Ecuador Travel Guide: Overview
Located where the equator meets the snowcapped peaks of the Andes and the steamy Amazon jungle in northwestern South America, Ecuador is a compact country of 109,483 square miles—roughly the same size as Colorado. Within this relatively small piece of South America, there exists an impressive amount of diversity, all of which lies in exciting proximity. Like its neighbors, Peru to the east and south and Colombia to the north, Ecuador is home to Amazonian jungle, mountainous Andean sierra and stunning Pacific coastline. Ecuador even boasts the world-famous and wildlife-abundant Galápagos Islands 620 miles off its coast. Adding to the nation’s complexity and allure, all these natural wonders coexist in a land with a far-reaching and still-evident Spanish colonial imprint.
Ecuador’s 8,000-year history began with its highly revered indigenous pre-Incan cultures. Over the course of thousands of years, Brazilian tribes migrated first to the sandy shores of Ecuador’s Pacific Coast and then to the northern and coastal highlands, forming a vast network of tribes.
By the 15th century, the tribal landscape of Ecuador had solidly taken shape into three ruling tribes: the Quitus of the northern highlands, the Puruhá of the central highlands and the Cañari of present-day Cuenca. When the Incas came knocking at the end of the century, it took years for them to successfully incorporate Ecuador into their vast and expanding empire.
Once power was won, the Incas continued to rule over Ecuador until 1532, when civil war divided the empire. This division weakened the Incas and allowed Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his troops to capture and to execute Emperor Atahualpa, ultimately ending the Inca Empire once and for all.
For the next 300 years, Ecuador’s people lived under suppressive Spanish colonial rule and were forced into slave labor while churches and monasteries replaced their sacred sites. After several organized slave uprisings, the colonists began to import slaves from Africa, introducing the Afro-Ecuadorian culture found today in Ecuador’s Esmeraldas Province.
It wasn’t until 1809 that Ecuador made its first serious attempt at independence. The advance on Quito was short lived, and the Spanish quickly regained control. The next attempt didn’t come until a decade later, when Venezuelan liberator, Simón Bolívar, led a successful fight for liberation.
Though technically independent at this point, it took Ecuador another two years to be entirely liberated. The Battle of Pichincha on May 24, 1822, was the defining moment that officially threw out the Spanish. Today, this date is celebrated as Ecuador’s Independence Day.
With the Spanish now defeated, Bolívar continued with his grand plan to unite all of South America. This resulted in the independent nation of Gran Colombia, composed of Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. This nation lasted only eight years before Ecuador broke free and became its own country in 1830.
That same year, Ecuador signed a treaty with Peru to define the boundary between their two nations. This hotly contested border was later redrawn in 1942 after a war with Peru, and it wasn’t until 1998 that Ecuadorian authorities officially accepted and recognized the new border.
Since independence from Spain, a common thread in modern Ecuador’s history has been a volatile political climate and a rivalry between liberals and conservatives. The 1980s and early ’90s saw several corruption scandals that resulted in the people losing confidence in their ruling elite.
Despite this tumultuous political climate, Ecuador is one of the safest countries in South America, and tourism continues to be a main driver of the country’s economic and social development. Tourists from all over the world come to see and to experience the country’s vast natural and cultural sites.
Indigenous history and culture, Spanish colonial remnants and widespread Catholicism have all shaped Ecuadorian culture. Cultural elements can shift noticeably based on where you are in the country, with the biggest contrast existing between the people of the highlands (serranos) and the people of the coast (costeños). The native indigenous cultures contributed music and ancient instruments, while the Afro-Ecuadorian population is most famous for its unique marimba music. The Spanish, too, left their mark with a strong Roman Catholic influence, which even seeped into indigenous beliefs. Ancient ruins and Spanish colonial architecture dot the Ecuadorian landscape, representing both sides of Ecuador’s long and storied past.
Machismo is still very much present in Ecuador. This often manifests in traditional gender roles. The men typically take on the role of provider and breadwinner, and the women take on the role of looking after the home.
