Although prices have risen since dollarization, those on a tight budget should be able to get by on about $30–40 per day, with the occasional treat. Spending $50–80 daily will get you accommodation in more comfortable hotels, better food and the occasional guided tour. Those paying over $150 a day (travelling independently) are likely to find themselves in the country’s best hotels and restaurants.
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The most widespread hidden cost in Ecuador is IVA (Impuesto al Valor Agregado), a tax of twelve percent added to most goods and services. In lower-end restaurants and hotels it’s taken for granted that IVA is included in the quoted price. Other places will add it to the end of the bill, often in tandem with a further ten percent service charge, making the final total 22 percent more than you might have bargained for. Car rental is almost always quoted without IVA. If in doubt, always clarify whether prices for anything from souvenirs to room rates include IVA.
Another unexpected cost is the $30–40 airport departure tax, payable in cash when you fly out of the country from Quito or Guayaquil.
Crime and personal safety
Ecuador's reputation for being one of the safer Latin American countries has in recent years been tested by rising crime levels. Still, there's no need to be paranoid if you take sensible precautions.
Pickpockets and thieves favour crowded places, typically bus stations, markets, city centres, public transport, crowded beaches, fiestas and anywhere lots of people congregate to give them cover. When out and about, carry as little of value as you possibly can, and be discreet with what you have. Secret pockets or money belts are useful, but don’t reveal hiding places in public. Split up your reserves in different places, making it less likely that you’ll lose everything in one go.
On buses, keep close watch on your bags; don’t put them under your seat or in overhead storage. The same goes for in restaurants – wrap the bag straps around your chair or leg. Be wary of people approaching you in the street, no matter how polite or smartly dressed. It’s a common trick to use distraction to take your mind of your belongings; spilling something messy on you is a perennial favourite. Take care when using ATMs; you are particularly vulnerable from both robbers and card scammers if using machines on the street. Use machines inside banks and buildings where possible, during business hours.
Travelling at night, whether in your own vehicle or on public transport, is a bad idea. This is especially true in Guayas and southern Ecuador, where hold-ups have been an ongoing problem, as well as Esmeraldas province and the border regions with Colombia. In the big cities, especially Quito, always take a taxi at night rather than wandering the streets; it’s safest to call a registered taxi through your hotel rather than hail one in the street.
Armed robbery is a problem throughout the country, and is on the rise in Quito’s Mariscal district. Other danger spots are parts of the old town, the walk up to El Panecillo (always take a cab), Rucu Pichincha and Cruz Loma volcanoes (not including the TelefériQo complex itself), parques El Ejido and La Carolina. Security in Guayaquil is improving, but nevertheless you should be extra vigilant in the downtown areas, the dock and the airport.
Never accept food, drinks, cigarettes or other objects from people you don’t know well, to minimize the risk of drugging. Chemicals have even been suffused into leaflets and paper, which when handled make victims compliant.
Border areas and crossings are always places to be extra vigilant. Drug smuggling and Colombian guerrilla activity along the northern border have made certain (remote) parts of Sucumbíos (capital Lago Agrio), Carchi (capital Tulcán) and Esmeraldas (capital Esmeraldas) provinces unsafe. San Lorenzo in the north has a problem with gun crime and “express kidnappings” have been reported in Huaquillas and Macará on the southern border. The Cordillera del Cóndor, southeast of Zamora, a region long involved in a border dispute with Peru, still contains unmarked minefields and should be avoided altogether.
Stay informed by referring to your government’s website for the latest travel advice.
The possession of drugs, regardless of whether it’s for personal use, is a very serious offence in Ecuador – one that can end in fifteen years in jail. People who’ve been charged may have to contend with the country’s dilapidated and overcrowded prisons for more than a year before they’re even brought to trial, not to mention being at the mercy of corrupt officials, who’ll be aiming to bleed them for as much money as possible. If offered drugs in the street, walk away. Don’t take any chances with drugs or drug dealers – setups have happened and raids are common in “druggie” places such as Montañita and certain Quito clubs. It’s simply not worth the consequences. If you don’t believe it, talk to any of the dozens of foreigners languishing in Ecuador’s jails on drugs offences (the SAE arranges regular visits).
