Backpacking Ecuador: Top experiences
- Whitewater rafting through the Amazon near Tena
- Hiking to waterfalls and ziplining through the cloud forest in Mindo
- Shopping in one of the largest Andean markets in Otavalo
- Embracing the Gringo Trail with the fun adventure activities in Baños
- Exploring the architecture and museums in Quito’s Old Town
Jump to the list of posts from Ecuador, or read on for my comprehensive Ecuador travel guide.
Ecuador Itinerary Ideas
Ecuador is a relatively small country, and you can easily see the whole thing in a month. If you have less time, choose what most interests you from the below Ecuador backpacking itinerary options.
The comprehensive Ecuador backpacking itinerary would start with a few days in Quito to get oriented. Then, head north to Otavalo for some shopping. Explore the cloud forests in Mindo for a couple of days.
Then, head south — starting with Cotopaxi, followed by Quilotoa. Hike the full Quilotoa Loop, then head to Baños for a few days of indulgence in Gringolandia.
This is where the well-defined Ecuador backpacking itinerary ends and the adventure begins. Start by taking a bus out of the Andes and into the jungle at Tena. Go white water rafting or jungle trekking, or just stay at a high-end Amazon lodge for a couple nights.
Finally, take a bus south to Cuenca. Explore Ecuador’s second great colonial city before hopping over to Guayaquil. From here, you could tack on a few days in the Galapagos Islands to your Ecuador itinerary. If your budget doesn’t allow for that, pick up your flight home or continue southward and into Peru.
A one week Ecuador itinerary would be best spent focused on the first part above — Quito – Otavalo – Mindo. You might be able to hike Cotopaxi with one week in Ecuador, but you’d have to do it at the end to ensure you’re well acclimatized.
If you have two weeks in Ecuador, you could do everything in the one-month Ecuador itinerary above up to Baños. Alternatively, you could do Quito – Otavalo – Mindo and then head to the beach. Or you could skip the north and head to the jungle straight from Quito. This would leave you enough time to hang out in Baños for a couple days and maybe even hike Cotopaxi or the Quilotoa Loop. There are many options for two weeks in Ecuador.
A three week Ecuador itinerary would allow you to cover pretty much the whole country except the far south.
Ecuador weather and when to visit Ecuador
The best time to visit Ecuador is generally the North American summer — June to September. You’ll probably avoid rain in April and October too.
Winter is supposedly very wet, but I visited in February and barely got any rain at all. Travel deep into the jungle may be difficult or impossible.
The altitude is a bigger determinant of temperature than the season. It’s comfortably cool at high elevations year-round — think days in the 70’s, nights in the 50’s. The Amazon and beach regions are always hot and steamy.
The Galapagos and coastal Ecuador experience the opposite wet/dry seasons as the rest of the country. This makes it difficult to plan the perfect Ecuador travel itinerary around the weather. January through March is high season, and it’s worth avoiding the rainy summers. Seas may be very rough — keep this in mind if you’re considering a bargain off-season Galapagos cruise.
Language in Ecuador
The main language spoken in Ecuador is Spanish. Ecuadorans speak very clearly and slowly, without much slang. Most moderately proficient Spanish-speakers have no problem understanding folks in Ecuador.
In much of Ecuador, people speak an indigenous language — often one of several Kichwa dialects — as a first language. But nearly everyone speaks Spanish fluently as a second language. The one exception is if you go to very remote jungle communities. But for cultural reasons, you should not attempt this without a guide who speaks the local language anyway.
English is not widely spoken in Ecuador. Even guesthouse owners and people who regularly interact with tourists typically speak very limited English if they speak it at all. If you speak no Spanish, you should definitely aim to learn common travel words and phrases before your trip. Duolingo works pretty well.
Interestingly, Ecuador is sufficiently off the South America tourist trail, and seems to so specifically appeal to a certain type of long-haul backpacker, that even many travelers only speak Spanish with each other. Often when you meet new people on the road here, the default is to speak in Spanish, even if you’re both fluent English speakers.
Budget for backpacking Ecuador
Backpacking Ecuador is cheap by South America standards. It’s not Southeast Asia, but it is less expensive than nearly anywhere else in the Americas.
