Basics for Backpacking Ecuador
The official language of Ecuador is Spanish. If you speak English, you will mostly be able to get by ok throughout the country. But if you can try to pick up a few phrases of Spanish, you will probably have a better time. Hola – Hello Buenos Dias – Hello/Good Day Gracias – Thank you Cuanto Cuesta? – How Much does this cost? Quiero… – I want… Estados Unidos – United States (Ok, this one isn’t really that important, unless you are from the United States 😛 ) Ecuadorians are very forgiving of mediocre Spanish. They will mostly understand even if you speak with limited vocabulary and grammar. Plus, they will be appreciative of the attempt!
The official currency of Ecuador is the US Dollar. Yep, you heard that right. Ecuador uses USD and not their own currency. The story of why is actually long and complicated and involves an earth quake and hyper inflation. Despite wide spread opposition at the time, Ecuador’s switch to the dollar has actually been very successful for the countries economy. In the last 20 years, the middle class has grown substantially. Additionally, using the dollar makes Ecuador an easy place for people to travel to. With that said, Cash is still very much king in Ecuador. Since most day to day items are very inexpensive, be prepared to have a lot of change on you at all times.
Cost of Backpacking in Ecuador
For a budget minded traveler, Ecuador can be a very affordable place to travel. A dorm bed will run you about 8$-12$. A 3 course lunch can be $4-$8. Bus travel costs $2/hour or travel. If you really scrimp, you can do a two week trip to Ecuador, flights from the US included, for under $1000. There are two exceptions to this rule. First, the Galapagos will be much more expensive. Entry alone to the islands (not the flight) is $100. Add on to that the fact that you will need to take a flight, and either join a cruise or do boat based day trips and a Galapagos trip can balloon your budget quickly. There are some ways to bring this cost down, which I will discuss more below. The second exception is Banos. Now, Banos will still seem like a good deal compared to most cities in the USA and Europe, but compared to the rest of Ecuador, expect prices about 25% higher.
When to Go to Ecuador
Ecuador, as its name implies, is situated on the Equator. This means the weather will be much more consistent than countries closer to the poles. Instead of the 4 seasons, Ecuador has a rainy period and a dry period. The rainy period is roughly November through March. There will be more precipitation during these months, but the weather will also be warmer. The dry period is April through October. Even though there is less rain, it will be cooler and windier. How much these seasonal differences matter will depend on what part of the country you are visiting. If you go to the Rainforest, it will probably make more sense to go during the cooler, dry period. If you are trying to climb Cotopaxi, the rainy season actually provides more optimum conditions. One thing to note: The last week of November is Thanksgiving in the USA. From Thanksgiving through the New Year, there will be many more travelers. Expect things to book up or be more expensive during this period.
Getting Around Ecuador
Ecuador is a very compact country. Nothing is ever too far away. However, the roads are not up to the standards of the USA or Europe. Even if something seems close on a map, it could still require a long travel time to get there.
If you are on a very tight budget, then this is probably how you are going to do most of your traveling around the country. Buses in South America get a bad rap, but they are actually super efficient. In Ecuador, expect a bus ride to cost $2/hour of travel. So a bus ride from Quito to Cuenca should cost around $16-$20. If you do research online, you will probably find some sort of bus timetable. These are not necessarily up to date. Buses are constantly running, so you are much better off heading to the bus station (terminal terrestre) and just asking around about when the next bus to your destination is leaving. More likely than not, nothing will happen to you or your stuff while you are on the bus. Still, there are a lot of stories of people getting robbed both on the busses and in the stations. A good rule of thumb is to keep your valuables on your person at all times. If you have stuff under the bus, that stuff is actually a lot more safe from theft than the things you bring on the bus with you. If you have never taken a bus in Latin America before, your first ride is bound to be a shock. There are constantly people getting on the bus trying to sell things to you. There is a movie playing at max volume. The bus will definitely go slower than advertised. And your stop might just be a random spot on the side of the highway. Just go with the flow, it’s a part of the journey.
Ecuador has two Hop-on-hop-off bus companies: Wanderbus and EcuadorHop. While they are not as affordable as the regular busses, these two lines do offer a unique benefit to travelers. Namely, they only go to destinations that tourists are interested and thus can cater their routes for tourists. For example, a ride between Quito and Banos might stop at Quilotoa or Cotopaxi allowing people to make efficient use of travel days. Additionally, since these buses cater to travelers, they will be a good place to meet other backpackers. There are three main downsides to these, however. First, they are more expensive. The buses in Ecuador cost $2/hour. A 5 day pass on Wanderbus is $200. Second, they offer less flexibility for your schedule. They only run certain lines on certain days, so your itinerary will be based on when the bus is running. Third, they really only travel in one direction. If you start in Quito and head south, then the bus schedule might work for you. If you decide to start in Cuenca and head north, then is just doesn’t work. A lot of people have a great time with these buses because it takes a lot of the stress out of regular bus travel. But you would be sacrificing a certain amount of freedom opting for this over buses.
There are several internal flights within Ecuador, despite its small size. Even though it will be more expensive than taking the bus, flying will not break the bank. A flight from Quito to Cuenca will cost $80, and takes less than an hour. The major downside of flying is that the Quito airport is very far from downtown Quito. On top of that, Quito is one of the highest capitals in the world, and the airport is subject to frequent weather related delays. For most travelers, the only flights they will need to take in the country will be to the Galapagos. These will be $120 at a minimum.
