Woman sitting on balcony of treehouse in cloud forest in Ecuador.

know before you go – ecuador

(Last Updated On: March 10, 2021)

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elevation

The first and foremost thing to know before you go to Ecuador is that the elevation may affect your arrival or other travel plans. If arriving by plane, chances are you’ll fly into Quito Mariscal Sucre International Airport (UIO). Quito is the highest official capital city in the world. While La Paz, Bolivia is higher, and is the seat of government in the country, Sucre is actually Bolivia’s constitutional capital.

Sun rays coming through clouds over looking the city of Quito, Ecuador
Quito – Luz de América

Chew on some coca leaves to alleviate the altitude sickness (don’t try to bring them home, though – the dogs will sniff them out!). Wait until you’ve acclimatized before attempting to hike any of the nearby volcanoes!

climate

Cloud forest in Cuenca, Ecuador
Cajas, Azuay

Wondering when to go or what to pack? Ecuador is split into a rainy and dry season that alternate in the highlands, the coastal region, the Galapagos Islands, and the Amazon basin. With four different microclimates, be sure you bring layers!

Jutting rock formation in Galapagos Islands, Ecuador at sunset
Galapagos Islands

What you pack and when to go completely depends on the area you’re visiting. Know before you go – Ecuador is a relatively small country, so checking off different regions in one trip is doable if you’ve got the time! Remember – layer, layer, layer!

Lake and mountains in Cajas National Park, Ecuador
El Parque Nacional Cajas

currency

U.S. Dollar reigns supreme here! Which makes it very easy for American travelers to visit this beautiful country. Not having to deal with mentally calculating exchange rates is seriously underrated. It’s worth noting that Ecuador has dollar and half dollar coins that are NOT accepted in the States, so, if you’re American, use ’em up before you head home.

fake bills

If you can, try withdrawing cash from home in lieu of using ATM’s in Ecuador. It’s easy for people to deposit fake bills into the ATM, and there have been many issues of people withdrawing money only to find the bills are counterfeit. I learned of this issue only after I left, and had no problem withdrawing money in Ecuador.

making change

Know before you go: Don’t try to pay with a bill larger than a $20. Usually that will still be too large. Ecuadorians love exact change, especially the taxis. I had to go to a bank to get change for a $20 – seriously, it’s a little ridiculous.

public transportation

Overlooking Plaza Santo Domingo in Quito, Ecuador (from  hotel room)
Plaza de Santo Domingo, Quito

Public transportation is SUPER cheap in Ecuador. So cheap that I took taxis/Ubers everywhere and each ride was usually less than $3. A bus ride in the city will run you about .25 cents!

inter-city bus prices

The main inter-city bus stations in Quito are farther removed from the city center – an Uber cost me $25 from the historical center to La Ofelia bus station.

It’s so easy to estimate how much your inter-city bus ride will cost. In general, for each hour the ride takes, you can expect to pay $1. So a 3 hour bus ride will be roughly $3. CHEAP!

taxis vs. uber

Considering the fact that exact change is essentially required in city taxis, I suggest Uber. The prices are roughly the same, and you don’t have to worry about being taken advantage of. You also don’t worry about exact change, since the trip is pre-paid.

drinking water

Don’t drink the water! Many locals can drink the tap water and stay safe and healthy, but remember, their gut systems are accustomed to drinking that water and what is in it – yours is not!

Fresh spring water from a fountain in the cloud forest in Mindo, Ecuador
Fresh spring in Mindo

Side note – some places (like Mindo) – have super fresh, clean water that you can drink. To err on the side of caution, use your purifying water bottle and sleep easy knowing you’ll be protected from any parasites, pathogens, or other microbes that may be in the water.

vaccines

Different regions of the country recommend different vaccines. Knowing what vaccines are recommended or required before you go to Ecuador will keep you (and people around you!) safe from harm. Don’t be that guy. And be sure to do this well in advance, as not all vaccines (such as yellow fever) are readily available in all areas. Check out the CDC’s vaccine recommendations for Ecuador here.

haggling

This is a skill that I still have yet to acquire. It makes me super uncomfortable. However, after making friends with an expat in Cuenca, I learned that the locals will trust you less if you do not try to haggle. Then you’ll definitely get the gringo price!

