30 Things No One Tells You About Backpacking in Ecuador

Cotopaxi, Ecuador as seen from The Secret Garden Hostel
30 Things No One Tells You About Visiting Ecuador

Backpacking in Ecuador was one of the best decisions we made during our South America trip. Sadly, this small country often gets cut out of itineraries. While there is a lot of information out there about Quito, Quilotoa, and Banos, we found ourselves in new territory for the majority of the time. Luckily for you, dear reader, we put together the most important things we learned while backpacking in Ecuador…

Creepy clown trash can in Ecuador! This is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to things nobody told us about backpacking in Ecuador...
This is actually one of the least creepy ones we saw.
  1. There are creepy clown trashcans everywhere. No, we’re serious. WTF is the deal, Ecuador? Why?? These things are beyond terrifying!
  2. Literally everything is a volcano. Everywhere you look, there’s DJ Khaled’s voice like “Another one!”
  3. You don’t have to stay in the historical center of Quito when backpacking in Ecuador. There are tons of hostels all over the city. What’s great about Quito – unlike some other capital cities we’ve visited on this trip, lookin at you, Bogota – is that it has a convenient and intuitive public transit system, so it’s easy to get around town. That said, even though you don’t have to stay there…
  4. Spend a day being touristy in Centro Historico Quito. There are a bunch of churches to see, such as the Basilica de Voto Nacional (ideal for Instagram photos!) or the Compañia de Jesus, which is a straight up house of ballerdom made entirely of gold. I’d show you a pic, but I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside (trust me, I tried. One day this blogging gig is going to get me arrested.) If your sightseeing goes into the night and you haven’t been arrested yet, check out La Rhonda! It’s the cutest little street filled with bars, salsa clubs, and restaurants. I’d show you a pic, but I turn into a pumpkin at 9pm if I’m not in bed with my PJs and Netflix. Rebellious, I know.
  5. Take the teleferico up to the volcano in Quito. A cozy gondola will take you up to Vulcan Pinchincha, a giant lava-filled mountain casually towering over the city. (Remember how I said everything in Ecuador was volcanoes?) Once up there, you can pose with llamas (AND HUG THEM!!!!) see a panorama of the city, and – if you are less lazy/more in shape than we are – take the long trek up the volcano to peer inside (or throw an evil ring in, or whatever). Be sure to bring a big jacket though. Even though Quito/lava might be warm, high up on the mountain it’s windy and cold.

    Basilica del Voto Nacional in Quito, Ecuador
    Basilica del Voto Nacional in Centro Historico, one of the many beautiful churches dotting Quito.
  6. Quito Airport is actually really far from Quito. Factor this in when choosing your arrival time. You can easily take a cab and be in the city in 45 minutes for about $25. I know this sounds expensive, so we looked into other options. The only other way is to take a collectivo for $8 to the bus terminal, then bus for about $3. The whole trip will add about 2 hours, depending on hostel location. So basically if you’re in a pair, you only save three bucks. Honestly, just cab and accept it.
  7. The chocolate is phenomenal. And it’s everywhere! You can take tours, see factories, or stuff your face. Our absolute favorite brand is Pacari, especially their salt and nibs bar.
  8. The coffee is not great. There are the odd good shops like Umami (in Quito), Arome, and Honey (both in Banos), but for the most part don’t expect much. 
  9. Try all of the hot chocolate you find. IDGAF if it’s offered at breakfast, you drink that shit. It goes without saying, but if the chocolate is good, the hot chocolate is good. The absolute best hot chocolate we had was at Arome Chocolate in Banos. You can get everything from classic hot chocolate with marshmallows to chocolate with a shot of booze – and everything in between! But the best option they have is the choose your own bar option. You literally pick ANY chocolate bar off of the wall and they shave the whole bar and turn it into hot chocolate. We now fully understand the meaning of the phrase “like a kid in a candy shop.”

