Ecuador is small and somewhat overshadowed by its larger and more touristy neighbors Colombia and Peru, but even as the second smallest country on the continent has more natural diversity and more culture to offer than many larger places. Ecuador packs a huge punch: it has the tallest active volcano on the planet (Cotopaxi), it straddles the equator, and it has the lovely and always surprising Galapagos Islands. If you’re into nature exploration and wildlife watching, the stunning geography and the endemic species of Ecuador are just the thing for you. If you’re more interested in historic sites and colonial heritage, then you can take your pick of several great world heritage sites. And the best part is that Ecuador is backpacker friendly, and it’s easy to see all these wonders on a shoestring. Here is a backpacker’s guide to Ecuador for travelers longing for something special.
Tour operators might sound like the easiest way to explore the country, and although they include major tourist hotspots, they tend to leave out parts of Ecuador that are too amazing to miss. Getting around Ecuador on a budget and independently is quite easy. Intercity buses travel from anywhere to everywhere, and they are very cheap, costing a couple of dollars per hour more or less. These buses are not the height of comfort, but they are bearable, and the worst you’ll have to deal with is the altitude change that might make your ear ring for a while. However, hitchhiking is probably the most convenient way for a backpacker to around in Ecuador. On the few roads where buses don’t travel at all, drivers will quickly pick you up and won’t always ask for payment. On bus routes, however, you might be expected to pay the price of the bus fare for the same distance.
There is no shortage of very good hotels in Ecuador, but budget options abound as well. Major cities like Quito or Ambato or Cuenca, as well as major tourist destinations, have a decent selection of backpacker hostels where you can spend the night for less than $10, and rarely for more than $15. Even in smaller towns or villages you will be able to find private residences rented out to travelers for very reasonable prices. If you are planning your trip well in advance, you can also consider seeing if you can find some eco-lodge bargains.
Foodies in Ecuador will be able to munch on local delicacies even if they don’t have the budget for a gourmet holiday. Ecuadorian cuisine has quite a few specialties, like locro de papa (soup of avocados, potatoes and cheese), ceviche (seafood mix) or encebollado (fish soup with yucca), and cuy, better known as the guinea pig, a much appreciated dish in Ecuador. For around $2 you can order a lunch or dinner menu (almuerzo or merienda), which includes soup, main course and even dessert. Fancier restaurants are still quite cheap ($4 for a decent meal), but they will also require you to pay a service fee and a sales tax, which amounts to about 20% of the meal’s price.