Ecuador is one of the most diverse countries I’ve ever visited, all packed into an area of 283,560 square km. If you’re looking for a varied trip with time spent in the mountains, the jungle, and on the beach, it’s perhaps one of the best (and most budget-friendly) places you can get.
You can certainly pack a lot of moving into a shorter period of time, but I feel that a month in Ecuador allows you to gain a deeper understanding of the place and its people than spending a couple of weeks hopping on and off buses.
– Ecuador uses USD.
– Carry cash with you and don’t expect establishments to accept cards.
– There are ATMs around bigger centres, but be sure to change your PIN to 4 digits before you leave (I used to have issues with my 5-digit PIN when I first began travelling, so this is a good tip for many countries).
– Being vegan or vegetarian can be tough in Ecuador. Cook for yourself when you can, take advantage of all the fresh fruits available, and just ask for meals without the meat.
– Lunch/dinner is the biggest meal of the day and almost all restaurants serve el menu del día. This is a set meal which is made up of a soup starter, followed by a plate consisting of a salad, rice, and some form of meat (veg? ask for sin carne, sin pescado, sin pollo — whatever it comes with). These are usually cheap — $2-3 or so. Suppertime is meant for snacks like empanadas — all the ones I’ve come across contain meat or cheese.
– Don’t expect the best service most places you go. Just roll with it.
– Learn some Spanish before you go — the vast majority of people will not speak English. At least figure out how to order food, buy tickets, make a room reservation, say please and thank you, and other basics you might need.
– Carry a phrasebook with you and take note of the things you look up throughout the day. This will help you learn what’s most useful for your travels.
– You do not need to book bus tickets in advance (in my experience). Just show up at the terminal and someone will be shouting the names of destinations or asking you where you want to go. Check with your hostel or drop by the bus terminal to ask times for smaller destinations, like Quilotoa.
– I’ve littered a few references to safety in the itinerary below, but just remember to be sensible. Hold onto your belongings, don’t put your bags overhead on the bus, don’t wander around dark alleys after dark.
Part 1: Getting to know the Andes
Arrival in Quito: Days 1-3
Arriving in Quito means taking a 30-40 minute ride into the city from the airport. You can either spend a couple of dollars for the bus or opt for a taxi, which will likely cost somewhere in the range of $25-30 (after a long day of travel and a nighttime arrival, I gladly shelled out $26 to be delivered right to my accommodations).
A couple of days in Quito will allow you to take a free walking tour (try to do this the first day so you can get some good tips on where to eat on a budget and what to do!), ride the TelefériQo (a gondola that brings you up Pichincha volcano) and take in some city views, and explore the city and its architecture. If you’re looking for cheap meals, the Mercado Central has some fantastically cheap food stalls. Get a huge breakfast (instant coffee with lots of sugar included) for less than $2 and wash it down with a fresh juice (also with lots of added sugar).
Remember to be sensible in Quito (and in Ecuador in general). Don’t go wandering in empty alleys after dark and hold onto your belongings. Have your hostel/hotel or tourist info centres call taxis for you. You’ll certainly hear stories about travellers getting robbed in Ecuador. If you’re smart, you can really minimize your own risks.
Hiking the Quilotoa Loop: Days 3-7
On your third day, head to the bus terminal and take a bus to Latacunga. The ride will take a couple of hours, depending on how frequently the bus stops to let people hop on and off (you get used to this in Ecuador). Buses in Ecuador normally seem to cost about $1 per 1 hour of travel.
Latacunga is the capital of Cotopaxi province. The city centre is easily navigated by foot.
It may be a little pricier than other options, but Hostal Tiana was one of my favourite places I stayed during my whole trip. It’s clean and colourful and is generally set up for backpackers. You can also store your large backpack in a locked room here (for a few bucks) and take a small daypack with you for the Quilotoa Loop.
