“Live your life by a compass, not by a clock, a paycheck or a routine. There is a difference between living and being alive.”
Ecuador is one of Earth’s most geologically diverse wonders, offering some of the world’s most incredible natural beauty. Ecuador is not typically on people’s travel bucket list, but with tourism becoming increasingly popular to South America, I’ll give it a few years until it is. So, should you visit Ecuador? Do you like off-the-beaten path travel? Do you like rice, beans and chicken? Do you seek adventure? Do you want to zip line, bungee jump, ride in fast cable cars, and swim in natural hot springs? Do you want to stay in relatively nice accommodation for two weeks for the price of one night in Hawaii? Are you okay in high altitudes? Do you love hiking or bird-watching? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then YES! Ecuador is for you.
Ecuador, Spanish for equator, was the first stop on our six-month world travel adventure. We spent a total of 16 days in Ecuador and rented a car to have easier access to all the places we wanted to visit. If you aren’t susceptible to car sickness, then it is very easy to get around the country by bus, which is the cheapest method of transport. Because I have vertigo and am sensitive to motion sickness, long windy bus rides in high altitude mountainous roads were out of the question. For around $450 for 16 days, we rented a car (most cars are manual in South America). We got our rental car through Budget and reserved on the spot when we arrived to the airport in Quito. Be aware that Thrify forces you to take their local insurance, which is not necessary if you have your own. Our credit card (Chase Sapphire Preferred – the credit card most highly recommended for travel), includes full coverage insurance. Most car rental companies will have a maximum for how many kilometers you can drive. Ours was 1,500 (around 940 miles), which we exceeded by a bit. Anything over the maximum kilometer reading will be charged $.20 per kilometer, so we ended up paying around $50 extra, which was completely worth it for all the amazing sights we got to see with our car, which we named Put-Put Red The Beast.
Our 16-Day Itinerary:
You can read more about the towns and cities we visited by clicking on each of the separate blog post links below:
If you want to get an idea of how much it costs to travel in Ecuador, you can read about how much money we spent in the country during our 16 days of travel, including a detailed spending analysis broken down by category here: HOW MUCH MONEY WE SPENT IN 16 DAYS IN ECUADOR
We flew into Aeropuerto Internacional Mariscal Sucre in the country’s capitol of Quito (9,350′ elevation).
Quito: 1 night –> Mindo (2-hour drive – watch the pot holes!)
Mindo: 3 nights – the bird-watching capitol of the world (3,500′ elevation)
Mindo –> Cuenca (10-hour drive over high altitude windy mountainous roads. The highest altitude you will pass is around 12,500′)
Cuenca: 4 nights – colonial town and most popular town for expatriates: (8,200′ elevation)
Cuenca –> Banos (7-hour drive over very windy mountainous roads.)
Banos: 3 nights – the adventure town of Ecuador (6,000′ elevation)
Banos –> Otavalo (5-hour drive mostly on the PanAmericana Highway)
Otavalo: 2 nights – home to the famous mercado, the largest artisan market in all of South America (8,500′ elevation)
Otavalo –> Quito (90-minute drive; most people go to Otavalo as a day trip)
Quito: 2 nights – the capital of Ecuador
DRIVING IN ECUADOR
We named our rental Put-Put Red because it was only slightly larger than the average American refrigerator and made it through windy, pothole mountainous passes, dusty, rocky roads and pouring rain.
Driving in Ecuador is certainly not for the faint of heart or nervous drivers. Luckily, Sasha is an excellent driver who knows how to handle a stick shift, and enjoys a bit of adrenaline. The first 8 hours of driving for me were absolutely terrifying; huge busses with flashing lights come directly at you in YOUR lane because they are passing slow people in their own lane, there are potholes the size of cows, you have to be careful not to hit cows, and motorcyclists drive in between lanes. However, once you get the hang of it, passing becomes a fun game, and you learn the rules of the road quickly. We found that driving was actually quite fun, and the locals were respectful in moving over to allow you to pass in the middle or in oncoming traffic. Gas was around $15 to fill up a full tank, and Put Put Red went a long time without having to fill up again.
We loved the ease and convenience of having our own vehicle and not having to rely on bus schedules. However, the more budget-friendly way is to travel by bus. Keep in mind that most of the center of Ecuador lies along the Andes Mountain Range, so most of the cities are at very high altitude. One of the reasons we began in Mindo was to slowly acclimate to the higher elevations. We used Googlemaps the entire time to get around, which mostly steered us in the right direction, not to mention, Google voice attempting Spanish words was quite entertaining. There are some newer roads that must not have been updated in the app yet, so there were a few places where we got a bit turned around.
CURRENCY & COST
Ecuador uses U.S. dollars, so if you are coming from America, it’s really convenient! There are plenty of ATMs, but you should exercise caution when taking money out. Cover your card number when inserting into the machine, and cover your pin when you enter it on the keypad. Try to use ATM machines that are inside of a building rather than street-facing.
Ecuador is relatively cheap; it is more expensive than Peru or Bolivia, but less expensive than Chile and Argentina. We are mid-budget travelers meaning we aren’t living the backpacking cheap hostel dorm life, but also aren’t staying in nice hotels. We stayed in a few hostels but mostly Airbnb for the comfort of privacy and our own kitchen. We really enjoyed having meals at hostels and doing the free walking tours because it was an excellent way to meet fellow travelers and fulfill the social aspect of international travel.
I speak conversational (nearly fluent) Spanish because I studied it in school for 12 consecutive years before minoring in the Spanish language in University. Most people even in establishments serving tourists, do not speak much English if even at all, therefore it is recommended that you carry a translation book with you and learn a few of the basics.
Having never been to South America before and being a total safety freak, I was very cautious about everything, though we quickly learned that this country is extremely safe. I would say that in most of the cities we visited here, I felt safer than I did walking around downtown Seattle at night. There is virtually no homelessness, though there are harmless beggars in some cities (most are elderly and toothless). The streets are very well-kept, clean and well-lit at night. We found Baños and Cuenca to be the safest cities.
Just like in any big city, you should watch your belongings and don’t carry too much cash, as pickpocketing is common in well-populated areas. Don’t keep your phone out, and don’t wear flashy clothing or jewelry. Also, from fellow travelers we have met along the way who have taken long bus rides, a few of them had some theft from their bags when they left them on the floor in between their legs. Sasha and I would each carry our own money in our zipped pockets, and we would never carry more than $80 at a time. We left our credit and debit cards at home and only carried photocopies of our passport. Another thing I liked about Ecuador is that the men are respectful towards women. I didn’t witness any staring or cat-calling, even when I walked around the city by myself without my Tall man to protect me.
One thing you should know about Ecuador is that feral dogs are everywhere. However, most of them are not rabid and actually live quite good lives. They are not dangerous and will not attack you on the street, but be careful about petting them (trust me, as a dog-lover, it was so tempting to want to go up to all of them and give them cuddles.)