Ecuador is one of the smallest countries in South America, but what it lacks in square kilometers it makes up for with uniqueness in a big way. Ecuador is less than half the size of the US state of Texas and only marginally larger than the United Kingdom, but every single part of the country is so ecologically diverse it’s totally incomparable to anywhere else on earth. From the archipelago of the Galapagos Islands, to the Amazon Rainforest, to the snow-capped Andes Mountains and the sweeping white sand beaches of the coastal regions, there’s something different and exciting to see everywhere you go.
Ecuador is a country where the welcoming warmth and hospitality of the people is beyond limits. It’s a society that has its roots in the ancient civilizations of the Cañari and the Incas who have left their mark on the land with ruins as impressive as Machu Picchu in Peru. The influences of the 16th century Spanish conquests are also still apparent in the country’s capital, Quito, and in Cuenca where there are well-preserved historic centers with plazas and cobbled streets lined with colonial buildings. Away from the main urbanizations, where forest meets foothills, there are still indigenous tribes like the Waorani and Quichua living life in the same primitive way they’ve been doing for centuries.
All of the above factors sum up to make Ecuador a fascinating country to visit, but what makes it even more special is its incredible biodiversity. If you’re a nature lover, then Ecuador is one place you really must visit at least once in your lifetime. There you can horse ride through the Amazon Jungle surrounded by trailing vines and orchids, spot monkeys, snakes and gigantic tarantulas as well as many rare species of butterflies. Sail over to the Galapagos Islands to go whale and dolphin watching or take photos of the characterful blue-footed booby bird. There’s no shortage of adventures to be had in Ecuador. Hike up to a volcano summit that’s the closest point on earth to the sun, sleep under canvas in the jungle or fly over the canopy on a rope swing known as the Swing At The End Of The Earth.
When To Go To Ecuador
Ecuador has a relatively stable climate all year round though there are some regional variations you should take into account depending on which part of the country you’re planning to visit. On average temperatures maintain a steady level varying only slightly from around 21°C to 25°C.
Winter in Ecuador is from June through to September and is notably one of the more drier seasons with less rainfall and more moderate temperatures. Rainfall is heavier from October to May which is classed as the summer. Don’t forget though that at whatever time of year you go once you start climbing mountains or volcanoes, the higher you go the chillier it will get.
To enjoy the beaches of the west coast at their best go anytime from December to April when the days are clear and warm. Head there from November to the end of March and you could experience lots of gloomy, overcast days that are just not beach weather. Best time to go to the Galapagos Islands is from June to November. The rest of the time higher humidity can make the atmosphere uncomfortable for traveling around.
Language & Religion
Spanish is the main language spoken in Ecuador with English being used as a second-language for business and commercial purposes. All of the surviving indigenous tribes also speak their own language though these are not widely practiced or understood among the general population of the country.
Christianity is the main religion in Ecuador with almost eighty percent of the population following the Roman Catholic denomination. All other religions including Islam, Judaism and Buddhism have only minority followings.
Currency, ATMs & Credit Cards
The official currency in Ecuador is the US dollar, but although the notes are the same, the country does issue its own coins known as centavos rather than cents. The only foreign currencies accepted for exchange are those of Columbia and Peru as well as the Euro.
There are ATMs in retail outlets and financial institutions in all the major cities with varying daily withdrawal limits depending on the bank operating the machine. Charges are applied to cash withdrawals. These also vary depending on the bank. Credit and debit cards are widely accepted. There are no ATMs in the Amazon Jungle, so if that’s where you’re headed – take cash.
Network & SIM Cards
Claro and Movistar are the two main telecommunication companies operating in Ecuador. Claro provides the best and most consistent service throughout the country. Cheap, rechargeable SIM cards are readily available from authorized outlets. SIM cards containing packages with calls, messages and data can be purchased for as little as $5. You will need to show your passport and provide the details of your hotel when buying a card. Top-up vouchers can be bought from authorized dealers or at pre-paid SIM machines in larger towns.
How To Get Around Ecuador
Ecuador is a safe country to travel around so long as you follow the usual precautions you would if you were in your own country. It has a well-developed public bus services with affordable prices and excellent connections. The buses are clean, comfortable and in the most part fitted with air-conditioning. You can also fly between Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca if you prefer. It’s faster than the bus but obviously costs quite a bit more.