A realistic Ecuador backpacking budget starts around $25 per day. And the best part is, the most fun things to do in Ecuador — from hiking to visiting highland markets — don’t cost a dime.
The things that will drive up your Ecuador backpacking costs are adventure activities. If you want to spend a night in an Amazon lodge, or go white-water rafting or ziplining, it won’t be cheap. Keep costs down by spending a few days in the cities in between tours. Mindo and Baños are good bases for affordable adventure trips.
Private room in a hostel or simple guesthouse: $8
A night at a jungle lodge in the Amazon: $85
Cheap restaurant meal: $4
Museum or historical site admission: $1-3
Bus ticket from Quito to Otavalo: $2.50
Trole ride in Quito: $0.25
Trek up Cotopaxi: $100
Ecuador visa requirements
Most Western travelers don’t need visas to go backpacking Ecuador for up to 90 days. You may be asked for proof of onward travel when you enter the country, especially if you’re flying in.
If you are traveling on a passport from most Asian or African countries, you probably will need a visa (with a handful of exceptions; double-check with the nearest embassy).
Don’t overstay your visa. Ecuador charges a minimum of $200 a day for overstays. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to get an extension either, so you’re best off planning to leave after 90 days.
Accommodation in Ecuador:
Accommodation while backpacking Ecuador consists of hostels and small guesthouses.
Dorm rooms ($5-$8) are common in Quito and Baños. Elsewhere, private rooms are the norm at a similar price point.
You rarely have to book in advance. However, the cheapest/best located places often fill up fast, so if you don’t have a reservation, you may have to settle for your second or third choice. This goes doubly true for rooms in Quito’s Old Town on the weekends. You should also book in advance at remote lodges where you’ll need to ensure that transport is available.
You never need to camp, even when you’re hiking in Ecuador. The main trails such as the Quilotoa Loop are through populated areas where you can always find a guesthouse. Even on budget trips into the Amazon, you’re more likely to sleep in a hammock at a jungle lodge than you are to camp.
Food in Ecuador:
As you’re planning a trip to Ecuador, don’t get too excited about the food. This is meat and potatoes country, but even that can be hard to find at restaurants. There were days when all I could find was street vendors selling hot dogs and french fries.
Most market stalls and cheap restaurants offer a “plato del dia” during breakfast and lunch hours. It’s usually soup, a drink, and a main dish of meat and rice for about $3.
Locro de papa — potato and cheese soup — is the one meal worth seeking out. You’ll find it in the Andes, especially in Quito.
If you can budget $5 per meal or so, you can find a decent variety of international cuisine. In practice, that means mostly Peruvian, Mexican and Chinese food. Baños has a good selection of European fare.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that food is not super cheap, hostels with kitchens are pretty rare. If you’re self-catering while backpacking Ecuador, you may be stuck with lots of cold sandwiches.
Ecuador produces excellent chocolate. One of the most fun things to do in Ecuador is visit the chocolateria in Mindo. The insanely rich brownie mix makes a good gift to bring home.
Drinks in Ecuador
The best beverage to enjoy while backpacking Ecuador is the super-fresh, locally produced coffee. Third-wave coffee shops in Quito serve some of the best cappuccinos you’ll ever have, for about $1. My absolute favorite is Tianguez, right in the shadow of San Francisco Church in Quito’s old town.
Beer is widely available. The cheap stuff is all pilsners, but the country is also undergoing a craft beer revolution focused around IPAs. You can sample it in Quito or in larger towns.
Canelazo is another popular alcoholic beverage, especially during the weekend street parties on La Ronda in Quito. It’s made from naranjilla juice (kind of like orange juice), cinnamon, and a not-particularly-strong cane liquor. It’s served warm, so it’s a good choice for cold Andean evenings.
Activities you can do while backpacking Ecuador:
Ecuador has mountains, jungles, and everything in between. If you like to get outdoors, you definitely won’t be bored here. To top it off, this country has one of the continent’s most interesting cities. When you’re planning a trip to Ecuador the biggest challenge will be narrowing down the options.