Assorted handmade goods at a market in Quito, Ecuador
One of Quito’s many mercados

pickpockets

This is probably the number one concern for travelers, and some of the tactics employed are crucial to know before you go to Ecuador. Remember, everyone’s experience will be different. No matter where you are traveling, have your wits about you and be mindful of your surroundings.

If you’re holding your phone up to take a photo, hold that shit tight. There have been reports of people driving by on motorcycles or mopeds and snatching phones or cameras right out of the hands of unsuspecting tourists.

When traveling on overland buses, keep your bag in your lap. Even if you keep it tucked between your feet, pickpockets can slash your bag from behind and take what they want.

Don’t accept unsolicited help from people – this is a common ploy tactic used to distract you while another person steals your things. This goes for people who say they work on the buses and will store your bags for you!

that equatorial sun!

This was from one day of walking around El Parque Nacional Cajas DESPITE consistently applying and reapplying SPF 30. In the taxi on my way back to Cuenca, I had to contort my body in the seat to prevent the sun from touching my skin. Owwwiieeeeee. Try wearing light cotton plus SPF to fully protect yourself.

Woman's shoulder/neck with sun burn marks from a tank top - up close
Yah. I don’t normally burn – this was bad!

Aside from applying sunscreen, check out this ultimate guide to self-care while traveling.

the real middle of the world

So you’re going to the country that’s actually named after the equator – and you want to straddle the line, balance an egg, do all of that fun shit? Well, you need to do some digging to find the actual equator.

If you head to Mitad del Mundo, you’re in the wrong spot! The actual equator is a little far removed from the monument that tourists flock to in order to test their balance. Here’s the real equator – although there are still some discrepancies as to whether THIS is even the correct spot!

uhh…. toilet paper

Here’s an interesting one! So, many places will not have toilet paper in the bathrooms. This is especially true near bus stations or other high-traffic facilities. Be prepared to pay a few cents to use the bathroom, and extra if you want TP. Or, do like I did, and tuck some tissues in your pocket or bag for such occasions.

big-ass empanadas

If you know me, you know I love food. I need to eat snacks regularly throughout the day to prevent serious episodes of hanger. So, when I sat down at this adorable place on the perimeter of Plaza de la Independencia in Quito and saw empanadas were only $1, I ordered two. Whoops!

Heading to the Ecuadorian capital for a few days? Check out this 3 Day Quito Itinerary!

Table at outdoor restaurant with two large empanadas outside Plaza de la Independencia, Quito, Ecuador
One of the many adorable tiny restaurants surrounding Plaza de la Independencia

I felt like a huge pig as I sat there, alone, with enough food for 3 people (these things are DENSE). And even worse not finishing what I’d ordered – I physically could not eat anymore. I received a sympathetic smile from the woman serving me when we locked eyes and both silently acknowledged my mistake. Don’t let the cheap prices fool you – plenty of bang for your buck.

all things chocolate

If you’re a chocolate fiend looking for your fix in Ecuador, you’ll have no problems finding some of the best you’ve ever tasted. Ecuador is one of the top three producers of the world’s best chocolate (alongside Switzerland and Belgium).

The best place to go for chocolate tours and tastings in Ecuador? That would be Mindo, situated in the cloud forest, about 2-3 hour bus ride from Quito. Can’t make it to Mindo? Check out Chez Tiff – this is what happens when a Swiss and an Ecuadorian get married! Pure magic. Free demonstrations of the process, and all the tasting you can handle. Try the chili and passion fruit varieties!

language barriers

Please, please, please – do not expect to get by in English. First – it’s fucking rude. ????‍♀️ At least try to learn some basic greetings. It will be immensely appreciated. Second – it’ll be very difficult for you to interact with most people, especially older generations.

Interior of large mercado in Cuenca, Ecuador
Mercado 10 de Agosto in Cuenca

Helpful phrases: ‘thank you,’ ‘have a good day,’ ‘I would like…,’ ‘Do you have…,’ ‘Where is the….,’ ‘Please,’ ‘How much is….,’ etc. I like Duolingo for learning basic language skills. Also, having a translator app downloaded on your phone will come in handy for those obscure words you never thought you’d need to know.

the art of eating ceviche in ecuador

I sat down at Restaurante Raymipampa in Cuenca, which boasts the best traditional food in the city. This was after a long and arduous hike in El Parque Nacional Cajas (and an epic sunburn) – all I wanted was to sit down with a plate of fresh food.

