In another day and age, you may have rested your index finger over the globe, closed your eyes and spun: Wherever your finger landed is where you went. The modern day equivalent is how I chose Ecuador: I opened up my Kayak app, chose “explore,” selected a departure city, a time frame, and a budget, and up came Quito.
During my stay in Ecuador, I was asked repeatedly, “Why Ecuador?” Apparently, it was quite a surprise, not only to locals but other foreign travelers, that Ecuador was my only destination in South America in this itinerary. And it was also unique that my first time in South America brought me to Ecuador. I learned that Ecuador is primarily a stopover, a pass-through stop, due to its location in-between Peru and Colombia.
And that’s how I describe Ecuador as a travel destination: Enough have come before to pave the way, but not enough that the people and the country are jaded, advantageous of or overrun by foreigners. It’s not seen as a stand-alone destination — not yet anyway — but I believe that to be changing.
Note: I’ll give some love to specific places that exceeded my expectations! Any business I mention has my recommendation.
What I did during my 8 days in Ecuador
Day 1: Travel day
I arrived in Quito about 10:30 p.m. The airport is far outside the city, so I chose to take a taxi to my hostel ($12/night) in the Mariscal area, a hip neighborhood north of old town Quito. They’ll cite you a flat fee around $25.
Day 2: Quito
I ate a complimentary breakfast at the hostel and explored Quito on foot. From Mariscal, the old town is quite a walk. From my hostel, I walked to Plaza Foch, El Ejido Park, Basilica del Voto Nacional, and other sights (I highly recommend the walk up to parque de Itchimbia for the views of El Panecillo!). At the end of the afternoon, I used the bus ($0.25) to get back to the hostel and grabbed happy hour in Mariscal (2 for 1 mojitos made with fresh juice — yum!).
Tip: Wednesday is ladies night at Bungalow. The dance club offers free drinks for ladies before 10 p.m., and American music (super outdated — think overplayed 80s hits, but American nonetheless). It’s apparently known as where the gringos go, but there were a surprising amount of South Americans there as well. I moved on to look for a place with some authentic salsa and bachata music!
Day 3: Quilotoa
Latacunga is a city close to two major attractions south of Quito: the Quilotoa Lagoon and Cotopaxi National Park. While it makes for a logical and convenient place to stay (dorm lodging is $8/night), the city is nothing special. To travel from Quito to Latacunga, you must first take a bus to Quito’s southern bus station, Terminal Quitumbe ($.25; 1 hour) and then hop another bus to Latacunga ($3, 2 hours). It’s a short walk into the town of Latacunga from where the bus drops off.
Julio, an Ecuadorian I met on Couchsurfing, picked me up and we went to Quilotoa, about an hour and a half drive from Latacunga. (Getting to and from the villages around Quilotoa is a bit of a tricky situation. I’m glad I had a ride!) My recommendation is to arrive to Quilotoa in the morning/middle of the day so the sun is directly over the lagoon and you can see the full color spectrum of the greens and blues of the water. We arrived at 5 p.m., so the sun was going down; it took about a half hour to get to the lagoon and 50 minutes to climb up, so we were coming back up in the dark. It’s definitely challenging, even for a fit person (during the daylight a mule can take you back up for $10). Dress for the weather. It gets cold and windy… gloves, a hat, and a scarf.
You’ll definitely earn your dinner during the hike! At the top, there are several restaurants operated by indigenous people that serve Ecuadorian fare. With dinner I had a canelazo to warm me up: it’s a warm local beverage with alcohol and cider-like juice. Shoutout to Julio for the great day!
Note: As a general rule, to avoid getting sick while hiking in Ecuador, be sure you’re already acclimated to the altitude or have acclimatized in Quito. I saw several Europeans having trouble. I didn’t have a problem with it, but I’m used to hiking in the states.
Day 4: Cotopaxi National Park
This is another one that’s time-consuming and overcomplicated to get to on your own, so I decided to take a tour, which included a guide, rides to and from, lunch, and a mountain bike rental ($50). The guide will drive your party to a landing area within Cotopaxi National Park where you’ll hike up the steep incline to El Refugio (16,000 feet above sea level!). There, try the hot chocolate before you hike back down to the parking area. (Again, it can get very cold and very windy, so dress accordingly.) Then mountain bike down to the Cotopaxi lagoon before lunch at the visitor’s center!