Good to Know
When traveling in Ecuador, keep the following in mind:
This might come as a surprise, but Ecuador’s official currency is the US dollar. Ecuador, however, does mint its own coins (centavos). Both US and Ecuadorian coins are accepted. It’s recommended to always have cash on hand as some establishments will not accept credit cards. In general, small bills are preferable.
Tipping is voluntary in Ecuador but expected after good service. The general rule of thumb is to tip 10 percent to your waiter if a service charge isn’t already included in your bill. Tip $5.00 to each of your guides if on a group tour or $10.00 to your guide if on a private tour. The driver is usually tipped half of what you tip the guide. At your hotel, bellhops are often tipped anywhere from $0.50 to $1.00 per bag, while housekeeping is tipped $2.00 to $3.00 per day. You don’t need to tip your taxi driver.
Close acquaintances and friends greet each other with a kiss on the right cheek, while men shake hands. When meeting someone for the first time, a handshake is OK. Ecuadorians are notoriously warm, friendly and good-mannered people, especially with visitors to their country. Greet them with a “buenos días” before noon, “buenas tardes” in the afternoon and “buenas noches” after sunset, and you’ll earn yourself some brownie points with the locals.
Ecuador’s power sockets and standard voltage match those in the United States, meaning Americans can leave travel adapters and converters at home. The power sockets in Ecuador are types A and B, and the voltage and frequency are 120V and 60Hz, the same as in the United States.
Public bathrooms in Ecuador are most common at transportation centers, such as bus stations and airports. There’s often an attendant sitting by the door whom you pay anywhere from $0.10 to $0.15 to use the toilet and to receive a small ration of toilet paper.
The tap water in Ecuador is not safe to drink. Stick to bottled water everywhere you go.
Ecuador’s tropical climate zones exist along the coast and in the Amazonian jungle lowlands. The high-altitude center of the country is often cooler and drier and experiences more variety in its weather from day to night and from season to season. The wet season in Ecuador runs from December through June, and the dry season runs from July through November, but expect rain year round, especially in Ecuador’s more tropical zones.
When To Visit
As with most things in Ecuador, determining the best time to plan your visit depends on where in the country you’d like to go. The coastal areas are best visited during the rainy season (December to May). The coastal dry season is often overcast, slightly cooler and more humid. When it comes to Ecuador’s Amazon region, avoid its wettest months (December to May). You’ll experience fewer mosquitos and have a better chance of seeing wildlife. In the highlands, December through March are the warmer and wetter months, so if hiking is in your plans, it’s best to plan your visit outside these months.
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- In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to declare nature has constitutional rights.
- Ecuador is the only country in the world officially named after a geographical feature.
- The Panama hat is actually from Ecuador, not Panama. The hats were woven on the Ecuadorian coast and then sold to the workers constructing the Panama Canal.
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Regions and Cities
In addition to the Galápagos Islands forming their own insular region of Ecuador, there are three main regions on the Ecuadorian mainland: the Costa, the Sierra and the Oriente, or the Amazon region. Unlike most Latin American countries, Ecuador also has two economic centers, one in the Andean highlands of Quito and the other in the bustling port city of Guayaquil.
The Costa (Coastal Lowlands)
Manta: This port city contains beautiful beaches, such as Murciélago, a fish market right up against the sea at Tarqui Beach and a sunset-perfect boardwalk full of bars and restaurants along the Malecón Escénico.
Guayaquil: As the largest city in Ecuador, Guayaquil is vibrant and bustling. The can’t-miss attractions are the coastal Malecón 2000, the Palacio Municipal, Las Peñas, the Mercado Artesanal and Parque Centenario.
Esmereldas: Also going by the name San Mateo de las Esmeraldas, this northern coastal city is famous for its Afro-Ecuadorian roots and culture—most notably its marimba music.
Montañita: Originally just a small fishing town, Montañita has become a hot spot for surfers around the world. It’s also become a party town with plenty of bars, restaurants and cafes to enjoy.