Typical Food of Ecuador
As you might expect, food in Ecuador has a heavy Spanish influence. There are also many regional variations to the country’s typical food. Inland you’ll find dishes are more meat and vegetable based while on the coast fish and seafood are more common. Root vegetables like yucca or cassava as it’s also known is a staple part of the Ecuadorian diet. Basic stews like seco de pollo, a juicy chicken casserole, or estofado, a beef stew, are usually flavored with ground cumin and topped with freshly chopped coriander. One variant of preparation known as a sudado is meat or fish cooked gently on a base of onions and tomatoes with root vegetables like carrots, yucca and potato added at a later stage. Plantain or green banana is another common and very tasty addition to the dish. Plantains and green bananas are frequently served as a side too along with a bowl of rice topped with a fried egg. They may be just fried or mashed with soft white cheese before being formed into a ball – bolon de verde.
Best Places To Visit In Ecuador
Quito is the capital of Ecuador and its cultural and economic center. Located high up in the Andes, the city sits at an elevation of over nine-thousand feet. Quito’s historic Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest historic center in South America. What makes Quito unusual is the fact that the city has been built exactly on the equator and so lies within two distinct hemispheres. Visit the Monument of the Equator in the suburbs of the city and you’ll be able to stand with one foot either side of the equatorial line. Around the monument, there’s the Ciudad Mitad Del Mundo – Middle World City – where there are cafes, restaurants, a planetarium and a museum.
Things To Do In Quito
To explore Quito, head to the pedestrianized Calle La Rambla. It’s a traffic-free street that winds through the historic center, several plazas and is lined with cafes, bars and restaurants. You’ll come across the Plaza San Francisco with its ornate, 15th century, twin-towered church, San Francisco Church which is full of religious sculpture and paintings. In the Plaza Grande is the Carondelet Palace, a stunning building that houses the country’s government. Take a stroll through Parque La Carolina the city’s central park and an enormous green space amid the bustle of Quito’s urbanity.
To catch some great views of the city, board the TeleferiQo an aerial tramway that rises above Quito to over three-thousand feet. It will literally take your breath away. If you have enough vacation time, plan visits to some of the fifty-plus museums in Quito and you’ll be able to find out more about the Ecuadorian people and their fascinating history.
Where To Eat & Drink In Quito
If you’re passing through Quito’s historic district, try the Octava de Corpus. It’s one of the city’s best fine dining spots. The restaurant offers high quality fusion cuisine and has a wine cellar with over two-hundred different types of wines. For some traditional, no frills, Ecuadorian food go to the Cafe Dios No Muere where you can fill up on tasty fried yucca, typical sudados and great estofado.
For a buzzing night out, go to the Plaza Foch. It’s an iconic district in Quito where you’ll find all types of bars, clubs, and micro-breweries.
Where To Stay In Quito
Accommodation is relatively economical in Quito and if you’re traveling on a budget, you won’t go far wrong with either of these two great hostels. The Hostel Revolution is a laid back and very affordable hostel in Quito that’s close to the La Mariscal area commonly called the gringo area where there are plenty of restaurants and bars. The hostel looks after their guests really well and provides free WIFI, a free breakfast, city maps, and a free city tour if you want one. The Hostel Selina is an ultra-comfortable hostel with an up-to-date artsy design with all the amenities you could ask for. It’s ideal for backpackers or adventurous explorers who want somewhere comfortable but don’t want to pay a fortune.
Other Places To Visit Around Quito
Otavalo Market is South America’s largest open market and a must do if you want to grab some Instagram-worthy photos of an amazingly colorful location while you’re in Ecuador. Stroll through the humdrum of the stalls and you’ll find handmade ponchos, blankets woven from Alpaca wool, hats, bags, jewelry, and all sorts of handcrafted goods that make perfect gifts or souvenirs.
Otavalo is around sixty kilometers from Quito and while the market is held every day, Saturdays are when the most local craftsmen are there. The market is open from seven in the morning until six in the evening and as there’s so much to see, it’s well worth making a day of it.
Laguna Quilotoa or Lake Quilotoa is an accumulation of water inside an extinct volcanic crater four thousand meters up in the Andes mountains. The lake, which is almost three kilometers wide, has stunning turquoise-blue water and is surrounded by the dark and jagged edges of the caldera. It is incredibly scenic and quite probably one of the most spectacular places on Earth. That’s a fact that makes it one of the most visited places in Ecuador. Take the three hour trip from Quito to Quilotoa, hike up the side of the volcano and you’ll begin to understand why. It’s an incredible sight. Go on an organised tour and you’ll have a guide to show you the way and be able to kayak across the lake when you reach the top.