    Delectable hot chocolate from Amore in Banos, Ecuador
    One of the most delicious cups of hot chocolate ever, made from Pacari’s Cocoa Nib and Sea Salt bar. Get this at Amore in Banos.
  10. Guittig is the gold standard of gas water. “Agua sin gas o con gas” is something travelers are quite familiar with. We used to drink regular boring water, until we tried gas water and got hooked. Some people are addicted to Inca Kola, but we’re fully obsessed with gas water. We once spent 2 days fighting bubbly cravings when we arrived in a town in Peru that was somehow completely out of gas water (aka hell on earth) and realized we’d taken Ecuador for granted. In 4 months we’ve had more brands of gas water than we’d like to admit, and nothing beats Guittig. The water used is from Cotopaxi!
  11. Never pass on the llapingachos. These are little fried potato cakes that are essentially cheesy mashed potatoes thrown onto a griddle and served with sauce, and yes, they’re as good as they sound. They’re heavenly. I once ordered a side order of them and got a lot of weird looks – apparently they’re usually an accompaniment.
  12. Order Sopa de Queso if you find it.  Sometimes jokingly referred to as Honeymoon Soup (for how cheap, easy to make, and filling it is), this bowl of deliciousness is made of chicken broth, melted cheese, potatoes, and pasta. Sounds like college right? I think this is the Ecuadorian answer to cup o’ noodles.
  13. Go to Otavalo on your own, not with a tour. It’s easy to grab a bus from the North Terminal. It takes a couple hours, but you save so much money. I also suggest going relatively early, since shops start packing up around 4. We left around 10 AM and were fine.
  14. A lot of the alpaca products at the Otavalo market are fake. You’d think in an area with so many cuddly and fuzzy alpacas, this wouldn’t be true, but it is. I was lured in by the cheap prices and promises of cuddling up in fluff. Days later, Lia (who studied fashion design in college) gave the sweater a rub and a sniff, and realized it’s mostly acrylic. We’ve been more skeptical throughout South America, and it appears the scarves are usually pretty safe, but sweaters and complex knitted pieces are often fakes. If you can’t master the sniff and feel test, we’ve found that if you show an interest in a product and ask specifically if it’s a mix, they’re more apt to be honest. For instance, “Oooo! Ahhh! It’s so warm! And this is a mix? Wow!” Honestly, if you’re planning on continuing into Peru, just do your alpaca product shopping there.

    Shopping at Otavalo Market in Ecuador. We didn't realize you shouldn't buy alpaca products in Ecuador. Just another one of the things nobody told us about traveling to Ecuador!
    Shopping at Otavalo Market in Ecuador. We didn’t realize you shouldn’t buy alpaca products in Ecuador. Just another one of the things nobody told us about traveling to Ecuador!
  15. Cotopaxi is a must see, but it needs more than a day trip. You’ll see several Cotopaxi day tours advertised in Quito and around. Don’t do it. Instead, make a reservation at Secret Garden Cotopaxi, a fantastic hostel/farm right by the foothills of the volcano. Getting there is a combination of buses and cabs, but it’s so worth it! They also have a location in Quito, and can shuttle you between them. If you have the money for it, I highly suggest the Hobbit Hole. It’s a bedroom built into a hill with a Shire style door that looks right out to Cotopaxi.
  16. Do hike the Quilotoa Loop, but use the regular route. You might hear there is an easy and a hard route. The “hard route” is the more popular route. Make no mistake…they’re both hard. We did the less popular route (starting in Quilotoa) and regretted it. The problem is the hardest day is between Chugchilan and Quilotoa, so if you save that until the end (the popular way), you can recover. If you did it our way, you have no recovery time, and you have to keep going on sore (or injured, in our case) legs.
  17. Stay at Llullu Llama, even if you don’t do the Quilotoa Loop. TBH, Isinlivi has nothing to offer. It’s only traveled to for two reasons: it’s a stop on the loop, and it’s home to the amazing Llullu Llama hostel. Nonetheless, this was one of our favorite places we stayed in while backpacking in Ecuador. The food is great, beds are comfy, staff is awesome, the views are breathtaking, and they have two of the best hostel animals we’ve met in all of South America. Spend a day of relaxation next to the fire, or outside playing with Baloo or Tito, their pet St. Bernard and llama, respectively.