I ordered the ceviche, excited to see the differences between the real deal and the stuff I eat in Rhode Island. Initially, I was presented with a plate of tostado (a type of corn nut/Andean popcorn) and was beyond confused – is this an appetizer? Akin to a bread basket prior to a meal at home? I started snacking on it – hey, hiking makes me hungry.

Bowl of shrimp ceviche in Cuenca, Ecuador
Shrimp ceviche at Restaurante Raymipampa

I actually Google’d at the table ‘how to eat ceviche in Ecuador’ and quickly learned I was meant to put the corn nuts into the ceviche. Oh! It was tasty, but to be honest, I preferred the ceviche on its own (with plenty of aji, of course). To each his own – but at least now you know how to eat it!

And for the record – the ceviche was bomb, and my favorite dinner I had in Cuenca

you might not want to eat the cuy if you’ve ever owned a guinea pig!

Cuy, spit-roasted guinea pig, is considered a delicacy in Ecuador. Personally, I did not try it – I actually didn’t see it offered anywhere (maybe because I wasn’t on the lookout for it). I’ve heard reports that it is gamey and a little greasy, somewhat akin to dark meat chicken or quail. Report back if you’ve tried it!

aji

Angel making magic in the kitchen at Uku Pacha

Ecuadorian food is typically super-fresh, local, and even organic – but generally lacks in flavor. Enter aji. A necessary condiment, you can find this stuff on every table, just like you might find ketchup in America or mayo in Canada.

My new friend Angel makes some of the best aji I had in Quito at Uku Pacha. Sadly, he is no longer working there, but you can still get Uku Pacha’s aji. Aji is made of local tree tomatoes, peppers, cilantro, onions, and some other ingredients depending on where it’s made.

almuerzos & desayunos

Especially helpful if you’re visiting Ecuador on a budget, these meals generally consist of a multi-course meal for as little as $2! Your almuerzos will come with rice or potatoes, a small helping of greens, chicken or beef, soup, fresh juice, and a dessert.

My daily desayuno in Cuenca was one of my favorite memories of my time in the city. I went to Cafe Fractal near Parque Calderon almost every day. I would work on my laptop, unbothered, for a couple of hours each morning, and enjoy a HUGE-ASS breakfast for only a few dollars. There was so much food – complete with a bowl of fresh fruit and fresh-squeezed juices. It was such a fantastic way to start a day full of exploring or hiking for hours.


This photo of Fractal is courtesy of Tripadvisor

corn is life

You’ll find corn, in one shape or form, on almost every plate you have in Ecuador. Between the tostados served with Ecuadorian ceviche and the corn masa for breakfast, corn is evvvvveryyywhereeeee.

Large husked corn cob street art in Quito, Ecuador
El maíz

expats

Cities all over Ecuador have bustling expat communities. I met many more in Cuenca and Mindo than Quito, but there are many factors that make this an appealing country in which to resettle or live post-retirement.

Man sitting in front of mountains in Cuenca, Ecuador - El Cajas
My personal guide in Cajas & expat from Virginia, USA – Marc!

Cost of living, healthcare, and quality of life are three of the main factors that draw foreigners here. The locals are friendly and helpful. The main drawback that most expats mentioned was the spotty-internet quality (apparently this is more true in coastal regions – I personally had no problem with the WiFi in any of the cities I visited).

Interior of El Chamaleon cafe in Mindo, Ecuador
El Camaleón – cafe in Mindo owned by southern US expat Tim; veg-friendly, but has a bomb-ass BLT!

medical tourism

One of the most remarkable things I learned about Ecuador was the high quality and affordability of healthcare. As an American (with unfulfilled medical needs), this was truly fascinating to me.

I met a number of expats during my time there. When I’d ask them ‘Why Ecuador?’ the answer was always some variation of ‘I came for medical treatment and never left.’

When I would think about medical treatments in Latin and South America, my mind always defaulted to botched, back-alley surgeries and people needing life-saving treatment back in their respective home countries. This is NOT the case. Dental work in particular is very popular. An MRI? $150 without insurance! WHAT!? I will go off on a tangent, so I’m going to stop myself here – but will be exploring (and writing) more regarding medical tourism in the near-future.

indigenous ecuadorians

Street art featuring indigenous peoples in Quito, Ecuador
Street art in….Quito? Cuenca? I forgot….

