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Ecuador Travel Guide: What to see, do, & more

Jun 22, 2021 by The Go Ahead Tours Team

Ecuador may be South America’s fourth-smallest country (it’s slightly outsized by Nevada), but the equatorial nation packs a giant punch when it comes to stunning natural scenery, wildlife, history, and culture.

The country is home to four distinct regions—El Oriente (the Amazon), La Sierra (the Andes highlands), the Galápagos Islands, and La Costa (the coastal lowlands)—which means there are things to do in Ecuador for every type of traveler. Follow our Ecuador Travel Guide for the best things to see, do, eat, drink, and buy when you visit on any of our tours.


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Currency

Forgot to hit up the airport’s currency-exchange counter? Not to worry—Ecuador’s official currency is the U.S. dollar. Coins are similar in size, color, and shape to their American equivalents but bear images of important Ecuadorians rather than U.S. luminaries and landmarks.

Languages

Spanish, Ecuador’s official language, is spoken throughout the country, and various indigenous languages and dialects can be heard in the highlands and Amazonía.

Best way to get around

In urban areas, when you’re not traveling by private coach with your group, city buses are a relatively affordable and convenient way to get around. (As a rule of thumb, ride only during the daytime—and with companions—whenever you can.)

Taxis are also handy for exploring Ecuador’s major cities, but be sure to ride only in registered cabs. In major urban areas like Quito, meters are common. In smaller, more remote cities and towns, you might need to agree with your driver on a fare first (ask your hotel’s staff what’s reasonable). Taxi drivers don’t typically expect a tip, but rounding up to the nearest dollar is appreciated.

Phrases to know

English is common among Ecuadorians who work in travel, but less so among those who work outside the industry. If you want to converse with locals, knowing a few Spanish words and phrases will come in handy:

¿Cuanta cuesta este? (KWAN-tah KWES-tah ESS-tay)
This one’s helpful to know any time you need to pay for something, be it a bus ticket, lunch, or a souvenir. It means “How much does this cost?”

¿Dónde está...? (DON-day ess-TAH)
Need to locate an ATM, the bathroom, or a museum? Complete this phrase (it means “Where is...”) with “el cajero,” “el baño,” or “el museo,” respectively, to find your way.

¿Podrías tomar una foto? (Poh-DREE-ahs toh-MAR OOH-nah FOH-toh)
Want a pic of you and your tour mates together? Pose this question to a friendly passerby; it means “Could you take a photo?” (Be sure to add a polite “por favor” and “gracias,” too.)

¿Por favor puedo tener...? (POUR fah-VOOR PUAY-doh teh-NAIR)  
Use this phrase (it means “May I please have...?”) and you’ll sound like a pro when placing your order. Finish it off with “una taza de café” to score a cup of coffee.


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When is the best time to visit Ecuador?

Peak travel seasons in Ecuador are largely determined by which holidays are happening around the country. Vibrant fiestas celebrate everything from agriculture and religion to indigenous culture and geopolitical anniversaries. Attending one of these celebrations is among the best things to do in Ecuador for a true taste of local life.

  • Spring. Visit just before Lent to experience Carnaval, one of the country’s most boisterous fiestas. During Holy Week (it typically falls in March or April), many locals head to the beach and merchants close up shop, but religious parades that take place across the country then are more than worth seeing.
  • Summer. If your sights are set on the Sierra, this is a good time to visit, as June through September are the region’s warmest, driest months. On July 24, Ecuadorians across the country celebrate the birthday of revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar, who was known as “El Libertador,” or The Liberator. The following day, July 25, residents of Guayaquil celebrate the anniversary of their city’s founding.
  • Fall. Early November brings with it a few festive holidays, including All Souls Day (it falls on November 2 and is also known as the Day of the Dead). Every November 3 in Cuenca, locals celebrate the city’s independence with festivities all around the city.
  • Winter. Quito was founded on December 6, and the anniversary is feted across the capital city with parades, dances, sports, and other lively events. This time of year is ideal for a tropical escape to the Galápagos thanks to the warm temps, calm seas, and occasional rain showers that last through May.

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What to pack for a trip to Ecuador

Weather in Ecuador is all but impossible to predict. Seasons are typically characterized by how wet or dry—not how warm or cool—they are. Of course, the weather (and your packing needs) will vary depending on what part of the country you visit, but a few items should make the trip no matter what.

  • Light, waterproof clothing. Parts of Ecuador (coastal areas and the Amazon) and certain months (October through May) can be wetter than others. Water-resistant clothing and accessories will keep you cozy, dry, and ready for adventure.