The only contact you’re likely to have with the police (policía) are at road checkpoints at various places around the country, mentioned in the Guide text, where you may be registered. Generally the police are polite and helpful, particularly the specially designated tourist police who patrol gringo-thick areas like La Mariscal, the Panecillo and the Mitad del Mundo
It’s rare, but there are reports of corrupt or false police planting drugs in bags – the idea being to extract a large “fine” from the terrified tourist. Plainclothes “police” should always be dealt with cautiously; pretending you don’t understand and walking away is a strategy.
If you are the victim of a crime, you should go to the police as soon as possible to fill out a report (denuncia). In an emergency call t 911 in Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca, or t 101 elsewhere.
110V/60Hz is the standard supply, and sockets are for two flat prongs. Fluctuations in the supply are common so you need to use a surge protector (cortapicos) if you’re plugging in expensive equipment.
Most nationals, including citizens of the EU, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, do not need a visa to enter Ecuador as tourists, and only require a passport valid for more than six months; in theory, you are also supposed to have a return ticket and proof of having enough money for the duration of the stay too, but these aren’t often checked. Your passport will be stamped on arrival and you’ll be issued with a T-3 embarkation card, which you should keep – it will be collected when you leave the country. The T-3 gives you 90 days in Ecuador. If you want to extend your stay, you may need to get a visa. People who overstay (or who don’t have an entry stamp) are likely to get a $200 fine and deportation within 48 hours, and won’t be allowed back into Ecuador for six months.
If you plan to stay in Ecuador for more than 180 days or are visiting for some purpose other than tourism, you’ll need a visa. On arrival, the immigration official will provide a 90-day permit that can be extended once (prórroga) via a visit to the immigration office in northern Quito (Avenida Amazonas N32 – 171 y Avenida República; Mon–Fri 8am–4.30pm) or at 29 other migration offices, including Galápagos. Service tends to be prompt and helpful but has been swamped by the Venezuelan emigration crisis. The prórroga costs a third of the monthly income wage, which translates to around $110. Once that runs out, a one-year special tourism visa is available from the foreign ministry, but must be applied for no later than 30 days before the prórroga expires. A form is available on the foreign ministry’s website, which also has information on other visa options including work, volunteer and investment visas. Visas cost $80 for students and $400 for most other people. Once a visa is obtained, the beneficiary must show proof of private or public health insurance within 30 days. In Quito, visa offices are based at the southern “Government Platform”, a huge office building at Avenida Quitumbe Ñan y Amaru Ñan (8am–5pm).
If you’re seeking to become a long-term resident, it pays to do plenty of research beforehand and to find a reputed immigration lawyer to help you through the complicated legal process. Costs run to $400–800 for a visa. Information and assistance can be found at www.pro-ecuador.com.
The law requires you to carry “proper identification” at all times – for foreigners this means a passport. Visa holders will also need to carry their censo and any other relevant documentation. Photocopies of the stamps and important pages are usually sufficient, so you can keep the original in a safe place. In the Oriente and border areas, only the originals will do. If the authorities stop you and you can’t produce identification, you can be detained.
It’s essential to take out an insurance policy before travelling to Ecuador to cover against theft, loss and illness or injury. A typical policy usually provides cover for the loss of baggage, tickets and – up to a certain limit – cash or cheques, as well as cancellation or curtailment of your journey. Most of them exclude so-called dangerous sports unless an extra premium is paid: in Ecuador this can mean scuba diving, white water rafting, mountaineering and trekking. Many policies can be chopped and changed to exclude coverage you don’t need. If you do take medical coverage, ascertain whether benefits will be paid as treatment proceeds or only after return home, and whether there is a 24-hour medical emergency number. When securing baggage cover, make sure the per-article limit – typically under $750 – will cover your most valuable possession. If you need to make a claim, you should keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment. In the event you have anything stolen, you must obtain an official statement (denuncia) from the police.
In recent years there has been a rapid expansion of internet facilities across the country. Fierce competition keeps prices as low as $0.50–1 for an hour online in Quito and Guayaquil, and even in areas further afield it’s rare to be charged more than $2–3 per hour. This means that unless you are staying for a long time or keeping to the cities and smarter hotels where wireless coverage is becoming more common, it’s probably not worth the bother and risk of bringing your own computer to Ecuador.