If volcano tourism is your thing, you won’t want to miss visiting Cotopaxi when you’re in Ecuador. Cotopaxi is an active volcano fifty kilometers from Quito. There are plenty of tour agencies in Quito that will offer you a three day- two night hiking adventure to go up Cotopaxi, but you’ll need to be prepared to cope with the high altitude. It can induce altitude sickness which is not pleasant. Hiking this mountain is a mind-blowing experience that you will never forget and if you want, on the way back, you will have the opportunity to cycle down the volcano. That’s wild.
Cuenca is a city in central Ecuador around five hundred kilometers south of the capital Quito. The characterful city nestles high up in the Andes between the Cajas National Park to the west and the Ingapirca Inca ruins to the north. It’s a city where four rivers converge into a basin or cuenca which is where the name originates from.
Cuenca has both old and new parts. In the Old Town, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the most dominant features are the two cathedrals separated by the green space of Calderon Park. The Old Cathedral, the Iglesia de El Sagrario, is a sixteenth century construction now used as a museum. The New Cathedral, reminiscent of Mediterranean churches with it’s blue-domed towers, was built in the mid-1970s. A one way traffic system operates in the narrow streets of the Old Town as they were built before cars existed and not wide enough to take two vehicles at once. Take a wander around the cobbled streets lined with cafes and bars and you’ll soon be captivated by Cuenca’s slightly old-world atmosphere.
Things To Do In Cuenca
Cuenca is a city that has its roots in the ancient Inca civilization and there’s no where better to find out all about the city’s origins than at the Pumapungo Museum exploring their indoor and outdoor exhibits which include Inca ruins. There are also great exhibits on the Cañari civilization at the Archaeology Museum. Catch up with the times by visiting the Museum of Modern Art next to Parque San Blas or the Theater Casa de la Cultura then be engulfed by the aromas in the Flower Market behind the New Cathedral. Don’t miss out on taking a quiet stroll along the banks of the Tomebamba River. The waterside walkway is the place in the city for people watching and being seen.
Where to Eat & Drink In Cuenca
You’ll find the food and drink ridiculously cheap in Cuenca which is a good thing as it’s all so tasty, you’ll want to try some of everything, well, apart from roasted guinea pig that is. That’s something only for the gastronomically courageous and with a strong stomach. If just the thought of ingesting guinea pig meat leaves you considering turning vegetarian or you already are, don’t worry, you’ll find plenty of tasty food to tuck into. One must-try is Ecuadorian humitas. They’re made from ground maize mixed into a paste with cheese and butter before being wrapped in the leaves of a corn cob to be steamed. If you want to eat out and avoid meat, try the Paraiso Restaurant. It serves vegan and vegetarian special menus for as little as $3 that include soup and a second course.
For general food, meat included, go to the Mercado 10 de Agosto. It’s a market with food stalls where you’ll find daily specials starting at $2.50. There are veggie options too. For something simple and familiar, go to Tutto Freddo’s. It’s a pizza and ice cream parlour right under the arches of the New Cathedral where they serve a tasty lasagna, great pizzas and an incredible array of ice creams and desserts you’ll be hard put to choose between.
When you want a night out on the town, start in La Compañia in the Plaza La Merced. It’s reputedly the best brewery in town. The atmosphere is warm and friendly and the beer is cold. Try their dark brew. It gives even Guinness a run for its money. For late night partying that won’t kill your budget, go to La Zoosiedad. It’s an epic night club that opens after midnight and serves incredible Canelazos, a hot and sweet cinnamon cocktail for $2. There’s great salsa and 80s music too. If you prefer electronic parties with flashing lights and pumped up music, head for RocaRio by the river. It’s small but lively though does charge an entry fee so expect to pay on the door before they let you in to enjoy yourself.
Where To Stay In Cuenca
Two blocks away from the New Cathedral in Cuenca’s Old Town, you’ll find the Check Inn Hostel. It’s a five story building with incredible views from the top terrace. Breakfast is included in the room price which starts at around $6.50 for a bed in a dorm. That’s a bargain and includes free WiFi.
The Anicha Hostel is also right in the center of the Old Town. It has a great decor with unusual murals, lots of plants and a small in-house cinema plus a bar and restaurant. Prices start at about $7 for dorm accommodation with breakfast.