The following day, take a bus to Quilotoa. This is a water-filled caldera where you will begin your 3-day hike through remote Andean villages and generally awe-inspiring terrain. The Quilotoa Loop is one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had. It’s no easy hike, but the rewards are worth it. Check out my full itinerary and video here.
As an added note, don’t worry about booking accommodations ahead of time. Just do some research about what’s available and check out the rooms before you commit to staying somewhere. Expect to pay $10-15 per person per night, including a big dinner and breakfast. Bring snacks with you on your hikes.
Climbing Near Latacunga: Days 7-9
The Quilotoa Loop ends in Sigchos (if you started in Quilotoa — you can also go in the other direction), and this is where you’ll get the bus back to Latacunga.
You may want to plan to spend a couple of days in Latacunga to do some climbing. I chose to climb Illiniza Norte one day with Tierra Zero Tours (their office is next door to Hostal Tiana) for $110. While not an easy climb, this one is doable for those new to climbing. Luckily, you just spent a few days acclimatizing on the Quilotoa Loop, but the altitude can make the climb tougher (the peak is 5126 m in elevation). Tierra Zero will provide most of the gear, but go talk it out a few days prior to the climb. You can also choose to do Illiniza Norte or Illiniza Sur in two days, staying at a refuge overnight (keep in mind this is a pretty rustic refuge and it will be cold).
Another option is heading to Parque Nacional Cotopaxi. When I visited, the park was closed due to eruptive activity. You might choose to climb Cotopaxi, but be sure to do your research and know what you are getting into beforehand.
Having Adventures in Baños: Days 10-14
Hop back on a bus for a few hours and you will soon arrive in Baños. Be warned that this is a tourist town. There are tour companies everywhere, there’s a lot more English being spoken, and there are backpackers everywhere. Don’t let this turn you off, because this is partly why it’s so easy to do so much in Baños.
You can walk into any tour office and hear about all sorts of activities to try out in and around Baños. Also, note that this is as close as you’ll get to the Ecuadorian Amazon on this itinerary, so take advantage of that if you’re craving a jaunt in the jungle.
Here are just a few of the activities you can get into.
Biking: This is one of the cheapest activities that you should definitely go for in Baños. Head into a tour office and get a bike rental and a map. You will be shown the waterfall route that takes you outside of Baños and through some gorgeous terrain. Be aware that there are a few sections on roads. My bike rental for the day cost $6 (costs vary) and included a bike, helmet, lock, and map.
Rock climbing: There is plenty of fantastic rock climbing (and amazing climbers) in Ecuador. In Baños, you can climb on some slippery volcanic basalt that will really test your grip.
Canyoning: This is the coolest thing I did in Baños. Spend an afternoon rappelling down waterfalls and sliding down canyons.
Part 2: Cuenca to the Coast
Bussing from Baños to Cuenca can be a bit confusing. To help make things a little clearer, I wrote an entire post about the process.
Get to know Historic Cuenca: Days 14-15
Cuenca feels like completely different world from the rest of Ecuador. It’s cleaner, more maintained, more European. The architecture is stunning. There are also a lot more expats living in and around the city. This means things operate a lot more in English in certain areas, and there are also a few American-run cafés around selling American-style food (which, of course, is going to be more expensive than the standard fare).
You’ll want to spend some time wandering around with a guidebook that details some of the historic buildings in the area. After all, the city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Trust site.
Take a Day Trip to Incapirca: Day 16
While you’re in Ecuador, you should probably go see Ingapirca — the largest known Incan ruins in the country. Head to the bus station and look for Cooperativa Cañar or mention the name Ingapirca to someone working at the terminal. They will help you get on the right bus.
The ride will take a couple of hours (with many, many stops — this is bus travel in Ecuador, remember). Eventually you’ll be taken right to the ruins. The entrance fee includes a tour, in English and Spanish at certain times. There are a couple of restaurants where you can grab lunch, then head back to Cuenca the same day.
Try Multi-Pitch Climbing at Cojitambo: Day 17
If you are a fan of climbing, Cojitambo is an amazing spot to try multi-pitch climbing while seeing more Incan ruins and taking in some vast views (fear of heights? Me too).