I visited Ecuador just after the big protests in October 2019 that made international headlines. My guide/new friend, Marc, told me of how one member from each of the indigenous families came down to represent their people during the 11 days of protests that left seven dead and thousands injured. The protests were in response to an economic austerity package from the International Monetary Fund that would greatly increase fuel prices . After holding talks with the indigenous leaders, president Lenín Moreno essentially said, “OK, just kidding.” The economic austerity package that had an entire country in upheaval was abandoned. The indigenous people hold A LOT of clout here.

panama hats…. are actually ecuadorian

Considering the name, a common misconception is that Panama hats originated in Panama. Nope! There was a mass-export of Panama hats from Ecuador to Panama during the construction of the Panama Canal in the 19th century.

After Teddy Roosevelt returned to the States from visiting the construction of the canal and was seen sporting one, the trend in America took off.

street dogs

It was devastating to see the amount of street dogs in EVERY city I visited in Ecuador. Sadly, I could not bring them all home – and you probably won’t either.

It takes some getting used to, but it’s just a part of life here.

Street dog in Cuenca, Ecuador sleeping on a bench
I met this guy on my way to a restaurant in Cuenca. His ribs protruded from his body, so I stuck some leftover food in my purse and went to find him when I came out of the restaurant – he wasn’t there. The very next day, on my walk to a mercado in a different area of town – who should walk up to me!? I was too excited to take a picture – and looking out for cars as we were in a very crowded area. But, in all reality, this dog has more street smarts than I will ever have.

looking for adventure in ecuador?

proof of onward travel

VERY important to know before you go to Ecuador – If you’re planning on staying in Ecuador long-term and only have a one-way ticket, or if you plan on traveling to your next destination overland, be prepared to show proof of onward travel.

The responsibility for checking this is generally with the airlines and not customs. I purchased a one-way ticket initially, since I wasn’t sure if I wanted to leave from Quito or Guayaquil, and my return flight wound up being with a different airline. I was struggling to pull up the email that had my return flight information, and they were absolutely not going to let me on the plane unless I furnished proof.

There are some sites that allow you to purchase fake plane tickets for such instances. I have no experience using these, so cannot vouch for them, but many of my fellow travel buddies use these services and have had no problem. Here is a detailed post on providing proof of onward travel.

Have a long flight? Here’s a yoga sequence for pre/post flight travel.

tipping

Your restaurant bill will generally include a 10% service charge for gratuities. If you’re very pleased with the service, add an extra 5-10%. Check your bill for this charge – if it’s not there, leave them something to show your appreciation. Tipping in taxis is not required.

Angelic statue atop the city of Quito, Ecuador

the land of cheap roses

Did you know that Ecuador is the world’s third largest exporter of cut-flowers? Neither did I! You can get 2 dozen long-stemmed roses here for less than 5$. The daily flower market in Cuenca was a very pleasant experience to peruse, with the aromas of blooming flowers of all varieties wafting through the air.

Flower market in Cuenca, Ecuador - know before you go
Flower market in Cuenca

shrunken heads

Want to check out something super morbid and unnerving while you’re visiting Cuenca? Check out the Museo Pumapungo, where you can see the real deal. Head-shrinking was a common practice unique to the Jivaro natives near Ecuador and Peru.

compulsory voting

Similar to other Latin American countries, such as Uruguay and Brasil, voting is not just encouraged among citizens of Ecuador – it’s required. That’s right – if you are between the ages of 18-65 and are not illiterate, voting is mandatory.

Semi-circle of Ecuadorian flags at Parque Calderon in Cuenca, Ecuador
Parque Calderon in Cuenca

colonial capital of south america

La Ronda in Quito, Ecuador decorated in red and blue flags and balloons for Fiestas de Quito
La Ronda, Quito – EC

Quito was the first city to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the best-preserved example of Spanish Colonial influence in South America.

Iglesia y Convento de San Frncisco, Quito Ecuador - know before you go
Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco, Quito

voltage

The standard voltage is 120 V and the frequency is 60 Hz in Ecuador – so if you’re from the Americas, you’re probably good. Grab an adapter if you’re coming from elsewhere.

last-minute galapagos deals

Close up of tortoise in Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
He’s probably older than the United States.

Aching to get to the islands that inspired Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection but bank account saying ‘Noooooope’? Last-minute is often the way to go for Galapagos cruises, as the captains are trying to fill the last spots on the ship. If you’re the ultimate type-A (hi, nice to meet you, I’m Jade), then this may not be the way to go.

