Ecuador travel

Ecuador isn’t a travel destination for the indecisive; from the Galapagos Islands to volcanic mountains, you’ll have a hard time deciding what to do first. Whether you’re an eco-friendly traveller looking to explore a tropical cloud forest or an adventurous spirit with a penchant for mountaineering, you’ll love the diverse landscapes and wildlife that Ecuador has to offer.

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Ecuador is an Andean country in the northwestern corner of South America. In addition to being bordered by the Pacific Ocean, the country shares borders with Colombia and Peru. While Ecuador is famous for the Galapagos Islands, they are actually around 1000km away from the mainland, so visitors need to budget for the cost of a flight to the islands, the $100 park entrance fee, and the cost of booking a licensed tour boat to get around.

From the beaches to the mountains, Ecuador is an extremely diverse country for its size. The western coastline includes the laid-back beach cities of Atacames, Salinas, and Montañita, where you can experience everything from banana boats to whale-watching.

In the Amazon, you can mountain-bike around dormant volcanoes and spot howler monkeys and exotic fauna. Also of note are major cities Quito and Cuenca, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

City focus: Quito

At 9,200 feet above sea level, Quito is the capital city of Ecuador, and the highest legal capital city in the world, ahead of La Paz, Bolivia and Bogotá, Colombia. Some travellers notice the altitude as soon as they start huffing and puffing up a flight of stairs, while others are hardly affected by it at all.

The country’s name comes from its proximity to the Equator; Quito is about 25km south of the equatorial line. A short taxi ride from the city centre will take you to La Mitad del Mundo (The Middle of the World), where you can walk the line between the northern and southern hemispheres.

Read more about how to help, and volunteer in Quito

Getting to and from Ecuador

Most international travellers fly into Quito Airport, but there are also some international flights into Guayaquil. LAN and TAME run the most frequent flights in and out of the country. All passengers leaving the country through an airport have to pay a US$25 exit fee.

To and From the Airport has the rundown on getting you from the airport to the city. Frequent Flyer Masters learn to earn their miles fast, and get free flights around the world.

Upon entering the country, you’ll need a valid passport, and customs will issue citizens from most countries a 90-day tourist visa. Longer visas may be obtained in advance for studying abroad, volunteering, or religious travel; you can arrange these visas through your embassy or through an internal group such as a study abroad program or nonprofit organisation that welcomes international volunteers.

Some travellers arriving by boat choose to dock at Salinas, but otherwise very few cruise ships come in along the coast.

Bussing over the border of Ecuador and Colombia is not recommended for safety reasons; it’s more expensive but definitely worth buying a flight from Colombia if you can. Bussing into Ecuador from Peru is a little less dangerous, but the terrain along the mountains is rough. You’ll probably be on the bus for a day or more, depending on your destination. The bus trip from Lima to Quito takes about 30 hours.

Getting around Ecuador

Bus

For in-country travel, travelling by bus is the most popular and affordable option. You’ll need to keep your passport with you, as there are periodic security checkpoints. Avoid night buses if possible. There are stations in Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca, but you can find smaller, more infrequent buses virtually anywhere there are roads. Because the country is so small, most destinations are within a day’s drive; from Quito to the beach town of Montanita, for example, is 15 hours.

Train

There are only a few train routes still in operation. The most popular one travels from Riobamba to Alausi, where travellers are treated to a steep descent down the Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose).

Another train runs from the capital city of Quito to the Cotopaxi volcano; this train is only in service during the weekends.

Car and camper rental

Cars are not a popular form of transportation for travellers, but major companies like Budget and Avis have offices in the cities.

If you rent a car, don’t count on smooth roads. Many rural areas have dirt paths for roads and even the cities (such as the historical centre of Quito) have cobblestone streets.

Plane

If your time is limited, traveling by plane is a more expensive but more efficient option. Purchase flights directly through Aerogal or TAME.

To visit the Galapagos Islands, you can fly from Guayaquil or Quito.

Need more help? Ask in our South America travel forum.

Top 10 things to do in Ecuador

  • Stroll through La Ronda. Sample canelazo (spiked cider) and enjoy live music as you explore this cobblestone street in the historical centre of Quito.
  • Explore the Amazon jungle. Stay in a jungle lodge and meet shamans, indigenous tribes, giant butterflies and howler monkeys all in one day.
  • Party in La Mariscal. Go out on the town in the tourist section of Quito, and choose from dozens of colourful nightclubs, pubs, and bars.
  • Admire art in Parque El Ejido. Peruse original artwork in this urban park that transforms into an open-air art gallery on Saturdays.
  • Straddle the equator at La Mitad del Mundo. Walk along the equatorial line and straddle the northern and southern hemispheres.
  • Find adventure at Cotopaxi National Park. Rock-climb, hike, or go mountain biking around a 20,000-foot volcanic mountain.
  • Relax in the hot springs of Baños. Swim in thermal springs and relax in natural minerals that are rumoured to have healing powers.
  • Soak up the sun in Atacames. Go whale-watching, take a nap in a hammock, and try the many happy-hour specials.
  • Go shopping in Otavalo. Shop for souvenirs in this indigenous market full of traditional arts and crafts.
  • Discover the wonders of the Galapagos. Spot fur seals, blue-footed boobies, and giant iguanas on an exotic Galapagos cruise.
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This page by Hope Nardini.