Ecuador: paradise on the cheap

The South American country of Ecuador, which includes the famed Galapagos Islands, which inspired Darwin’s evolutionary theory, features a rich diversity of plant and animal life that puts most other countries in the world to shame. Located along the Equator, hence the country’s name, Ecuador also provides different climatic regions ranging from tropical to cool temperatures in the higher elevated regions, and these climates stay the same year-round, which makes any time a good time to travel there and enjoy one of the best kept secrets of international tourism. Even though it uses the US dollar as its main unit of currency, prices are inexpensive allowing any traveler, regardless of budget, to have a whopping good time there.

 

Getting in, out, and about

 

In order to boost its tourism trade, Ecuador has made it possible to travel inside its borders without a visa no matter what country you hail from. All you need is your passport, which gives you access for up to 90 days. While it is possible to apply for an additional 90 days from inside Ecuador, if your travel plans involve a vacation longer than three months, your best bet is to apply for a visa from the US before you go. Your passport should have up to six months validity from the point at which you plan to leave the country because you have to show it both upon entry and upon exit.

 

International flights come into airports in both the capital city of Quito and the southern port city of Guayaquil, but if you can swing it, you can save some money on your entry fee by flying into the latter city rather than the capital. This entry fee is typically charged as part of your air fare, but in Quito the amount is around $40, whereas in Guayaquil it is less than $30. While a $10 difference may not seem like much, it goes a long way in Ecuador, so that savings can mean more to see and do and eat.

 

Most of Ecuador is covered by the Amazon rainforest. As such, in addition to being up to date on your standard vaccinations, it is a good idea to get additional vaccinations as well to protect you against some of the transmittable diseases found in this region. These include yellow fever, malaria, and typhoid, which can be vaccinated or treated to prevent, as well as dengue fever, which cannot be. Avoiding mosquito bites is the best way to avoid the untreatable dengue fever. For that, you should wear long sleeves and pants or regularly and liberally apply mosquito repellant and sleep with mosquito netting hung around your bed. Be sure and purchase the mosquito repellant in the US for best results and pack it in your checked luggage to avoid problems with boarding your plane.

 

Like many countries in South and Central America, the water from the tap is not safe to drink. This is as much true for Ecuadorans as it is for vacationers. Bottled water is often provided in hotel rooms for use in brushing your teeth. In addition, buying bottled water for drinking is easily affordable, ranging from 25-50 cents a bottle.

 

Health care in Ecuador is adequate in Quito and the larger cities, but not so much in other parts of the country including the remote Galapagos Islands. You are best served by purchasing traveler’s insurance that includes emergency medical evacuation coverage in case you have to be flown back to the US for treatment, something that can cost upwards of $50,000.

 

Ecuador is home to many active volcanos, as well as earthquakes and tsunamis. Emergency services can be spotty in some places, while excellent in others. In the event that you are traveling near an active volcano and hear sirens, proceed calmly but swiftly to an emergency shelter which will be indicated by signs with arrows pointing the direction to go.

 

If you travel by boat or engage in any adventure traveling, keep in mind that even though national law establishes standards for safety, such as having functional lifejackets and life boats, these laws are not uniformly enforced. Always check your surroundings and equipment to make sure that it is available and it isn’t faulty.

 

Ecuador used to have some of the worst roads throughout the world, but recent emphasis on infrastructure has improved them immensely, making Ecuador a great country to see by car. However, despite these inroads, not all highways are well lit or have guardrails and since much of the country is in mountainous regions, you should drive with care. Buses may stop suddenly in the middle of the road and cars can turn across lanes of traffic without any notice. You may find it advisable to rent a car and hire a native driver to be safe.

 

Crime in Ecuador is not as great as it is in many South American countries, but neither is it nonexistent. Along with the types of tourist scams and petty thefts that plague many a vacation hotspot, armed robberies and kidnappings are also possible. Sexual assaults have been known to occur in remote areas where adventure travelers congregate as well. Take precautions by not carrying or flashing large amounts of money and travel in groups. Avoid using street ATMs or any that don’t have a guard on duty. When you leave a bank, exercise extreme caution because many thieves case banks to accost tourists as they exit them.

