Handy things to know before going to Ecuador

Quilotoa volcano crater and rainbow Ecuador

Having spent three months in Ecuador, we thought we’d share some tips and information that we accumulated while travelling throughout the country. Maybe not everything will apply for you on your travels – after all, there are differences between the various regions and the way they do things, differences between the cities and the country-side, differences between budget and fancier travelling-, but I’m sure there’s something useful for you in it.

Bring

Sun-screen

Ecuador is on the equator (hence the name), and that means it’s closer to the sun. In other words: you should put sun-screen on any bits of skin that are exposed, no matter where you are, no matter if it’s cold or cloudy. Bring a nice big bottle of a least factor 30 with you, because sun-screen is not as commonly available as you might think, and it’s quite expensive, too.

Panorama laguna san paolo otavalo ecuador

Tampons

They are not an item you will find in every shop, so save yourself the hassle of an exciting (and, depending on the location, fruitless) hunt for this sanitary product, and just bring your own supply.

Books

As we regularly frequent hostels and guest-houses, we have integrated book-swaps into our travel rhythm. We’ll bring a book and just keep on swapping during our travels. In Ecuador this doesn’t work as well – here (English or other foreign) books are more valuable, so if you are used to getting by with book-swapping, be prepared to pay. Hence you might want to bring some books along from home – or stock up your Kindle.

Ear plugs

Ear plugs can easily be bought, but some people (including me) swear on a special kind. If you are one of these people, bring your own set of ear-plugs, because Ecuador can be quite a noisy place all in all.

Language

Prior to the trip, I read somewhere on the Internet that although Ecuador is a Spanish-speaking country, one could get by with English. This turned out to be wrong. You will indeed find many Ecuadorians who speak English, and the ones who do, speak it very well, too, but you cannot rely on that.

So make sure you have a cheat-sheet with the most useful words and phrases, or bring a little dictionary (you can also install one as an app on your phone). And then just wing it. We experienced Ecuadorians to be really relaxed about us mumbling and waving our hands. You will have to deal with the disbelief of some, though: “Que, you don’t speak Espagnol? But how is this possible?!”.

Finances

So the Ecuadorian currency is the US Dollar, which is handy, I guess. Just be prepared that you might encounter troubles when you want to take money out of an ATM with your credit card. With some machines, your card won’t work (and for reasons of suspense, the ATM will tell you that right after five minutes of concentrated button pushing). It might not even be your card, the machine might just be out of money.

Other machines will not let you take out big amounts, so you might need to take out US$ 100 three times instead of US$ 300 once. Not so funny when you pay fees on top of each interaction. Some smaller towns/villages will also not have ATMs/banks, so be prepared.

Banos from above Ecuador

But hey, you might be fine throughout your whole journey, just know that there can be issues and don’t panic when you encounter them (like I did when I tried to get money out upon our arrival and it didn’t work).

Also worth knowing when travelling in Ecuador: change is useful! I was relieved that the ATMs mostly give out US$ 20 bills, which I thought were reasonably small, but that turned out to be still too big. A lot of vendors will have trouble changing a US$ 20 bill when it comes to purchases that are below US$ 5. Mind you, they will run some place and get change, but if you appreciate a smooth interaction, have the coins ready.

Facilities

Toilets

One area where the coins come in handy, for example, are the public restrooms. The attendant usually asks for 5 Cents for men and 15 Cents for women to use the facilities (this may vary, of course), and the ladies will be given some toilet paper. However, not all restrooms everywhere have toilet paper, so having some tissues on you might be a good idea. It’s also possible that there is a toilet paper dispenser o u t s i d e the toilets, so keep an eye out.

In addition, said toilet paper goes into a bin, not in the toilet. I personally have never a problem remembering that as I’m terrified of the idea that I’ll block the toilet by throwing paper in, and then someone will have to come and fix the mess.

Tap water

The tap water is not drinkable. We usually buy big water containers and pour the water in our refillable bottles/camel bags, but we met a couple who have been travelling South America for over seven years now, Karen and Eric from TransAmericasJourney, who converted us.

They use a Steripen; a device that makes water drinkable through UV light. This is definitely the right thing to have when you don’t want to leave a trail of plastic bottles behind, and for our next journey to a country with undrinkable tap water, we’ll get one.

Sunset ecuador beach montanita

Beds

Not always, but sometimes, the beds in Ecuador were a bit shorter than what we are used to. I am 1.80m (6 feet) and that was just about okay, but if you are taller than that [I always had to think of my brother, who is 2.05m (6.7 feet)], be prepared to curl up!

Noise

By Western standards, a lot of places in Ecuador are really noisy, the night time being no exception. And it’s not just a thing of the week-end or areas with a lot of night-life. But we heard that it is rude to ask someone to turn the noise down. So, when I said, bring your ear-plugs, this is where you might be really glad you got them with you.

Sleeping baby sea lion

Laundry

I did not see a single launderette in Ecuador, but there’s always laundry services, and they are cheap and quick.

Restaurant tables

All tables in Ecuador wobble. Well okay, maybe just 98%. Nevertheless, this fact makes the list, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.

