ECUADOR TRAVEL GUIDE
Ecuador is a country straddling the equator on South America’s west coast. Its diverse landscape encompasses Amazon jungle, Andean highlands and the wildlife-rich Galápagos Islands. In the Andean foothills at an elevation of 2,850m, Quito, the capital, is known for its largely intact Spanish colonial centre, with decorated 16th- and 17th-century palaces and religious sites, like the ornate Compañía de Jesús Church.
Ecuador offers you the unique opportunity to sit back in your seat and take in the magic of the white sand beaches, the Andean Mountains and the rain forest, all within two days. Take a plane from Quito and in 30 minutes you would have crossed over the snow-clad Andes and reached the Amazon basin.
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ECUADOR QUICK FACTS
- Capital: Quito
- Currency: US dollar ($, USD) / Ecuadorian Centavo coins (Alongside U.S. coins)
- Area: 283,561 km²
- Population: 17,08 million (2018)
- Language: Spanish (official), Amerindian languages (especially Quechua)
- Religion:Roman Catholic 95%
- Electricity: 110-220V/60Hz (USA & European plugs)
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ECUADOR PUBLIC HOLIDAYS
- 1 May, Labour Day
- 24 May, Anniversary of the Battle of Pichincha
- Last Friday in June, Bank Holiday
- 24 July, Simón Bolívar Day
- 10 August, Independence Day
- 9 October, Guayaquil Independence Day
- 12 October, Día de la Raza
- 2 November, Memorial Day/All Souls Day
- 3 November, Independence of Cuenca Day
- 6 December, Independence of Quito Day
Also, Holy Thursday and Good Friday.
FESTIVALS IN ECUADOR
- Semana Santa - (March) Throughout Latin America, Holy Week is celebrated with fervour. In Quito (Ecuador), purple-robed penitents parade through the streets on Good Friday, while Ouro Prêto (Brazil) features streets ‘painted’ with flowers. Ayacucho hosts Peru’s most colourful Semana Santa, culminating in an all-night street party before Easter.
- Founding of Guayaquil - (July) Street dancing, fireworks and processions are all part of the celebration on the nights leading up to the anniversary of Guayaquil’s founding (July 25). Along with the national holiday on July 24 (Simón Bolívar’s birthday), Ecuador’s largest city closes down and celebrates with abandon.
- El Día de La Virgen del Cisne - (August) In Ecuador’s southern highlands, thousands of colourfully garbed pilgrims take to the roads each year around August 15 in the extraordinary 70km procession to Loja, carrying the Virgen del Cisne (Virgin of the Swan).
- Fiesta de la Mama Negra - (September) Latacunga hosts one of the highlands’ most famous celebrations, in honor of La Virgen de las Mercedes. La Mama Negra, played by a man dressed as a black woman, pays tribute to the 19th-century liberation of African slaves.
- Founding of Quito Festival - (December) Quito’s biggest bash is a much anticipated event, with parades and street dances throughout the first week of December. Open-air stages all across town fill the Ecuadorian capital with music, while colourful chivas (open-sided buses) full of revellers manoeuvre through the streets.
BEST TIME TO VISIT ECUADOR
The best time to travel to Ecuador varies depending on which parts of the country you intend to visit. There’s no real summer and winter in Ecuador, and its weather generally varies by regional geography, with temperatures determined more by altitude than by season or latitude.
The coast has a tropical climate and a rainy season that extends from the end of December to May.
The inter-Andean valleys have a temperate climate and rainy season from October to May and a dry season from June to September. Average monthly temperatures are about 14.5°C in the rainy season and 15°C in the dry season.
The Amazon Region in the eastern part of the country experiences rainfall throughout the year and the average temperature is around 21°C during most months of the year.
The Island region, comprising the Galapagos Islands, has a climate similar to that of the coastal region. Average temperature is about 25-26°C during the rainy season (December to May) and 21-22°C during the dry season (June to November), mainly owing to the influence of the cold Humboldt current.