Most large towns and tourist centres will have an inexpensive laundry (lavandería) that charges by the kilo. Washing and drying are done for you and your clothes are neatly folded ready for collection – a wonderful service for travellers. In other areas, dry cleaners or laundries that charge by the item, which work out to be expensive, are more common. Many hotels offer a laundry service, or failing that are happy to let you use their laundry basin and clothes lines.
Ecuador took a leap forward in LGBTQ rights by reforming its constitution in 1998 to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexuality, and again in 2008 to allow same-sex civil unions. Yet it’s still a very macho society and public attitudes have a fair bit of catching up to do. There is a blossoming gay scene in Quito and Guayaquil, but gay couples in Ecuador tend to avoid revealing their orientation in public places. Gay and lesbian travellers are probably best off following their example – overt displays of affection are likely to be met with stern disapproval, even abuse.
The national post has three levels of service: ordinary, registered (certificado) and EMS (express, the national courier). Letters and postcards sent from Ecuador can take anywhere from five days to a month to reach their destination, though they’re often faster to North America than anywhere else. If you need to send something of value or urgency, you’re probably better off using a courier, such as DHL (many offices including in La Mariscal at Colón 1333 and Foch, and Avenida República 433 and Diego de Almagro), though this is much more expensive. Servientrega has been recommended as a fair-priced domestic courier.
You can receive poste restante at just about any post office in the country. Have it sent to “Lista de Correos, [the town concerned], Ecuador”, and make sure your surname is written as obviously as possible, as it will be filed under whatever the clerk thinks it is; you’ll need to have photo ID to pick it up. If there’s a return address on it, it will be sent back if you don’t manage to pick it up. In Quito, Lista de Correos mail usually ends up at the main office on Espejo and Guayaquil in the old town; if marked “Correo Central”, it could well go to the head office in the new town on Eloy Alfaro 354 and Avenida 9 de Octubre. The most convenient post office for people staying in La Mariscal is usually the Surcursal #7, at Torres de Almargo on Reina Victoria and Avenida Colón, which also has a poste restante service.
American Express card holders can make use of AmEx offices for mail services, and some embassies also do poste restante.
For Ecuador, the rise of the smartphone app means that it’s easier than ever to find your way around with up-to-date digital maps you can use to plot your travels all the way down to walks or bike trips. Waze provides live traffic data, while apps like maps.me or Forever Map, based on the Open Streetmap platform, tend to be slightly superior to those from Apple or Google.
The widest selection of maps covering Ecuador is published by the Instituto Geográfico Militar (IGM) in Quito, up on the hill overlooking the Parque El Ejido at Senierges and Paz y Miño (you’ll need to bring your passport or ID along), which has maps on a variety of scales. The most useful maps for trekking are their 1:50,000 series, which show accurate contour markings and geographic features and cover most of the country except for remote corners of the Oriente. Unfortunately, popular maps are often sold out, in which case you’ll be supplied with a difficult-to-read black-and-white photocopy. Maps are also available in a 1:250,000 series for the whole country, and a 1:25,000 series for approximately half of it. You may need a supporting letter from a government agency if you require maps of sensitive border areas and the Amazon.
The US dollar is the official currency of Ecuador. Bills come in denominations of $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100. Coins come in a mixture of US- and Ecuadorian-minted 1, 5, 10, 25 and 50 cent pieces, plus $1 coins only minted in the US; Ecuadorian coins can’t be used abroad. The $50 and $100 bills are rarely accepted at most shops and restaurants, and small change is often in short supply, so bring plenty of low-denomination bills from your home country if possible.
Take a mixture between cash (in US dollars; other currencies are difficult to change), traveller’s cheques (again US dollars; American Express has widest coverage) and bank cards when travelling to Ecuador; credit cards have the security of payment protection insurance and are one step removed from your bank account in the event of theft, while debit cards are cheaper and more convenient to use. Although it’s common now to use ATMs to access the bulk of your travel money, don’t rely solely on plastic – quite apart from loss or theft, Ecuador’s electronic banking systems frequently go down too.
ATMs are widespread in Ecuadorian cities. Many machines are connected to the worldwide Visa/Plus and MasterCard/Cirrus/Maestro systems and a smaller number accept American Express and Diners Club cards. Usually, you won’t be able to withdraw more than around $300–500 from an ATM in a day (depending on the bank), and a handling charge of around 1–3 percent will be deducted from your account if using a credit card (check interest rates before you travel for cash advances as these can be high) or typically a small flat fee for a debit card.
