Ecuador travel guide & tips
What to expect in Ecuador
Named after the equator which runs straight through it, Ecuador has been identified as a megadiverse destination – one of the most biodiversity-rich countries of the world. In fact, it’s home to more biodiversity per square kilometre than any other nation. Its charming colonial towns, endless beaches, lush rainforest, and indigenous communities are framed by the spectacular snowy peaks and grassy foothills of the Andes. It’s also the gateway to the Galápagos Islands.
Our travel specialists have put together this handy travel guide to help and inspire you when planning your exciting Ecuador holiday.
Ecuador is great for:
- Lots of good things in a small package: Due to its relatively small size, you can enjoy the stunning flora and fauna, cultural diversity, urban beauty and striking coastline during one single visit to Ecuador. Divided into four main geographic regions: La Costa or “the coast”, La Sierra or “the highlands”, La Amazonía also known as “Oriente” or “the east” and La Región Insular, the region that’s home to the UNESCO site of the Galápagos Islands. For more inspiration, read our blog post about 7 spectacular adventures in Ecuador.
- Food and friends: From the ceviches, ‘encocados,’ and the unique ‘bolones de verde’ on the Pacific coast, to the sophisticated dining scenes in the cities of Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca, Ecuador is a fantastic foodie destination. The more populated hubs offer a range of contemporary takes on Ecuadorean classics, plus a host of international cuisines. If you enjoy social eating, then you’re in luck, as Ecuadorians are exceptionally friendly, honest, warm people, happy to share a tale and a table over lunch.
- A cultural feast: Ecuador is a very culturally diverse nation. With multiple ethnicities and languages, the blend of people and history weaves an enticing cultural flavour. From traditional customs and industries such as the woven textiles of Otavalo, wood carving of San Antonio de Ibarra, silver jewellery of Chordeleg and leatherwork of Cotachi, to the creative centres of Quito and Cuenca, featuring modern influences such as its prolific street art and evolving music scene.
We’ve put together this travel guide to Ecuador to help you prepare and design both an exciting and meaningful adventure that showcases all it has to offer.
Our top 5 Ecuador highlights
1. Equator line – don’t miss the opportunity to stand with one foot in each hemisphere, and get the picture to prove it! A little touristy but how often do you get that chance?
2. Quito – The capital of the country is a UNESCO destination often described as the most beautiful big city in South America
3. Otavalo – Most famous for its market where you’ll see the very best of Andean craftsmanship, the area also gives a glimpse into everyday life in the mountains, and the surrounding volcanoes provide a spectacular backdrop.
4. Cloud forests of Mindo – the heart of the Ecuadorian Cloud Forest – a tranquil, almost mystical, area full of lush green vegetation, waterfalls and hiking trails, as well as a huge variety of butterflies and birds.
5. Cotopaxi Volcano – take on the 300m hike up the volcanic ash, to a viewpoint not far from the top where you’ll get a spectacular panorama of the National Park and surrounding volcanoes.
Top places to visit in Ecuador
Ecuador may not be the first country that springs to mind when planning a trip to South America, but it packs one heck of a punch when it comes to the variety of experiences on offer. Rich cultural heritage, platefuls of tasty cuisine and endless natural beauty. What’s not to love?
From the beautiful UNESCO city of Quito to the world’s largest active volcano, Cotapaxi, here are some of our top places to visit and things to do in Ecuador.
The capital of the country is a UNESCO destination often described as the most beautiful big city in South America. Nestled in a valley below the peaks of the Andes, it’s small enough to explore on foot. It offers a mix of striking architecture, a bold art and culture scene, diverse museums and a melting pot of old and new. When the mist clears, you can explore its secrets among narrow cobblestone streets and leafy plazas.
Ecuador essential information
Best time to go
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In Ecuador, it’s more a case of wet and dry vs summer and winter. January – May are the warmest months, a bit wet but with the calmest seas and sunny days on the coast. May – December is dry but cool, but this season still includes the busy school summer holiday season. The Andes are damp all year around and have cold nights.
The main language in Ecuador is Spanish, with Quechua, the language of the Incas, also widely spoken, plus a mix of indigenous dialects across the country.
A and B
In Ecuador the power plugs and sockets are of type A and B. The standard voltage is 120 V and the standard frequency is 60 Hz.
USD is the official currency of Ecuador (since 2000)
Tipping is customary but it doesn’t have to be a large amount or specific percentage. Tax and service charges are often added to bills, but if you’re impressed with the service, you could choose to tip directly.
With a low annual wage, voluntary gratuities from visitors are always welcome, at hotels and with guides and drivers.
Quito is the capital of Ecuador. Other main cities include Guayaquil and Cuenca.
Why not combine your trip to Ecuador with a stopover in Bogota or travel to Peru?
Visitors from most countries do not need a visa for a visit of up to 90 days.
