Post summary: Important things to know about traveling in Ecuador and essential Ecuador travel tips to know before you go
Ecuador is a fascinating place to visit! It has the world’s highest active volcano, multiple UNESCO World Heritage sites, and is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world.
However, there are some key things to take into consideration before you visit this beautiful South American country.
This post breaks down essential tips and advice that we picked up during our road trip through Ecuador. These important tips will help you understand the nuances of Ecuador so that you can save time, travel safely, and get the most out of your adventure.
Grab this free 2 week Ecuador itinerary before you go! Read the full itinerary here
1. Bring cash (in small bills)
Ecuador is a very cash based country. You need cash for almost everything with the exception being resorts, car rentals, and a few of the nicer hotels and restaurants that cater to tourists.
But don’t bother carrying too many bills larger than $20 because most places won’t accept anything larger than a $20 bill. Or they might not be able to break large bills because they don’t have enough change on hand.
What’s more is that we paid in $100 bills when we paid for our rental car and were surprised to find out that vendors are required to register the serial number on each $100 bill due to the frequency of counterfeit money in the country. So it’s easy to see why a lot of places don’t even bother accepting them.
The currency of Ecuador is the US dollar
2. It’s not weird to wire cash through Western Union
Don’t be surprised if you’re asked to wire down payments through Western Union for things like tours, hotel stays, and rental cars.
This is a common practice in Ecuador to avoid high taxes and fees associated with credit card payments.
We had to wire payments twice during our time in Ecuador. Once to send the down payment for the rental car and again to pay up front for our tour to the Amazon. Then we paid the remaining balances in cash in person.
If you don’t have a WU account, I would recommend setting it up before you go in case you have to wire cash.
3. Most cars are manual transmission
Most of the cars in Ecuador are manual transmission. If you are not 100% confident driving stick then I recommend getting an automatic car. However, you should expect to pay quite a bit more for it.
If you need an automatic car, make sure to reserve it well ahead of time because there aren’t a lot of them in Ecuador so they do sell out quickly.
4. Don’t book a car at the airport
The airport car rentals are notorious for running out of cars (even if you reserve ahead of time). They also have the highest prices, rickety cars, and charge a ton for extra mileage.
Instead, book with a local company like Amigo Car Rental or Plaza Car Rental for more reliable service and better pricing. You can contact them via WhatsApp to arrange your reservation.
5. The roads are in great condition…but you’ll have to adjust to the driving
When we were planning our trip to Ecuador, it was nearly impossible to find up-to-date information on what it’s like to rent a car. And the information we did find almost scared us out of renting a car entirely.
But it turns out that many of the major roads we drove in Ecuador were in near perfect condition. All of the major highways are well maintained and even the routes through the highlands were perfectly paved.
The only unpaved roads we encountered on our 2 week road trip were the roads in and around Machachi on our way to Cotopaxi National Park.
As for driving…well, it definitely takes a little bit of nerve and some getting used to.
If you come from a country with very rigid driving laws, you might find it surprising to see people double (or sometimes triple) passing over double yellow lines and around corners on mountain roads. But overall, we felt it was much like driving in Belize and Costa Rica.
Route E28 from Quito to Mindo
6. Google Maps vs. Waze: Which one’s better?
When it comes to navigating your way around Ecuador, you can choose between Waze or Google Maps. But which app is the best to use?
Waze is popular in Ecuador but we actually found that Google Maps was the most accurate and easiest to use for road tripping in Ecuador. Google Maps also worked the best for searching for destinations in English.
Another reason we preferred Google Maps in Ecuador is because Google Maps allows you to download offline maps for offline use, whereas offline maps are not available on Waze. While internet coverage is surprisingly good in most Ecuador, it still gives us peace of mind to have offline maps available should we need them.
READ NEXT: How to Use Google Maps to Plan Your Next Road Trip (Step-By-Step Tutorial With Examples)
7. You need to know some Spanish
English is not widely spoken in Ecuador. So if you don’t know Spanish, you’ll want to learn a few important phrases before you go, as well as download an offline translator app like iTranslate or Google Translate.
But don’t worry, everyone in Ecuador is super gracious and understanding if your Spanish is less than perfect!
