We always love the underdog. Ecuador is tucked between the two tourism heavyweights Peru to the south and Colombia to the north. It’s often overlooked on South American backpacking trips, and yet Ecuador has got everything you can look for. Wild Amazon national parks and surf spots on the ocean. Charming colonial towns and party places. Indigenous communities and modern buzz. The list could go on but what we mean is clear; you should absolutely visit Ecuador during your South America backpacking trip. We’ve put together this humble Ecuador travel guide to show you why and tell you how.
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A few things to know before backpacking in Ecuador
Here you’ll find some travel tips and helpful information about Ecuador, to help you plan your trip. Click here to read about our favourite destinations and plan your Ecuador backpacking itinerary.
The currency in Ecuador is the US dollar
Yes, it is. And even though we still don’t really know why, it’s been more than 20 years now; so let’s just get on with it. Before that, they used the Sucre, which is probably the cutest name for a national currency. Much cuter than “Bitcoin”, if you ask me.
In spite of this, prices aren’t particularly high, but the level of life is higher than in neighbouring countries. Here are a few average prices in Ecuador in November 2019 to give a basic idea of how expensive is backpacking Ecuador.
|Water bottle (33 cl)||$0.48 USD||0.44€|
|National beer||$1.50 USD||1.36€|
|Menu in cheap restaurant||$3.50 USD||3.18€|
|1 way in public transport||$0.30 USD||0.27€|
|Bus Quito-Guayaquil||$12 USD||10.90€|
|1 night in a hostel dorm||$5-10 USD||4.50-9€|
The cheapest place to eat (but also the more local, the more colourful, in one word: the best) is the market. There is at least one in every town in Ecuador and can usually serve all day long. Every time we arrived to a new town, that was always one of the first places we looked for!
Ecuador is relatively modern
If we understand “modern” as progressive in matters of infrastructures, gender equality, animal welfare and environmental awareness, Ecuador is most definitely a level higher than all its neighbours.
We came from Peru and its colourful mess of street markets, aggressive traffic, gas pollution and well-defined gender roles (eg. not many women driving a car in Peru in 2019!). It’s all very nice but, believe me, it gets a bit oppressive after 2 months.
Not knowing at all what to expect from Ecuador, we were positively surprised (and, shall we say, happy). Clean streets and asphalt roads in a good state; women driving and men running shops; cars stopping to let pedestrians cross… How different can life be on either side of those abstract divisions they call borders!
Of course, not everything is copacetic in Ecuador, and the recent violent demonstrations of 2019 proved that. Our friends spoke of corruption, gender inequality and strong wealth disparity. But all in all, nothing you should worry about while backpacking Ecuador.
Despite its size, Ecuador is very diverse
Ecuador was the first country in the world to recognise the Rights of Nature in its national constitution. That’s right: the Constitution declares that Nature is an entity with rights, just like Human beings.
With this in mind, expect a well-preserved Nature everywhere you go backpacking in Ecuador – and also some very diverse landscapes:
- to the West, la costa: the ocean, the coastline and its beaches; and the Galápagos islands, very far at sea and full of creatures that exist only there
- in the centre, la sierra: the Andes mountain range with its high plateaus, peaks and volcanoes
- to the east, el oriente: the Amazon rain forest, with several pristine national parks
Unless you give Ecuador enough time and do a loop, you will have to make a decision as to which landscape you want to see.
Half of Ecuador is in altitude
The whole central part is dominated by the mighty Andes, the dorsal spine of South America, that crosses the continent from Colombia down to the southernmost part of Patagonia. In fact, 10 mountains in Ecuador are over 5,000 meters high (16404.2 ft). Even Quito, the capital, is at 2,850 metres (9,350 ft) above sea level.
Being in altitude has consequences on your body that you shouldn’t underestimate. Even if you’re young and fit, you must absolutely give yourself time to acclimatise to that altitude. It’s something new for your body so go smoothly the first couple of days; and never ever jump or run when you’re really up there. Keep in mind that even mountaineers, with all the practice and experience they have, need to acclimatise each time.
A word about the climate. Located right on the equator line (hence the name, got it?), there are only 2 seasons in Ecuador; the dry season from June to September and the wet season from October to May.