- June - Swig chicha (indigenous corn beer) at the indigenous festival of Inti Raymi in the northern highlands.
- September - Processions, costumes, fireworks, dancing and Andean music at Latacunga’s Fiesta de la Mamá Negra.
- December - A week of parties in the capital commemorates the founding of Quito.
ECUADOR WEATHER SYNOPSIS
Ecuador has two major seasons that are differentiated by the distribution of rainfall (a rainy and a dry season). The coast has a tropical climate and a rainy season that extends from the end of December to May; the temperature scheme is characterised by a 2 to 3°C variation between the hottest and coldest months. The inter-Andean valleys have a temperate climate and rainy season from October to May and a dry season from June to September. Average monthly temperatures are about 14.5°C in the rainy season and 15°C in the dry season. The Amazon Region in the eastern part of the country experiences rainfall throughout the year and the average temperature is around 21°C during most months of the year. The Island region, comprising the Galapagos Islands, has a climate similar to that of the coastal region. Average temperature is about 25-26°C during the rainy season (December to May) and 21-22°C during the dry season (June to November), mainly owing to the influence of the cold Humboldt current.
ECUADOR TOURIST SEASONS
Most destinations have different times of the year when they’re more or less popular with tourists.
Off Peak Season
SPORT & ACTIVITIES
SNOW SPORT IN ECUADOR
Skiing in Ecuador is more of an expedition and not for the fainthearted. Be sure to make use of an accredited expedition company and don't forget to plan for altitude acclimatisation!
HIKING & CYCLING IN ECUADOR
The best time for outdoor activities and climbing in Ecuador is from November to February, although June to August can also be good. Some areas such as Cotopaxi can be climbed year round.
BEACH OPTIONS IN ECUADOR
The best time to visit the beaches of Ecuador is from December to May. June to November can be rather cool as well as cloudy and overcast.
SURFING IN ECUADOR
The best time for surfing in Ecuador is from December to April. During this season Ecuador has world class surf and consistent tropical waves. May to November is a good time for beginner to intermediate surfers just looking for some fun and uncrowded waves.
KITESURF IN ECUADOR
The season with the most consistent wind in Ecuador for kitesurfing is from May / June to November / December, although there is a pretty good chance of usable wind all year round. The main kiting spot is Santa Marianita, where there is also a school and amenities.
For more details on kite surfing in Ecuador expand this section!
HEALTH RISKS IN ECUADOR
Be aware of possible health risks in
Yellow fever - The yellow fever virus is found in tropical and subtropical areas of Africa and South America. The virus is spread to people by the bite of an infected mosquito. There is no medicine to treat or cure an infection. To prevent getting sick from yellow fever, use insect repellent, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, and get vaccinated.
Zika Virus - Zika is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus. Infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects. There is no vaccine or medicine for Zika.
Malaria - Malaria is a serious and sometimes fatal disease caused by a parasite that commonly infects a certain type of mosquito which feeds on humans. People who get malaria are typically very sick with high fevers, shaking chills, and flu-like illness. Although malaria can be a deadly disease, illness and death from malaria can usually be prevented.
Dengue - Dengue is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. About one in four people infected with dengue will get sick. For people who get sick with dengue, symptoms can be mild or severe.
ECUADOR TRAVEL COSTS
Galapagos aside, Ecuador is pretty cheap. You should be able to travel comfortably on a back-packers budget of US$ 30-40 per day if you’re staying in hostel dorms, eating at food stalls, cooking some of your meals, limiting your drinking, and using local transportation to get around. On a mid-range budget of about US$ 80 per day, you can stay in a private room or budget hotel, eat out all you want at cheap restaurants and street stalls, take taxis when you need to, do tours and visit museums, and enjoy a few drinks out at the bar.
On a high-end budget of US$300+ per day, you can stay in a hotel with a pool and tour the Galapagos. You’ll be able to rent a car or take domestic flights, eat out for every meal, drink as much as you want, and do as many tours as you’d like.