The Sierra (Andean Highlands)
Quito: Ecuador’s capital city is the heart of Ecuadorian culture and history, and it’s all set against a beautiful volcano backdrop. Visit places like the Historic Center (a UNESCO World Heritage site), the Cathedral of Quito, the Basilica del Voto Nacional, the Convent of La Merced, Church of the Society of Jesus or any of the exquisite parks strewn throughout the city.
Ibarra: Lying at the foot of the Imbabura Volcano and on the banks of the Tahuando River, Ibarra is as scenic as it is quaint. Enjoy its white colonial buildings, cobblestoned streets and, a tourist favorite, the town’s Saturday market.
Cotacachi: Cotacachi is an artisan town best known for its hand-crafted leather goods. The finery is still tanned, stretched and molded using methods passed down through the generations.
Ambato: Going by three nicknames, the “City of Flowers and Fruit,” the “Cradle of the Three Juans” and “Garden of Ecuador,” Ambato is lush with flowers and tree-lined streets, and it’s most famous for being the birthplace of three notable Ecuadorian writers named Juan. It’s also host of the annual Festival of Fruit and Flowers in February.
Riobamba: Surrounded by snowcapped volcanic peaks, including Ecuador’s tallest (Chimborazo), Riobamba is a great spot to immerse yourself in Ecuador’s Andean highlands and to do some hiking. The city also once served as the starting point of the famous Nariz del Diablo train.
Cuenca: Cuenca, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is as charming as it gets. Marvel at the cobblestoned streets, Spanish colonial cathedrals, parks and rivers that run right through town. Don’t miss its defining feature, the blue-domed Cathedral Cuenca.
Mindo: This mountain town is best known for being the epicenter of both bird watching and adventure sports, including mountain biking, tubing and rafting.
Zuleta: Located in the Andes and surrounded by lush cloud forest, Zuleta is best known for its exquisite embroidery, Zuleteño horses and the variety of native flora and fauna that call it home.
The Oriente (Amazon)
Puyo: Though not much to look at in its center, Puyo attracts travelers mostly because it’s a great launching point for a variety of jungle adventures.
Tena: This Amazon city is best known as the cinnamon capital of Ecuador and is most popular as the starting point for jungle rafting and kayaking tours. There are also several indigenous communities that live just outside Tena.
Baños: With waterfalls, hot springs and a gorgeous view of the Tungurahua volcano, there’s a lot to like about Baños. The town is considered the “Gateway to the Amazon” and is popular with both extreme sport enthusiasts and those looking to relax in the thermal baths.
Coca: Coca is the last town before the Río Napo takes you into the Amazon basin and to the Parque Nacional Yasuní. The town itself has a scenic park and malecón (stone embankment) that follows the river.
The Galápagos Islands
Located 620 miles off the coast of mainland Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands consist of 13 major islands, 6 smaller islands and countless islets. The archipelago is most famous for its endemic species and for being the inspiration behind Charles Darwin’s natural selection theory.
The island of Baltra is considered the gateway to the Galápagos, and it’s where most cruise ships take travelers first. Other popular islands and islets include the following: Bartolomé Island, South Plaza Islet, North Seymour Island, San Cristóbal Island, Española Island, Floreana Island, Santa Fe Island and Santa Cruz Island.
Read Our Full Galápagos Islands Article
Worth a Visit
Mitad del Mundo
Though it’s not the actual equatorial line (as explorers in 1736 once thought), it’s still fun to visit La Mitad in Quito for a photo of yourself straddling the painted yellow line meant to demarcate the equator.
This two-mile-wide lake is located in the caldera of the Cotacachi Volcano. Take a boat ride inside the caldera, or go for a hike along the rim to admire the lake’s stunning blue waters from above.
Cotopaxi National Park
Travelers head to Cotopaxi National Park to do the two-day hike up Ecuador’s still-active 19,347-foot Cotopaxi Volcano.