The best hiking in Ecuador is in the around Latacunga. You can arrange treks up the Cotopaxi Volcano (it’s cheaper than from Quito) for around $100 — beware that only about 50% of trekkers reach the summit, and altitude is a real problem. For multi-day trekking, try the Quilotoa Loop — a four-day walk between high-altitude villages.
For a more low-key hiking experience, try Mindo. It’s in the cloud forest, so it rains a lot, but you can do less strenuous day hikes (and bird watch) in beautiful surrounds.
Don’t trust maps when hiking in Ecuador. Expect to get lost — a lot — and ask locals for directions constantly.
For less-active travelers who want to get a taste of the Andes, Otavalo will do. The Saturday market is one of the largest in South America. Sure, there’s plenty of tacky tourist stuff — but there are also some real gems if you take the time to look. When you finish shopping, visit some of the nearby artisan villages to see how their wares are made.
Baños is the adrenaline capital of the Ecuadoran Andes. You can whitewater raft, mountain bike to waterfalls, horseback ride, bungee jump, etc. Safety and ethical standards of tour operators vary widely, so shop around.
No trip backpacking Ecuador would be complete without a visit to the Amazon. Ideally, you’d stay in a jungle lodge for about $150 a night. But if that’s not realistic, you can get a good taste of the Amazon by whitewater rafting from Tena. It costs about $60 for a full-day trip, and it’s pretty intense.
Finally, don’t overlook Quito. It’s one of the great cities in the Americas, and you could easily spend several days here checking out the museums, churches and architecture. Many of the top Ecuador tourist attractions are right here.
Transportation in Ecuador
You’ll mainly use buses to get around when backpacking Ecuador. The bus system is efficient, safe (the government cracked down on reckless driving about five years ago), and will get you to all the Ecuador tourist attractions at almost any time.
Bus stations can be chaotic. Occasionally you’ll buy a ticket from a proper ticket window, but more often one of the bus hawkers will just rush you onto a bus that’s pulling out of the station faster than you can say “is this going to…?” Spanish language skills are a big help here.
Tickets cost about $1 per hour, sometimes less. For longer routes, you’ll get a nice, air-conditioned coach. For short hops, it may be a beat-up old bus filled to the breaking point with grain sacks and chickens.
Ecuador has one train line used by tourists — the “Nariz del Diablo,” which runs from Alausi to Riobamba. It’s mainly a tourist draw — you’re unlikely to find yourself in Alausi for any reason other than to ride the train. Book tickets well in advance.
Safety when backpacking Ecuador
Backpacking Ecuador is generally very safe. There are a few dangers to watch out for, mainly in Quito and while doing outdoor activities.
The backpacker neighborhood in Quito, called La Mariscal, is a haven for muggers and shady characters. Take a taxi if you’re out at night — yes, even if you’re only going a couple blocks. Some specific streets are sketchy during the day, too. If you don’t want to deal with it, stay in the Old Town, which is safe until about 10 pm. Tourist police staff the major Ecuador tourist attractions to ward off violent crime.
Altitude sickness can be problem for trekkers who ascend too quickly while hiking in Ecuador. The guides on Cotopaxi are pretty good and probably won’t push you further if you’re showing symptoms, but to be safe, spend a few nights in Quito before hitting the mountains. Don’t try to fit in a volcano climb if you only have one week in Ecuador, unless you’ve spent the whole time in the mountains and you do it at the end.
Stray dogs are the other danger when hiking in Ecuador — especially on the Quilotoa Loop. They’re aggressive and dangerous. I met one person who’d been bitten, and another person who decided not to continue hiking because they kept following and attacking her. If you go and are bitten, make sure you get a rabies shot immediately.
Ecuador travel advice for women alone
Backpacking Ecuador is fairly hassle-free for women alone. The machismo culture isn’t as strong here as it is further south. Andean men are generally reserved and won’t give you a hard time. In fact, Ecuador made my list of best off-the-beaten-path places to travel as a solo female!
The one thing to be careful about is unscrupulous tour guides. As you’re planning a trip to Ecuador, avoid committing to tours in advance. You should always meet your guide and travel buddies first. And never sign up for a tour with a male guide that you’ll be on alone — even if it’s just a day tour, but especially for overnight tours.
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