Accommodation is inexpensive in Ecuador. Dorms usually start around US$6 per night, while a private room ranges from US$ 10-20. Wi-Fi is mostly standard, and many hostels also include free breakfast. Budget hotels are only slightly more expensive than hostels, with prices starting around US$ 25 per night which usually include Wi-Fi and a free breakfast. For a hotel with a pool, expect to pay US$30 and up per night. Airbnb is also a great option, and for an entire home or apartment, expect prices to start around USD$ 25 - but in reality averages are closer to USD$ 40 per night.
Meals typically cost between US$ 3-5 for traditional meals such as ilapinchagos (fried potato cakes stuffed with cheese), ceviche, empanadas, arroz con pollo (chicken with rice). You will find stalls on the street with meals for around US$ 1-2. Western style meals will cost around US$ 10-12 and at a mid-range restaurant expect to spend US$ 20 per person.
There are many ways to rack up some great memories in South America without putting a big ding in the budget. Travel in South America is generally cheapest in Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia. Here are a few tips to find the best deals.
How To Stick to your Budget:
- Slow down - stick around and enjoy a place rather than rushing off to the next destination. The further and faster you go, the more you’ll have to pay.
- Eat like a local at street stalls or markets. Many restaurants have almuerzos, cheap lunches from a set menu. These are usually just a couple of dollars and might even include a drink!
- Opt for dorm rooms or share a room with a buddy.
- Stay in fan (non-air-con) rooms with shared bathroom.
- Travel overland instead of flying.
- Snorkel instead of dive.
- Choose small towns instead of big cities.
- Be discriminating about which sites and national parks to visit.
- Factor in more free days: on the beach and exploring neighbourhoods.
- Avoid package deals (transportation, lodging, touring).
- Know how much local transportation should cost and bargain accordingly.
- Avoid surprises by negotiating taxi fares before getting inside.
- Don’t forget to factor in the costs of visas.
- Track all of your daily expenses so you know your average costs.
ECUADOR TRAVEL TIPS
With the exception of flying to the Galápagos Islands, internal flights are generally fairly affordable, rarely exceeding $100 for a one-way ticket. All mainland flights are under an hour and often provide you with incredible views over the Andes.
Ecuadorian taxis come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but they are all yellow. Most taxis have a lit ‘taxi’ sign on top or a ‘taxi’ sticker on the windshield. In Quito and other bigger cities, licensed taxis have an orange or orange-striped license plate, with ID numbers clearly marked on the sides. Always ask the fare beforehand, or you may be overcharged. Meters are rarely seen, except in Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca. In rural areas, a taxi might actually just be a pick-up truck.
Uber is available in certain parts (as of writing): Ambato, Guayaquil, Ibarra, Machala, Manta, Quito, Salinas and Santo Domingo de Los Colorado.
Buses are the primary means of transport for most Ecuadorians, guaranteed to go just about anywhere. They can be exciting, cramped, comfy, smelly, fun, scary, sociable and gruelling, depending on your state of mind, where you’re going and who’s driving. Most major cities have a main terminal terrestre (bus terminal), although some towns have a host of private terminals – and you’ll have to go to the right one to catch the bus going where you need to go. Most stations are within walking distance or a short cab ride of the town’s center. Smaller towns are occasionally served by passing buses, in which case you have to walk from the highway into town, usually only a short walk since only the smallest towns lack terminals. Most routes travel along the common backpacking routes, but also into more remote areas. Long-distance buses typically cost from USD$ 1-2 per hour.
Driving a car or motorcycle in Ecuador presents its challenges, with potholes, blind turns, and insanely fast bus and truck drivers. Infrastructure has dramatically improved over the last years though, with new roads, bridges, and better road signage, making road travel much smoother.
Ecuador’s rail system is not a practical way to get around the country, although there are day trips along routes that are specifically designed for tourists. The route from Alausi along La Nariz del Diabo (The Devil’s Nose) is one of the most popular, thanks to its terrifyingly steep descent (See map for details).