Food&Drink

Food

Rice with meat or fish features highly on the menu, but you will also find Western food. The traditional Ecuadorian dishes are the cheapest. They become more expensive when the restaurant is nicer/in a nicer area, or the portions are bigger. Western food is also pricier.

Food is served when it’s ready, so if you’re eating out with other people, just start eating when you’re served, and don’t let your food go cold!

Popcorn is a popular appetizer. Dried plantain chips sometimes take the role of croutons in soups. And soups are a solid staple in Ecuador, our personal favourite being the encebollada, a hearty fish soup. Limes and a squeezer accompany most meals, and there is hardly a table without a little bowl containing a home-made sauce (salsa picante), a condiment that greatly differs in spiciness throughout the country.

A wonderful thing are the “almuerzos”: lunch specials. They start at around US$ 2.50, and you’ll normally get a soup, a main dish, and a juice (batida or jugo). Tasty and good value!

Drink

Most  “batidas” (shakes) and “jugos” (juices) are made of fresh fruit and taste incredibly good. Just remember that it is advised to be careful when it comes to consuming raw unpeeled fruit or vegetables in countries where the tap water is not safe for drinking. That being said, we ate and drank everything and lived to tell the tale.

playa montanita clouds ceviche stand PPS scaled

Also worth knowing: soft drinks are called “colas” which sometimes leads to confusion, when you order a coke and the waiter keeps asking what kind.

Coffee

Ordering a coffee can mean that a cup with hot water and a jar of instant coffee is put before you. This version is cheap and does the job, but if that’s a deal-breaker to you, verify before you order.

Alcohol

We’ll let you find out everything about the alcohol by yourself, but do know that you can’t buy it in shops on Sundays. We kept forgetting that, but if you really got to have your fix, you can have alcohol in a restaurant, as long as you order food with it.

Accommodation

We had no trouble finding accommodation everywhere we went, at reasonable prices. Usually a private double could be had in the region of 20-30 USD per night for two, which normally included hot water and wifi. In the larger cities like Quito, accommodation tended to be a little more expensive, in the region of 40-50 USD per night for two.

We didn't usually book in advance, but when we did, we generally used Booking.com's Ecuador listings. It's our go-to site for finding good value accommodation, and the short notice cancellation policy can be really handy.

Getting around

We used mostly overland busses to get from town to town or across the country. Apart from one time, there was always one leaving just after we got to the bus stop/station.

While you often just hop on, choose a seat, and wait for the driver’s assistant to come around and collect the fare, in the bigger bus terminals you’ll buy your ticket at the complying company’s booth. It’s possible that you get handed an additional piece of paper, a tax receipt, which you will need to get into your terminal, so hold on to it.

Frigate birds against clouds Scaled

Buses in Ecuador are comfy, and often come with music or a television. Vendors will hop on and off with food and drinks, and don’t be surprised by those guys who stand in the front of the bus and give proper speeches about diets and other stuff, in order to sell supplements, chocolates, or anything, really. We even had a comedy duo on a bus once!

Alternatives to the big busses can be mini-busses or inland flights, although these connect mostly the bigger cities. For longer trips (5 hours plus), do a quick research on the Internet beforehand to find out if there’s a difference between bus companies – you don’t want to be on the bus that takes 8 instead of 6 hours if you don’t have to, right?

There is a train line between Quito and Guayaquil but it’s more or less a tourist train – it doesn’t have a regularly scheduled service.

Safety

Rumour has it that in Ecuador one needs to seriously look after their belongings. That is exactly what we did, and in contrast to other travellers we met, we got away with no negative experience at all, although I’m sure, a bit of luck was involved there as well.

Travelling with company is definitely a bonus, whether it’s your partner or a friend. Together, you look out for each other and are therefore not the ideal target.

One way or the other, you want to make it as hard as possible for anyone to steal from you. Read up on common scams, so you don’t easily fall for them. Always know exactly where your valuables are and keep them safe and out of sight. In that regard: don’t bring anything valuable that you don’t really need with you in the first place.

We took that to a level where we didn’t bring and wear any jewellery, or watches, and avoided taking our phones or cameras out when it wasn’t necessary. None of our clothing was new or fancy, either. When you are travelling around, you really don’t need to dress to impress in Ecuador.

Red Crab on beach

We always asked at the place we were staying at about safety, and got relevant advice. Thus we knew if it was safe to stay out at night, which area to avoid, which place not to walk but take a taxi to, and if we could wander around with our cameras on display or not.

Public transport within cities did not get the thumbs up from anyone we met, so we avoided that. Also we had been warned that on overland busses, someone might slit your backpack between your feet from the seat behind you, so we kept our backpacks on our laps (or made sure it was impossible to access them from the seat behind).

In that regard you should also wear your day-pack in the front when in crowded areas.

What else?

The stamps are bloody expensive! …I have to mention that. You see, when I’m abroad for longer, I write postcards. Like, at least 50. For which you would need 50 stamps. Which always adds up, but this time it went to a whole new level: the postage for a regular postcard cost me US$ 2,50 in the Galapagos, and US$ 3 on the mainland. So if you are an avid postcard writer – start saving!

And that was it! We hope you’ll leave the page having found something useful. If you have already been to Ecuador, and have an additional tip, share it in the comments below! Thanks for reading and safe travels!




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