    The resident dog at Llullu Llama in Isinlivi, Ecuador
    One of our favorite ever hostel pets. I miss Baloo so much!!
  18. Do the Galapagos Islands if you can! We’ve heard a lot of travelers say they thought long and hard about it, only to decide it was too much money. Do not make that mistake. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. You can actually do it relatively cheap by not doing a cruise: it cost us $800 each for a week. Oh and look, we have a post about that! You can also do an extended stay by teaching English. There is a huge demand for English teachers on the islands, because every tour guide and hostel owner needs to have some experience in English. We met a couple people doing 3-5 months in paradise! So jeal. The Galapagos is a must-do when backpacking in Ecuador!
  19. Spend plenty of time in Banos. It’s the adventure capital of Ecuador. As you walk down any street in this beautiful town, you’ll come across countless tour companies offering things like buggy rentals, ziplining, canyoning, rafting, bungee jumping, mountain biking, and more. There’s also a LOT of massage and spa places for the less adventurous (Lia). The town itself is built on thermal baths (hence the funny name… but don’t worry, they’re in in the joke. You can get t-shirts that say “I <3 Banos.”), and the public thermal baths are the best we’ve ever been to! We spent a week here and it wasn’t nearly enough.
  20. Go to Guayaquil for chocolate farm tours. We loved all of the chocolate in Ecuador and were excited to find a farm to tour. Unfortunately they’re all located around Guayaquil, and that wasn’t on our itinerary. If farm tours are your thing, be sure to make it that way. Luckily, a lot of people go by Guayaquil because it’s on the coast, which brings me to…
  21. The party is on the coast, peace and quiet is inland. We were asked time and again if we were heading to Montanita, a little beach side surfing and party town just north of Guayaquil. People work their way west after Banos, and party on the coast as they head south into Peru. Some people, like us, opt for the inland route. We went to Cuenca then Vilcabamba. These are quieter towns that are still charming, but definitely not for partying. So it’s up to you.
  22. The biggest reason to go to Vilcabamba is Hosteria Izhcayluma, an awesome ex-pat owned yoga and spa retreat. It’s a little pricey, and you need a reservation early, but it’s worth it!
  23. The center of the world is not the center of the world. Don’t be duped into “Be on two hemispheres at once” tours. Just like Four Corners in the US, it’s just an arbitrary park with a plaque. You could photoshop yourself reaching across to another hemisphere for essentially the same effect.
  24. Try to be familiar with driving directions, because most cabs are on meters. When we were Latacunga, our cab driver took unnecessary turns through the exhaust smelling labyrinth city (our least favorite location in Ecuador, btw). The meters tick up by the distance, so our fare was going up and up. I didn’t realize we paid too much until our next cab took us near the bus station and it was way cheaper.

    Snorkeling with sea turtles in the Galapagos
    Just an average sea turtle sighting in The Galapagos
  25. Don’t stay at Hostel Tiana in Latacunga if you’re doing the Quilotoa Loop. There’s a belief among backpackers planning on doing the Quilotoa Loop that Hostel Tiana is the best option to stay before and after. They say this because of the locker storage and relatively cheap rooms. During our time backpacking in Ecuador we stayed in 13 hostels. Hostel Tiana was the 2nd worst (the worst was in the Galapagos). There are two positives: fast internet, and cheap bag storage. Here are some problems with Tiana: it’s musty, there’s no hot water, breakfast is just bread, staff is incredibly rude, no lockers in the bedrooms, one dorm was described to us as “the dungeon”, they misplaced our reservation after we watched them record it, and despite being the popular jump point for backpackers, there was no atmosphere. It’s time backpackers stop perpetuating the belief that Tiana is worth it. There are other hostels!
  26. The coast is the most popular (sometimes dangerous) Peru border crossing, and inland is the road less traveled (read about it here). Both are accessible from Vilcabamba. Honestly, crossing from La Balsa was pretty but damn was it boring. And we’re not exactly ashamed to admit how much we hated northern Peru. I’d still recommend the La Balsa crossing based on safety alone.
  27. The buses are uncomfortable. Unlike its neighbor Peru, Ecuador has a “take it or leave it” attitude about the bus you take. The seats are cramped with no leg room, and you’ll be thrown from side to side. But, you might luck out and get a movie in English. And…