Hitchhiking is deeply embedded in the culture of Ecuador. If you try to get a ride on the side of the road, chances are you will not have to wait long to get picked up by someone. Hitchhiking is a really controversial topic. A lot of people do it, and very few of them suffer any terrible consequences. Statistically, if you try to hitchhike, you will most likely be ok. The flip side of that coin is that many of the most vocal proponents of hitchhiking are men. Of course, there are also women who hitchhike with no problem, but the numbers start changing. In my personal experience, I hitched a ride one time in Ecuador. I did it with a group, so there was a sense of safety in numbers.
What to Bring to Ecuador
It is very possible that your trip to Ecuador will involve both beaches and glaciers, which makes Ecuador a challenging country to pack for. You will probably be ok with the following list of items:
- Hiking shoes
- Light wool or synthetic long sleeve base layer
- Wool or synthetic mid layer
- Puffy Jacket
- Comfortable Pants
- 3-4 pairs of socks
- 5 sets of underwear
- baseball cap
- bathing suit
- Light weight towel
It is a reality of the 21st century that you should have at least a cell phone on you pretty much always. Unless you are willing to pay for an expensive international plan, you probably need to get a SIM card with data once you get to Ecuador. A SIM card and 5GB of data will cost about $10. Otherwise, it is a good idea to bring the following:
- Cell phone
- External Battery
- Optional – Camera if you go to the Galapagos
Ecuador is a country where you will probably be do a lot of activities. It’s always a good idea to use travel insurance, but since we are still in the midst of a global pandemic, it is currently required to show evidence of Travel Insurance if you plan to enter the Galapagos.
Ecuador – 1 Week Itinerary
A one week trip to Ecuador will be fast. This trip will really only be able to cover Quito and the Galapagos, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth making the trip. If anything, a one week trip will be enough for you to enjoy the country. But you will be planning your next trip down before you are even on the plane!
Quito – 1 Day
Almost every trip to Ecuador will start in Quito. Most international flights arrive here. Quito is not considered to be an incredibly interesting city, but I think people are harsh! It is a colonial city with a rough edge, but there is still enough to do for one day! One thing to be mindful of: Quito is situated at 9,000 feet! That makes Quito one of the highest capital cities in the world. If you are coming from Sea Level (or really almost anywhere in the US and Europe) you will probably feel the altitude. Don’t push yourself too hard on your first day in Quito – altitude sickness can affect anyone at any time!
What to do in Quito
Check out the Old Town The historic center of Quito is well preserved. The main square is pedestrian only, and is surrounded by many of the city’s best museums. Basilica del Voto Nacional If you only go to one church in Quito, make it this one. This is a massive, gothic style cathedral just a short walk uphill from the old city. It costs foreigners $2 to enter the cathedral and climb the towers. The top of one of the towers even has a bar! As you climb the towers, be sure to take note of the gargoyles. Instead of being the monsters you expect, they are actually all native Ecuadorian animals! Teleferico and Rucu Pichinca In case you don’t feel like 9,000 feet is high enough, you can take the Teleferico cable car up to 13,000 feet! If you go on a clear day, you will have views of many of the countries highest peaks. For example, you can see Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, and Cayambe. From the top of the cable car, you can continue hiking up Rucu Pichincha. The volcanoes maximum height is 15,696 feet, so it’s best to save this hike for when you are feeling more acclimatized. Check out the Micro Breweries While they may not stack up to some of the microbreweries in places like Oregon, the beer scene in Quito is thriving. Bandido Brewery is probably the most famous in Quito. But if you are looking to try something more authentic, give Sereno Moreno a try. They brew craft Chicha – an alcoholic beverage made from corn!
Where to Stay in Quito
If you are only staying in Quito for a day, I suggest staying near the old town. This will be the best neighborhood to base yourself for seeing the city in a short time period. Additionally, this is where a lot of other backpackers stay, so you will be able to find a group of people to go out with at night. With that said, if you come back to Quito later in your trip, consider trying out another neighborhood. The La Floresta neighborhood definitely offers up the best food. After a long trip in the country, you may be craving something from back home. Hostels near the Quito Old Town
- Secret Garden Quito. This is the spot to be at for solo travelers. The hostel includes everything you would expect, but it has an amaizing rooftop bar. Not only does it have a great view of the city, it is the place to be at night on the weekends.
- Community Hostel Quito. Community does the best job of organizing tours. Even if you do not stay at this hostel, chances are you will take a tour run by them. If you do stay here, you will find a very friendly vibe.
Hostels near Quito’s La Floresta Neighborhood
- Selina Quito. Selina is a chain that has marketed itself as being for digital nomads. What this means for you is that you will have great wifi and a clean aesthetic. The Selina in Quito caters more to Spanish speakers, but it’s a great place to unwind at the end of a long trip.
Staying Safe in Quito
For the most part, Quito is like any other big city. As long as you don’t flaunt your electronics or walk around alone at night, you will probably not run into any trouble. With that said there are a few things you can do to make your trip more enjoyable. First, take a taxi between neighborhoods. Taxis are not very expensive. If you are able to find a group, you can take a taxi between old town and La Floresta for less than $5. When you split this, it just isn’t enough money to justify the risk of walking in a bad neighborhood. Second, be vigilant of your possessions. If crime does happen to you, it will most likely be petty theft or pickpocketing. Don’t keep your phone in your back pocket. Be wary of suspicious crowds. Finally, be cautious about the altitude. I know I have said it before, but I can’t stress enough that 9,000 feet is HIGH! If you are not used to this type of altitude, it will effect you. Not just mentally, but physiologically. When you are at altitude, there is less oxygen and your heart needs to pump more blood through your body as a consequence.