Traveller’s cheques are getting difficult to change, even in Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca, where most banks are currently not taking them; casas de cambio are your best bet, but the commission is sometimes unfavourable.
Full-time students should consider getting the International Student ID Card, or “ISIC card” (http://www.isic.org/), which in Ecuador is the only widely recognized student identification entitling the bearer to discounts at museums, some attractions and hotels, and occasionally with airlines and tour agencies, as well as to many other benefits. In some cases, only students at Ecuadorian institutions are eligible for the discounts.
The same organization offers the International Youth Travel Card to those who are 26 or younger and the International Teacher Card for teachers, offering similar discounts. All these cards are available from affiliated offices around the globe; check their website for your nearest branch.
Most shops are open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 6pm. Many occupy the family home and, outside the biggest cities, open every day for as long as someone is up. Opening hours of public offices are generally from 9am to 5 or 6pm Monday to Friday, with an hour or so for lunch. In rural areas, the working day often starts earlier, say at 8am, and a longer lunch of a couple of hours is taken.
Banks do business from 8 or 9am to 1.30pm, Monday to Friday, sometimes closing at 1pm on Saturdays. Some banks extend business to 6pm during the week, though with reduced services. Post offices are open Mondays to Fridays from 8am to 7pm, closing at noon on Saturdays, and telephone offices are open daily from 8am to 10pm; in rural regions and smaller towns, expect hours to be shorter for both services. Museums are usually closed on Mondays.
Many Ecuadorians make their calls from the numerous public phone offices in every town and city in the country, which are usually the cheapest and most convenient places for you to make local and national calls too. The nationalized telephone service is operated by CNT (Corporación Nacional de Telecomunicaciones), though you might still find offices with the old livery of Andinatel (in the north) and Pacífictel (in the south and Galápagos); and Etapa for Cuenca. Inside the phone office you’ll normally be allocated a cabin (cabina) where you make the call, and then you pay afterwards.
In many cities, the phone offices are quickly being superseded by private offices, which often have longer opening hours and lower rates. The mobile phone companies Movistar and Claro (see below) also operate phone offices and card-operated phone kiosks, which can receive incoming calls; cards specific to each company can be bought at nearby shops. These only tend to be economical, however, if calling mobile phones of the same company.
International calls with CNT cost less than $0.50 per minute for most countries, though Skype, WhatsApp and other internet-based telephone services are by far the cheapest option for calling home.
Phoning from hotels is convenient, but usually involves a big surcharge; check prices before using a hotel phone.
The three Ecuadorian networks use GSM 850 (Movistar and Claro) and GSM 1900 (CNT), as well as 3G 850 and 1700/2100Mhz for LTE (4G), the latter is slowly being rolled out. However, roaming is not cheap, so if you expect to use your mobile phone often, you should consider buying a local SIM card; take identification. Mobile phones are very expensive in Ecuador.
If you’re using an analogue (film) camera, consider bringing fast film (400ASA and above) for the gloom of jungles and forests, while 200ASA is more appropriate for the brighter conditions elsewhere. It’s best to bring your own film and batteries from home, but both are available in the bigger cities; check the expiry dates before purchase. You can transfer pictures taken with a digital camera onto disk or have them printed in the larger tourist centres to free up space on memory cards. Rechargeable batteries are ideal as the shelf-life of batteries bought in the Oriente or coast is often badly affected by heat and humidity.
You’ll get best results when the sun is lowest in the sky, as you’ll lose detail and nuance in the high contrasts cast by harsh midday light, though you can reduce heavy shadows using fill-in flash. Mountaineers with digital cameras should take their batteries out while climbing and carry them somewhere warm under their clothes; cold batteries lose power in seconds, usually just when you want to take that spectacular mountaintop sunrise. Always respect people’s privacy and never take someone’s photograph without asking first; usually they will be flattered or sometimes ask for a small fee or for you to buy something.
Ecuador is 5 hours behind GMT (the same as US Eastern Standard Time), and the Galápagos Islands are 6 hours behind GMT (or one hour behind US EST).