    The view from the crater at Quilotoa Lake, Ecuador
    Lia having a great time at Quilotoa Lake. You know, before the knee injuries and crawling up the wrong mountain. Viva Ecuador!
  28. The bus rides are short and cheap. Ecuador is tiny. So if you’re trying to see several towns, don’t fret about travel. The longest bus we took was about 3 hours.
  29. Even though Ecuador uses USD, the coins are unique to the country and therefore useless outside of Ecuador. What’s more is they love using 50 cent or $1 pieces. We came in with some cash from home, and left with change that is pointless past the border.
  30. Ecuadorians have tremendous national pride. Despite it being a beautiful country, backpacking in Ecuador is often overlooked next to its more frequently traveled neighbors: Colombia is experiencing an incredible time of peace and prosperity, Peru and Chile bring trekkers, and Brazil and Argentina have always been the stars of South America. It’s tough being a small country so close to those giants. But the country is getting more attention as more people realize the joy in backpacking in Ecuador. While it’s small, it has beaches, the Amazon, the Andes, and the Galapagos to offer. The people here love their country! I went canyoning in Banos, and the guide made us hold the Ecuadorian flag while we slid down waterfalls or ran through the canyon. When you pose for a picture in America, we say “Cheese.” In most of South America, you say “Whiskey.” In Ecuador, you say “Viva Ecuador!” The traditions, the pride, and the love are shown throughout every town and city. It’s truly fantastic.

Have you ever gone backpacking in Ecuador? Did some of these ring true for you? Let us know in the comments!

 

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14 Comment

  1. Vibeke says: Reply

    Great post. Quito has two really good coffee shops Isveglio and Jervis worth trying.

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Thank you for this! We’re always on the lookout for good coffee shops. This is super helpful!

  2. Excellent article! I’m heading to Quito next month and found your information to be so helpful! Thanks!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      I’m so glad to hear that, Heather! Happy to help! You’ll love Quito 🙂

  3. Meg says: Reply

    I’ve always wanted to visit Ecuador and this is such a great read! Really appreciate the hints and tips, and my goodness, that hot chocolate does look immense!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Ecuador is fantastic! ESPECIALLY the hot chocolate 😀

  4. Frank says: Reply

    Enjoyed reading this post, great guide to Ecuador and I’ll save it for when we eventually get there.

    My boss used to like to talk about fizzy water, comparing the size of the bubbles between Perrier and San Pellegrino.

    Anyway, fun and helpful post.

    Frank

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Thanks Frank! Glad you liked the post. Frankly we’ve both become gas water snobs ourselves. And Ecuador still has the BEST agua con gas of anywhere we’ve ever tasted. There’s no comparison. We miss Guittig 🙁

      1. I loved reading this about Guitig! I am Ecuadorean and have lived abroad many years and if there is one thing I still crave when I’m away is Guitig!

        1. Lia says: Reply

          I totally feel you! I crave it too and I was only there for a month 😛

  5. This was a really interesting post to read! I love reading your insightful insider comments about traveling in Ecuador. This country is on my list of places to visit and I am sure this will be helpful for me when I start seriously planning. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Thank Brittany! We loved Ecuador and I know you will too 🙂

  6. I am from Ecuador, and it’s true, we have so much pride for our country :). The middle of the world monument is a few meters away from the actual middle of the world. It’s actually what the natives thought was the middle of the world, and now that it’s GPS’d, they were very close. They have a lot of experiments that they do on the actual middle, it’s very awesome to see

    1. Lia says: Reply

      That’s interesting, I didn’t realize that it was an educated guess! That’s so impressive that they were able to get it so close.

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