Galapagos – 5 Days
The Galapagos are like no place on earth. This is the location that Charles Darwin was in when he wrote On the Origin of Species. For most people, the Galapagos are why they travel to Ecuador. If you are traveling to Ecuador for one week and have the Galapagos in your itinerary, you are probably doing one of two things:
- Going on a pre-booked cruise
- Staying on either Santa Cruz or Isla Isabella and doing day trips.
Getting to the Galapagos
Most people will fly to the Galapagos. Flights on either Latam or Avianca leave multiple times a day from Quito and Guayaquil. Round Trip flights will cost about $200, getting higher around the Christmas holiday. From the airport, you need to take a 5 minute ferry ride to Santa Cruz island. Be ready to pay the $100 Galapagos entry fee in cash when you arrive. There are few if any ATMs in the Galapagos.
Doing a Galapagos Cruise
Doing a Galapagos Cruise is the way to go if you are looking for a once in a lifetime trip. Sleeping on the boat means that you will not have to waste any time getting from one location to another. It also means your meals will be taken care of. Most importantly, there are some locations that you can only visit from a cruise, so you will have more options on what to see. The big negative with doing a cruise is that it will be expensive. If you have more time, you might be able to head to the Galapagos and get on a last-minute cruise. This is only possible if you have a lot of flexibility. I did not personally do this, but there is a great guide with some instructions on how to get a last minute cruise here!
Day Trips in the Galapagos
The alternative to a cruise is to base yourself somewhere and then do day trips. The most popular place to be based is in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island. There are two other inhabited islands, but this is the main population center. I did not visit the Galapagos on my trip to Ecuador. It is something I know I have to return to the country to do in the future. But there are a lot of resources on the internet to help plan a Galapagos trip. This guide is excellent for planning day trips from Santa Cruz Island.
Where to Stay in the Galapagos
If you are doing a cruise, then you already have you lodging planned and you can skip this section. For everyone else, here are some “budget” suggestions on where to stay in the Galapagos:
- Hostel Gosen Galapagos. This Hostel is located on San Cristobal Island. It’s got a peaceful atmosphere and the location is perfect for people looking to do some surfing.
- Galapagos Dreams Hostel. This hostel is located in Puerto Ayora. The owner of the hostel is very helpful. This is a great base on Santa Cruz island to do day trips and explore the rest of the islands.
Otavalo – 1 Day
Otavalo is a city about 2 hours north of Quito. It is most famous for being the site of the largest handicraft market in Latin America. At the end of your week in Ecuador, take a day trip up to Otavalo to do some souvenir shopping before heading home. Due to its proximity to Quito, it is very easy to visit Otavalo as a day trip.
Visiting Otavalo on a Tour
It’s possible to visit Otavalo as part of a group tour. This has some advantages. First, many of these tours will also stop at other landmarks like the Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) and Laguna Cuicocha. Additionally, the tours pick up from multiple places in the city. This means no matter which neighborhood you are staying in, there will be a pickup spot close by. Of course, the flip side is that a tour will be more expensive than going independently. I personally went on this tour with Community Adventures. I found the guide to be extremely knowledgeable, and it was a great tour to wrap up my month in Ecuador.
Visiting Otavalo Independently
The alternative to doing a tour is to get a bus from Quito to Otavalo. Buses depart from Terminal Quitumbe in Quito frequently. The ride will take between 2 and 3 hours and will cost about $4.
Visiting the Otavalo Market
As I mentioned, the Otavalo Market is the largest handicraft market in Latin America. The core of the market takes up and entire town square – but it sprawls down the streets in every direction. In the heart of the market you will find all of the things catered to tourists. This includes ponchos, jewelry, bags, hats etc. As you go deeper into the market, you will find everything from produce to electronics. The best day of the week to visit the market is Saturdays. This is when the most sellers will be out with their wares. The second best day of the week to visit is Wednesday. If you come, be prepared to haggle. Most of the goods are priced with the assumption that the final sale will be much lower.
Where to Stay in Otavalo
I think Otavalo is best suited as a day trip. If you are just coming to shop in the market, then Otavalo is easily reached from Quito as a day trip. However, if you definitely want to spend a night in Otavalo, here is your best option:
- Hostal Flying Donkey. This place is very bare bones, but also has the price to match. It is extremely well situated to explore the city.
- The Traveler Hostel. This place is brand new. Supposedly it has a nice, new aesthetic, but it also has only a few reviews, so you would need to trust that they are legit.
Ecuador – 2 Week Itinerary
A one week trip to Ecuador will be heavily focused on the Galapagos. If you have two weeks, you will be able to see significantly more! By adding an extra week, you will have the opportunity to see more the of the Andean Highlands, and also spend a couple days in Banos – the adventure capital of Ecuador!
Quito – 1 Day
Same as 1 week itinerary
Galapagos – 5 Days
Same as 1 week itinerary
Cotopaxi – 2 Days
Cotopaxi is easily one of the most identifiable mountains on earth. It is a volcano with an almost perfectly conical shape. It’s also one of the few places in the world where you can see equatorial glaciers (although they are in retreat). After the Galapagos, Cotopaxi is the next must see destination in Ecuador!