SIGHTS & HIGHLIGHTS OF ECUADOR
- Quito - Delve into the picturesque Old Town, its cobblestone streets crisscrossing one of Latin America’s finest colonial centers.
- La Oriente - Stay in a jungle lodge, take wildlife-watching excursions and visit indigenous villages.
- Galápagos Islands - Snorkel with sea lions, spot penguins, and face off with gigantic tortoises.
- Otavalo - Haggle over handmade treasures in one of South America’s biggest open-air markets.
- Mindo - Hike in cloud forests, cool off in waterfalls and go ziplining over the canopy.
- Quilotoa Loop - Trek past topaz lakes and peaceful villages high up in the Andes.
- Parque Nacional Machalilla - Spot massive humpback whales on their annual migration.
Thanks to its compact size, travelling around Ecuador is easy and relatively fast, with few places more than a day’s bus ride from the capital. Unlike the attractions found in larger South American countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Chile, Ecuador’s contrasting regions and highlights are within easy reach of each other, allowing for a more flexible approach to route-planning.
Begin your trip in Quito. Spend at least two days soaking up the architectural gems of the Old Town, then make your way 2½ hours north to Otavalo for its famous market (best on Saturdays). Spend the night there and fit in a hike to the stunning lakes of Laguna de Cuicocha or Lagunas de Mojanda. On you fourth day, travel west (via Quito) to the lush cloud forests of Mindo. Overnight in a riverside or mountaintop lodge, then return to Quito for a flight to Cuenca, the colonial jewel of the south. Spend two days exploring the 500-year-old churches and visiting the fairy-tale-like setting of Parque Nacional Cajas, 30km to the west. If you have time, visit the Inca ruins of Ingapirca before continuing to Guayaquil for a flight to the Galápagos. Spend four days there, wildlife-watching and island-hopping. For the final part, fly back to Guayaquil and onward (via Quito) to Coca, gateway to the Amazon. Spend three nights at a jungle lodge on the Lower Río Napo, one of the best places to see Ecuador’s Amazonian wildlife.
QUITO & SURROUNDS
A capital city high in the Andes, Quito is dramatically situated, squeezed between mountain peaks whose greenery is concealed by the afternoon mist. Modern apartment buildings and modest concrete homes creep partway up the slopes, and busy commercial thoroughfares lined with shops and choked with traffic turn into peaceful neighbourhoods on Sundays. Warm and relaxed, traditional Ecuadorian Sierra culture – overflowing market stands, shamanistic healers, fourth-generation hat-makers – mixes with a vibrant and sophisticated culinary and nightlife scene.
Quito makes a great base for exploring the region’s striking geography and biodiversity, with excellent day trips available to volcanoes and remote forest reserves. South America’s most fabled market (Otavalo), the sublime Cotopaxi volcano, the cloud forests around Mindo and the Papallacta hot springs (en route to the Oriente) can also be visited in a long day trip.
Follow the snaking Panamericana past florid Cayambe to the vibrant market town of Otavalo and surrounding indigenous villages. As the spine of the Andes bends north from Quito, volcanic peaks punctuate valleys blanketed by flower farms and sugarcane fields. This is Ecuador’s beating heart and a cradle of Andean culture: artisans produce their wares using methods unaltered for generations, and visitors find some of the country’s best deals here, on everything from leather goods to traditional weavings. High-altitude landscapes surrender to steamy lowlands in the west, a rich transitional zone where coffee plantations flourish in the spectacular but politically contested Intag Valley. Further south, laid-back Mindo is a base for bird-watching, hiking and river romps. Remote jungle lodges are scattered around the region for those looking to retreat deeper into nature. Wherever you go, off-the-beaten-path adventures, sustainable community-tourism initiatives and volunteering opportunities are close by.