Places to Visit Near Cuenca
National Park Cajas
The National Park Cajas is just a few miles outside of Cuenca, and encompasses a huge portion of the Andes as well as over one-hundred lagoons. It’s a region with lots of wildlife too see so keep an eye out for llamas, multiple species of birds, and wild rabbits. At the lower altitudes of the mountains, herds of wild horses roam freely and that’s an amazing sight to see. The thirty minute journey to the park can be made by the local bus services. A one-way ticket costs around $2.
The Ingapirca Ruins are an important archeological site near Cuenca that includes a fortress built by the Incas, as well as other ruins dating back to the ancient Cañari civilization. There’s a lot to see at the site. It’s all outdoors and at an altitude, so take a jacket when you go as it can be chilly and windy.
To explore some of Ecuador’s incredible landscapes on foot, head to Giron. It’s a small town an hour away from Cuenca by bus. At the bus stop in Giron, don’t go into the town, but set off to the right. The short hike will lead you to El Chorro, a stunning waterfall. If you’re feeling up to it, carry on hiking and you’ll discover another cascade which covers the entire side of a hill. You’ll be trekking through beautiful countryside dense with greenery and wildflowers as well as an odd cow or two.
Baños de Agua Santa
Baños de Agua Santa is a town in the Tungurahua Province. Close to the Amazon Basin, it’s surrounded by lush forests and impressive waterfalls, and overlooked by the dominant presence of the Tungurahua Volcano. An active stratovolcano that periodically spews out smoke and molten lava.
While the town itself is welcoming and clean, with many restaurants, micro-breweries, and decent hostels, most visitors make the two-hour trip there from Quito to go sightseeing or enjoy the nightlife. They go to participate in outdoor activities. Baños is a paradise for hiking enthusiasts who like to explore scenic landscapes on trails running alongside roaring cascades. It also draws many volcano tourists to observe the lava flows or trek up the steep mountainsides. The fast-flowing Rio Pastaza is a popular and challenging spot for practicing white water rafting.
Places to See In Baños
Casa del Arbol
The Casa del Arbol or the Tree House is a wooden structure built in a tree on the top of a hill in the village of Runtun. While the tree house is cute, the main attraction is the rope swing attached to one of the tree’s branches. Climb aboard, wait for someone to give you a friendly push and you’ll swing out over the cliffside. The views from the swing are amazing and you can often see as far as the distant volcano.
Museo Fray Enrique Mideros
In the old quarter of Baños is the Museum Father Enrique Mideros. The museum houses some of the priests painting as well as his personal art collection which includes more than five-hundred sculptures dating from pre-Colombian times.
Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Agua Santa
The Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Agua Santa is a twin-towered church in Baños. A place of pilgrimage dedicated to the Virgin of the Holy Water who’s supposed appearances are connected to many local miracles.
Where to Eat & Drink In Baños
For an authentic taste of Andalusian and Ecuadorian cuisine, take a table at La Tasca de Baños. You’ll love the food and the Spanish atmosphere is great. If you’re on a budget, try the Cafe Hood for an affordable lunch menu in a friendly atmosphere. The food stalls in the Mercado Central in Baños are the best place to try local snack cuisine. Don’t skip grabbing some llapingachos, a potato pancake with cheese, the ceviche or the tasty chicken-based meals. When you’ve heard enough Bachata to last you a lifetime, drop in to Mocambo. It’s a great bar that’s dedicated to classic rock so you can enjoy a beer and give your ears a break at the same time.
Where to Stay In Baños
The Hostel Balcon del Cielo is a friendly, comfortable place renowned for its cleanliness that has, with a great view of the Pastaza River, and is within easy walking distance of the city center. The Backpackers Los Pinos is an economical hostel with clean rooms, a garden, BBQ facilities, and super friendly staff. Prices for a shared room start at around $9.
Places to Visit Around Baños
For an adventurous experience go rafting on the Rio Blanco. Join an organized tour and you’ll get the adrenaline thrill of a lifetime as you rush down the raging whitewaters of the river on a four hour trip. Half an hour’s drive from Baños is a small town called Rio Verde. Head there then get ready for an exciting hike along the Rio Pastaza to the Pailon del Diablo, an enormous waterfall the power of which has to be seen to be believed. Go exploring the Amazonian rain forest on a full-day tour from Baños to the Puyo Rainforest. On the tour you’ll trek through the tree canopy and spot lots of wildlife.
Montañita is a popular beach town on Ecuador’s Pacific Coast known for its wild party atmosphere and world-class surfing. Not the place for a quiet get-away, is always crowded with people and like a lively reminder of the hippy era, people roam around selling handmade jewelry dressed in colorful pants and sporting dreads.
