Ecuador is nestled between Colombia and Peru on the Pacific side of South America. Backpacking or traveling around Ecuador is a beautiful experience. The food is incredible, there are lots of mountains, and I found the people very hospitable.
The Galapagos Islands are the main attraction in the country with most people just jumping from Quito to the islands to revel in the amazing wildlife-spotting opportunities.
But there is much more to Ecuador than the Galapagos.
Adventure lovers will be keen to explore the Ecuadorian Amazon or to climb one of the country’s many volcanoes, including the world-famous Cotopaxi Mountain.
This tiny country packs a lot of punch and this Ecuador travel guide can help you make the most of your trip!
Table of Contents
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Top 5 Things to See and Do in Ecuador
1. See Quito
2. Hike Cotopaxi Mountain
3. Explore the Galapagos Islands
4. Ride The Devil’s Nose train
5. See the Amazon rainforest
Other Things to See and Do in Ecuador
1. See Baños
This small town lies high in the Andes and on the hillside of Ecuador’s most active volcano, Tungurahua. Besides the fantastic volcano treks, visitors also flock to Baños to experience the healing powers of its hot springs and to give thanks for miracles performed at the Church of the Virgin of the Holy Water. It’s also the country’s adventure capital, with lots of biking, white water rafting, bungee jumping, ATV rentals, and a circuit of beautiful waterfalls to visit. Prices will vary, but they are not expensive. Bungee jumping, for example, is only $20 USD, while white water rafting is just $30 USD for 5 hours.
2. See the Otavalo Market
Otavalo is Ecuador’s most famous indigenous market. Handicrafts, jewelry, necklaces, musical instruments, and clothing are just a few of the things you can buy at this expansive market, one of the largest in all of Latin America. It’s open daily from 7am-6pm, but it’s best to arrive early in the day.
3. Visit Cuenca
Cuenca is Ecuador’s third-largest city. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cuenca has colonial buildings, churches, and cathedrals that are extremely photogenic. The city is also thought to be Ecuador’s intellectual capital and has been dubbed the “Athens of the Andes.” Activities range from climbing the towers of Cathedral de la Inmaculada, for a stunning view of the city for only $2 USD to pampering yourself at Piedra de Agua with a relaxing soak in the heated mineral baths ($17.50 USD for 3 hours). Be sure to stroll through Mercado de las Flores (Flower Market) too.
4. Explore Ingapirca
Ingapirca is Ecuador’s premier Inca site and is located in the Canar Province, near the country’s Pacific coast. The crowning glory of the site is the Temple of the Sun, which is a circular building made of intricately carved stones so as to fit together without mortar. There is also a burial site and a series of low walls which are ruins from various other buildings on the site. A guided tour costs around $45-50 USD.
5. Relax in Montañita
This surfer’s paradise is a relatively new addition to Ecuador’s list of attractions, although its reputation for pristine beaches and perfect waves has been growing steadily over the years. This is a proper backpacker’s paradise with laid back beach parties, live bands, and inexpensive accommodation. A week-long surf camp (including lessons, accommodation, and food) ranges from $480-690 USD.
6. Go whale watching in Puerto Lopez
One of the many tourist towns that lay along the coast is Puerto Lopez. Not so much of a surfing spot, it’s known instead for its great whale watching season. Come and witness the humpback whales in action, and then check out the blue footed boobies (a very rare bird species) at La Plata island (also referred to as “the poor man’s Galapagos”, as the same animals found in the Galapagos are also on La Plata). Combined tours (whale watching and island visit) cost $35 USD, plus the $15 USD national park fee. This ends up being a full day activity.
7. Visit or volunteer at an animal refuge
Puyo, the gateway to the Ecuadorian Amazon, has a number of animal rescue and rehabilitation centers. These make for an interesting and educational visit. Some offer volunteer opportunities if you’re interested in getting involved on a different level. Volunteer duties include preparing the meals for animals, feeding them, and cleaning and repairing animal enclosures.
About 90 minutes outside of Quito, is Ibarra. There is a lot of community tourism here as well as adventure travel and indigenous visits. Consider rafting, swing jumping, trekking, climbing, kayaking, and more.