Every Saturday the world seems to converge on the bustling Ecuadorian town of Otavalo in the Andes, where a huge market spreads from the Plaza de Ponchos throughout the town. While the crowds can be a drag and the quality is immensely changeable, the choice is enormous and you’ll find some incredible bargains here among the brightly coloured rugs, traditional crafts, clothing, Tigua folk art and quality straw hats. Nearby, the squawks and squeals of livestock drown out the chatter of Kichwa-speaking farmers at Otavalo’s equally famous animal market.
More location information and points of interest are available in the above map
The rooftop of Ecuador offers up more adventure per square meter than most places on earth. There are heavenly volcanoes, glacier-capped peaks, high-arching grassy plains, surprisingly quaint colonial cities, bucolic haciendas and precipitous green valleys that take you from highlands down past waterfalls and indigenous villages to the heavy-aired environs of the Amazon Basin. Most trips to the area will include a couple of days in the region’s exceptional national parks and reserves, including Los Ilinizas, Cotopaxi, Llanganates, Chimborazo and Sangay. The Quilotoa Loop brings hiking travellers through traditional indigenous communities to an impossibly deep crater lake. And there are rail adventures and crafts markets, plus plenty of tropical experiences in the verdant valley leading down to the ever-popular town of Baños. In Baños, you can take a scenic DIY bike ride from highland to jungle, stopping at waterfalls along the way. In the evening, recover with a soak in the hot springs followed by dinner and microbrews at one of the town’s enticing eateries.
Still mountainous, but also more benign, the southern spine of the Ecuadorian Andes ushers intrepid travellers down lush valleys that hide some treats: pastel-hued colonial towns and remote villages where indigenous cultures thrive. Veering from chilly, elfin woodland to humid lowland forest, the region is home to a huge diversity of wildlife and landscapes; make time for a trip to at least one of the region’s national parks. Most journeys begin in Cuenca, a classic South American traveller hub with one of the continent’s best-preserved colonial centers. Then it’s a choose-your-own-adventure romp through seldom-visited ancient settlements and untrammelled wild areas toward vibrant, museum-rich Loja and balmy Vilcabamba. From here, forays begin into stark ochre hills, along verdant slopes where Ecuador’s best coffee is cultivated and down into sticky semitropical forest.
The vast tract of land locally known as Amazonía holds plenty of drama. Rivers churn from the Andes into the dense, sweltering rainforest on course for the Amazon basin. Along the way, ancient indigenous tribes call riverbanks home and astounding wildlife can be glimpsed. Those lucky enough to reach the remoter jungle lodges (several hours downriver from the nearest towns) will be able to fish for piranhas on silent blackwater lakes, hear the menacing boom of howler monkeys, spot the shining eyes of caiman at night-time and – perhaps – spy one of those elusive bigger mammals such as a tapir or jaguar. Exploring the Oriente gives you the unforgettable experience of seeing the natural world up close and personal. But this region is not just jungle. Ecuador’s best thermal spa, most spectacular waterfall, most active volcanoes and most formidable white-water rapids also await.
PACIFIC COAST & LOWLANDS
While not a high priority for most travellers, Ecuador’s coast offers a mix of surf towns, sleepy fishing villages, whale-watching in the south and Afro-Ecuadorian culture in the north. Make sure to keep in mind the weather as although December to May is the rainy season, it is also the sunniest; the sun blazes both before and after the afternoon downpour. June through November has mild days (and chilly nights), but it’s often overcast. (See map for more details).
The Galápagos Islands may just inspire you to think differently about the world. This is not the Bahamas and these aren’t typical tropical paradises; in fact, most of the islands are devoid of vegetation and some look more like the moon than Hawaii. However, more humans live here than is commonly assumed, and there’s a surprising level of development in the islands’ towns, mostly geared toward the thriving tourism industry. This isolated group of volcanic islands and its extremely fragile ecosystem has taken on almost-mythological status as a showcase of biodiversity. Yet you don’t have to be an evolutionary biologist or an ornithologist to appreciate one of the few places left on the planet where the human footprint is kept to a minimum.