  • Comfy, sturdy shoes. Whether you’re logging thousands of steps in a city like Quito or navigating rocky surfaces in the Galápagos, lace up a pair of well-cushioned shoes with a durable sole to keep your feet in tip-top shape.

  • Underwater camera. Follow Go Ahead traveler Erica’s lead, especially if you’re heading to the Galápagos like she did. “I brought an underwater camera so I was able to get amazing shots of the aquatic animals,” she said. “It was a wildlife photographer’s heaven. I photographed sea lions, marine iguanas, land iguanas, whitetip reef sharks, Nazca boobies, flightless cormorants, swallow-tailed gulls, parrotfish, albatross, brown noddy terns, pelicans, Frigate birds, penguins, huge yellowtailed surgeonfish, and various finches.”

    New to shooting under the surface? Check out an expert’s four underwater photography tips.

  • Sunglasses, hat, and sunscreen. Sunlight in Ecuador can be strong. Protect your eyes with a pair of shades (polarized if possible), your head with a full-coverage hat, and skin with plenty of SPF.

  • A backpack. Camera. Money. Sunnies. Jacket. Hat. Sunscreen. Water. Filling a light, easy-to-carry backpack with all of your daytime necessities will ensure you don’t get stuck anywhere without them—and make toting it all a breeze.


Visit Ecuador on tour

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Things to do in Ecuador

Ecuador’s diverse landscape, ecosystems, and cultural heritage give visitors a number of options to choose from when it comes to exploring. Here are a few of the top things to do in Ecuador.

  • Take in bird’s-eye views. A great way to get the lay of the land in a new-to-you place? Find a panoramic view. One of Quito’s best lookout points is the top of El Panecillo, a 656-foot-high hill that’s home to a towering aluminum statue of the winged Virgin of Quito.
  • Visit the Galápagos Islands. No trip to Ecuador would be complete without a visit to this volcanic island chain in the Pacific Ocean. Best known as the site that inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the islands—located roughly 600 miles off Ecuador’s coast—are among the best places in the world for wildlife viewing.
  • Go shopping in Otavalo. This town in the Andes Mountains is beloved by travelers for its eponymous market. Hop between stalls to shop for indigenous crafts, and watch a local weaving demonstration.
  • Stand on the equator. This is one of our favorite Ecuador travel tips. Located at Mitad Del Mundo (translation: middle of the world), roughly 30 miles north of Quito, the Quitsato Sundial sits on the equator and is a fun stop for demonstrations of equatorial effects.
  • Marvel at Quito’s ornate architecture. Ecuador’s capital city is home to several eye-popping architectural sites. Highlights include the neo-Gothic Basilica of the National Vow, the 16th-century Monastery of San Francisco, and the Baroque La Compañía church, which has a dazzling gold-leaf interior.

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Best free time activities in Ecuador

There are enough thrilling places to visit in Ecuador that they might not all make it into your tour’s itinerary. Have some free time? Here are some Ecuador tourist attractions you won’t want to miss.

  • Explore the Ecuadorian Amazon. A few hours’ drive (or a short flight) and a boat ride from Quito will take travelers to the Amazon rainforest, which blankets more than 42,000 square miles of Ecuador. It’s also largely undeveloped, which makes it an ideal place to spot plants, flowers, animals, and insects in their natural habitat.
  • View a volcano. Located in the Andes Mountains in central Ecuador, Cotopaxi Mountain is the country’s second-highest peak (it rises to 19,347 feet) and one of the world’s highest active volcanoes. Visit Cotopaxi Mountain National Park for close-up views of its snow-capped summit, among other natural wonders.
  • Visit Cuenca. Ecuador’s third-largest city, Cuenca, is situated in the Andes Mountains, in the south of the country. Highlights of a visit to the home city of numerous writers, poets, and other intellectuals include strolling along the Tomebamba riverfront, shopping for handicrafts, and visiting its cathedrals and museums.
  • Have an adventure in Baños. This small Andean town on the slopes of Ecuador’s most active volcano, Tungurahua, packs a big punch when it comes to adventures. Options include biking, white water rafting, volcano trekking, and bungee jumping, to name a few. Visitors can zip around on ATVs and marvel at beautiful waterfalls, too.

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What to eat in Ecuador

Ecuador’s long coastline provides an abundance of fresh fish and seafood, which feature prominently in a few of the country’s signature dishes. Root veggies and other types of produce flourish here, too. Give them all a taste in these can’t-miss dishes.