Is backpacking in Ecuador safe?
The violence that the world witnessed on the streets of Quito at the end of 2019 shouldn’t be generalised. Ecuador is safe. During our 3 weeks backpacking in Ecuador, we experienced absolutely zero problem, violence or theft.
It doesn’t mean that nothing can happen, and the usual recommendations apply there, as they always do in a place you don’t know.
Don’t show off your valuables; keep an eye on your belongings; follow your instinct and wander off the crowded parts of towns only as long as you feel confident. We’re all for getting off the beaten path and exploring the areas that never get mentioned by travel guides. But if we feel that a place looks too seedy and we start feeling uncomfortable, we turn back. That means staying aware of your surroundings.
We were advised not to walk up to the top of the Panecillo, that hill in the centre of Quito. Apparently muggings aren’t uncommon there.
There might be a risk of tropical diseases in the Amazon rain forest (eastern part of Ecuador). Consult with your doctor before travelling if that’s a region you intend to visit.
Prepare well before backpacking Ecuador
Even though Ecuador isn’t the cheapest country in Latin America, easy hitchhiking and Couchsurfing possibilities can make your backpacking trip considerably cheaper. Besides a good travel insurance, here are a few things you want to consider before travelling in Ecuador.
The conditions here are not the same as in Colombia, or even Peru. There is a good level of hygiene in general, and therefore less risks of food poisoning.
The tap water is drinkable everywhere, so you won’t need to buy bottled water. All you need is your own favourite refillable bottle.
Buses are very cheap in Ecuador and that will probably be your transportation of choice in a country so small. We really don’t see the point in taking any plane to travel inland; whereas that’s the only means of transportation to go to the Galápagos.
Hitchhiking is said to be very easy, but we didn’t try much, considering how cheap the buses are. We managed only on our way back from Cajas National Park to Cuenca and around Latacunga; and we failed in Vilcabamba. Many people might ask you for money to pick you up; just state straight away that you cannot pay and they should take you for free.
In 3 weeks backpacking, the only place in Ecuador where we had to go to the hostel was in Baños. That doesn’t say much against Baños though; maybe it was the wrong time of year, or maybe we sent requests too late or what have you. But it does mean much for the Couchsurfing scene in Ecuador, where it’s very easy to find hosts.
Couchsurfing in Ecuador brought us to a wooden lodge overlooking Vilcabamba; to the home of two musicians in Quito; and to a half-finished house near Otavalo, with no toilet and shower at the river.
Backpacking destinations in Ecuador
Despite its small size, this is a very diverse country with something to offer to all kinds of backpackers. We recommend backpacking Ecuador 3 weeks at least, to make the most of many things it has to offer. Many travellers go backpacking Ecuador and Peru together and end up backpacking Ecuador 1 week only. We think this is too short.
Here’s a selection of our favourite places, to inspire your Ecuador itinerary.
The country’s capital is certainly not the #1 backpacking attraction in Ecuador. But considering its geographical location, the amount of cultural things to see and/or the party quarter, it’s simply unavoidable on any Ecuador trip.
Quito is a very stretched city, with a centre extending between the Panecillo hill and the Miraflores district. More North, it’s upper-middle-class residential areas with parks, nice cafes and great bakeries.
Read more tips about backpacking Quito here
Otavalo and its market
Otavalo might be one of the most famous towns in South America. It’s certainly among the most colourful places to visit in Ecuador. It holds every Saturday on its Plaza de Ponchos a weekly market which is an explosion of colours.
You find there all sorts of local crafts, fabrics and clothes at a cheap price despite being a tourist attraction. It can be a good idea to plan Otavalo at the end of your trip, so you can pack before the return flight. It will prevent you from travelling 3 months with a bulky poncho, like Anthony did!
Otavalo isn’t only the market though; there’s also a romantic waterfall and a couple of very nifty lakes nearby. So it’s a great location for nature lovers too.