There are 13 major islands (ranging in area from 14 sq km to 4588 sq km), six small islands (1 sq km to 5 sq km) and scores of islets, of which only some are named. Five of the islands are inhabited. About half the residents live in Puerto Ayora, on Isla Santa Cruz in the middle of the archipelago. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on Isla San Cristóbal (the easternmost island) is second in importance to Puerto Ayora when it comes to tourism. The other inhabited islands are Isla Isabela (the largest island, accounting for half the archipelago’s land mass), with the small, increasingly popular town of Puerto Villamil; Isla Baltra; and Isla Floreana, with Puerto Velasco Ibarra. The remaining islands are not inhabited but are visited on tours. (See the above map for more detail). Take note of the chunky park fee and transfer control fee - all payable in cash.
WHAT TO EAT IN ECUADOR
Ecuador has eating options for most palates, especially in Guayaquil and Quito, where international cuisine, fast food and most styles of South American dishes can be found. Ecuadorian specialties vary depending on which region you find yourself in, but one thing’s for sure – the whole country loves plantain. Typical plates include meat or fish, with a choice of carbs plus vegetables or salad. It’s common to be served double carbs (commonly rice, with beans, lentils, plantain or potatoes) with most meals.
Ceviche (fresh, raw fish, cured in fresh citrus juice) is one of the most popular dishes in Ecuador – you’ll find it everywhere from street stalls and hole-in-the-wall restaurants to five-star hotels. Unlike Peru’s better-known “dry” version, Ecuadorian ceviche is served in a watery broth, typically consisting of lime juice and/or the liquid the seafood was prepared in. While shrimp and fish are the most popular versions, you’ll also find vegetarian ceviche made with hearts of palm or lupini beans (chocho).
Canelazo - Aguardiente (sugarcane alcohol) with hot cider and cinnamon, distilled and warmed perfect for Andean nights.
Ceviche - Ecuador’s take on sushi, but 'cooked' just a bit.
Chifle - Because banana chips are awesome.
Chugchucaras - Deep fried pork, mote, potatoes, fried plantains, empanadas, and pork rinds.
Pajaro Azul - Herb-infused aguardiente that will have you seeing stars.
LGBTQ IN ECUADOR
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people's rights in Ecuador are still not quite equal to others. In 1998, Ecuador became one of the first countries in the world to constitutionally ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. The country has recognised same-sex civil unions since 2008. Same-sex marriage in Ecuador became legal on 8 July 2019, making Ecuador the fifth South American country to allow same-sex couples to marry.
A fairly large gay scene has developed in Quito and Guayaquil, with Ecuador's first gay pride parade held in Quito in 1998. Nevertheless, much of Ecuador has a conservative culture, and homosexuality still tends to be viewed negatively by a large percentage of society.
WHERE TO STAY IN ECUADOR
There is no shortage of places to stay in Ecuador, but during major fiestas or the night before market day, accommodations can be tight, so plan ahead. Most hotels have single-room rates, although during high season some beach towns charge for the number of beds in the room, regardless of the number of people checking in. In popular resort areas, high-season prices (running from June to August and mid-December to January) are about 30% higher than the rest of the year.
Ecuador has a growing number of youth hostels, as well as inexpensive pensiones (short-term budget accommodations in a family home). Staying with families is an option in remote villages.
Lodging will be one of your biggest expenses. Here are some tips for keeping sleeping costs down:
- If the price is too high, ask if the hotel or guesthouse has anything cheaper.
- Unless it is the low season, most rates are non-negotiable – though it never hurts to ask for a discounted price.
- Pay for the first day rather than for multiple days all at once. This gives you the option of changing hotels if the conditions are unsuitable.
- However, if you do decide you are going to stay for a few days, ask for a discount. Some hotels will give better rates if you’re staying more than a couple of nights.
- Advance reservations (especially with advance deposits) are generally not necessary.
- If you do make a booking, don’t use an agent, who will charge a commission.
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