There’s a Ministry of Tourism information office, sometimes labelled “iTur”, in every provincial capital and the main tourist centres. Some offices won’t have an English-speaker on hand, but almost all have rudimentary maps, lists of hotels and restaurants, leaflets and probably basic information on any sites of interest in the area. Many regional centres also have tourist offices run by the municipality, which can be as good or better than their government counterparts.
Travellers with disabilities
South America is not the friendliest of destinations for travellers with disabilities, and sadly Ecuador is no exception. In all but the very newest public buildings, you’re unlikely to find much in the way of ramps, widened doorways or disabled toilets. Pavements are often narrow and full of obstructions.
About twelve percent of Ecuadorians have a disability, and many manage with the assistance of others. Some of the smarter city hotels do cater for disabled guests and Quito’s segregated bus systems afford access too, at least outside rush hour when it’s not too crowded to get on in the first place. Travelling further afield in Ecuador is likely to throw up difficulties, and you may have to forego the idyllic rustic cabañas in the middle of nowhere for a luxury chain hotel, or substitute local buses for taxis or internal flights.
Travelling with children
Ecuadorians love children and will usually go out of their way to make life as easy for you as they can. Tourists per se can be a bit of a puzzle to the many Ecuadorians who have never left the country, but parents and their children represent something everyone understands – a family. Gringo children are something of a novelty, particularly outside the big cities, and will usually quickly attract the attention of local kids, who’ll want to have a look and a chat. Before long, the whole family will be out too, and social barriers will crumble away much faster than they would under normal circumstances.
You and especially your children will get the most out of such openness if you take some time to learn some Spanish. You’ll be amazed at how quickly children can pick it up when properly immersed for a week or three, and most language schools are very accommodating of their needs You’ll also be amazed at the heart-melting effect it will have on even the surliest Ecuadorian when your child speaks to them in their own tongue.
For most travel, children pay half-price, and on a few things, such as trains, they go for free. Long-distance buses are an exception and full fares have to be paid for each seat, though if the trip isn’t too long and the child not too big, they can sit on your lap without charge and even be plonked on a chair whenever the bus clears. Longer bus journeys can be very wearisome for children, but with forward planning it should be possible to break up any lengthy hauls into smaller chunks, which will allow you to see more on the way. If a big trip is unavoidable, consider taking an internal flight as these are relatively cheap for adults, while children under 12 go for half-price and under-2s pay just ten percent. In rural areas, you’ll often find people will offer you a ride, through kindness, when they see you walking with a child.
Children will also regularly get half-price rates for their accommodation, and occasionally be let off for free, particularly if young. Teenagers often appreciate hotels with plenty of secure outside or communal space, so they can have some freedom for a wander.
Ecuadorian food doesn’t tend to be a big issue for children; old favourites like fried chicken or breaded fish and french fries are available just about everywhere. Experimenting with exotic fruits and juices can be a sneaky way to get youngsters interested in trying new foods, and if they hate everything bar the most familiar brands, these are available across the country, too.
Travelling as a lone woman in Ecuador presents no major obstacles and can be very rewarding – if you are prepared to put up with the occasional annoyance and take a few simple precautions. Unwanted attention is the most common irritation and usually has to be borne most often by fair-headed women or those who most obviously look like gringa; dressing or behaving provocatively is only likely to make the situation worse. Being whistled, hissed or kissed at is part of the territory, but these situations are more a nuisance than a danger and the accepted wisdom is to pointedly ignore the perpetrators – shouting at them will only encourage them.
More serious cases of sexual assault are a concern in Ecuador for lone women; minimize risks by treating known danger situations with caution. Beaches are regarded as unsafe for women alone; generally anyone, even in groups, should stay off beaches at night. Avoid walking alone after dark anywhere and hiking alone. Hotspots for the latter include Rucu Pichincha and Cruz Loma near Quito, and Laguna Mojanda and El Lechero near Otavalo; if you want to hike in quiet places near tourist centres, go in groups. If you become the victim of rape or sexual assault, report the incident immediately to the police and your embassy in Quito. It must be stressed most Ecuadorians are friendly and respectful of solo female travellers, and few experience problems while travelling through the country.
Sanitary protection comes most commonly in the form of towels, with tampons being hard to get hold of outside the cities.