A little politeness goes a long way in Ecuador, by nature a conservative and generally good-mannered country. An exchange of greetings is de rigueur before conversation, no matter how short or banal the subject; say buenos días before noon, buenas tardes in the afternoon, and buenas noches after nightfall. Shake hands with people you meet, and if it’s for the first time, say mucho gusto (“pleased to meet you”); it’s quite normal to shake hands again when saying goodbye. A more familiar greeting between women or between a man and a woman is a peck on the cheek.
Say buen provecho (“enjoy your meal”) to your companions before a meal (not before your host if being cooked for), or to fellow diners when entering or leaving a restaurant, and use con permiso (“with permission”) if squeezing past someone in a crowd.
Clothing and appearance
A dapper appearance, smart unrumpled clothes, brushed hair and polished shoes are unlikely to be achievable for most travellers, but are pretty well obligatory in business circles. Neatness in dress will always earn respect, particularly in the highlands, where sartorial norms are more formal than on the coast. Men should remove hats or caps indoors and short trousers or skirts shouldn’t be worn inside churches (shorts for men on the coast are more forgivable), where scruffiness of any sort will be frowned on. Skimpy dress for women will probably draw unwanted attention (see Women travellers), while topless or nude bathing on beaches is out of the question.
Dealing with bureaucracy
Politeness and tidy dress are particularly important when dealing with police or officials. Ecuadorian bureaucracy can be frustrating, but it’s vital to maintain good humour; losing your temper will quickly turn people against you.
It’s in this area you’re most likely to encounter the darker side of Ecuadorian culture – bribery. While corruption is widely condemned, low-level graft is routinely practised, with minor officials sometimes asking for “a little something for a cola” (as the cliché goes) in return for a favour or to speed up paperwork. It’s an art best left to locals; if you need a special favour, ask an Ecuadorian friend for advice on how to proceed and leave the negotiating up to them if possible. Never openly offer a bribe to anyone or you could end up in serious trouble.
In smarter places, ten percent service charge will automatically be added to your bill; tipping above this is only warranted for exceptional service. Cheaper restaurants will not usually expect you to leave a tip, although it’s very welcome if you do. Airport and hotel porters should be tipped, as should the people who watch your car for you if you’ve parked in a street. Taxi drivers don’t normally get a tip, but will often round up the fare. Guides are tipped depending on the length of your stay or trip, from a couple of dollars to over ten. Tour crews in the Galápagos also receive tips.
In toilets, the bin by your feet is for your toilet paper – the plumbing can’t cope with it being flushed. Public toilets are most common at bus terminals, where you’ll see them signposted as baños or SS HH (the abbreviation for servicios higiénicos); women are damas or mujeres and men caballeros or hombres. Often there’s an attendant who sells toilet paper at the door. It’s a good idea to carry some paper (papel higiénico) with you, wherever you are.
A few other reminders
If arranging to meet someone or inviting someone out, remember punctuality obeys the laws of la hora ecuatoriana (“Ecuadorian time”), meaning Ecuadorians will usually arrive late, up to an hour being well within the bounds of politeness. The person making an invitation is usually expected to pay for everything, especially if it’s a man entertaining a woman.
Pointing at people (not objects) with your finger is impolite; use your whole hand or chin instead. Beckon people towards you by pointing your hand downwards and towards you, not the other way round.
For more information on cultural questions, see gay and lesbian travellers, travelling with children, tipping, women travellers.