Click the dots on the map above to view pictures I have taken in these locations.
Ecuador, situated between Peru and Colombia, is a country with a wide variety of natural diversity in a small land area. Ecuador is about the size of the US state of Oregon, and it’s made up of three distinct geographical regions: the coast, the highlands, and the Amazon rain forest. From surfing in Montañita, to exploring Quito’s preserved old-town, to swimming with pink dolphins in the Amazon, Ecuador has it all.
I spent just about a week and a half in Ecuador, working my way from south to north in bus. I spent one night in the small city of Loja, then spent a few days in Cuenca, and finally about a week in Quito.
Cuenca’s historic center was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 with good reason. Cathedrals and monasteries dot the city in well-preserved Spanish architecture. It’s one of those cities in which it’s easy to just walk and walk without getting bored. Window shopping, trying new foods, and peeking in the historic churches can fill up an entire day.
Cuenca is the type of city that I can see myself living in. I’ve found this type of city in a few countries in South America, and they all feel somewhat similar. They consist of medium sized cities (in the 200,000-400,000 range), have kept their beautiful architecture throughout the years, are generally clean, and are safer than the larger cities. Cuenca is a perfect example of this. The people are friendly, the buildings are nice to look at, and it’s a very laid back atmosphere. There isn’t the high traffic like you’d see in Quito, and you can feel safe walking around at night. For me, this is the perfect blend for a city. It’s large enough to have a lot to do (restaurants, bars, concerts, etc) and a lot of young people but lacks the annoyances of large cities. Sucre, Bolivia, is one of my other favorite cities under this criteria.
Heading into Quito, I didn’t expect much. To be honest, I always thought it would be extremely dirty, ugly, and dangerous. I’m happy to say that this intuition did not play out. In fact, Quito’s historic district is one of the most beautiful I have seen in South America. The highlands weather provides a unique mood for the city, as the almost constant cloudiness turns into rain which turns into very green grass and plants. The greenness brings out the colors around the UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one of the best-preserved and least-altered historic centers in the world.
I originally intended to stay in Quito for three nights in a hostel. I found a nice hostel close to the historic center with free coffee and my own room for $10 USD per night. This was a splurge. I was typically paying in the range of $5-$7 USD per night in Ecuador, but I liked the location and I was able to get my own room. On my third night in Quito, I met up with several Couchsurfers to go for a drink. After an extremely fun night out, they invited me to stay at their house the following night. They typically have Couchsurfers and often more than one at a time. Although I was ready to head out the next day, I thought, “Why not give it one more night?”. I became great friends with the two Ecuadorians and also the other Couchsurfers who stayed (Austrian, French, and German). Four days went by before I was finally able to get myself to leave. It was just one of those quintessential Couchsurfing moments where you instantly become friends which, in turn, makes it hard to leave. But because of that, I have even better memories of Quito.
When in Quito, I had several cool experiences. With the Austrian Couchsurfer, we took the aerial tramway up to Pichincha volcano. From where the tramway drops off, there are several long hikes that winds around the mountain and provides breathtaking views of Ecuador from a distance, if the clouds clear. One needs to be smart, though, since the tramway drops off at 13,500 ft (4,100m) altitude. After hiking for several hours, I began feeling woozy from the altitude. I also didn’t have enough food and water for the hike. Luckily, made it off the mountain without any severe problems. Though it did make the hike less enjoyable.
For another day trip, I took a local bus to the outskirts of the city to visit the Equator (when it Ecuador, right?). Obviously touristy, but it’s something that I think needs to be done when in Quito. They have built a large monument in a small park called “La Mitad del Mundo”, where the thick yellow painted strip starts, the line between the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere. This is where you get your picture taken with the sign marking, “Latitude 0º” and showing that you were in both hemispheres at the same time. Except that they later found the calculations to be off, and the real hemisphere is located a few hundred meters away. That won’t discourage the park to snag more tourists in with its entrance fee of $2-3 USD, touristy restaurants, and horrible souvenir shops!
During my time in Quito, two events were taking place. The first was a march of protest against the president by many people of the indigenous population. Thousands of people marched across the country into the streets of Quito in rebellion. To rebel against the rebellers, thousands of others starting marching to support the president. All of these people met downtown Quito (and walked right by my hostel). The amount of police during this was incredible. Almost every street corner had at least a few people from the police or other armed force. Rows of swat teams were also ready to take on the worst. I was able to snap a few pretty cool pictures. Luckily, there was no violence and the armed forces weren’t needed to be active in anyway.
The second event was the Inca New Year. I followed my new friends as they navigated local buses out near the Equator to an old Incan temple where the annual festival was being held. Outside the temple were live bands, traditional dancing, and their corn fermented beer called chicha. These are the experiences that make traveling so gratifying.
There is even much more to explore in Ecuador than what I have experienced. There is no doubt that this is an amazing country to visit, whether it’s for a week or a few months.
Ecuador Frugal Travel Tips
- Couchsurfing in Ecuador is growing very quickly, especially in the larger cities. Ecuadorians love to show off their country, so try it out here if Couchsurfing is for you.
- Eat at local restaurants. They may not look nice from the outside, but if you see a bunch of locals eating there, it’s going to be good. Just like Peru and Bolivia, you’ll get a two course meal ranging from $1.50-$3.00 USD.
- Navigating Quito with the bus system is fairly simple, and it’s cheap. The buses work just like a subway works, so just find the route map and figure out where you need to go.
- The bus in Quito was the only time I know of someone attempting to pick-pocket me. I was carrying both of my bags, so I knew I was vulnerable. I felt a hand start sliding into my pocket, which was only holding a map anyway. I hit his hand away and watched him until he exited the bus. Just shows that keeping your awareness is key, especially when you look distracted.
- Quito has several nice parks around the city with supermarkets close by. Buying food and eating it at the park while people watching can be entertaining.
- Intercity buses in Ecuador aren’t necessarily the most comfortable, but they’re extremely cheap. Bus tickets typically cost around $1 USD for each hour. For example, a 5 hour bus ride will typically cost around $5. This will vary, but typically prices are in that range.