Traveling in Ecuador
Ecuador was the first stop on our 6 month South America trip in 2014. We flew into Quito and traveled all the way down the coast until we crossed into Peru at the Loja border. We spent a little over a month in Ecuador, but it easily could’ve been a year. There is so much to do in this country. Ecuador has some great beaches and surf towns all the way down its beautiful coast line. The cloud forests and the Amazon basin are home to some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet. The food is excellent and the people are kind. We visited quite a few different spots, so I feel like we got a really good feel for the place. We volunteered on two different farms through WWOOF while we were there and spent the rest of our time exploring.
The Cost of Travel in Ecuador
- Currency: US Dollar (Ecuador uses the US dollar)
- Hotel in Quito: $10-$16
- Hotel in Montanita: $20
- Hotel in Cuenca: $18
- Food & Drink
- Breakfast: (eggs, bread, coffee, juice, squeaky cheese): $2.50
- Lunch/Dinner: $2-$3
- In Montanita I had set measl for $1.50. Usually you just have to ask for “cena” (which means dinner), instead of ordering from the menu and the plate of the day will be much cheaper
- Beer (Pilsener): $1.25 grande
Tips for Traveling in Ecuador
- Ecuador is on the US dollar, but it is very hard for people to make change most places. You will have trouble breaking a $5 bill for a $2 purchase, no joke. Almost nowhere will break a $100 bill and MOST places wont even break a $20 dollar bill. My best advice is to go to a bank before you leave the U.S. and take out like 100 dollars or more in the $1 dollar coins. Everyone uses them down there. If you can’t get those, seriously just get $1 and $5 bills.
- Most buses are just flagged down off the street if you want to get on them. They will charge you for a pro-rated ticket according to when you got on and are getting off.
- Montanita is a party town for tourists so there is nothing authentic about it. Check out Canoa or Atacames instead if you want to enjoy the beach with locals.
Things to do in Ecuador
- Quito is huge but most travelers make their way to either old town Quito or the Mariscol. The Mariscol area is more expensive and trendy with clubs and discotecs, while the old town area has historic churches and markets to explore.
- Guayaquil is even bigger than Quito and a great place for enjoying the scenery and checking out some great museums (many of them are free). Make sure to go to the Iguana Park.
- Machalilla National Park has some great hiking and beaches. The town, Puerto Lopez, has many tours that take you out snorkeling and to see some wildlife like seals and blue footed boobies.
- Cuenca is a really cool colonial town with some great Spanish architecture and old plazas for relaxing and eating ice cream. There is a cool planetarium in town too that is free for certain showings.
The capital city has a lot going on. There is an older part of the city which is way more authentic than the Mariscal area, which is where all of the tourists go for night clubs filled with Europeans. The “Basilica del voto” is probably the coolest cathedral I have ever been in. You can pay to get in and climb up to the towers and see the whole city. There are lots of art museums worth checking out, some of them are even free. It’s a $20 cab ride to or from the airport, but once in town you can take city buses and walk everywhere you need to be.
Mindo was a cool first taste of the cloud forest for us. The small town has lots of great hostels. Some of them are more like bamboo tree houses. The power was out almost the entire time we were there. Most people come to Mindo to see the mariposas (butterflies). There are certain seasons and even times of day for this but we don’t plan well enough to pull that off, so we just hiked on the trails instead. There are several cool waterfalls along the trails and its easy to escape the people on tours. There is one trail that takes you to a sketchy cable car that they send you across an enormous valley on. It was honestly probably the highest up I have ever been in the open air. If you have a fear of heights you will probably shit yourself because it is old and shaky.
Atacames was our beach stop in Ecuador. If you walk to the far end of the beach you can get away from the crowds. There are a bunch of shacks by the water where you can get fresh shucked oysters and fish soup. It’s not unusual to see little monkeys in the trees. The town has a very relaxed vibe and most of the restaurants have wifi. We once ordered breakfast at a restaurant and after taking down our order the owner got on a motorcycle and left only to return half an hour later with each individual ingredients to make our breakfast (4 eggs, bread, some fruit, cheese, and a bag of milk.) Now that’s made to order.
We volunteered on a WWOOF farm just outside the city of Pedernales called “Finca Mona Verde” for about a week. The city doesn’t have much to offer, but the area is nice. During the rainy season clouds cover everything. Most people have so many lime trees they can’t even use or sell them all. The neighbor next door had a super professional cockfighting ring with bleachers around it and everything. It was close to Canoa, which is a popular beach town. This is a part of Ecuador where, if you know where you are going, you can just flag down any bus headed in that direction and they will charge you accordingly. No need to go to a bus station. You can even knock off some change from the price by walking some of the time off before you catch a one.