Bus it to the Coast: Day 18
To get to the coast from Cuenca, take a bus to Guayaquil and transfer to Montañita. Perhaps the first thing you’ll notice when you board the bus is that many of the passengers happen to be backpackers. When you arrive in Montañita, you’ll be greeted by a group of people with signs touting different hostels.
Explore Coastal Communities: Montañita and Olón: Days 19-23
The coastal communities draw a lot of backpackers. They come in droves to party, surf, and generally hang out and drink by the beach. While Montañita can be a turnoff for some, there are a few good restaurants and stands selling good juice, crepes, empanadas, and cheap eats. If you want to drink and party on the beach with other travellers, here’s where to do it.
Spend a day or two lounging on the beach before getting the bus or grabbing a taxi to Olón. This quiet community has a big beach, opportunities for surfing, and generally a more relaxed vibe when compared to Montañita.
NOTE: Remember that these communities are small and generally lack ATMs. Take out enough cash from an ATM in Montañita to get you through the next few days, including the costs for your accommodations. Otherwise, you may need to get a taxi back to Montañita if you run low.
Study Spanish and Surf in Ayampe: Days 24-28
You probably came to Ecuador with an underlying ambition to boost your Spanish language skills. Ecuador is known for being a great place to practice Spanish because of the neutral accents of the locals.
Ayampe is a fantastic spot to take some time to relax, surf, do yoga, and get some guidance with your Spanish goals. There are few restaurants and stores in this tiny village, so be prepared to cook for yourself. Otra Ola is a surf, Spanish, and yoga school that I highly recommend.
A lot of travellers to Ayampe stay for several weeks to several months. Some settle down and stay forever. If you’re looking to spend a week, check out the accomodations at La Casa.
Head to Puerto Lopez for an Isla de la Plata day trip: Days 28-29
You’ve probably noticed that we’ve skipped the Galápagos Islands on this trip. Unfortunately, it’s just hard to make them work on a budget. Luckily, there’s another option — the “poor man’s Galápagos” know as Isla de la Plata.
Puerto Lopez itself is not exactly a pretty place. The accommodations can also get a little pricer. I highly recommend Hosteria Itapoa, where you can get a private casita for $35 (as of my visit in 2015).
Setting up your actual tour to Isla de la Plata is easy — this is, essentially, the only reason people go to Puerto Lopez. You can likely book the day tour through your hostel. On the day of the tour, you’ll grab a ride to the harbour where you’ll board a boat, maybe see some whales and dolphins, visit with a few sea turtles, get a guided tour from a biologist and see plenty of blue-footed boobies, and do some snorkelling before heading back to the mainland. Here’s a video of my experience:
Catch a Bus to the Airport in Guayaquil: Day 30
Now that your month in Ecuador is concluding, it’s time to get to the city and catch a plane or bus out of the country. And that probably means at least a stop in Guayaquil.
If you are heading to Peru, you can check out my guide to crossing the border here.
If you are planning to overnight in Guayaquil, be mindful of the fact that this isn’t really a tourist city. This is probably the place where you should be most vigilant about your safety. Taxis here have buttons in the backseats that you can press to connect you directly to the authorities. Look for these when you are getting into a taxi. Better yet, get your hotel to call a taxi for you if you want to take one.
Having said that, don’t be scared of everything. Yes, you’ll probably hear stories about robberies and abductions. I heard many of them, yet I travelled in Ecuador and Peru for months and never had any issues of that sort. Being aware and sensible will greatly minimize your risks.
A month in Ecuador is not that long, but it’s long enough to get a taste for what makes it such a special place that’s just growing as a destination for travel. Ecuador is a gorgeous place that appeals to all sorts of travellers for different reasons. You’re bound to feel connected to it always after you leave. So, always remember to take in the little things that make it special, the customs and people, the varied landscapes, the unique experiences you can only have here.