Currently there are no direct flights from the UK to Ecuador. There is usually 1 stop involved. If in Europe, it is most likely Madrid, or it could be closer, such as Lima, Peru.
Getting around Ecuador
Internal flights in Ecuador can expensive, and although this is the main way that travellers access the Galapagos, it’s easy to travel in and around Ecuador by road.
Private transfers: We’ll organise all of your private transfers for you in advance, so all you’ll need to do is be ready to hop in when your driver arrives. Private transfers are the most hassle-free way of getting around Ecuador, as you’ll be driven point-to-point in the comfort of a private car.
Taxis: For many journeys, especially in and around cities, taking a taxi makes a lot of sense — both in terms of safety and cost. Taxis are plentiful and relatively good value in urban areas. Make sure you only use the registered yellow taxis that feature an identification number on the side. The taxis in Quito use meters, but everywhere else you’ll need to agree on a price beforehand. Tipping isn’t expected, but rounding up to the nearest dollar is appreciated.
Buses: Everywhere is accessible by frequent public buses, although you may need multiple connections, even when distances are relatively short. The cheap local buses for short-distance travel are often old and run-down and can be busy, but ending up on the roof is all part of the adventure, right? Once you’ve confirmed where to board (some companies have their own separate terminals) we suggest arriving early. The rule is, once a bus is full, it will leave. Also, when using public transport, remember to always keep your belongings close to you.
A guide to food in Ecuador
Though Ecuador isn’t famous for its cuisine, food is a massive part of Ecuadorian culture and traditional dishes and recipes are passed down for generations.
The country is now becoming quite a foodie destination in its own right, with heaps of lip-smacking offerings to be found – whether you’re perusing street food shacks or high-end menus. Some of the classics include flaky Empanadas, succulent seafood dishes, and grilled guinea pig.
History & people
In the 1400s, despite being inhabited by local tribes for thousands of years, the Incan Empire took control of Ecuador. A century later, Spanish conquistadors arrived and defeated the Incas and took control of the land, so for many years, the area was part of the Spanish Empire.
The area gained independence from Spain in 1822, when Simon Bolivar and his armies defeated the Spanish. Bolivar was known as ‘Liberator’ and was a Venezuelan military and political leader not to be messed with, who led the independence of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Panama, Venezuela and Colombia from the Spanish Empire.
The land was once part of what was known as Gran Columbia, but in 1830 Ecuador gained independence as its own separate country. Ecuador and Peru continued to have long battles and disputes over their borders until 1999, when they reached an agreement.
As well as it’s history, Ecuador is a culture shaped by its geography. Straddling the equator, the Ecuadorian coastline takes a short journey to meet snow-capped volcanoes, then falls away to steamy jungle, all across a relatively small area. The Andean highlands – the country’s backbone – are made up of two volcanic ranges, separated by a central valley. The capital city of Quito is nestled in the Northern end of this valley at nearly three thousand metres above sea level, just over twenty kilometres south of the equator. For centuries, the Andean Indians have inhabited this area and about 50% of Ecuador’s population lives amidst these rugged mountains. If you know what to look for, you’ll probably spot a distinctive dress code; ponchos, shawls, jewellery. Many of the indigenous communities have their own twist on styles which are characteristic of the region that they’re from.
The Spanish influence remains, as today the ‘Mestizos’ (descendants of Spanish Colonists and indigenous people), account for nearly seventy per cent of the population. Indigenous groups are around ten per cent and Afro-Ecuadorians are around seven per cent.
Though Ecuador’s main religion is Roman Catholic, there’s a handful of other Christian faiths too. Indigenous Ecuadorians, have blended Catholicism and their traditional beliefs. And their connection to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) is alive in both ancient and modern-day Shamanism, too.
Here, shamans are used as an important medical resource across Ecuador, with ‘alternative’ medicines being officially recognised and used alongside traditional ones. Quicha Amazonian shamans and coastal Tschachila healers are generally treated with the utmost of respect by all Ecuadorians, irrespective of class.
The use of ayahuasca ‘soul vine’ in Quichua, is widespread throughout the country and attracts curious visitors from across the globe.
Ecuador is an important centre for cultural arts in South America. It’s the birthplace of famous painters like Oswaldo Guayasamin, Camilo Egas, and Manuel Rendon, as well as great writers like Juan Montalvo, Juan Leon Mera, and Juan Benigno Vela. While Quito is considered the cultural capital as well as the political capital, Cuenca has plenty to offer too. Both are home to some really well-preserved colonial architecture. In fact, Quito’s historic centre was named as the first UNESCO World Heritage Site and is also home to the masterpieces of La Basilica del Voto Nacional and La Compania de Jesus Jesuit cathedral. These cities, alongside Otavalo and other rural hubs in Ecuador, are hubs for traditional artisan crafts, like weaving, leatherwork, wood carving and jewellery.
