin in case there are cameras installed.
Restaurants – You should tip 10% at restaurants in Ecuador. In nicer restaurants, this amount is usually included on the bill. So make sure you look at the bill before leaving a tip.
Tour guides – Yes, but you determine the amount. Guides are usually paid poorly, so you want to do your part to make sure they are fairly compensated. I usually base my tip on the cost and length of the tour and the quality of the guide.
Taxis – Rounding the fare up is acceptable.
- Be polite and respectful by always greeting locals before starting a conversation. One kiss on the cheek is used to greet new acquaintances.
- The phrase ‘mucho gusto’ is used frequently when you meet people. It means with much pleasure or pleased to meet you.
- Yawning in public is considered rude.
- Dress in a neat way as much as you can (try not to look like you just work up from an overnight bus ride in your pajamas, though that may be the case). Skimpy dresses or short shorts and skirts are generally frowned upon.
- Remember to throw your toilet paper away in the trash bin next to the toilet.
- If meeting someone, arriving up to an hour after the scheduled time is completely acceptable.
- Don’t point to objects or people; it’s considered rude.
- If given a gift, express extreme gratitude.
- Give hosts flowers not not marigolds or lilies, as these are flowers used in funerals.
Sustainable travel tips
- Do your research. Consider sustainability when determining where to go, where to stay, and how to get there.
- Choose where to spend your money. Hotels and transportation are not the only two places to consider sustainable practices. Tours, shops, and restaurants present great opportunities for supporting the local community.
- Be respectful of the culture. Learn about cultural norms before traveling so you aren’t unknowingly offending others. When guidelines are given, make sure you follow them.
- Critically examine opportunities to interact with animals and children. Working with kids and animals can create some of the most meaningful memories, but you don’t want to play a part in exploitation or abuse. Don’t give money or anything else to children on the streets, and make sure that animals are treated ethically before you financially support any organization working with them.
- Always look for opportunities to support the local community. Buy local. Always.
- Say no to plastic as much as possible. The LifeStraw removes bacteria from water and provides a safe alternative to bottle water.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do I need vaccinations? Yes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that:
- all travelers be up-to-date on routine vaccinations;
- most travelers receive Hepatitis A and Typhoid; and
- some travelers receive Hepatitis B, Malaria, Rabies, and Yellow Fever (these are dependent on where you are going and what you will be doing).
Can I drink the water? No. Only drink sealed bottle water, carbonated beverages, or hot drinks. Make sure not to use ice that came from a tap.
Do I need travel insurance? I wouldn’t travel without it. Travel insurance covers you in the event of illness, accidents, or theft. I have always used World Nomads because they were highly recommended to me from other bloggers.
Do I need a visa? Visas are not required for stays up to 90 days for citizens from the EU, the US, Canada, Australia, and the UK.
What is the currency? Ecuador uses the USD for its currency.
What is the language? Spanish but you can usually find someone who will speak a bit of English.
Best time of year to go? The warmest and driest months are June through September, but weather varies more based on the region and the altitude.
Resources to help you plan your trip
The official Ecuador Travel Site
Don’t forget to pin for future reference.