Things to know before travelling to Ecuador

Joanne Owen

written by
Joanne Owen

updated 15.05.2024

Ecuador might be the smallest Andean nation, but it’s blessed with a bounty of biodiversity, landscapes and cultures that invite immersive travel. With that in mind, to make your trip all the more rewarding, here we share key things to know before travelling to Ecuador.

1. Prepare for altitude sickness

Due to many parts of Ecuador being at a high altitude, we recommend you take heed of some preparatory guidelines when it comes to high altitude sickness.

At best, you could experience symptoms that are akin to a mild hangover — headache, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, dehydration and loss of appetite. At worst, extreme breathlessness and fluid accumulation in the lungs. 

Here’s where you might experience high altitude sickness in Ecuador:

  • Quito: located around 2850 meters above sea level, Quito — Ecuador’s capital — is one of the highest capitals in the world, and often the first stop for travellers coming to Ecuador.
  • Cotopaxi National Park: home to Cotopaxi Volcano — one of the world's highest active volcanoes, no less — Cotopaxi National Park sits at high altitudes that start at around 3400 meters
  • Cuenca: although not as high as Quito, Cuenca, in the southern sierra, is still at a significant altitude of 2560 meters (8,400 feet), which can cause mild altitude symptoms for some visitors.
  • Chimborazo volcano: due to its equatorial bulge, the peak of Chimborazo Volcano is Earth’s closest point to the sun, and Ecuador’s highest mountain.
cotopaxi-volcano-ecuador-shutterstock_240040738

Prepping for altitude sickness is one of the key things to know before visiting Ecuador © Shutterstock

Here’s how you can prepare for, and manage, altitude sickness:

  • Acclimatize: spend a few days at a moderately high altitude before ascending to give your body chance to adjust gradually.
  • Stay hydrated: dehydration is a contributor to altitude sickness, so drink plenty of fluids, avoiding alcohol and caffeine as they can dehydrate you.
  • Eat light, high-carb meals: avoid heavy meals that are difficult to digest.
  • Go gradual, and ascend slowly: avoid strenuous activities for the first 24-48 hours as your body adjusts to the lower oxygen levels of high altitudes. When trekking, increase your altitude gradually. 
  • Recognize symptoms and act on them:  if you experience symptoms — headache, nausea, dizziness, tiredness, loss of appetite, shortness of breath — descend to a lower altitude.
cathedral-cuenca-ecuador-shutterstock_1103828579

Cuenca, Ecuador © Shutterstock

2. Ecuador doesn’t just mean sunshine 

Ecuador’s diverse geography and topography means the weather can vary greatly. For example, coastal areas are generally warmer and more humid, while the Andean highlands are cooler and can be quite chilly at night. 

Meanwhile, the Amazon basin is hot and rains more regularly around the year.

As well as considering such general regional variations in weather, you should also be aware of seasonal differences, as these can have an impact on what you plan to do.

For detail, read our our guide to when to to visit Ecuador.

humpback-whale-jump-puerto-lopez-ecuador-shutterstock_440583037

Humpback whale, Puerto Lopez, Ecuador © Shutterstock

3. Ecuador is more than the Galapagos Islands…

While the Galapagos Islands are a huge draw, Ecuador's mainland teems with attractions — witnessing wildlife in the Amazon rainforest, unforgettable treks in the Andean highlands, mind-blowing whale-watching experiences along the Pacific Coast. 

Meanwhile, cities like Quito and Cuenca offer rich historic sites and vibrant cultural experiences.

As a result, we recommend you don’t just focus your trip plans on the Galapagos. Be sure to factor in time to explore the mainland, so you get to experience the full range of the best things to do in Ecuador.

Want to travel to Galapagos but don't know where to start? Our Galapagos itineraries will be a great starting point for you.

Interior of humid cloudforest with mist blowing through, on the coastal range in western Ecuador © Dr Morley Read/Shutterstock

Cloud forest on the coastal range of western Ecuador © Dr Morley Read/Shutterstock

4…but visiting the Galapagos is pretty special

All that said, there are plenty of reason the Galapagos Islands feature on many a bucket list.

First up, the islands are home to stacks of species that are found nowhere else on earth, among them giant tortoises, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies and flightless cormorants.

Secondly, the clear waters surrounding the Galapagos Islands are a haven for marine life, including sea lions, sharks, rays, and countless species of tropical fish. As a result, the islands' snorkelling and diving experiences are among the best in the world.

The islands aren’t short of adventure activities either, including hiking, biking, kayaking and paddle-boarding.

Lastly, though the islands experience seasonal variations, they’re a year-round destination, with each season offering different wildlife experiences, as revealed in our guide to the best time to visit the Galapagos islands.

Editor’s tip: as visitor numbers to the Galapagos are regulated, you’ll need to plan your trip wisely, and well ahead of travelling.

