A little Spanish goes a long way in Ecuador. Even in bigger cities very few people speak English, and in the countryside it is virtually impossible to find someone speaking language other than Spanish and/or Kichwa. It is worth to learn basic Spanish vocabulary and grammar before travelling to Ecuador, and since it’s one of the easier languages to learn (and Latin American accent makes it very easy to understand), there really is no excuse. Your travel will be easier, safer and more interesting – and Ecuadorians tend to treat Gringos who speak their language in a much nicer way.
In 2000 Ecuador adopted American dollar as its official currency. The notes are American and there is a mix of American and Ecuadorian coins (the latter are centavos); the dollar in Ecuador goes much further than anywhere in the US. In Quito and other large cities cash machines are common, though sometimes they refused to give us money for no reason at all. Card payments are accepted in some larger stores and restaurants, but we would recommend to always have some cash at hand; cash is a must in the countryside. Make sure to always have coins and smaller notes, as most small shops and restaurants don’t accept notes larger than $20. The cheapest food shopping is in the markets and street stalls; be careful with fruit and veg if you don’t want to eat them straight away, they tend to be very ripe and don’t keep well. Supermarkets are considerably more expensive and the choice is limited. Artisanal markets are great for clothing and souvenirs, but regular clothes shops sell mainly cheap (but far from cheerful) fashion made in PRC, best avoided.
The choice of accommodation in Ecuador is huge. If you’re on a budget, there are plenty of less-than-$10-a-night hostels – don’t expect much more than a bed and a (not always hot) shower. Unfortunately many of the cheap hostels are infested with bedbugs and fleas, so use insect repellent and wash all your clothes and sleeping bag when you get back home. If you fancy a little bit of luxury, Hilton in Quito’s city centre has double rooms from $120. And of course there’s plenty to choose from at mid-range prices, with the standard similar to or slightly lower than in equivalent European hotels. Ask to see the room before paying, or you may end up in a stuffy room without a window – happened to us in Riobamba. Stay away from motels, a standard motel in Ecuador is more like “room by the hour” type of establishment – if you know what I mean ;).
Don’t expect a gourmet experience at a typical traveller/backpacker budget, particularly in the countryside – Ecuadorian food is hearty and plentiful, but not exactly sophisticated. There are three main meals served in Ecuadorian restaurants and cafes. Typical desayuno (breakfast) costs $1.50-$4.00 and consists of a simple sandwich with cheese or ham, rice, seco de pollo (chicken stew), salad, coffee and fresh fruit juice. Almuerzo (lunch) is the most important meal of the day and usually costs $2.00-$5.00 for 1-2 courses; it usually consists of rice, fried or stewed meat and salad or beans. When it comes to dinner, there’s no shortage of places serving all sorts of food, from the ubiquitous fried chicken, to fish and pizza; the latter is very unlike the Italian pizza and usually oozes with cheese. Very popular (and cheap) are Chifas, i.e. Chinese restaurants, serving huge (but moderately tasty) portions of rice or noodles with meat and veggies. Most guidebooks discourage tourists from eating street food, because of the food poisoning risk. We think that it would be a sin not to try some of the traditional food from the street or market stalls. We did and we were perfectly fine, but the decision is yours.
Travelling through Ecuador is cheap and relatively easy. Buses from Quito to all parts of the country are frequent, clean and comfortable, most have free on-board Wi-Fi and TV screens showing films on longer routes; some are air-conditioned. As a rule of thumb, they cost $1-$2 per hour of journey; on busier routes it is advisable to buy tickets in advance in a ticket office, otherwise just hand money over to the driver (or very often to the driver’s helper). In both cases you will need a special ticket for the barrier at bus stations – this cost $0.20 per person. There are three main bus stations in Quito that are of interest to tourists: Terminal La Ofelia, serving mainly the Pichincha province (including buses to Mitad del Mundo and cloud forest reserves north-west of Quito), Terminal Carcelén serving northern Ecuador (including Otavalo and Ibarra) and Terminal Quitumbe, serving the south, the coast and the Amazon region. You can get to any of these bus stations by taxi – from central Quito it takes around half an hour and costs $8-$12, depending on your negotiation skills. Rail network is not very well developed, the main train line runs from Quito to Riobamba, but the trains are infrequent. There are regular flights from Mariscal Sucre airport to Coca, Cuenca, Guayaquil, the Galapagos Islands and several other places in the country; if bought in advance, the tickets are reasonably priced.
Generally speaking, Ecuadorians are quiet, polite and welcoming. They may come across as reserved at first (particularly in the rural, indigenous communities), but if you are open to contact and conversation (and speak some Spanish) you will soon find out their chatty and funny side. On several occasions we ate meals with staff in the places we stayed and had an opportunity to chat about our countries, travels and life in general. When you’re out in the public, be prepared to be stared at, especially if you’re fair-skinned and blonde. The stares however are mostly curious rather than obnoxious, and we quickly stopped noticing them. If you travel as a lone woman or in a female-only group, you may want to avoid bars and clubs at night; local men (even married ones) like to flirt with “gringas” and sometimes can be a real pain in the neck. Be careful with the taxi drivers – they may try to rip you off, but if you stand your ground they will quickly let go.
Probably the most pressing issue in Ecuador (and other Amazonian countries) is deforestation. Tropical forests are being constantly chopped down to make space for agriculture, human settlement, oil extraction and many other things. Returning to the Payamino land after only three years from my first visit there, I was shocked to see how much of the forest has disappeared and how much more the towns and villages have spread – and all this despite the Payamino people keeping greedy oil concerns at bay, at least for now. I find it difficult to imagine what would happen if they ever budged and allowed oil extraction on their land. This would mean not only deforestation, loss of plant and animal species and water pollution, but most likely also the breakdown of local community. If you want to do your bit for the environment when you’re in Ecuador, choose agencies promoting responsible, sustainable and ideally community-led travel (such as Santa Lucia Ecolodge in the cloud forest) and, if you can, use local guides. Local communities that can sustain themselves through tourism are less likely to sell their land to oil concerns or turn to damaging large-scale agriculture, so there’s a lot that we, the travellers, can do to help this amazing and unique part of the world and to preserve it for the future generations.