Things to See and to Do
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How to Get to Ecuador
No visas are required for US citizens staying less than 90 days in any 12-month period.
A US citizen must have a passport valid for six months after entering Ecuador, at least one blank page for the stamp and proof of onward travel.
Note that the Ecuadorian Ministry of Tourism plans to implement a requirement for all visitors to provide proof of health insurance covering the duration of their stays in Ecuador. The start date for this initiative has been postponed twice, but to be safe, it’s a good idea to have travel insurance that includes medical coverage throughout your stay.
Ecuador has two international airports, Aeropuerto Internacional Mariscal Sucre in Quito and Aeropuerto José Joaquín de Olmedo in Guayaquil.
Buses are the main form of public transport in Ecuador and can take you just about anywhere. Taxis are also readily available.
If time is short, you can rent a private vehicle. All you’ll need on hand is your driver’s license from your home country and a passport valid for at least another three months from the time you entered Ecuador. Motorcycles and motorbikes are also for hire in Quito.
Spanish is the official language in Ecuador, but due to its rich indigenous culture, past and present, the Inca language of Quechua is still spoken throughout much of the highland regions. Twenty-one other indigenous languages are spoken in the lowland regions. In the more touristy areas and cities, many Ecuadorians do speak English quite well, but don’t let that deter you from giving some of these Spanish phrases a try during your visit:
- Yes: Sí
- No: No
- Thank you: Gracias
- Please: Por favor
- Hello: Hola
- Good-bye: Chao or adios
- Nice to meet you: Mucho gusto
Food and Drink
Ecuador’s national gastronomy is best described by region. The diet of seafood, beans and plantains typical of the coast is vastly different from the diet of tubers, meat and rice in the highlands. No matter where in the country you are, though, a typical Ecuadorian menu will likely include a soup or stew and rice. Some of the must-try food and drink specialties of Ecuador include the following:
Ceviche: Ecuador’s version of this popular coastal dish is to prepare it with seasoned and boiled shrimp served in lime juice with chopped onions, tomatoes and cilantro.
Trout: Popular in the highlands of Ecuador, their trout are skillfully raised in the Andean river fisheries. You won’t likely find a better trout in all of South America.
Encebollado: This morning stew is most popular on the coast. The soup contains fish (usually tuna or albacore), spices, onions, peppers and yucca.
Cuy: Roasted whole in the oven, cuy is a highland delicacy that Westerners might better know as guinea pig.
Seco de Chivo: An Andean dish mostly reserved for special occasions, this goat stew is typically served with a heaping portion of rice and fried plantains, or patacones. A can of beer is often used in its preparation to diminish some of the gamy flavor of the goat.
Llapingachos: Perhaps the most unique of Ecuador’s dishes, these pan-seared or fried potato patties are often served topped with fried eggs and peanut sauce alongside sausage, avocado and rice. (No Ecuador travel adventure is complete without trying it!)
Mote: Dried maize, or corn.
Exotic Fruit: From achotillo, a succulent and juicy fruit, to tomatillo, a sweet relative of the tomato best enjoyed as a juice, Ecuador’s fertile soils produce some truly exotic fruit. Other fruit to look out for include chirimoya, granadilla, pitahayas and naranjilla.
Canelazo: A spiced hot drink popular in the highlands that contains cinnamon, sugar, naranjilla and puntas, an alcohol made from sugar cane.
Food in Ecuador: What to Know and to Eat—Full Article Coming Soon!
Ecuador is actually considered one of the safest Latin American countries. The only area to avoid is the northern border with Colombia, where drug trafficking and organized crime are prevalent. As any travel guide in any country would advise, exercise normal precautions throughout the country—especially with your valuables. A good tip is to keep just a few small bills handy in your front pocket, and then keep the rest of your cash tucked away safely in a money belt beneath your clothes. Another safety tip is to ask your hotel or a restaurant to call a taxi for you instead of hailing one from the street.
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Ecuador adventure!