8. Those $30 blankets probably aren’t alpaca
Vendors will tell you that everything is made from alpaca to make you think you’re getting a great deal on textiles.
The reality is that it’s actually really hard to find genuine alpaca textiles in Ecuador. And when you do find them, they’re definitely going to cost you more than $30.
So don’t be fooled into thinking you’re getting an alpaca sweater or blanket for a cheap price at the markets. Chances are it’s an acrylic/wool blend.
This shouldn’t put you off to buying textiles though! The textiles in Ecuador are absolutely gorgeous, super soft, and great quality. They’re probably just not alpaca.
For genuine alpaca textiles, visit Aresania El Gran Condor in Peguche, which is a small artisan craft shop about 10 minutes north of Otavalo.
9. It’s okay to haggle at the markets
Don’t be afraid to negotiate prices at the markets. This is because the first price vendors tell you is almost never the final price. The prices are usually inflated from anywhere between 15-50% because of something jokingly called “the gringo tax”.
So be prepared to haggle. You’ll know that you’ve reached their bottom number when they’re willing to let you walk away.
Additionally, many vendors at the market sell identical goods, so shop around before making your final decision to make sure you get the best deal.
10. Watch out for scams in Quito
As with most large cities, petty theft is common in cities in Ecuador.
While most of the people are lovely, there’s a small minority who are always looking to take advantage of tourists.
For safety, always remember to:
- Stay aware of your surroundings
- Avoid traveling at night
- Leave your valuables locked up in your hotel room
- Keep your cell phone in a secure pocket out of sight
- Leave flashy jewelry and expensive gear at home
Guayaquil has the highest crime rate in Ecuador, so try to avoid it unless you have a layover for the Galapagos.
Be aware of common scams, as anyone who suddenly becomes overly friendly is likely trying to scam you.
Some common scams to watch out for
- Bird poop scam: Someone throws a liquid on you while you’re walking on the street. You look up thinking it was bird poop and suddenly a “friendly” local appears out of nowhere and offers to help you clean it up. While they help you clean up, they pickpocket you or steal your bags.
- Taxi overcharging: If you take a taxi, have a rough idea of where you’re going and how long it should take. Before you enter the taxi, ask the driver to tell you how long the trip should take and cross-reference what you found on Google Maps. Then make sure they turn on the meter.
- Street game scam: A large group gathers and plays a guessing game on the street. You stop to watch and suddenly you’re asked to take a turn. While you’re focused on the game, the people in the crowd pickpocket you.
- Picture scam: A local hands you a camera and asks you to take their picture. When you try to give it back, they drop the camera and blame you for breaking it and then demand money.
- ATM helper scam: A local approaches you at the ATM and offers to help you avoid ATM fees. In reality, they are trying to watch you enter your PIN number and scan your card with the card skimmer in their pocket so that they can drain your bank account. Politely decline help at the ATMs and always cover your PIN number.
11. Blend in by dressing like a local
Many travelers arrive in Quito wearing shorts and sandals, assuming that the weather must be hot since it’s on the Equator. However, the weather in Quito is actually very crisp and cool almost all year round due to the altitude.
To dress like a local you’ll want to wear:
- Casual t-shirts
- Light sweaters or jackets
- Sneakers or similar closed toe shoes
The say the easiest way to spot a tourist in Quito is to look for people wearing sandals, shorts, tank tops, or hiking boots.
Looking like a tourist makes you an easy target for thieves and pickpockets, so it’s always best to dress like the locals to try and blend in. If you are going to wear sandals, I suggest something casual/practical like Tevas or Chocos.
12. Beware of theft on public buses
Public buses in Ecuador are notorious for petty theft. Always keep your backpack zipped up and on your lap and keep your phone and wallet zipped up where pickpockets can’t get them.
If you need to take a bus overnight, I recommend booking a bus specifically for tourists. These buses typically go directly from destination A to B instead of making a bunch of stops for people to get on and off, which lowers the chance of your bags getting stolen while you’re asleep.
13. The chocolate is AMAZING
Seriously, do not leave Ecuador without trying Ecuadorean chocolate!