Read more tips about backpacking Otavalo here
Strange to think that the Quilotoa loop ranks among the top Ecuador tourist attractions; yet we spent half our time there completely alone, with a breathtaking view (and sore legs) only to ourselves. As a matter of fact, most people don’t do the whole loop around the lake; they tend to stay at the entrance, where the viewing platforms, the shops and the hot chocolates are.
To put it simply: it would be a big mistake to travel in Ecuador without hiking around Laguna Quilotoa. It’s a lake of a gorgeous colour in a volcano crater that can be circled in about 5 hours. It’s also possible to do a several-day hike around the lake (the so-called “Quilotoa loop”), exploring small villages and the Ecuadorean countryside.
Read more tips about backpacking Lake Quilotoa and where to stay
Nature enthusiasts, listen up! The small mountain town of Baños, in the heart of the country, is quite simply the outdoors paradise of Ecuador. It offers the perfect setting for a few perfect hiking days, with stunning views, a cosy valley river and an impressive number of waterfalls.
Add to this a plethora of adventure activities, like deadly swings, extreme zip lining, rafting, bungee jumping and the likes. And to soothe your sore body, enjoy an evening at one of the town’s thermal baths. Isn’t that perfect? Baños definitely attracts a lot of tourists, both national and international and is therefore full of accommodations, bars and restaurants.
Read more tips about backpacking Baños here
Cuenca was our favourite town in Ecuador. It might be the contrast with towns in Peru –where we had spent 3 months– but we found it beautiful, cosy, safe, and overall really enjoyable!
We’re sure you’ll love it too. The colonial, the modern and the alternative live side-by-side in this lively students’ town. No surprise that Cuenca’s centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is mentioned in any travel guide Ecuador.
It’s also the birthplace of what is wrongly called the Panama hat. But if that’s not enough for you, Cuenca is also the gateway to the Cajas National Park, one of the prettiest we’ve seen in Ecuador; and to Ingapirca, the largest pre-hispanic ruins in Ecuador.
The pristine archipelago of the Galápagos is located 906 km (563 mi) away from the continent. That means you can only go there by plane from Quito or Guayaquil, arriving at either Baltra or San Cristobal. There are also cargo boats and cruise ships travelling there in 3 to 5 days.
In such a remote location, with many endemic species of birds (including the famous blue footed boobies, which are so cute), turtles, sea lions and what not, spending a few days island-hopping in the Galápagos is surely the experience of a lifetime. It’s also an investment in time and money that we would love to do one day in the future. The Galápagos Marine Reserve is among the largest national parks in the world, so plenty to see under water too.
If I tell you that Vilcabamba is a haven for many North American hippies, does that scare you off? If I add that most shops around the central square are run by US Americans, and that we heard more English than Spanish there?
Fair play, I also had a bad image of Vilcabamba before arriving there, after backpacking Peru. The border crossing at La Balza was also a bit rough; a rude officer asking us peremptorily to sit on the outdoor plastic chairs of his dirty office. There was no internet there and he registered our arrival by hand. This detail made our leaving the country 1 month later more tedious.
And yet, we both loved Vilcabamba. It’s small, rural, easy-going, surrounded with beautiful forests and mountains with very accessible hikes. We visited a friend who was staying in a community only 30 minutes walk from the town centre. That’s one of the things you can do during your stay in Vilcabamba, if you’re up for that.
Backpacking Ecuador off the beaten path
You’ll quickly notice it as you backpack Ecuador, points of interest are all over the country. And yet, the country itself is off the beaten path. Here’s some inspiration to get off the gringo trail and travel Ecuador in its most unknown parts.
Halfway between Quito and Baños lies a rural region inhabited mostly by an Indigenous Kichwa community. These people are mostly farmers and they’re the ones behind the lively Zumbahua market, near the Quilotoa lake. Latacunga is the main town, on the E35 highway that links the north to the south of the country.
We spent a few days in the tiny hamlet of Tigua, with a farmer and his cows and llamas. It was an amazing experience that shaped forever our image of Ecuador. If the pastoral life appeals to you, we highly recommend stopping at Tigua or Zumbahua.
Read our story about the country life in Ecuador
Cotopaxi National Park
Looking for a day trip from Quito? Eager for more options for trekking Ecuador? Consider the Cotopaxi National Park, which offers stunningly wild landscapes only 1,5 hour south of the capital. It’s even closer to Latacunga, so another reason to stay in that area.
