Although it’s one of the smaller countries in Latin America, Ecuador is an enchanting place. When we crossed from Colombia, we immediately noticed we were deep in the Andes. Andrea and I found that we suddenly towered above most people in the immigration line, but quickly realized our height was no advantage when it came to tackling hills and mountains at altitude. We constantly reveled in seeing lamas and alpacas walking the streets and had our breath taken away by the stark mountain views.
All roads in Ecuador lead to Quito and it’s a great place to start. After you spend a day or two taking in the city sights, it’s easy to make it to other big cities like Guayaquil, hit the beach, work your way up into the mountains, or go see the famous Galapagos islands. We stuck to the northern part of the country due to time constraints and got around by bus, which was cheap and easy.
- Economy: Ecuador is a small, developing economy highly dependent on global commodities: oil, which makes up over half of the country’s total exports, and agricultural products like bananas, shrimp, and coffee. Since 2009, it has not been a large destination for foreign investment, with China being the main exception.
- GDP per capita was estimated to be $11,200 USD in 2017.
- Roughly 59.7% of the economy is driven by services, with industry taking 33.8% and agriculture 6.4%.
- Money: Since 2000, Ecuador has used the US dollar, which makes it easy for Americans to come directly and others to exchange money.
- Have cash on hand. We were only able to use credit card to pay for things at larger grocery stores, everything else being exclusively cash-based. They accept all US bills and change, although they do have some of their own, domestically-minted coins accepted within Ecuador, but not anywhere else.
- People: Ecuador has about 12.3 million people as of July 2017, 71.9% of whom are mestizos (a mix of European and indigenous). About 64.2% of the population lives in large cities. Guayaquil, on the coast, is the largest city with 2.7 million people, followed by Quito, the capital city, with 1.7 million. The eastern, rainforest region is very sparsely populated.
- Language: Spanish is the main language, although there are many indigenous languages. The largest is Kichwa, a Quechuan language in Ecuador and Colombia.
- Quito: The capital city is the north of the country and serves as a great introduction to the country. There are many churches, museums, and colonial plazas to take in and I’d definitely recommend spending a couple of days getting to know the city.
- Guayaquil: Located on the southern coast, Guayaquil is the country’s largest city and financial center, and serves as a major port as well. Walking along the malecon (by the water) is quite pleasant and there are a number of good museums and parks.
- Cuenca: The third largest city is well known for its four rivers, as a great example of colonial architecture, and for its handicrafts. It has a relaxed atmosphere and has recently become a retirement destination. It’s in the south of the country and a good domestic transport hub. There are many interesting archaeological sites nearby.
- Other Destinations:
- Galapagos: World famous! This can be a pricey destination (plane tickets from Quito and Guayaquil are about $400 USD), but it’s definitely one-of-a-kind. The birthplace of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the Galapagos Islands are home to one of the world’s most shocking arrays of biological diversity.
- Cotopaxi: Only about 50 km south of Quito, Cotopaxi is Ecuador’s second highest peak and an active volcano that last erupted in early 2016. It’s now closed for hikes to the summit, but available for day hikes, which cost about $50-100 USD/person. Typically tourists are driven to a certain altitude, hike a ways up, and then bike all the way down.
- Quilotoa: A gorgeous high-altitude lake easily doable in a day trip from Quito. More adventurous travelers can attempt the Quilotoa loop, which is a 3-5 day self-guided trek.
- Otavalo: Located between Quito and the Colombian border in the north, Otavalo is the continent’s largest outdoor market. It’s biggest on a Saturday, but even during the week it has a confounding variety of textiles, handicrafts, and other goods. It’s an easy day trip from Quito and hands-down the best place to bargain for souvenirs.
- Equator: Also just an hour or so away from Quito, the monument to the Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) is technically 240 meters off the world’s actual equator, but is nevertheless a sight to behold. It’s great fun to take photos with one foot on in each hemisphere and there are some surprisingly good museums on various Ecuadorian indigenous cultures, the history of trains in Ecuador, and other topics.
- Baños: Nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains, Baños de Agua Santa is a small, touristy town with two main attractions: natural hot springs and great adventure sports: mountain biking, hiking, rafting, etc. We thoroughly enjoyed the hot springs and spent a day biking from waterfall to waterfall.
- Montañita: A beautiful beach town 3 hours west of Guayaquil, also known as THE party city of the region.
- Tourist Friendliness: Ecuador felt very easy to navigate and everyone we met was welcoming and helpful. We didn’t spend too long in Ecuador, but even when asking for directions on the street, we were greeted with smiles, a question or two about where we’re from, and then lots of helpful information. English isn’t quite as widely spoken, but people are more than willing to work around any language issues.
Planning a Visit
On average, we spent about $33.61/person/day. We stayed exclusively in hostels, bussed around, and ate most of our meals out to make the most of our short time there.
Ecuador can be done easily by bus, with the exception of the Galapagos, which will require a boat or a plane. We crossed from Colombia and did all of our trips by bus, but domestic flights can be another good option if you’re short on time. Rome2Rio was our starting point for figuring out logistics, but nothing beats going to the bus station, calling up bus companies, or asking locals.
Our average semi-long distance bus cost was $7.88 USD/person and the buses were ok. We didn’t have any particularly long rides, so it mostly felt like a school bus and we passed the time reading and listening to music.
Ecuador was our first introduction to Andean food, which is very starch-centric. Most meals come with at least two of the following starches: rice, potato, bread, pasta, or yuca. While chicken, beef, and pork are all present as in most other places in the region, we had our first introduction to cuy (guinea pig) in Ecuador. Another new favorite meal was llapingacho, which is a fried potato cake (see photo below). We particularly enjoyed how every lunch and dinner comes in three courses: soup, a main dish, and coffee or small dessert at the end. Food varies throughout the country and we enjoyed trying all kinds of new things!
Within Quito, we also found many “Chifas,” which are Chinese restaurants. Interestingly, the word “chifa” comes from the Chinese words 吃饭 (chi fan), which mean to “eat rice”, or more generally eat a meal. The food was plentiful and an interesting adaptation of standard Chinese fare.
We used Quito as a home base and found a hostel we really liked: Friends Hostel. We paid $7.00 USD/person/night and enjoyed the experience immensely. The hostel had a nice outdoor area, small kitchen, and a ping pong table perfect for a rest day.
AirBnb is definitely an option in the cities if you’re looking for more privacy, but we did just fine using HostelWorld.
The CDC recommends you get vaccinations for:
- Measles, Mumps, and Rubella
- Hepatitis A and B
- Yellow Fever, malaria, zika, and rabies if you’re visiting certain areas.
Crossing the border from Colombia, no one checked our vaccination records.
Get Out There!
Ecuador is a small country, but absolutely chock full of things to do, especially for hikers. It’s a great introduction to the Andean region and it’s easy to budget things out given that they use the USD. We particularly enjoyed hiking in and around Quito, but there are some great beaches to explore as well and we hope to go back and see them sometime soon! The people are friendly, welcoming, and always willing to help, although English is not as prevalent as in other countries. While it doesn’t boast a world-famous historic attraction like Machu Picchu, there is a lot of Inca history to be found as well for the history buffs.