How to get to Cotopaxi
Unfortunately, this is a much more complicated question than one would hope. If you really want to do it the independent way, then you should take a bus to Latacunga but ask the driver to drop you off at the Control Caspi. From here it is a 4 mile walk into the park. From here, there will be limited options for getting to your final destination. Instead, this is where you can begin to see some of the convenience of the hop-on-hop-off busses. If you choose to get to Cotopaxi using Ecuador Hop, they will drop you off at a viewpoint and leave you with the option of doing a tour and staying a night before continuing on the next day. Finally, if you arrange accomodation at one of the local lodges, they will possibly include transport to and from Quito. For example, if you stay at the Secret Garden Cotopaxi, there is a free shuttle that departs from Secret Garden Quito every day.
What to do in Cotopaxi
A visit to Cotopaxi is all about hiking. If you don’t do anything else, make sure that you hike up to the refugio at 16,000 feet. From this altitude, you should be able to get good glimpses of the snow on Cotopaxi and also look out at the valley below you. Without a doubt, the most popular tour of Cotopaxi includes biking down from the parking lot. After you finish up at the refugio, you hike back down to the parking lot and then hop on a bike and head the rest of the way down. This will not be the most comfortable bike ride you’ve ever been on, but it will be a fun way to experience the volcano. If you have your own independent transportation, there are a ton of hiking trails throughout the national park. Since the vast majority of people only make it to the refugio, it is possible that you will have some stellar trails all to yourself.
A Note on Climbing Cotopaxi
When you are in Ecuador, you will no doubt meet people who climb Cotopaxi. It is true what they say, the walk to the summit is not technical. With that said, it is extremely important not to underestimate the mountain. At a height of 19,347 feet, Cotopaxi is taller than any mountain in Africa, and almost 5,000 feet taller than any point in the lower 48. If you are considering climbing Cotopaxi, then this is not the itinerary you should be following. In order to maximize your chance of success, you will want to follow an acclimatization schedule that will take at least 5 days.
Where to Stay in Cotopaxi
There are a lot of nice places to stay in the Cotopaxi area, but if you want to stay at the place that is most popular amongst backpackers, then you want to be at:
- Secret Garden Cotopaxi. This place feels much more like a resort than like a hostel. It is situated in an idyllic spot with llamas roaming the grounds. All meals are included. One thing to note, the road to get here is rough. Like, really rough. But if you make it, you won’t regret it.
Quilotoa Loop – 3 Days
Though called the Quilotoa Loop, this is not actually a loop. Instead it is a 30 mile point to point hike that takes you through the Ecuadorian countryside. Even if you think that sounds intense it is still one of the best things to do in Ecuador.
Quilotoa Loop Overview
Technically, the Quilotoa Loop can be hiked in either direction, but it is much more popular to hike from Sigchos to the Quilotoa Lagoon. The hike typically takes 3 days to complete. Day 1 starts in Sigchos and ends in Isinlivi. Day 2 Starts in Isinlivi and ends in Chugchilan. Day 3 starts in Chugchilan and ends at the Quilotoa Lagoon. Even though this hike is very popular, don’t underestimate it. Every day, no matter which direction you walk in, will have at least 1,000 feet of climbing. It will be challenging, but it will absolutely be worth it!
How to Hike the Quilotoa Loop
The best access point is Latacunga. From Latacunga, you can catch a bus to Sigchos, where you will start walking. The route is mostly marked well, and you shouldn’t have too much trouble navigating to Isinlivi. From Isinlivi to Chugchilan, the route continues to be well marked. This is the most consistently beautiful part of the trail. Try to enjoy this day. From Chugchilan to the Quilotoa Lagoon, the route becomes a little harder to follow. As long as you are able to follow the route out of the canyon, you will have no problem continuing. Once you are able to see the Quilotoa Crater, you just keep going up! All in all, the Quilotoa Loop is easily the best hiking trip to fit into a short Ecuador trip. The proximity to Quito and the relative ease of completion make it a backpacker favorite. If you are looking for more details to help plan the trip, be sure to check out this guide!
Where to Stay in Isinlivi
The choice of where to stay in Isinlivi is easy:
- Llullu Llama Hostel. The Llullu Llama Hostel is one of the best hostels in all of Ecuador. The reason is clear to see. The location is beautiful, the rooms are nice, and the food is delicious. This is the one part of the trail that I recommend booking ahead of time. It is so popular that even people who are not doing the trek will go out of their way to stay here!
Where to Stay in Chugchilan
Chugchilan is a much larger town than Isinlivi and the consequence is that there are many more options when it comes to lodging. Don’t worry. All of them are quite nice!
- Cloud Forest Hostel. This is the top choice amongst budget backpackers. Compared to Llullu Llama, this hostel is a little more spartan. But it is also the most budget friendly option. Cloud Forest is primarily responsible for the signage along the trail.
- Black Sheep Inn. If you are looking for something a little bit nicer, then Black Sheep Inn is the best choice. The rooms are super cozy and the food is all vegetarian. Not only that, but they have delicious banana bread and chocolate cake available for free all day!
Banos – 2 Days
Ah Banos. The adventure capital of Ecuador and probably the backpacking capital as well. The town, officially Banos de Agua Santa, is located at 6,000 feet between the high Andes and the jungle.