HOWEVER, if you like spontaneity and can make plans on the fly, Check out this post on last minute cruise deals to the Galapagos Islands that won’t break the bank.

isla de la plata

Blue-footed booby on Isla de la Plata in Ecuador.

Isla de la Plata is a small island off the coast of Puerto Lopez. Touted as the ‘poor man’s Galapagos,’ Isla de la Plata is a good alternative if the Galapagos Islands’ are out of budget. Dying to see Blue Footed Boobies? No problem. Want to witness the Humpback Whale migration or dive with giant Manta Rays? Look no further. Keep in mind that things like mating, migrations, and sea turtle hatching are all seasonal things – if there’s something in particular you’re dying to see, make sure you’re going in the right months!

ring of fire

Ecuador has many earthquakes given its location in the infamous ring of fire. In fact, as I was just looking for a link to post here for earthquake updates, I learned that it’s had a couple just in the past few days!

I’ve never experienced an earthquake or any sort of seismic activity, but I’ve heard it can be an (obviously) unnerving experience, even if it’s not too bad on the scale.

street art for days

I’m obsessed with street art, especially in foreign countries. If you’ve browsed the photos on this site, it’s probably pretty obvious. One of these days I’ll make a post on my favorite street art around the world – updated to add: beautiful street art around the world. Enjoy the photos!

Street art depicting firefighters in the cloud forest - sin oro se vive, sin ague se muere
Mindo, EC

protests

It’s no secret that the world is in protest right now – it’s not just South America. I stumbled across two protests on the same day during my first trip to Ecuador.

Woman in protest holding a baby in a bjorn close to her heart
This photo makes me tear up every time I look at it

The first was the now-famous Chilean protest against femicide and rape ‘El Violador Eres Tu.’ At the time, I didn’t know what I was watching. While I can order food and make purchases, that’s about the extent of my language capabilities in Spanish.

Hundreds of women gather in Cuenca to protest femicide 'el violador eres tu'
Bad-ass women

I saw these women gather in Cuenca one morning as I wandered around the city. I didn’t know what they were saying, or why they were blindfolded, or why it was only women. Still, my eyes welled up with tears as I witnessed this solidarity and passion. I had to pull my sunglasses down to cover my eyes (I’m sensitive, what can I say?). I found out later that day what the protest was about and had a good cry. If you haven’t heard of it, here’s what it’s all about.

That same night, I was walking back to my AirBnb after dinner when seemingly out of nowhere, a group formed around Parque Calderón. An activist at heart, I stuck around to see what it was all about (I never did find out the precise reason for the protest – the sign in the background in the photo below said something along the lines of ‘the power is with the people, NOT the government.’

While the chances of running into a protest may be high anywhere – not just in Ecuador – be aware of your surroundings and any possible exit strategies. There was police presence, but no violence. Both of the protests I witnessed in Cuenca were nothing but peaceful. Still, some protests can be extremely dangerous (such as the uprisings in October 2019) – be mindful of your surroundings ALWAYS.

incredible architecture

Large, white colonial church with pale blue spires in Cuenca, Ecuador
Cuenca, EC

Quito is a city heavily influenced by Spanish colonial rule, as is evident by some of the magnificent buildings you can see in the historical centre today. That being said, if Quito impresses you, get your ass to Cuenca ASAP.

The breathtaking buildings in Cuenca rival the most beautiful cities in Europe at a fraction of the cost. I had expected Cuenca to be a beautiful city, but I was utterly blown away by its magnificence.

you don’t need to go to the galapagos for epic nature

There’s so much beauty to be found in this country. Of course, I haven’t seen all of it – I’m sure I never will, simply because there is just so much. Between active volcanoes, national parks, the fucking AMAZON, the Pacific coast, cloud forests, and judgmental alpacas as far as the eye can see – it’s impossible to comprehend just how much there is to see.

Woman taking selfie with wild horse from awkward angle
Don’t mind the unflattering angle!

If you need any guidance planning your trip to Ecuador, feel free to reach out!

Woman walking away from the camera into a valley in Cajas National Park
Cajas, Azuay

There you have it! The most extensive list I could compile of everything you need to know before you go to Ecuador. Is there something I missed? Let me know in the comments! ✌✌✌❤

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Are you heading to Ecuador solo? First time? Here is some helpful advice for first-time solo travelers.

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