Alternatively, enlist the support of a local expert to plan and book your personalised trip to the Galapagos, from a Galapagos cruise and diving adventure, to an itinerary that takes in three islands across ten days

Better still, to experience the best of the islands and the mainland, take a trip that covers, for example, the Amazon and the Galapagos, or the Andean highway and the Galapagos.

Blue footed boobies with iguana, Galapagos ©  reisegraf.ch/Shutterstock

Blue footed boobies with iguana, Galapagos © reisegraf.ch/Shutterstock

5. Quito is great for day trips

Quito is perfectly positioned for several incredible day trips. Here’s a run-down of some the best:

  • Mindo Cloud Forest: 2 hours from Quito, Mindo Cloud Forest is a delight for bird watchers, and a top spot to hike and zip-line.
  • Cotopaxi National Park: 1.5 hours from Quito, this is home to one of the world’s highest active volcanoes. Here you can hike, mountain bike, and go horse-riding.
  • Middle of the World (Mitad del Mundo): 45-minutes north of Quito, you can visit the monument and museum that marks the equatorial line. 
  • Papallacta hot springs: just 1.5 hours from Quito, you can chill in hot thermal baths surrounded by the Andes. Adventurers note that Papallacta is also a starting point for hikes into the nearby Antisana Ecological Reserve.
  • Otavalo Market: Otavalo is a great place to experience Ecuadorian culture.It’s around two hours from Quito, and best visited on Saturdays.
Ecuador, Otavalo, colourful textiles for sales at artisan market

Otavalo market

6. Public transportation is the way to go

Though schedules can sometimes be unpredictable, buses cover most areas you’d want to visit. They’re also an inexpensive and efficient way to travel around Ecuador.

For a smoother experience, opt to travel with reputable companies e.g. Transportes Ecuador, Reina del Camino, and Panamericana. 

It’s also wise to arrive at the bus terminal early to purchase your ticket, and secure a good seat and space for your luggage.

We also suggest allowing extra time (especially if you have a connecting bus or a flight), and to come armed with snacks and bottled water.

Want more info? Read our guide to getting around Ecuador.

cotopaxi-el-panecillo-quito-ecuador-shutterstock_535492369

Quito, Ecuador © Shutterstock

7. Learn some Spanish

While you can find English speakers in tourist areas and among young people, knowing basic Spanish will greatly enhance your experience, especially in rural or less-touristed areas, and when travelling by public transport.

In most cases, a little lingo goes a long way, so even coming armed with a phrasebook is likely to come in handy.

8. Leave tap water for cleaning

It's advisable to avoid drinking tap water in Ecuador to prevent stomach problems.

Stick to bottled or boiled water, even for brushing your teeth.

Train travelling Devils Nose, Alausi, Ecuador

Train travelling Devils Nose, Alausi, Ecuador © Shutterstock

9. Ecuador is safe, but use common sense

While Ecuador generally offers a safe experience — especially in areas frequented by tourists — it’s always a good idea to keep certain safety considerations in mind. 

First up, as always, be aware of your surroundings. Petty theft and pickpocketing can occur, especially in crowded areas such as markets, bus stations, and tourist sites. 

It’s also advisable to avoid displays of wealth — don’t have expensive watches on show or flash the cash. 

We also suggest checking your accommodation is in a safe area and has adequate security measures, such as safes for valuables.

In addition, if you’re heading to the Amazon rainforest, always go with a reputable guide, and be aware of environmental hazards, including dangerous wildlife and plants. Also make sure you have the necessary vaccinations before your trip.

Lastly, be cautious when swimming in the ocean — riptides and currents can be strong. 

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Quilotoa volcano, Ecuador © Shutterstock

10. Combine with Colombia or Peru

Given that Ecuador is located between Colombia and Peru, you could look into visiting all three countries during a single trip.

How about considering a back-packing trip around South America, or else planning a trip itinerary that covers the trio?

On that subject, you might want to browse our customisable trip that takes in the best of Peru and the glorious Galapagos Islands

11. The official currency is the American dollar

Ecuador has used the US dollar as its official currency since 2000.

While this is convenient for American — and international — travellers, be sure to to remember to carry small bills as change can be hard to come by.

Keen to visit Ecuador? You’ll find more inspiration in our customisable itineraries and the picture-packed Insight Guide to Ecuador and the Galapagos.

Joanne Owen

written by
Joanne Owen

updated 15.05.2024

Joanne is a Pembrokeshire-born writer with a passion for the nature, cultures and histories of the Caribbean region, especially Dominica. Also passionate about inspiring a love of adventure in young people, she’s the author of several books for children and young adults, hosts international writing workshops, and has written articles on the Caribbean and inspirational community initiatives for Rough Guides. Follow her @JoanneOwen on Twitter and @joanneowenwrites on Instagram.

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