How to Get to Banos
Banos is technically off of the Panamericana, but it is still quite easy to get to. Many buses headed north and south stop in Banos. If you are following the itinerary, you will take a bus from Latacunga to Banos. An express bus runs multiple times a day. It takes 2 hours and costs $3-$4. If you are traveling via hop-on-hop-off, almost all of the routes will have a stop in Banos. Once you are in the city, the touristic center is very compact. You will be able to get around by walking almost everywhere! Alternatively, if you are traveling with a group, it might make more sense to hire a taxi. If that is what you want to do, then you should use Freddy’s ServiTaxi Banos. Freddy is incredibly helpful and not only acts as driver but also tour guide. He will give you a ton of interesting information about the history of Ecuador, and provide timely service. He can be reached via WhatsApp at +593987448008.
What to do in Banos
You will not be able to walk 10 feet without passing a tour office. They will be constantly touting every imaginable type of action tour possible. Rafting, Canyoning, Bungee Jumping. You name it, it’s available in Banos. I am not going to talk too much about the tours, instead, I am going to offer some options for people who like traveling more independantly.
- Ruta De Las Cascadas. This is the single thing that you should not miss when you go to Banos. The Ruta De Las Cascadas is the route down the highway towards the Amazon. Along the way you pass several waterfalls. The most impressive one being the Pailon del Diablo. Renting a bike + helmet + lock will be around $8 for the day.
- Hiking. There are several trails that head up the mountain straight from the town. These are real leg busters since you gain elevation extremely quickly. If you want a hike that is an all day affair, you can follow the trails all the way up to the swing at the end of the world. It is 3,000 feet up from the town and the round trip will take ~5 hours.
- Termas de la Virgen. The city is named after the thermal hot springs that run under ground. Due to this thermal nature, there are several developed springs in the town. The most impressive is the Termas de la Virgen. It is just below the Virgen waterfall, which at night is lit up making a very striking scene. The springs make look a little dirty, but they are actually cleaned twice a day, and the smell is just the minerals associated with the volcanic nature of the springs. Admission is $6
There is actually so much to do in Banos. You could end up spending a while there if it’s your scene. These are just a few of the highlights that the city offers that won’t be too heavy on your wallet!
Where to Eat in Banos
I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that food in Banos is pretty good. There are a lot of options and a lot of variety. The bad news is that it’s more expensive than a lot of the rest of the country. Banos is a city that caters to tourists and the prices reflect that. Here are some of my recommendations for eating in Banos:
Otavalo – 1 Day
Same as 1 week itinerary.
Ecuador – 4 Week Itinerary
With one week, you will be able to see some amazing things in Ecuador. In two weeks, you will be able to check off most of the highlights. But with four weeks, you will have the flexibility to pick and choose what is the most interesting to you. Someone with four weeks to spend in Ecuador is bound to have a lot more flexibility, but this is a rough outline of a good way to spend your holiday.
A Quick Note About Direction of Travel
This itinerary moves the Galapagos to the end of the trip instead of the beginning. This is to accommodate more of a loop through the country. If you are planning on continuing on overland to Peru, you should move the Galapagos to the front of the trip.
If you are wondering about reversing the trip, that is traveling north instead of south, there are a few reasons why this might not be ideal.
- More people travel North to South. If you want to meet people along the way and travel together, you will have a better chance of success traveling southward.
- The tourist infrastructure is set up to travel south. If you plan on using the HOHO buses, they just will not work if you are trying to travel north.
Neither of these are deal breakers. I personally traveled northwards instead of southwards through the country and I had an amazing time. With that said, I was not able to find a group to travel with since everyone I met was going the opposite direction. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s about expectations.
Quito – 1 Day
Same as 1 week itinerary.
Cotopaxi – 2 Days
Same as 2 week itinerary.
Quilotoa Loop – 3 Days
Same as 2 week itinerary
Banos – 2 Days
Same as 2 week itinerary.
Rainforest – 5 Days
The Amazon is the worlds largest rainforest and definitely a worthwhile stop in South America. While you can visit the rainforest from a number of countries, a lot of people prefer visiting in Ecuador. The reason is that the cost can be a lot less here than other places where tourism to the rainforest is more developed.
Most visits to the rainforest happen as stays in eco lodges. Despite the cache to the name, these can be quite affordable. The one thing to note is that the trip into some of these lodges can be quite long. For that reason, 5 days is usually a minimum for an Amazon trip.
Vaccinations Required for the Amazon
There are no requirements, but if you are traveling to the rainforest, it is recommended that you get a Yellow Fever vaccine. Yellow Fever is present below 5000 feet in altitude. While the disease is present, you are still very unlikely to catch it while traveling. If you don’t have time to get the vaccine before arriving, you can get a Yellow Fever vaccine at the Quito airport.
How to get to the Amazon
There are two cities that are considered jumping off points for the Amazon: Coca and Tena. If you are arriving in the Amazon after Banos, you will most likely head to Tena as it is closer.
If you are trying to get to Tena from Banos, bus will be your cheapest option. Despite advertising online as a 2-3 hour ride, this trip can be long depending on a lot of factors. Fortunately, it is a cheap bus ticket, at about $2-$3.
If instead you are coming from Quito, you will probably head to Coca. Again, bus is an option, but it will be longer than the ride from Banos to Tena. Expect a 6-7 hour ride at $10-$11. Alternatively, if you have a larger budget, you can fly into Coca. The flights from Quito are 30 minutes and between $200 and $300.
If you know you want to visit Yasuni National Park, you definitely will want o head to Coca as a jumping off point. There are buses from Tena to Coca that take 4 hours and cost $8-$9.
Where to stay
The best way to visit the rainforest is to go to one of the eco lodges or homestays deep in the forest. A lot of this will be dependent on what is available when you get there (unless you book a tour ahead of time). The best way to do a visit is to spend a night in Tena and find a tour that fits your budget once you get there.