9. Learn Spanish
As the national language here, Spanish is everywhere you go. There are hundreds of places to take a language course in this country. If you are going to visit for a prolonged period of time, it might be a good idea to take a couple of lessons. Two amazing schools are Yanapuma Spanish School and Simon Bolivar Spanish School, both are in Quito and Cuenca. Each class is about 4 hours long, with prices ranging from $6-9 USD per hour, with courses running anywhere from 1-4 weeks long.
10. Explore the lava tubes
North of Puerto Ayora, there are tons of underground tunnels that have been formed from molten lava. For $1 USD, you can take a self-guided tour or pay more to go with a guide. It’s pretty freaky being in these huge lava tubes but pretty amazing too.
Be sure to visit our Quito travel guide for more detailed information about what to see and do!
Ecuador Travel Costs
NOTE: Ecuador uses the US dollar.
Accommodation – Accommodation is inexpensive in Ecuador. Dorms start around $6 USD per night, while a private room ranges from $10-20 USD. Free Wi-Fi is standard, and many hostels also include free breakfast.
Budget hotels are only slightly more expensive than hostels, with prices starting around $25 USD per night. Free Wi-Fi and free breakfast are common. For a hotel with a pool, prices start at $30 USD per night.
Airbnb is also available, with shared accommodation starting at $15 USD per night. For an entire home or apartment, expect prices to begin around $25 USD (though prices average closer to $44 USD per night).
Food – The local fare of Ecuador features ilapinchagos (fried potato cakes stuffed with cheese), ceviche, empanadas, arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), and cuy (guinea pig), if you’re an adventurous foodie!.
Meals typically cost between $3-5 USD for these traditional meals. You can find food stalls on the street for around $1-2 USD. Western style meals will cost around $10-12 USD.
For a meal at a mid-range restaurant, expect to spend around $20 USD per person.
Beer is just $2 USD while a latte/cappuccino is $2.25 USD. Bottled water is $0.60 USD.
If you’re planning on shopping in the markets and grocery stores, you can expect to spend around $20-30 USD per week on basic groceries like bread, milk, eggs, cheese, chicken, fruit, and veggies.
Activities – Aside from a trip to the Galapagos Islands, activities are pretty cheap in Ecuador. A ride on the Devil’s Nose train will cost $25 USD roundtrip, while entrance to Ingapirca and most museums costs around $6 USD. Day trips to volcanoes and mountain hikes are typically around $30 USD. A trip to the Galapagos Islands is pricey — about $1,500-2,500 USD for 10 days, plus the $100 USD park fee — but if you have room in your budget, it’s incredible!
Backpacking Ecuador Suggested Budgets
How much does it cost to visit Ecuador? Galapagos aside, Ecuador is very cheap. You can travel comfortably on a budget of $30-40 USD per day if you’re staying in hostel dorms, eating at food stalls, cooking some of your meals, limiting your drinking, and using local transportation to get around.
On a mid-range budget of about $95 USD per day, you can stay in a private hostel room or budget hotel, eat out all you want at cheap restaurants and street stalls, take taxis when you need to, do tours and visit museums, and enjoy a few drinks out at the bar.
On a “luxury” budget of $365+ USD per day, you can stay in a hotel with a pool and even tour the Galapagos. You’ll be able to rent a car or take domestic flights, eat out for every meal, drink as much as you want, and do as many tours as you’d like. This is just the ground floor for luxury though. The sky is the limit!
No matter what budget you embrace, remember that your daily average is going to go up, up, up the more dive activities or expensive tours you do so if you’re traveling on a budget, keep the diving and historical tours to a minimum. This chart can give you a rough idea of day to day costs (prices are in USD):
Ecuador Travel Guide: Money Saving Tips
How do you save money in Ecuador? Here are a few hacks to cut down your costs while you travel around the country:
- Hospedajes – These family-run guesthouses are all over the country and have rooms for just a few dollars per night. They are very affordable accommodation options.
- Eat at the markets – This is the place to do your food shopping. Buying 20 bananas and a kilo of apples works out to under $3 USD! You can find meals for just a few dollars, making this the best way to eat cheaply in the country!
- Almuerzos – Many restaurants have almuerzos, cheap lunches from a set menu. These are usually just a couple of dollars and even include a drink!
- Carry small change – Forget about carrying any bills over $20 USD as you’ll have trouble changing them — even $20s can be difficult to break in small towns.
