Where to Go
Tucked away on the western coast of South America, Ecuador is one of the most diverse and complex countries you can find, with everything from high altitude mountains, to the unique natural wonders of the Galapagos that have their own little segment in the history books.
Home to a wealth of animal species, colonial cities, natural wonders, and more, there are a number of incredible places to visit – and this is, understandably, very daunting.
To make it a bit easier, we scoured and hunted for the absolute best places to go to experience all the best the country has to offer.
The Galapagos islands
Some of the most incredible islands in the world, it’s here that Charles Darwin established much of his theory of evolution, a scientific principle that dominates the way we see the world today. The wildlife here is astonishing and having never learn to fear humans it won’t flee at the first bit of intrusion – perfect for any avid animal lovers.
The name of the islands comes from the gentle giant tortoises that call the area their home, of which there are a number of subspecies – all of which are taught about and exhibited at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora.
Made up of a number of islands, each one brings with it its own unique essence, whether that’s the different tortoises, iguanas, boobies, or finches you spot there. There’s also golden rays, dolphins, whales, and friendly sharks to swim with in the oceans.
Quito is the highest capital city in the world, sitting at approximately 2,800 metres above sea level. And yet, there are still over 2 million people living here, tucked away in an active volcano section of the Andes. Home to one of the most preserved districts in the continent, the city was officially founded in the mid 1500s, which means it’s the proud owner of at least 20 catholic churches from the Colonial Era.
There’s not much to the little town of Otavalo, except perhaps the most important weekly market that can be found in the Andes, that’s been going for centuries – since even before the Incas conquered. One of the go to places for traditional handmade craft items, leather goods, jewellery and more, it’s also a photographer’s paradise, with Ecuadoreans wearing their traditional clothing and the snow-capped mountains providing the perfect backdrop.
Notable for the incredible number of colonial buildings that can be found here, Cuenca is the perfect example of a Renaissance town in America that was planned to be exactly this. In fact, the town shares many of the same architectural features as Old Quito. Complete with narrow, cobbled streets, courtyards tucked away behind balconied houses, and even aesthetic white churches – all without the pollution and crowds that can be found at Quito. Plus, it’s also right around the corner from the largest Inca ruins in the country.
The largest city in Ecuador, Guayaquil is home to 2.7 million people, making it the heart of the country. With that many people, it could feel hectic, but instead there’s an incredibly friendly atmosphere, with different parts of the city blending seamlessly together, interwoven with colonial buildings, lush gardens, and plenty of native animals. Visit Las Peñas if you want to admire the colourful old neighbourhood houses, complete with a lighthouse and great views of the city below.
What to Do
From cultural hot spots, to the islands made famous for helping inspire Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, to hiking options, and colonial treasures, everything about Ecuador combines to make it one of the most unique and interesting places you’ll ever visit.
Ascend to the peak of Cotopaxi
By far the most beautiful volcano in the entirety of South America, Cotopaxi is surrounded by an immense national park that’s home to wild horses, llamas, foxes, and more. Just a short two-hour journey from the capital – so only $4 on the bus – it’s set over 33,400 hectares of striking land.
There are opportunities to hike or horse-ride across the lower altitudes of the park, while birdwatching is common here with over 9- different species often spotted. Plus, the volcano itself is the best climb in the country – although it’s not easy and will take between 6 and 10 hours.
Ride the Devil’s Nose train
First built during the early 20th century, the Devil’s Nose is locally called the Nariz del Diablo, and refers to a stretch of railroad that travels through the Andes mountains. The track descends almost vertically, making its way from Alausi to Sibambe. Make sure you sit on the right-hand side and you’ll be treated to magnificent views across the mountains, waterfalls, winding rivers and more.
Sleep in an Amazonian lodge
There’s no better way to explore the Amazon rainforest then to spend a night in its depths. There are a number of fantastic little eco-lodges to make this possible, with many of them offering adventures galore for your entire stay. There’s paddle canoes down the river, learning to cook with Yasuní locals, trek past howler monkeys in the forest, birdwatching, and enjoying a peaceful evening under the stars. If you stay within the Panacocha Protected Forest you’ll also get the chance to spot the rare Amazon pink river dolphin.
Visit the ruins in Ingapirca
Ecuador’s version of Machu Picchu is one of the most intact ruins that still remains in the country, offering a unique insight into the Inca Empire that once ruled these lands. The ruins here were once an observatory for the Cañari people, and then used as a stronghold for the Inca military during the 13th century. Today, the site is used as a museum run by the indigenous Cañari, displaying ancient artefacts stretching back over a thousand years.