What to do in the Amazon
A visit to the Amazon is all about immersing yourself in nature and the local culture. A typical day while in the jungle will include a couple of activities along with some down time of just relaxing. Here are some of the activities you can expect while visiting the Amazon:
- Jungle Hikes. This will be the most basic activity. You will be led by a guide through the Amazon. Generally, the guide will be able to point out and tell you about the various animals and plants that you pass. It is very likely that where ever you are staying will have some paths that you can walk on your own. However, it is unadvised to travel deep into the forest by yourself. The jungle can be very disorienting and if you get lost it will be nearly impossible to locate you.
- Shamanic Rituals. The culture of the Amazonian people includes a lot of spirituality. Many of the trips deep into the jungle will probably include one of these rituals. If this is something you are particularly interested in, there are many specific tours that will be centered around this practice.
- Kayaking. The rivers that flow through the Amazon are the lifelines of the people who live there. They are the connection between people and between communities. For this reason, almost all of the lodges will be located on the river. This means many of them will offer kayaking (or canoeing) as an activity. For particularly adventurous travelers, you can even do a multi day kayak or raft trip down the river, staying in tents each night.
There is a lot more to do in the Amazon, of course, but these are usually the highlights for people. If you are interested in reading more about an Ecuadorian Amazon experience, be sure to check out this guide written by Becki Enright.
Riobamba – 2 Days
Riobamba is a pretty major city in Ecuador. Officially it is the 14th largest, but while I was traveling, people told me it was the 4th, 5th or 6th. No matter where it ranks, it is bustling. For a traveler, the important thing to know about Riobamba is that it is roughly in the center of the country. Everything to the north is considered northern Ecuador. Everything to the south is southern Ecuador.
How to Get to Riobamba
Riobamba is technically off of the Panamericana, but it is the most major city at the halfway point in the country, so buses stop here frequently. If you are following the itinerary, there are in fact direct routes between Tena and Riobamba. The duration will be about 5 hours and cost about $7-$8.
The bus route will travel through Banos, so if you show up at the bus station and there are no convenient direct lines, you can instead travel to Banos and switch there.
From Banos, Riobamba is actually very near (relatively). If you have a couple people you are traveling with, you can get a taxi for only $40. While still a little more expensive, it will offer a lot of convenience.
Acclimatization in Riobamba
Riobamba is at 9,042 feet in elevation. This is a huge change from the rainforest (which is functionally at 0 feet). Even if you felt like you became acclimatized in the first week of the trip, the 7 days in Banos and the rainforest will have wipe that away.
For this itinerary, the suggested activities will be strenuous, but as long as you take it easy it will be doable. For certain high altitude activities, you will need to reacclimatize properly. If this is the kind of trip you want, then you should save the rainforest for the end of your trip.
What to do in Riobamba
The city itself is not typically a draw for most tourists. There is an old city center with some museums and churches. This will be enough to fill a day if that is what you are interested in. Instead, most people travel to Riobamba due to its proximity to the mountains. Riobamba is situated in a valley in between some of the tallest mountains in the country.
The main draw to Riobamba is the proximity to Chimborazo. Chimborazo is the tallest mountain in Ecuador at a whopping 20,549 feet. For the sake of this itinerary, the best way to visit Chimborazo is to drive to the Refugio Carrel and then make the climb up to Refugio Whymper.
This is not technically a very far walk, but you will be walking up to 16,100 feet, which is exceptionally high!
A Note on Climbing Chimborazo
There are people who will tell you that Chimborazo is not a technical. This is true only in a very technical sense. Chimborazo is a challenging peak. There are a lot of accidents, and people die. If you have never climbed a glaciated peak, Chimborazo should not be your first one. Even if you have already climbed Cotopaxi, do not underestimate the difference between that and Chimborazo.
If you are an experienced mountaineer, you will have a better grasp on what is required to climb Chimborazo than I can provide in this article.
Other Things to Do Near Riobamba
This itinerary doesn’t leave that much time for some of the other things to do in the Riobamba region, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything else to do. For the nature lover, there are a lot of great options that are based around Riobamba. If you choose to spend more time here, then some of your options include:
- The Vicuna Trek. A 2-3 day trek that walks around Chimborazo. The trek is named after the herds of Vicuna you will walk passed along the way. Thanks to the location of the trek, hikers can spend the night in a refugio along the way instead of camping. This trek is very challenging to set up independently. If you are looking for an operator to help you plan your trip, check out Julio Verne Travel.
- El Altar. On the other side of Riobamba is Sangay National Park, home to El Altar. El Altar is one of the most technically demanding climbs in Ecuador. But for people into rock climbing, it is a great climb!
- Laguna Amarilla. If you are not a technical climber, you can still hike to the lake resting below El Altar. This is a 2 day trek with a night in a refugio. The lake is one of the most beautiful in Ecuador, but the trek to get there is extremely muddy!
Where to Stay in Riobamba
In the city proper of Riobamba, there is only one answer:
- Casa 1881. This hotel costs $50, but is definitely the best deal I experienced in the entire country. The property is extremely luxurious, the location is great for walking around and the proprietor is an extremely friendly guy. If I were to return to Riobamba, I would stay at this place again in a heartbeat!
Alausi – 2 Days
Alausi is one of Ecuador’s Pueblas Magicas. It is an adorable little town sitting right at the edge of a canyon. For most tourists, Alausi is synonymous with the Nariz del Diablo – Devil’s Nose.