Day 5: Cuenca
I was planning to go to Baños de Agua Santa (called Baños for short) for some whitewater rafting on day 5, but the weather forecast turned me off (30 degrees? I was NOT prepared for that). Fortunately, nothing was pre-booked so I was able to change gears and instead go to Cuenca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the southern highlands of Ecuador. To get from Latacunga to Cuenca, first you take a taxi to the Pan-American highway ($2) and board a bus towards Cuenca. The bus stopped in Riobamba, where I switched to another bus bound for Cuenca ($11, total time on bus was 6 hours). A note on the bus system in Ecuador: All this bus-switching may sound complicated and worrisome, but they’ve got it down. Just tell the bus operator your final destination, and they’ll get you where you need to go. Their English may be spotty, but their memories are on point!
After arriving at the bus station in Cuenca, it was a 1.5 mile walk to the hostel. I opted for a private room this time ($18/night). Sometimes, a girl’s gotta splurge.
I highly recommend La Cigale Hostel in Cuenca. It was the best breakfast and best hostel coffee I had in Ecuador. Plus, they have a great happy hour with $2 drinks from 4-8 p.m., Mondays-Saturdays. Order the caipirinha… it’s a doozy!
Day 6: Cajas National Park
Cajas National Park is a must-see if you’re visiting Cuenca. It’s a short 45-minute bus ride from Cuenca ($4 roundtrip), and is otherworldly, almost extraterrestrial in landscape. (To travel from Cuenca to Cajas, the bus departs from Feria Libre market, in contrast to the main terminal Terminal Terrestre. Take a $2 taxi to the market, it’s a little far to walk.) Once arriving at the park, my hiking partner and I opted for the red route, estimated to take 4 hours. Despite enduring near constant rain and 50-ish degree temps, slugging through mud (and falling in), and getting lost after taking a few wrong turns off our chosen trail… it was well worth the adventure. Bring rain gear and wear waterproof shoes if you go during Ecuador’s rainy season. Also, it’s very easy to get off-trail (and that’s coming from experience!). If you don’t see a trail marker every 10 minutes… you may have fallen off of it!
Later, have dinner at A Pedir De Boca. Order the Thai noodle salad. At $7.50, it rings in a bit above average, but it was so nice to finally have some colorful vegetables in my bowl (a traditional Ecuadorian meal is pretty light on the greens)!
Day 7: Ingapirca
Ingapirca is Ecuador’s most preserved archaeological site of Inca ruins, still standing after more than 500 years. While it’s not as impressive as Peru’s Macchu Picchu, it’s moderately priced ($2 admittance) and you’ll actually be able to take lots of photos there without swarms of tourists (a big plus in my book!). You can also get up close to some feisty llamas. A roundtrip ticket is $7 from the main train station. The bus leaves daily at 9 a.m. and takes 2 hours each way.
Upon returning to Cuenca, if you have an ice cream craving like I did, visit Angelus near the main plaza. The cookies and cream was muy bueno!
Day 8: Cuenca to Guayaquil
Cuenca has a lot of attractions in its own right. The historical city is chock full of churches, squares, and even has some Inca ruins right in town; the Ruinas de Pumapungo.
I really felt at-home in Cuenca, but I had to move on. Mid-afternoon, I went west towards the coast to Guayaquil — Ecuador’s business center and most populous city. The bus ($8) from Cuenca to Guayaquil is 4 hours and departs regularly from Terminal Terrestre. The trip itself was terrifying (I’m not used to tippy buses hurtling around Andes mountain switchbacks — I learned what true fear felt like), but I survived, and arrived in the evening to take some night pictures from the top of Cerro Santa Ana and along the Malecon 2000.
Note: Things are more expensive in Guayaquil than in Ecuador’s other cities. Dorm lodging was $16/night and my dinner was about twice as much as I was used to paying.
Day 9: Guayaquil
For my last day in Ecuador, I had the pleasure of being shown around the city by an Ecuadorian named André (also from Couchsurfing). We walked up to Cerro Santa Ana, around the barrio of Las Peñas, along the Malecon 2000, and grabbed some bites and some beers.
One of the coolest (but most bizarre experiences) for me was the Parque de los Iguanas. Iguanas freely roam—and sneak up on you—throughout the park. There are masses of them! Bring lettuce if you want to make friends and get up-close and personal with these creatures — big thanks to André for showing me a great time!
To get back to Quito, I took a Guayaquil-Quito flight on Avianca ($83) prior to my flight back to the states. All in all, for just over 8 days in Ecuador, I spent $475 on food, lodging, transportation and excursions — quite the bargain.
I feel very fortunate to have seen this country while it was still “early” (compared to some of its neighboring countries) in the travel destination bell curve. My advice to you: Go visit this country (while it’s still “young”)!
Any questions or comments on Ecuador? Feel free to leave me a comment!