 

Credit card fraud is another common occurrence, but it can easily be avoided by never letting your card out of your sight. In restaurants, insist upon paying at the register. Keep up with your transaction reports as well, and you can avoid this all too common practice.

 

Another avoidable danger is being robbed while taking a taxi. If you hail a taxi on the street, you might suddenly find your taxi surrounded by armed assailants, often in cahoots with the taxi driver. The best way to avoid this is to only use taxis that you have ordered or had your hotel concierge order for you in advance. Make note of the taxi number and any other identifying features of your driver, such as an badge number. Since taxi companies oversee their drivers, you are less likely to be involved in a staged robbery attempt.

 

The traveler’s tongue

 

Spanish is the national language in Ecuador, and while English may be widely spoken in tourist areas, Ecuadorans will appreciate a good faith attempt at speaking their language. Emergency service operators may not speak any English as well, so it’s a good idea to learn some Spanish words and phrases. You’ll find speaking and understanding Spanish in Ecuador is easier than in many Spanish speaking countries because Ecuadorans tend to annunciate clearly without any recognizable (to non-native speakers) accent. Quechua, a language spoken by indigent tribes, is spoken widely in some parts of Ecuador as well, but most people speak Spanish as well.

 

Money matters in Ecuador

 

US travelers will find that their money goes a long way in Ecuador. You can often find set meals for under $2 and lodging in hostels can be found for as low as $10 a night for a private room. Midrange accommodations are also cheap as well, ranging from $50-$100 a night, with top level hotels priced at around $250 a night. Nice dinners at high end restaurants can range from $15-$25.

 

Ecuador uses US dollars as currency, so you won’t need to change your money, however most vendors don’t keep a lot of money on them. You should carry cash in denominations of less than $20. Vendors are typically particular about accepting bills in pristine condition. They won’t accept bills that are torn, faded, worn, or crinkled. They also typically don’t accept Susan B. Anthony dollar coins, but they do accept Sacagawea dollars, which are fairly common here.

 

Tipping is appropriate in Ecuador, since service workers tend to be paid low wages. At restaurants, don’t leave the money on the table. Your server may never get it. Instead, hand the money to your server directly.

 

Highlights of a vacation in Ecuador

 

  • Tour the Galapagos Islands. The wildlife here is so varied, you’ll see animals that you can find nowhere else on the planet. It’s as if you have stepped onto an alien planet. After touring these islands, Charles Darwin began to develop his theory of natural selection to account for all the diversity he witnessed.
  • Bathe in the hot springs in Baños. This tiny town sits high in the Andes beside an active volcano. It’s also a great starting point for adventure activities such as bungee jumping, biking, and trekking with gorgeous waterfalls nearby.
  • Ride the Devil train. One of the most popular attractions in Ecuador, the Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s nose) train ride takes you from the town of Riobamba through the high cliffs and mountains of the Andes to the town of Alausi. This train ride is similar in feel to a roller coaster, so if heights bother you, you may want to skip this one.
  • Visit the city of Cuenca. The third largest city in Ecuador features Spanish colonial architecture and pristine cobbled streets. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cuenca is also the intellectual capital of Ecuador, dubbed the “Athens of the Andes.”
  • Hit the beaches. Ecuador has numerous fine beaches. Montañita is popular for surfing and its nighttime beach parties. Other great beaches include Bahia de Caraquez, Salinas, and San Clemente.
  • Ride the cable car to overlook Quito. The capital city is one of the highest elevated cities in the world. With a thriving nightlife and a variety of rich architecture, Quito is a fine destination in its own right.
  • Adventure travel in Ibarra. This is a great area for kayaking, swing jumping, rock climbing, and other adrenaline pumping activities.
  • Walk around through the lava tubes north of Puerto Ayora. These underground tunnels were formed by the pathways of molten lava. Amazing views above your heads and cheap entry fees make this a fun excursion.

 

These highlights are by no means complete. You will find numerous activities from bird watching to scuba diving to relaxing on the beach. Make your plans to visit Ecuador and enjoy one of the world’s best kept vacation secrets.