How to Get to Alausi
Buses between Riobamba and Alausi are frequent. The ride is 2 hours and should cost about $4. Some buses will go direct to Alausi, but many busses will just pass by Alausi on their way South. If you are on a bus that just passes through, then the bus may not stop in the town and will just let you off on the side of the road. This will be just outside of the town and should be a quick walk.
What to do in Alausi
Most people come to Alausi for one reason: Nariz del Diablo. Once upon a time, a train line was built to connect Quito with the coast of Ecuador. In the years since then, bit by bit the line has been shut down. Now the only part of the train that still runs is the section in Alausi.
This section of the train has managed to survive as a tourist attraction in part due to its harrowing ascent. The train climbs 800 meters over a very short distance, making it one of the steepest train rides in the world.
During normal times, the train runs twice a day, every day except for Mondays. The ride costs $33 for adults, making this one of the more expensive activities recommended in this guide. However, this train is so unique, I believe it to be worth this cost.
*Note! During the pandemic the train has ceased running. There is currently no news as to when it will start up again, but I will update this post when I have news that it has!
If you have no interest in taking the train, it is possible to do the hike up the Nariz del Diablo on foot instead. The hike is 9 miles round trip and provides amazing views of the valley below. One of the local hostels (Community) has written a fool proof guide to doing this hike on your own.
Where to Stay in Alausi
Alausi is a very small town, so there are not too many options regarding where to stay. With that said, of the options available, the choice you should make is clear:
- Community Hostel Alausi. This was one of the friendliest hostels I have ever been to. The hostel staff are extremely helpful and will make sure to give you good suggestions about what to do and see around Alausi.
Ingapirca – 1 Day
When you think of the Incan empire, chances are you think of Peru. But the Incas actually ruled all the way from Quito down south into Chile. That means there are some Incan ruins in Ecuador one could visit. Without a doubt, the most important of these sites is Ingapirca, which translates to Incan Wall.
A Brief Introduction to Ingapirca
When the Spanish came to South America, the Inca were the large empire that they found. However, to the people of Ecuador, the Inca were conquerors. Various tribes lived throughout Ecuador, but the main group of people in the Southern Andes of Ecuador were the Canari.
The first people to build at the Ingapirca site were the Canari, and if you go visit you will still be able to see the Canari structures today.
However, the Canari were eventually consumed into the Incan empire. The Incas are well regarded as engineers, so when they came to the Ingapirca Site, they built additional structures in the classic Incan style.
Another thing the Incas are quite famous for is their road system. The most well known section of the Inca Trail is the stretch from Cusco to Machu Picchu. But the highway system actually stretched thousands of kilometers across the Andes. Including up to Ingapirca.
How to get to Ingapirca
If you start in Alausi, then you can take a bus heading in the direction of Ingapirca. Get off at the Canar Stop and transfer from there. The bus from Alausi to Canar will take between 2 and 3 hours and cost about $3. Both of these towns are on the Panamericana so there will be frequent buses.
Once you are in Canar, it is less than 30 minutes to Ingapirca. You can take another bus for $1, or you can spend about $10 on a taxi ride.
Ingapirca is a surprisingly large town, but most of the tourism in the town centers around the ruins. If you take just a bus into town, it will be very obvious how to get to the ruins.
For the particularly adventurous, there is an option to walk from Alausi to the Ingapirca ruins. This is known as the Ecuadorian Inca Trail.
Hiking the Inca Trail to Ingapirca
If you find yourself with 2-3 days, then there is a gorgeous high altitude trek from a small village called Achupallas to Ingapirca via the old Incan Highway system.
The trail travels through a valley up to the tres cruces pass at 14,500 feet before descending to the Ruins at Ingapirca. Most people who choose to do this will go on a guided trek and take three days. If you prefer to go with a guide, it is no problem, and will cost $50/day. However, if you are a strong hiker with good acclimatization and navigational knowledge, it is very doable to do this on your own. I have written this guide specifically designed to help you plan an independent Ecuadorian Inca Trail trek.
Achupallas is about an hour from Alausi, and you can find a taxi to get you there for $20. Alternatively, there is a cooperativo that heads there once a day that will take you for $2. I didn’t use this option, so I am not sure when it will leave, but ask around.
Visiting the Ingapirca Ruins
The only thing to do in Ingapirca is to visit the ruins. Entrance to the ruins costs $2 and it is required that you go with a guide. If you have previously visited Machu Picchu, you will probably want to compare this site with that, but they really are not that similar.
Ingapirca is a much smaller site, and it is situated right outside of a town, but don’t let that make you think it isn’t worth seeing! Since it’s on the way between Alausi and Cuenca, it is a worthwhile stop to break up the trip between the two.
After the tour, there is a hike you can do around the historical complex. All in all, a visit to Ingapirca should last no more than 2-3 hours.
Where to Stay in Ingapirca
Don’t stay in Ingapirca, continue on to Cuenca.
Cuenca – 4 Days
Cuenca is the cultural capital of southern Ecuador. In recent years, it has found itself swarmed with expats, but it is very easy to see why. The city is extremely pleasant and brimming in history. Most people who visit Ecuador don’t make it down to Cuenca, and that is a massive shame!
How to Get to Cuenca
If you are still following the itinerary, then you can very easily get a bus from Ingapirca to Cuenca. If you are on a massive budget, you can take a bus back to Canar and then switch onto a bus to Cuenca. This will cost $4 and take around 3 hours.