The Panama Hat originally came from Ecuador, where they have been made for hundreds of years. The hat, known here as simply ‘sombrero de paja toquilla’ or ‘straw hat’, was named after the place from where they would sell, the American traveller hub of Panama. Helped along by US President Roosevelt, who, by wearing one during a 1906 visit to the Panama Canal Excavation, helped launch the accessory to legendary status. They’re made from the toquilla palm plant which grows in Guayaquil. After being boiled and dried, the plants are then woven into their shape. This process can take up to three months to complete – so patience is key!
There have always been rich musical traditions in Ecuador. Even in pre-Incan times, music played an important role in the ancient Andean people’s lives. Archaeologists and historians have found some very old instruments, such as drums, flutes, trumpets and other musical artefacts, in ancient tombs. These, and other small string instruments like the charango, remain common instruments here. Nowadays, you can listen out for them being used by indigenous bands playing modern tunes.
If you’re lucky enough to visit at the right time, look out for the vibrant festivals of Ecuador. Inti Rayma in June, Yamor in September and Mama Negro in November – coinciding your holiday during a festival is a great way to embrace Ecuadorian traditions and culture.
Two of the most popular activities in Ecuador are football and dancing. The country’s national team is “La Seleccion” and they are fierce rivals with Barcelona, and La Liga de Quito. When people aren’t watching the footy, many enjoy playing wherever they can. Whether on a grass field, a concrete court, or even just in the street with friends.
To relax, there’s a weekend culture of discotecas, or nightclubs, that pump up the music for a night full of salsa, bachata, merengue, and other styles of dance.
Ecuadorians love to party!
One of the most interesting facts about Ecuador is that there are over a dozen recognised languages spoken. Spanish is the official language, while indigenous languages are also recognised, including Quichua and Shuar. In recent years, the tourism industry has introduced English as a second language in many destination cities, like Quito, the Galapagos Islands, and Baños. All schools in Ecuador have it as a language requirement, and the number of bilingual options is increasing too.
Hola – Hello!
Buenos dias/tardes/noches – Good morning/afternoon/evening
Me llamo/llama – My name is.. (m)/(f) (Tip: a two l’s are pronounced as a ‘y’ sound).
Adios – Goodbye
Hasta luego – See you later
Hasta pronto – See you soon
Necesito ir a el bano – I need to go to the bathroom
Donde esta el bano? – Where is the bathroom?
Cuanto cuesta? – How much does it cost?
Me gustaria una cerveza/una ron por favor – I would like a beer/a rum, please
Una cerveza, por favour! – One beer, please!
Necesito un médico – I need a doctor
Me duele aqui – It hurts here
Some local lingo:
Muy Amable – Much appreciated (handy when wanting to be polite without overusing “gracias” which everyone does)
Chuta – Damn
Esta pleno – It’s fine
Buenaso – Really good
Chachos – Jokes
Farra – Party
Ecuadorians are very forgiving to foreigners, so don’t worry if you greet someone and use the incorrect form for their status (“usted” vs “tu,” for example)
Nature and wildlife
Did you know that in 2008, Ecuador was the first country to ever officially recognise the constitutional rights of nature? This means it recognises that nature has the “right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.” Not surprising really. Considering that Ecuador is one of seventeen megadiverse countries in the world, with the most biodiversity per kilometre of any nation.
In 1835, Charles Darwin famously explored Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands and it’s on his discoveries here where he based much of his Theory of Evolution. The Galapagos Islands are Ecuador’s mega wildlife hotspot. A unique archipelago of volcanic islands on either side of the Equator in the Pacific Ocean, the islands are a national park and marine reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1985 it became a biosphere reserve. The islands are an ecological phenomenon populated with fearless and incredible wildlife.
Ecuador’s mainland also has heaps protected areas to reflect and showcase its biodiversity. These include eleven national parks, nine national ecological reserves, ten national wildlife refuges and four national biological reserves. Phew!
Bring your binoculars because this country is a birdwatcher’s paradise. Ecuador boasts some 1,500 species, with the enormous Andean Condor being the bird of the country. Hummingbird populations are rife throughout the country too, with around 120 species fluttering about. The best thing about birdwatching in Ecuador is that conditions are wonderful all year round. With so many landscapes, like the cloud forest ecosystems, Amazon mangroves, mountain slopes and the Pacific coast, every area offers its own special flora and fauna.
Besides birds, Ecuador is also home to around three hundred species of mammals, including more than 100 different species of bats. Monkeys are common too, so expect to see howler monkeys, spider monkeys, capuchins and more. In the lowlands, deer and rabbits are common while llamas and vicuña are often associated with the Andes. You can also see anteaters, sloths, and otters too. Other exotic animals, such as pumas and jaguars, do exist here but are rare and much harder to find.
Did you know?
Mount Chimborazo is Ecuador’s highest mountain and is the point on Earth closest to the sun. Because of the mountain’s positioning along the equatorial bulge, its summit is also the furthest point from the Earth’s core. This means that Ecuador is the closest country to space. Wow!