Ecuador is world-renowned for its high-quality cacao and chocolate, which is deeply connected to the countries culture and history dating back thousands of years.
Small cacao farmers throughout the country grow their own bean varieties and infuse the chocolate with hot chili, coffee, sea salt, and sweet tropical fruit.
As a result, Ecuadorian chocolate stands out as the best in the world.
One of the best things to do in Ecuador is to take a chocolate tour to learn how farmers transform cacao beans to top-quality hand crafted chocolate. Here are some of the best chocolate tours:
- Chez Tiff Chocolatier in Quito
- Yumbos Chocolate in Quito
- El Quetzal de Mindo in Mindo
- La Danesa Hacienda in Guayaquil
- Santa Rita in the Amazonas
You have to try the brownies at El Quetzal in Mindo. They’re homemade with chocolate made on site and they’re in.cred.ible.
14. The coffee…not so amazing
You are going to have to eliminate all expectations of finding high quality coffee in Ecuador. It is near impossible to find a good cup of coffee in Ecuador. Surprising, I know!
We really expected to find good coffee in Ecuador, given the fact that it’s climate is well suited to grow coffee and it’s sandwiched between two major coffee countries: Colombia and Peru.
Turns out, Ecuador’s a lot better at producing chocolate than it is at producing coffee. This is mainly due to high labor costs and elevation that is too high for coffee beans.
Instead, Ecuador just imports a ton of low-quality coffee which is used to make instant coffee.
Everywhere you go, there’s instant coffee. I have truly never had so much instant coffee in my life than I did during our 2.5 weeks in Ecuador. Did it do the job? Yeah, kinda. Will I be switching over to instant coffee any time soon? Not a chance.
15. You can’t drink the water
Drinking the tap water in Ecuador is a big no-no. Unfiltered tap water in Ecuador often contains high levels of bacteria and contaminants, so it’s best to stick to bottled or filtered water.
Even if you’re staying in hotels or resorts that claim their tap water is safe to consume, it’s still better to err on the side of caution and drink bottled water – after all, no one wants to risk getting sick!
16. Guinea pig is a delicacy in Ecuador
‘Cuy’, or guinea pig, is a traditional dish in Ecuador. Local restaurants serve it fried or roasted, as part of a stew or soup, or even just on its own.
You’ll see cuy roasting over hot coals at roadside stands and restaurants along the highway and in some towns. Head and all. It’s an interesting sight for a tourist and something you’ll want to try if you’re into unique culinary experiences.
I couldn’t muster up the courage to try it for myself, but I hear it’s pretty tasty. If you do happen to try it, let me know what you think!
17. Give yourself time to acclimate to the altitude
Much of Ecuador is at high altitude, so you might feel symptoms of altitude sickness during your trip. This is because the air is thinner at high altitude, which makes your body work harder to get oxygen.
Most people adapt to high altitude within a few days and it’s important to factor that time into your itinerary if you fly into Quito. Plan to spend 1-2 days in Quito to give your body time to adjust before you explore anywhere else at high altitude.
18. Wake up early to beat the clouds
The Andes mountains are so tall that they create their own weather patterns, which can be completely unpredictable. Most often, the skies are clear and sunny in the morning with heavy clouds and rain rolling in sometime in the afternoon.
So whether you’re in Cotopaxi or Mindo, it’s important to start your day as early as possible for the best weather. Because once the clouds roll in, especially around Mindo, they create thick fog that shrouds all of the magnificent views around you and makes driving very difficult.
19. You can see Cotopaxi National Park in 1 day, but schedule 2 days in case of fog
Due to its incredibly high elevation, Cotopaxi’s weather patterns can shift in an instant and what was a sunny, cloudless sky one minute can turn into a thick, heavy fog the next!
We were glad we scheduled a rain day in Cotopaxi because the first day we were there, we had insanely beautiful, clear weather. But the next morning, the fog was so thick that you’d never know there was a giant volcano looming behind the clouds.
READ NEXT: A Guide to Visiting Cotopaxi National Park in Ecuador
Cotopaxi volcano as seen from the north entrance to Cotopaxi National Park
Did you find these tips helpful for planning your trip to Ecuador? Is there anything you would add? Let me know in the comments!
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