If you are a little bit more flexible on budget, you can ask the tour busses in the parking lot if they have extra room. Most of the day tours to Ingapirca come from Cuenca, so the buses hanging around in the parking lot will head back that way. This will probably cost more like $8, but you have the advantage of not having to switch buses.
If you are not following this itinerary, then no problem. Cuenca is very easy to reach. It is situated on the Panamericana, so busses travel between Cuenca and pretty much every other destination mentioned in this guide very regularly. If you are coming from Guayaquil, buses leave roughly every half hour.
Cuenca also has an airport. If you want to fly from Quito, the flight can be as low as $80 and will take roughly 30 minutes. I was traveling north through the country, so this is how I got to Cuenca. I highly recommend this if that is how you want your schedule to go.
What to do in Cuenca
When you are walking around Cuenca, you will notice that it is a Spanish Colonial city. This is true, but the city actually has its roots in Pre-Colombian history. The city is absolutely brimming with history. But it is also surrounded by some of the most beautiful mountains in Ecuador. Whether you are more of a city or nature person, Cuenca has some thing to offer you.
- Cathedral de la Inmaculada. Cuenca’s new cathedral is a gothic centerpiece to the city. The towers rise above the old town of Cuenca and provide amazing views of the surrounding area. Entrance to the cathedral is $2, and the climb is tough. But once you get to the top, you will be rewarded with the gorgeous city scape.
- Limpia. What is Limpia? Well there is no way to answer that other than by saying Limpia is an experience. Limpia is the traditional cleansing ritual. It involves getting rubbed by an egg, having your neck cracked, and getting flower water spritzed at you (traditionally it is spit, but during the pandemic, they have moved to using spray bottles for sanitary purposes). This ritual is said to cleanse you of negative energy. You can experience it at the Mercado 10 Agosto for $4
- Homero Ortega Museum. Cuenca is the home of Panama hats. The Panama hat became famous during the construction of the Panama Canal. Many of the workers wore them while digging the canal to protect themselves from sun. But, the hats were actually from Cuenca. The hats have a surprising and intriguing history, and the best way to learn about it is at the museum. The museum is free to enter, but if you want to buy a hat, you are looking at somewhere between $20 and $120 (and up if you really want something super high quality).
- Cajas National Park. Only 30 minutes outside of Cuenca is the Cajas National Park. A protected area containing over 1000 lakes. I am biased, but Cajas National Park was absolutely the highlight of Ecuador for me. Visiting Cajas as a day trip is extremely easy and well worth the effort. If you have the time and inclination, consider spending 2 or 3 days there. I have written a whole separate guide for Cajas National park that will be especially useful if you are interested in overnight camping in the park.
Cuenca has many more museums and viewpoints, but one of the best ways to visit the city is to just wander around and enjoy the atmosphere. Cuenca is a city with a very nice quality of life and walking around is quite safe.
What to Eat in Cuenca
If you have been traveling for a while, you might be missing some of the comfort foods from back home. In that case, no worries since Cuenca has a huge variety of international cuisine including Japanese, Mexican, Italian and Indian food. In fact, it was easier to find a sushirito in Cuenca than it is in my home in California.
However, if you have a taste for Ecuadorian cuisine, some of the best options can be found at the Mercado 10 Agosto.
- Hornado Plate. Just like other cities in Ecuador, Cuenca has its own spin on Hornado. Some of the most famous Hornado stands in the country can be found in Cuenca, and they are definitely worth the stop.
- Mote. Its really just corn. But it’s an important staple of Ecuadorian cuisine, so if you don’t try it as a side on a hornado plate, you should just try it on its own.
- Morocho. The spiced corn pudding that is not quite a beverage. This sweet delight is absolutely delicious and a really satisfying.
- Tamales. Very similar to tamales from Mexico and Central America, tamales in Ecuador can be either sweet or savory. Since sweet tamales are much less common in the northern hemisphere, they are worth a try while you are down there.
You will not go hungry in Cuenca. If you want a more upscale meal, there are plenty of options. But you can also have a delicious meal with soup, main and a juice for $4.
Where to Stay in Cuenca
To optimize your stay, its best to stay at a place in the old town. If you are planning on going out at nights, the main street where things happen is Calle Larga. Don’t feel like you have to stay too close to Calle Larga. Cuenca is very safe and you should be comfortable walking around at night.
As far as options, there are a lot of hostels in Cuenca. Many of them are very good quality. Some of the best ones are:
- AlterNative Hostels. I got this recommendation off of someone I met while I was in the city. I already had another place to stay, but this place looks like a great backpacker spot! It is super close to the Museo Pumapungo, which if you are into museums is a must visit!
- Selina Cuenca. This is a Selina, so the quality will be up to the standards of other Selinas. This location in particular is special though. It is right on Calle Larga, very close to the center of the Old Town. The staff here are extremely nice and helpful and the internet is very good.
Traveling to the Galapagos from Cuenca
Unfortunately there are no direct flights from Cuenca to the Galapagos. Instead, the best way to continue on is to take the bus to Guayaquil. This ride is about 4 hours and will cost $8. From Guayaquil you can fly to the Galapagos. The plane tickets from Quito vs Guayaquil are not significantly different.
Try not to spend too much time in Guayaquil. It is a very dangerous city. It is the central location for the large gang in Ecuador. Even if it were safer, there is really not that much to do.
Galapagos – 5 Days
Same as 1 week itinerary.
Otavalo – 1 Day
Same as 1 week itinerary.