I’m back from Ecuador! I had a amazing trip, as you can probably tell if you were following my Twitter or Instagram. Thank you again to sponsors KLM and Quito Turismo UK for making my visit possible. I’m going to write my usual daily diary of all the fantastic things I saw and did, but first here are a few general facts and tips about Quito and Ecuador if you know as little as I did about this beautiful country.
Ecuador is about the same size as the UK area-wise, with 15 million inhabitants. It’s split into 24 provinces, from the coastal Manabí to jungle of Sucumbíos, with the Andes of Chimborazo running down the middle. It borders Colombia to the north and Peru to the south, with a Pacific coast on the west.
The varied landscape and interesting anthropological history of the country mean you can see a massive variety of scenery, nature and lifestyles just by travelling a couple of hours in any direction from the central capital city, Quito. Of course there are also the Galápagos Islands a two hour flight away, which I did not see this time. The Quito tourism board are keen to divert visitors away from Galapagos as it has become vastly over-visited, to its environmental detriment, and instead to promote Ecuador as a destination in its own right. There’s certainly enough to see and do here to justify that!
KLM flies to Quito and Guayaquil daily via Amsterdam from several UK cities. You get a little Cityhopper to Amsterdam which barely takes any time at all, then the long haul is about eleven hours from there. The transfer is simple – I was a bit worried as it was my first-ever totally solo flight but it was really straightforward! I found the journey comfortable overall, with decent food and a great selection of films to while away the time. You can read a bit more about my flight experience here. Quito has a brand new modern airport which is close to the centre, but the access road is currently too narrow and traffic is common – a new road is being constructed right now. A taxi into town only costs $20-30 though.
Most of inland Ecuador is at high altitude – 2000-4000m above sea level. Surprisingly I didn’t notice any ill effects but some people get dizziness, breathlessness, fatigue and headaches. Be sure to carry water and take regular breaks in the shade when you’re out and about. I never tired of seeing the hills peaked with clouds; a reminder of how high up you really are. The rolling valleys and hills make for some extremely breathtaking (literally, ho) scenery.
The year is split into wet (Dec-May) and dry (June-Nov) seasons, although it varies a little depending on if you’re at the coast or in the highlands. While the temperature may hover in the teens and low twenties, it feels much hotter due to the strength of the sun at the equator. So pack suncream, a hat, sunnies and shorts – plus mosquito repellent if you’re going into the forests. For my late May visit it only rained in short bursts in the evening and night (plus a couple of lively night-time thunderstorms) and was warm enough for bare arms and legs nearly all the time.
The currency is the US dollar. Food, transport, souvenirs and most other things are pretty cheap. Expect to pay $3 for an in-city cab ride, $1-3 for museum entry, 20-50 cents for a street snack and maybe $20 for a higher end 3-course meal with a drink. There are lots of markets selling the gorgeous local handcrafts – more on those later, of course!
The cost of accommodation varies depending on what you go for: there are chain hotels, boutiques, and hacienda guest lodges. I’ll share all the places I stayed in upcoming posts.
Ecuador is generally safe, stable and welcoming for visitors. It’s recommended that tourists, especially women, don’t walk around on their own late in the evening both in the city and countryside, but I didn’t feel unsafe anywhere. Spanish and Quechua (an indigenous language) are the spoken languages. Not many people speak English outside of touristy attractions, so knowing a bit of conversational Spanish would be very helpful in navigating and ordering food etc.
The local food is pretty heavy on meat and fish, and the concept of vegetarianism isn’t really understood – but everywhere I went had something I could eat, and the food was generally really great. Expect eggs, corn bread and fresh fruits for a filling breakfast with excellent homegrown coffee and a tropical fruit juice. Lunch is usually the main meal of the day and typically consists of a potato or quinoa soup to start followed by a a platter of meat/fish/veg with tortillas (here these are tasty thick fried discs of corn or potato), choclos (delicious crispy fried maize kernels), and a salad, plus a dessert of helado (sorbet / ice cream) or cake. I was usually too full to eat a large dinner!
Cell phone signal is poor due to the valleys and mountains. Signal for calls is very hard to come by, never mind 3G, even in Quito. Most hotels and restaurants have wifi that you can use if you’re a customer. Just something to bear in mind if like me you are over-reliant on phone data for navigating and staying in touch with people!
Quito was the base for my trip. This sprawling city of 1.6 million is split into the old colonial town (also called the historical centre) and the new town to the north. It’s a very easy city to navigate, being well-signposted, well lit after dark, and split into regular blocks with constant landmarks to help you get your bearings. I am terrible with directions and didn’t get lost once, even without my usual Google Maps crutch.
However the public transport situation in Quito and the country as a whole is currently not great. There is a lot of road traffic in Quito from locals using their cars to get everywhere, so walking around parts of the new town in particular can be a bit grubby and unpleasant. The government is working to improve this, with a new subway line and hybrid buses coming soon, as well as the promotion of cycling and no-car days. For now, taxis are plentiful and cheap if you get tired of walking, and the traffic eases up over the weekends.
There is also construction in the works to open up new train lines between the major towns (Guayaquil – Quito – Ibarra – Otavalo – Salinas) which will make travelling the country less reliant on having a car. The first of these from Ibarra to Salinas is already open (and a stunning journey – more on that later) with more to follow later this year. This is great news because all of these towns are worth visiting and it’d make a great 2-3 week trip taking the train between them spending a few nights in each.
Hope that was a useful introduction to this lovely country! Back with day one of my trip soon…