- Book last minute tours – Galapagos Island cruises are can expensive. By booking your tour in Quito last minute, you can save up to 40% off the cost of the trip. You can also just fly there and see what is around too! If you’re flexible in when you go and can wait around for a spot to open, this is the cheapest option.
- Couchsurf – If you want to make your trip even cheaper and find a local friend, couchsurf! There are a number of hosts in the country that will let you stay with them! It’s free accommodation and a chance to make a local friend!
- Stay at a Hola Hostel – Hola Hostels is a network of hostels predominantly in South and Central America, as well as Europe. They offer 10% off to their members, as well as other discounts for food and activities. Joining is free, and their hostels are also committed to environmentally sustainable practices.
- Pack a water bottle – A water bottle with a purifier will come particularly in handy in Ecuador since you can’t always drink the tap water. Save money and thousands of plastic bottles and get a bottle that can purify the tap water for you. My preferred bottle is LifeStraw.
Where To Stay in Ecuador
Here are some of my favorite places to stay in Ecuador:
How to Get Around Ecuador
Public Transportation – Bus is the most common, efficient way to get around Ecuadorian cities. A local bus ticket costs usually about $0.25 USD. Bus stops are really only existent in Quito — outside of the city, you’ll generally just have to flag one down and request your stop whenever it comes along.
Taxis – Taxis are very affordable, but they’re only metered in Quito. A short taxi ride shouldn’t cost much more than $5 USD. Otherwise, you’ll have to negotiate the fee with the driver upfront. Don’t be afraid to haggle! In rural areas, a taxi might actually just be a pick-up truck.
Uber is available in Quito, Ibarra, Guayaquil, Manchala, Manta, and Ambato!
Bus – The bus network in Ecuador is incredibly extensive, and it’s the easy way to get around the country. Most routes travel along the common backpacking routes, but also into more remote areas. Long-distance buses typically cost from $1-2 USD per hour.
For the 7-hour ride from Quito to Guayaquil, expect to pay between $11-21 USD for a one-way ticket. A 20-hour ride from Quito to Bogota, Colombia costs between $41-60 USD. From Quito to Lima, Peru tickets start at $60 USD for the 29-hour ride.
Typically you can just show up at the bus station to get your ticket, but you can also use latinbus.com to look up routes and prices.
Another option is to book a hop on hop off pass, like with with Wanderbus Ecuador. These passes give you flexibility in your travel, but along specific routes. You can hop off and hop on at any time. Their passes start around $35 USD for 3 stops, while longer routes can cost up to $159 USD for 11 stops.
Fly – Flying within Ecuador is affordable, with most destinations being serviced from Quito or Guayaquil. Ecuador’s airlines are:
- Emetebe (Galápagos-based airline)
Flights from Quito to Guayaquil start at $81 USD. TAME will also get you to some smaller Ecuadorian destinations, like Quito to Loja for $85 USD. Flying to the Galapagos Islands is obviously the most practical way to get there, but it’s certainly not cheap. One way from Quito to Baltra (the busiest airport) start from about $250 USD. Guayaquil to Baltra is about $230 USD.
Train – Ecuador’s rail system isn’t the best way to get around the country, although there are day trips along routes that are specifically designed for tourists. The route from Alausi along La Nariz del Diabo (The Devil’s Nose) is one of the most popular, thanks to its terrifyingly steep descent. There is also a weekend train trip between Quito and Area Nacional de Area Nacional de Recreación El Boliche next to Cotopaxi.
You can use http://www.ecuadorrail.net/ to look up routes and ticket prices. The Devil’s Nose trip is $25 USD, but you still have to make your way to Alausi.
Car rental – Car rentals cost around $25 USD per day, however, the driving conditions are far from ideal (poor road conditions, no driving signs, etc.). Unless you have experience driving in Central or South America, I’d skip the rental as buses are much cheaper and safer.
Hitchhiking – Hitchhiking is possible here if you have experience and don’t mind waiting. Use Hitchwiki for the most up-to-date tips and information.
When to Go to Ecuador
Ecuador technically only has two seasons: wet season and dry season. But Ecuador has such varying altitudes, it really depends on where/when you visit.
January to May is the coolest, wettest time of year for most of the country. Navigating the Amazon can be difficult during this time due to road closures and flooding. Temperatures along the coast are milder, and it’s actually quite pleasant in the Galapagos as the ocean waters are calm and warm.