  • Ceviche. This refreshing, zingy dish is made by marinating, or “cooking,” raw fish and seafood in citrus juice—typically lime—and mixing in chopped fresh herbs, fruits, and veggies (think cilantro, mango, red onion, and tomatoes). It’s served cold and often topped with crunchy accoutrements like fried plantains or corn kernels.

  • Chocolate. Many chocolate enthusiasts agree that Ecuador produces some of the highest quality stuff on the planet. And with many makers using cacao beans grown in the Ecuadorian Amazon, it’s no wonder. Find chocolate bars everywhere—grocery stores, artisanal shops—that are pure and plain or packed with bits of sea salt, lemongrass, Andean blueberries, and other ingredients.

  • Encebollado. You don’t have to have a hangover to enjoy this Ecuadorian specialty that’s said to cure one. Often served in the morning or for brunch, this soup typically contains tuna, yuca, onions, and cilantro and is finished with a squeeze of lime juice, ketchup, or mustard. Take a cue from locals and stir in some crushed chifles, or plantain chips, to give it a comforting, stew-like texture.

  • Fried plantains. This starchy, banana-like fruit is abundant in Ecuador and is served fried as both a street food snack and a restaurant side dish. Ripe yellow ones (maduros) are soft and sweet, while fried green plantains (patacones or tostones) stay crisp and are sprinkled with salt or dipped in ketchup or mayo.

  • Viche de pescado. Not to be confused with ceviche, this comforting coastal dish (it’s also sometimes called biche) is a hearty fish soup made with a peanut broth, yuca, plantains, cilantro, onions, garlic, veggies, and, sometimes, beans.


What to drink in Ecuador

Tropical fruits, indigenous plants, and other natural ingredients play a starring role in some of Ecuador’s most delicious—and unique—drinks.

  • Juice. Lots of flavorful fruits grow in Ecuador, and many of them are used to make fresh juice, or jugo (pronounced HOO-go). Maracuyá (passion fruit), tomate de árbol (tree tomato, or tamarillo), and naranjilla (a sweet-tart fruit that’s native to Ecuador) are a few to look for on menus.

  • Aguardiente. Made from fermented sugarcane and popular throughout South America, this strong spirit (its name translates to “fire water”) is ubiquitous in Ecuador’s bars, where it’s typically taken as a shot or mixed into cocktails. In higher elevations, it’s mixed with sugar, cinnamon, and hot water to form a warming drink called a canelazo.

  • Guayusa. Throughout Ecuador, the leaves of this Amazonian holly tree are picked, dried, steeped in water, and served like tea. The naturally caffeinated drink is said to be rich in antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, and other healthful properties, so drink up!

  • Chicha. Ingredients for this tipple tend to vary slightly based on where it’s made, but fermented corn and yuca (a.k.a. cassava or manioc) are common. (Some traditional recipes require the chicha’s preparer to chew up the ingredients and spit them back into the brew. Opt for non-chewed version to keep things safe.)


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Souvenirs to buy in Ecuador

Agriculture, art, and handicrafts abound in Ecuador—and lend themselves to some pretty special souvenirs. Here are a few you’ll want to save space for in your suitcase.

  • Chocolate. Those same bars you nibbled on while strolling around town? They make great gifts and souvenirs, too. Scoop up a variety (Pacari is a popular brand) and have a taste test with friends and family when you get back home.
  • Coffee. Coffee beans grow in Ecuador and are a great treat to enjoy back home. Plenty of local tiendas, or stores, sell bags of ground or whole Arabica, Robusta, and other Ecuador-grown beans.
  • Panama hats. Contrary to what its name might make you believe, the Panama hat originated in Ecuador. Souvenir shops sell budget versions that are straw-like in texture, and higher-end boutiques sell premium, high-quality versions that feel more like fabric. (Tip: Cuenca is a great place to shop for Panama hats.)
  • Alpaca blankets. Made in Ecuador from the super-soft wool of alpacas (small relatives of the camel) and available in a variety of colors, alpaca blankets make for splurge-worthy souvenirs. (Avoid buying blankets from street vendors if possible; they’re more likely synthetic and not made from actual alpaca.)
  • Tigua. Originating in the Cotopaxi area, Tigua is a wildly colorful style of painting that can be applied to canvases, coasters, ceramics, plates, and other decorative items.

Have you traveled on one of our Ecuador tours? Share your best Ecuador travel tips on our Facebook page!


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About the author | The Go Ahead Tours Team
We’re a team of passionate travel experts, dedicated to helping people explore the world. From inspiring stories to tips for an amazing trip, the topics we cover are all about getting you out there and making discoveries.

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Ecuador Travel Guide: What to see, do, & more