Found in Puerto Ayora, this museum uses virtual and augmented reality to showcase 55 pre-Columbian artefacts – making it the first of its kind to showcase this. The ancient cultures that once dominated the Amazon and coastal regions of Ecuador are brought to life throughout the museum, with historical information as well as 3D images appearing when visitors direct their phones at the relics.
Read More About Ecuador
Best Time to Visit Ecuador
Ecuador doesn’t really experience the typical summer and winter seasonal weather that occurs across the northern hemisphere. Instead, it’s fairy regional, determined most likely by the altitude.
Typically, the warmest and direst months are guaranteed between June and September, although some areas experience their own microclimates. For instance, typical sierra weather outside of this time will still offer sunny and clear mornings, but often wet afternoons, while the Oriente is warm, humid, and rainy all year round.
The coast is the area with the most clearly defined seasons, with the dry seasons tending to fall between December and April, while May until November is tends to be overcast and cool.
In terms of festivals and events, La Diablada de Píllaro (The Devils of Pillaro) takes place in January, which sees thousands of “imps” take the streets to dance in the Diablada. Then there’s the Sun Festival – Inti Raymi – in June and July, with the major party taking place on the 2nd June, as well as the Yamor (Corn) Festival occurring in September.
How Much Does it Cost
If we’re talking about mainland Ecuador and not including the Galapagos Islands – which can be incredibly pricey to get to – then you’ll find the area is actually very cheap.
A comfortable daily budget here could be between $30-35, if you’re staying in hostels, enjoying the local street food, and using public transport.
Typical costs while backpacking across Ecuador:
The costs in Ecuador are already fairly low, but that doesn’t mean there’s no quick and easy hacks to save yourself even more money – and maybe help budget for that pricey excursion to the Galapagos Islands.
One quick way is to avoid hostels altogether, and actually stay in hospedajes – family-run guesthouses that cost just a couple of dollars a night and come with the added bonus of some locals to show you around.
In addition, if you’re eating out then try and stick to the markets, or ask for the almuerzos in restaurants. Most will have them, and they’re essentially just cheap lunches from a set menu – plus they include drinks.
What to Pack
Ecuador is odd in that you’re going to need different outfits depending on where you’re travelling to – even if it’s all in the same month, or same week, even. For instance, there are some very high altitude, mountainous regions – and even cities – that can be quite chilly, but then head to the Galapagos and you’ll want light airy clothes to deal with the clear blue skies and warm sunshine.
Typically, you’ll be good to go with some hiking gear – including walking boots – layerable clothes, a rain jacket, leggings, t-shirts, shorts, sun hat, towel, nice clothes for the evening, a swimming costume, toiletries, and a first aid kit.
There are a number of different accommodation styles you can choose from in Ecuador – including the trust hostel, don’t you worry. To be honest though, you won’t need hostels as you’ll be much more interested in some of the unique accommodation only Ecuador has to offer.
These range from beach surf shacks to cosy mountain lodges, and more often than not you’ll find they’re run by small families – which makes them very cosy, and very local.
It’s not entirely necessary to book in advance, however the more popular destinations will book up fast and you’ll be stuck having to look for more expensive alternatives. With that in mind, if you’re heading to a popular tourist destination – think old-town Quito or Baños – then it’s probably worth booking ahead.
Food and Drink
Ecuador is blessed to be the home of some of the finest food you can find in South America – and some of the weirdest. Take cuy for instance, which is literally just roast guinea pig, often served at a street food vendor on a stick.
With three distinct regions in the country, the choice of food varies a lot; the highland cuisine will typically involve warm, hearty dishes, while coastal cuisine is dominated by seafood, and Oriente is full of rice, bananas, fish, and more.
While you’re there, make sure to check out the encocados, which is a traditional coastal dish of fish served in a coconut sauce, as well as seco de chivo – a goat stew served on special occasions. Some regions even have piranha as a delicacy, which is definitely worth trying at least once.
In terms of drinking, the two dominant beers are Pilsner and Club, and you’ll find one or the other depending what side of the country you’re on. There’s also Pisco, a local brandy, and Inca Kola, which is essentially a green version of Irn-Bru.
Ecuador is a fairly conservative and good-natured country, and it pays well to be polite while you’re there. That includes greeting properly – buenos dias in the morning, buenas tardes in the afternoon, and buenas noches during the evening.