June to the end of September is very dry, and you’ll also experience some of the warmest temperatures in Ecuador. This is peak season, so you can expect higher prices for flights and accommodations. Still, the weather is always nice and the entire country has a fun, upbeat atmosphere. Temperatures near the coast are as high as 77°F (25°C), while in Quito the daily average is around 70°F (21°C).
October to the end of December is another busy time in Ecuador, and especially in the Galapagos Islands.
How to Stay Safe in Ecuador
Ecuador is generally a safe place to backpack and travel, even if you’re traveling alone or as a solo female traveler. Petty theft (including bag snatching) is the most common type of crime in Ecuador. Valuables like laptops, jewelry, and cell phones should be hidden from sight. Transport terminals are especially a hot spot for petty crimes.
In Quito, avoid the old town at night. Taxi crimes are a danger in places like Quito, Guayaquil, Manta, and Playas – the US consulate in Guayaquil even forbids its staff from hailing cabs in the street because of the risk of crime. In this popular scam, someone will hop into your taxi with you once the journey has started and take you on a little tour of the city’s ATMs.
Use caution at night. That’s the main rule!
Ecuador has a special tourist police division to help travelers. All you have to do is install the travel safety app on your phone, and when you call for help, the police can find you using your GPS (if necessary).
Always trust your gut instinct. If a taxi driver seems shady, stop the cab and get out. If your hotel is seedier than you thought, get out of there. Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID.
If you don’t do it at home, don’t do it when you’re in Ecuador. Follow that rule and you’ll be fine.
Worried about travel scams? Read about these 14 major travel scams to avoid and be in the know!
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:
Ecuador Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
Below are my favorite companies to use when I travel to Ecuador. They are included here because they consistently turn up the best deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are always my starting point when I need to book a flight, hotel, tour, train, or meeting people!
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
- Momondo – This is my other favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here too.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have a no money down policy, great interface, and the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around Ecuador, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get a discount when you click the link!
- Grassroots Volunteering – For volunteering, Grassroots Volunteering compiles a list of good local volunteer organizations that keep the money within the community.
- Rome 2 Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. It will give you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost.
- Free Walking Tour Quito – Get oriented with a Quito free walking tour! These tours are informative, fun, and super interesting. You’re just expected to tip at the end.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
Ecuador Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Ecuador Gear Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
Wildlife of the Galapagos, by Julian Fitter, Daniel Fitter, and David Hosking
Here’s your must-have guide for visiting the Galapagos! It’s a definitive field guide to the natural world of this incredible archipelago, including info about 400 different species of birds, mammals, reptiles, plants, and invertebrates. There are also over 600 photographs, maps, and drawings, as well as a section that gives you the low down about the islands’ history, climate, geology, etc. It’s a completely comprehensive look at the Galapagos, and you’ll be well prepared to visit after reading this.
Floreana: A Woman’s Pilgrimage to the Galapagos, by Margret Wittmer
This is the first-hand account of Margret Wittmer’s attempt to make a new home on the small island of Floreana, in the Galapagos. In 1932, Wittmer leaves Germany with her husband and step-son to settle into the nearly unpopulated island – where they clear land, live in an old pirates’ cave, and then build a home just in time for Wittmer to have a baby. Over the years the family acquires a number of amazing neighbors – like convicts and military personnel – and they welcome a series of exciting guests like Franklin D. Roosevelt. Some of these stories seem too good to be true, but they’re real, and they’re an amazing look at life in Ecuador before the tourism boom.
Huasipungo (The Villagers), by Jorge Icaza
The Villagers is a brutally raw and honest account of the exploitation and extermination of an Indian village in Ecuador by its landlord. When it was first published in 1934, this book shocked its readers and brought around a lot of attention (not all favorable) to the author, Jorge Icaza. It’s a heavy read – there’s no covering up the human suffering – but it’s considered one of the best works of contemporary writing in Latin American literature. It’s a useful read if you’re looking to understand Ecuador a little better.
The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, by Luis Sepúlveda
In a tiny village on the Nangaritza River lives an old man in a hut. The village is so tiny that the dentist only visits twice a year – and he brings books all filled with rich love stories to the old man. This book is about the wild world of Amazonia, and how the Shuar Indians have learned to live in harmony with it – despite the onslaught of machines, settlers, and gold prospectors.