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. Don’t miss out on the incredible beauty of Ecuador! We spent a month exploring Quito, the Quilotoa Loop, the Galapagos Islands, Banos, and Vilcabamba. Along the way, we learned some entirely unhelpful things and made a lot of completely useless observations. And just for you, dear reader, we put together the most important things (and also the most totally irrelevant) that we learned while backpacking in Ecuador…
- There are creepy clown trashcans everywhere. No, we’re serious. WTF is the deal, Ecuador? Why?? These things are beyond terrifying!
- Literally everything in Ecuador is a volcano. Everywhere you look, there’s DJ Khaled’s voice like “Another one!”
- 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…
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. Chocolate is one of the must-eat foods in Ecuador!
- 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. Or maybe we were just spoiled after Colombia…
- Drink all of the hot chocolate you can. IDGAF if it’s offered at breakfast, you will drink it and you will love it. It goes without saying, but if the chocolate is amazing, the hot chocolate is amazing. The absolute best hot chocolate we had in Ecuador 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 chocolate bar option. You literally pick ANY chocolate bar from their enormous collection, 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.”
- Guittig is the gold standard of gas water. “Agua sin gas o con gas” is a phrase that backpackers in South America will be 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 (which is, you guessed it, a volcano)!
- 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 at a mercado and got a lot of weird looks – apparently they’re usually an accompaniment.
- Order Sopa de Queso if you find it. Sometimes jokingly referred to as Honeymoon Soup (because it’s cheap and easy to make, and I guess us newlyweds can’t cook for s**t), 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.
- Otavalo Market is a fantastic day trip from Quito. You can take a guided tour to see the famous Otovalo Market (like this one) and spend a day exploring this colorful indigenous market. Or, you can DIY your own day trip! It’s easy to grab a bus from the North Terminal. It takes a couple hours on the bus each way, but you will save a decent amount of money. We also suggest going relatively early, since shops start packing up around 4. We left around 10 AM and were fine.
- 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.
- Cotopaxi National Park is a must see. You can take a day trip to Cotopaxi from Quito that includes a gorgeous hike, like this one, or even horseback riding! Or, if you’ve got time, 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 Secret Garden in Quito, and can shuttle you between them. If you have the money for it, I highly suggest booking the Hobbit Hole. It’s a bedroom built into a hill with a Shire style door that looks right out to Cotopaxi!
- 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.
- Stay at Llullu Llama Hostel, even if you don’t do the Quilotoa Loop. The tiny town of Isinlivi is typically only traveled to for two reasons: it’s a stop on the Quilotoa loop, and it’s home to the amazing Llullu Llama hostel. And you know what? This was one of our favorite hostels not just while backpacking in Ecuador, but for all of South America! The food is great, beds are comfy, staff is awesome, the views are breathtaking, the vibe is social but relaxed, 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 (and yes, they’re friends.)
- Visit the Galapagos Islands! 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! But hey, if you can’t make it to the Galapagos, at least check out the Isla de Plata off the coast of Montanita, another place where you can spot the ridiculously unmajestic Blue Footed Boobies in all of their silly glory.
- 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.
- 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…
- 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 before crossing the border into Peru. 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.
- The biggest reason to go to Vilcabamba is Hosteria Izhcayluma, an awesome ex-pat owned yoga and spa retreat. The dorms are a bargain and there’s free yoga every morning. You need a reservation early, but it’s worth it!
- 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. Also, the place where they take you isn’t even the actual spot on the map …
- 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.
- Don’t stay for long in Latacunga. You have to stop in Latacunga if you’re doing the Quilotoa Loop, but it kinda sucks. It smells like exhaust, everyone is honking constantly, and other than a great mercado, we didn’t find anything much to do in the actual city. We stayed at Hostel Tiana, which we don’t recommend. Most backpackers hiking Quilotoa Loop that Hostel Tiana is the best option to stay before and after. They say this because of the bag storage – for a fee, you can stash your stuff while you hike the Quilotoa Loop. However, here are some problems with Tiana: there’s no hot water, there are no lockers in the dorm rooms, one dorm was accurately described to us as “the dungeon”, and the desk staff misplaced our reservation even though we watched them write it down – and then gave us attitude about booking last-minute. There are other hostels in Latacunga, but frankly, we don’t know if they’re any better, either.
- 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. The La Balsa border crossing takes several days and routes you through some less-than-exciting parts of Peru, but it is supposedly much safer. I’m not sure which one we’d choose if we had to go back and do it again, honestly.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- Ecuadorians have tremendous national pride. Despite it being a beautiful country rich with incredible experiences and places to visit, 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 some well-deserved attention as more people realize the joy in backpacking in Ecuador. While it’s small, Ecuador has beaches, the Amazon, the Andes, and the Galapagos to offer. And 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 for Ecuador 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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