A number of other cultural things to bear in mind when backpacking through Ecuador include:
- Neatness in dress will always earn respect, particularly in the highlands
- The most common greeting is a handshake with direct eye contact and a smile
- Never give lilies or marigolds as they are used at funerals
- Food is always eaten with a knife and fork – even fruit
- If you don’t want to drink anymore, leave your glass one-quarter full
There are at least 20 languages spoken across Ecuador, but the most common by far is Spanish. Having said that, Kichwa is one of the most common native languages in the country with over 1,000,000 speakers, so it’s good to learn a few phrases if you can.
However, Spanish will easily be enough to get you around. So, with that in mind, here are some handy Spanish phrases to help you get around Ecuador:
- Buenos dias / tardes / noches
- Como estás
- Una cerveza y una tapa
- Por favor
- Sin bolsa de plastic
- No entiendo
- Me puedes ayudar, por favour?
- Good day / evening / night
- How are you
- One beer with a tapa
- No plastic bag
- Excuse me
- I don’t understand
- Can you help me, please?
The most common way to get around Ecuador is to use the bus, especially throughout the cities. It costs as little as 25 cents, although bear in mind that bus stops aren’t really a thing in Ecuador. Unless you’re in Quito, you will just have to flag down a bus as it passes and tell the driver where you’ like to be dropped off.
The bus system across the country is incredible extensive, with hundreds of companies in operation, and a lot of the routes going through the major backpacking destinations. Plus, the long-distance buses will cost as little as $1-2 an hour which is insane.
The train routes aren’t the best, and typically there just isn’t a rail system in Ecuador. There are a few day trips that are designed for tourists, such as the one that goes from Alausi along La Nariz del Diabo – popular thanks to its terrifyingly steep descent – but honestly your best bet is to stick to the buses.
For the most part, visitors are allowed to enter Ecuador without a visa, and they can stay up to a maximum of 90 days – expect citizens from Peru, who are allowed to stay for 180 days.
To enter Ecuador, all visitors must have a passport valid for at least 6 months. For citizens from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay, they can enter with just an ID card.
For the Galapagos Islands, all visitors must pre-register online and obtain a Transit Control Card at the airport.
Is It Safe?
Typically speaking, Ecuador is a safe country, especially for South American standards – whether you’re travelling as part of a group, on your own, or even ads a female solo traveller.
The main thing to watch out for is petty theft, but it’s easy to avoid this; keep your valuables – laptops, jewellery, mobile phones – out of sight, and be extra wary around transport terminals.
If you’re travelling through or staying in Quito at all, avoid the old town completely at night, and be wary of taxi crimes in most of the major cities such as Quito, Guayaquil, Manta, and Playas.
One good thing about Ecuador is if something does happen, there’s a special tourist police division designed to help travellers. Make sure you install the travel safety app on your phone, and when you call for help the police can find you using GPS if they need to.
A Brief History
Contrary to popular belief, Ecuador was largely inhabited by a number of local tribes thousands of years before even the Inca Empire arrived. It was during the 15th century that the Incas took control of the area, following several years of unrest with the local tribes.
The Inca rule lasted until 1534 when the Spanish arrived, defeating the Incas and taking control of the land. It was during this time that the city of Quito was established as a major city, which thus led to it being identified as a World Cultural Heritage Site hundreds of years later.
It was in 1822 that the county finally gained independence from Spain, when Simon Bolivar and his armies defeated the Spanish conquerors. It didn’t initially become the land we now know as Ecuador, however, but was part of a larger group of countries known as Gran Columbia, until 1830 when Ecuador branched out on its own to become a separate, independent country.
Since the emergence of independent country states, Ecuador and Peru have had a tumultuous history, with long battles and disputes over their borders. These occurred until 1999, when an agreement was signed, agreeing to the borders as they are now.
- Ecuador is the closest country to space
- Charles Darwin developed his Theory of Coral Atolls in the Galapagos Islands
- The national tree is the cinchona tree which produces Quinine, the first drug used to prevent and treat malaria
- It’s the only country in the world named after a geographical feature
- You can visit the equator and place one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern hemisphere
- It’s the orchid capital of the world, with 4,250 different species
- Ecuador as a country was founded in 1532 by the Spanish, who drove out the Incans to claim it
- It’s the world’s largest exporter of bananas, exporting 2.7 billion worth of them annually – a quarter of all banana exports in 2016
- It was the first nation to ever declare that nature had constitutional rights
If you really want to make the most of your time in Ecuador, then check out these useful resources. When you’re backpacking, it’s always better to be safe and prepared than winging it.
- Links incoming