Canoa is a nice little beach town. It’s not the raging party scene that Montanita is, but that’s what was good about it in my eyes. It is cheaper to stay further from the beach if you can. Most restaurants have great dinners and lunch for just a few dollars and it will include fresh squeezed juice, soup, and fish or shrimp with rice. If the umbrella chairs look tempting, you can rent one for $5 for the whole day. Which is worth it if you want to spend the whole day laying on the beach. Get a coconut or a bag of mangoes to enjoy from someone walking around selling them. There are also plenty of ice cream vendors walking up and down the shoreline.
This is not a backpacker town or a destination for travelers. There are not hotels or hostels here. We volunteered on a farm in this town for a week. The town has a nice plaza and a few little shops around. The power went out for about 2 days at one point. Apparently, the farm we were volunteering at used to have volunteers stay on the farm, but we stayed at the owner’s house, which turned out to be a good 2 hour walk away from the farm. We made that walk round trip every day that week. Sometimes we could hitch a ride, but often there were no cars. There was always rain though and beautiful scenery to enjoy. Most people in this town do some kind of farming for a living. The farm we worked on had cows for making cheese.
Bahía de Caráquez
This town is a must see, if not just for the museum alone. They have a large exhibit of pristine artifacts found from all over the area. There are places where locals have found all sorts of artifacts on their own and some people even try to sell them to tourists. Most people believe this is bad and they should be given to the museum to ensure that they are preserved. A common local activity is watching the sunset on the boardwalk area every night. There are several pizza restaurants that sell freezer pizzas and then your typical spread of local cuisine.
Puerto Lopez (Parque Nacional Machalilla)
Puerto Lopez is the name of the closest town to Machalilla National Park. You can go hiking through Machalilla or you can book a snorkeling trip somewhere. We did both and they were both well worth the effort. You can take a moto cab from Puerto to the national park entrance for about $5. We took one there and then hitchhiked back. The park has an amazing view of the ocean and some pristine beaches where you aren’t supposed to swim because of the rip tide. It was hot as fuck on the trails with minimal shade because the landscape is primarily cacti, so make sure you bring water (we didn’t.) When you first get into town you might be bombarded with people trying to sell you on a snorkeling trip. We never say yes to anything like that the first time it is offered to us. One tour guide literally tried to carry our bags all the way to our hotel and then came up to our room with us, trying desperately to get us to go snorkeling the following day. I got him to literally cut the price in half so we went out the next day and it was awesome. Everything is negotiable in Ecuador and very budget friendly.
Montanita is a shithole. It is the furthest away from having a real cultural experience in Ecuador you could possibly get. It has been called the Amsterdam of South America because of the relaxed drinking and ganja smoking lifestyle, but like Amsterdam that is perpetuated almost entirely by tourists. The town is filled with French and Canadian idiots who just want to party and trash a city. The restaurants and hotels are all over priced because they learned how easy it was to scam travelers like these. I would recommend spending no more than 2 nights here just to relax on the beach, and then go to the bus stop and take the bus to Guayaquil.
Guayaquil is actually the largest city in Ecuador. It will swallow you whole. We took the bus here from Montanita and just wandered into town from the bus stop. Walk up the steep cobble stone roads of the art district to enjoy some local art. There is a tiny cathedral and lookout point on top that has the best view of the city. Even though it is a giant city, you will not escape the afternoon lull that comes from every business in town closing down for lunch/nap time. The word siesta isn’t used as loosely in Ecuador as it is in Mexico, but it is a very real part of everyday life. Make sure you check out “iguana park.” Walking the malecón is a great activity for the afternoon. There are beautiful parks and museums along the way. There is a world famous statue of Simon Bolivar and San Martin that you will have to see.
Cuenca was my favorite city in Ecuador. It has a free museum with the largest collection of shrunken heads in the world as well as several other great museums in town. There is a planetarium with several great shows each night (make sure and show up early, there’s always a line.) There are some ancient ruins right in the middle of town. It has one of the most beautiful cathedrals I’ve ever seen. There are lots of affordable places to stay and the university keeps a young and educated crowd around. Wander around the cobblestone streets and down the pathway along the river. Buy some gelato and sit in the plaza to soak it all up.
We crossed the border here into Piura, Perú. This is actually a pretty cruddy town. I wouldn’t recommend going there for fun, but what do I know.