Experienced climbers can take on the summit, while hikers enjoy a wonderful day walk to the refuge, the lake and the glacier further up.
The Chimborazo volcano is an inactive volcano, at 6,263 m (20548 ft) the highest mountain in Ecuador. Now that you know the setting, imagine what you can do there!
No need to be a mountaineer and climb up to the peak. It’s possible to hike on its slopes and get a glimpse of the
majesticity, the majestuosity… the impressiveness of the big boy. It’s part of a protected area with glaciers and vicuñas, the llamas’ little sisters.
You can access the park from Riobamba or Ambato, where you’ll find accommodation and info to prepare your day hike.
One of the main tourist spots in Ecuador is the party-beach-town of Montañita. It attracts surfers from around the world with its great waves. If you’re into partying, meeting fellow travellers and getting drunk on the beach, go to Montañita.
If you’re not, but still want to experience the Ecuadorean coastline and maybe surf some Pacific waves, we recommend Ayampe. Less than 30 km further north on the coast, this small place –a village, really– sees much fewer travellers. Nonetheless, it’s ready to welcome you with a few hostels and surf shops if you want to hit the waves.
Parque Nacional Yasuní
Far west into the Amazon jungle lies one of the several national parks in the Ecuadorean rain forest. Yasuní –but you could also choose Cuyabeno more to the north– is at the border with Brazil; but so deep in the thick jungle, you certainly cannot see any border anywhere.
If you haven’t been to the Amazon jungle, we strongly recommend it. Firstly, because it’s a fantastic landscape that resembles nothing you know (nothing we knew for sure). It’s a full immersion in nature that maybe only scuba divers experiment. Secondly, because at the rate some people are destroying it, who knows how long we will still be able to see it?
Good thing that there are protected parks like Yasuní, that guarantee some form of preservation. You can book a tour to the rain forest; or find an accommodation, maybe an eco lodge, that will give you tips on nearby hikes.
Parque Nacional Cajas
While Cuenca views a fair amount of tourists, the close-by Cajas National Park attracts only a few portion of them. And that’s surprising, considering how gorgeous this park is!
It offers several trails, catering to different levels of hikers. You can loop around a lake and admire the Andean flora; stroll along a gentle valley of low vegetation; climb higher up to some magnificent viewpoints; or do a bit of a mishmash of it all, as we did.
Finish the day hitchhiking back to Cuenca and enjoy one of the town’s gorgeous hot chocolates.
Eco backpacking travels in Ecuador
We don’t want to bore you again with the same usual recommendations. We know you are a responsible traveller – otherwise you wouldn’t be reading Green Mochila.
Of course you are respectful of the people you meet, although their culture is different to yours; although they might be Indigenous and eat chicken for breakfast. We’re sure you don’t take photos of people without asking them first.
Of course, you haggle at the market but don’t haggle forcefully. Each object has its fair price; and that takes into account both what you can afford and what the seller might need to make a living.
Of course, you always take your rubbish with you when you hike; maybe even pick up what inconsiderate hikers have left before you. Basically, you leave the spot as nice and tidy as when you found it, right?
The only thing we really want to focus on is the plague that is plastic. Ecuador, like most South American countries, is guilty of an overuse of plastic in its daily life. It will take time for habits to change…
So be ready with your own reusable cup for takeaway drinks, your own cutlery for the food and your own foldaway bags. And If you don’t have a travel bottle yet, you should really get one. One that isn’t in plastic because, once again, plastic is not good for you.
We recommend to take with you on your eco travels this full lightweight (and beautiful) responsible travellers’ kit from (RE)collective, an eco conscious startup from Austria. This fantastic kit includes all the items that we have on our trips: cutlery set, a bottle (that is a thermos actually!), cup, shopping bag. Use GREEN as a coupon code at the checkout for an exclusive 5% discount for Green Mochila readers!
Please check again our list of eco travels tips for responsible tourism
Are you planning a backpacking trip to Ecuador? Do you have any question we’re not answering here? Feel free to tell us in the comments!
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