Montañita is the best surfing spot in Ecuador too with first-class waves and perfect swells. The town hosts many national and international surf competitions which increases the crowds even more. La Punta at the end of Montañita beach is where the pro surfers go to practice their skills. It’s fascinating to watch and if they inspire you to give surfing a try, you’ll find surf schools in town and on the beach where you can join a class for around $15-$25. The price of the lessons include surfboard and wetsuit hire.
Where to Eat, Drink, Stay and Go Out
The main street in Montañita as well as the Malecon, the beachfront, is packed with restaurants of all kinds serving typical Ecuadorian food, lots of different fusions plus Italian, Thai, Indian, and American cuisine. Calle de Cócteles, Cocktail Street, lives up to its name with bars, tikis and nightclubs that are one long non-stop party and a great place to head to for a passion fruit cocktail after a hard day’s surfing. Other great places to try for a night out in Montañita are the Lost Beach Club where they concentrate mostly on electronic music, the Caña Grill who have nightly live bands or for some reggaeton and salsa go to Poco Loco.
If you want to stay a few nights in Montañita, you’ll find you won’t even need to shop around to find really economic accommodation. There’s an abundance of it and you’ll come across lots of hostels offering shared dorm rooms for as little as $5 a night.
The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean off the shores of Ecuador. Each of the nineteen islands has a different landscape and because of the island’s lack of predators, they’re teeming with an incredible diversity of wildlife. The Galapagos Islands inspired Charles Darwin to write the Evolution Theory and remain pretty much unchanged since his enlightening visit.
Only two of the islands have their own airports, San Cristobal and Baltra, making them the easiest to visit. From San Cristobal you can take a boat to some of the other islands like Espanola or from Baltra you can sail over to Santa Cruz. Which, even though it may be the most populated in the archipelago, is still not easy to access. From Santa Cruz you can catch a ferry to the island of Isabela which is the biggest in the group.
The one thing you do need when you go to the Galapagos Islands is enough time for traveling from one island to another. It’s an expedition that’s well worth the planning though as the islands have incomparable volcanic scenery, stunning green areas and super pristine waters full of incredible marine life. For wildlife viewing or diving and snorkeling, there’s no place quite like it. Another great way of seeing more islands is to take a cruise that stops off at various ports. It takes all the hard work and stress out of planning as it’s done for you though stopping points are not always guaranteed.
As another alternative, consider taking a direct flight from Quito or Guayaquil in Ecuador to Baltra Island. The round trip costs between $350 to $500 before surcharges. Ecuadorian residents pay a $6 fee to enter Galapagos, South American citizens pay $50, and all other nationalities are required to pay $100. Hopping from island to island will cost you $30 unless you’re on a cruise where the fee is included in the overall price.
Animals and Birds In The Galapagos
Two of the bird species that attract the most attention in the Galapagos Islands are the penguins and the blue-footed booby. That said, there are endless more species that will appear in the lens of your binoculars and you could see pelicans, egrets, cormorants, flamingos, or the graceful albatross.
The Galapagos Islands are renowned for their reptiles so be prepared to see giant turtles almost as big as a car and prehistoric-looking marine iguanas the size of a small dog. Head out to sea on a boat trip and keep your eyes peeled for dolphins, sea lions, sharks, orcas, and humpback whales.
If you want to discover more about the species of giant turtle that inhabits the islands, make a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Center on Santa Cruz Island, the Galapagos Interpretation Center on San Cristobal Island or the Puerto Villamil Turtle Hatching Center on Isabella Island. At either of the centers you may be fortunate enough to see the baby turtles hatch and make their way to the ocean.
Where to Stay In The Galapagos Islands
Where you stay in the Galapagos Islands pretty much depends on how you’re traveling and which islands you’ve decided to visit while there. If you’ve decided to opt for an island hopping cruise, then you wont need to worry as your overnight accommodation will be on board the ship throughout the duration of your sailing.
As a general rule, hotels and hostels are not cheap in the Galapagos, but if you’re flying into San Cristobal Island, you’ll find the Hostel Terito is one of the most affordable. The hostel offers basic but comfortable rooms in a building surrounded by gardens with breakfast and WIFI included.
If you’ve chosen Santa Cruz as your destination, the Hostel Sueños Silvestres is only a ten-minute walk from Tortuga Bay and close to the Charles Darwin Station. The hostel is perfect for adventurous travelers who want to go snorkeling or diving in a wilderness setting where white sand beaches line the coastline.
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