Ecuador travel guide
Tiny by South American standards, Ecuador is packed with an amazing range of natural and cultural attractions; a microcosm of everything that is appealing about this fascinating continent. Tucked between Colombia and Peru, Ecuador outdoes its heavyweight neighbours because of, rather than despite, its size. In a single day you could take an early morning safari in the Amazon, drive up through a valley of active volcanoes and past verdant cloud forest before winding down to the Pacific coast in time for a seafood dinner.
Bisected by the equator (hence the name), Ecuador is divided into three distinct regions – Costa, Sierra and Oriente. The coast, or Costa, is hot and dry with sandy beaches, rolling surf and lively Afro-Ecuadorian towns. The mountainous centre, or Sierra, is a place of snow-capped Andean peaks, colonial towns and vibrant local markets. And the tropical lowland, the Oriente, which takes in parts of the Amazon, is home to innumerable species of wildlife and indigenous inhabitants. In addition, Ecuador controls the Galapagos Islands, a wildlife-rich archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, where Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution.
At the heart of all this is Quito. As well as laying claim to being the world’s second highest capital city (after La Paz in Bolivia) this lofty metropolis has the best-preserved historic centre in Latin America, not to mention an excellent culinary scene, vibrant nightlife and string of world-class cultural attractions.
However, it’s Ecuador’s natural beauty that draws in the crowds. Visitors flock from around the world to admire the wildlife, particularly on the Galapagos Islands, which is home to giant tortoises, whale sharks, sea lions and many more. For those seeking an adrenalin hit, world-renowned scuba diving, exceptional trekking and breathtaking climbing is rarely far away. Whether you explore it on two wheels or four hooves; on a raft, kayak or surfboard, Ecuador is a joy to get to know.
283,560 sq km (109,483 sq miles).
16,385,450 (UN estimate 2016).
66 per sq km.
President Lenín Boltaire Moreno Garcés since May 2017.
President Lenín Boltaire Moreno Garcés since May 2017.
120 volts AC, 60Hz. Plugs used are North American-style (two perpendicular flat blades with or without a circular grounding pin).
Last updated: 13 March 2017
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. ‘We’ refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
Muggings and pick pocketing are very common. In Quito, take particular care in ‘La Carolina’ and ‘El Ejido’ parks, the districts of ‘La Mariscal’, ‘La Floresta’ and ‘La Marin’, the bus terminals and the old town including the main square and ‘El Panecillo’ hill. Avoid travelling to ‘El Panecillo’ hill on your own or by foot. Use one of the standard tours or reliable transport instead. In Guayaquil, be particularly careful in the Kennedy, Alborada, Urdesa and the Malecon Simon Bolivar districts and the bus terminal.
Don’t wear expensive jewellery when walking around and watch your bags on public transport. Wear your rucksack on the front of your body. Where possible, don’t store anything under your seat or in the overhead storage on buses.
Carry a colour copy of your passport, including the visa entry stamp page, and keep the original safe. Only take out as much money as you need.
Take care of your belongings in restaurants or cafes and watch out for thieves. Criminals sometimes squirt liquids (ketchup, mustard, water, etc.) on you and then steal your bag while ‘helping’ to clean you up. Other methods of distraction include requests for assistance, staged fights and pushing or shoving. Don’t resist a robbery.
Take care when withdrawing money from a bank or at an ATM.
Incidents of attacks and serious sexual assault against foreign women have increased in the city of Montañita (Santa Elena province in the east of Ecuador). All visitors, particularly women, should take extra care to find reputable and secure accommodation whether travelling alone or as a group. Avoid travelling after dark and be alert to the use of date rape and other drugs in drinks. If you feel unwell, seek urgent help from people you know.
Criminals often use drugs to subdue victims. Home-made versions of the drug ‘scopolamine’ leave victims in a sedated, compliant state and cause amnesia. Be wary if you’re approached by a stranger offering you food, drinks, leaflets, telephone cards or cigarettes, no matter how friendly or well dressed they appear.
Armed robbery can be a constant hazard throughout Ecuador, but especially in Quito, Guayaquil and in remote areas. Seek local advice about the safety of the area you are visiting and travel in a group whenever possible.
Quito has a Tourist Police unit with branches in the north and old town of the city. The Ministry of Tourism has a tourist service complaints management system e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Ecuador District Attorney´s Office (Fiscalia General) now has an English online tool for tourists to report robbery, theft and loss of belongings and documents.
There has been an increase in robberies on interstate transport and at bus stations, especially Quito, Riobamba and Baños tourist towns. Most incidents took place at night. Where possible you should avoid travelling by road after dark. Cases involving British nationals have been reported on the routes between Quito and Baños; Quito and Tulcan; Quito and Guayas; Quito and Cuenca; Quito and Puyo; Cuenca and Ambato; Otavalo and Quito, Lago Agrio and Guayaquil and also in the province of Loja. Avoid taking interstate buses with a reputation for stopping to pick up passengers at night as many criminals use this means to attack passengers.
Express kidnappings – short-term opportunistic abductions, aimed at extracting cash from the victim – also occur, particularly in Quito and Guayaquil. Victims can be targeted or selected at random and held while criminals empty their bank accounts with stolen cash cards. This type of crime can involve illegitimate and registered taxis. Ecuadoreans and foreign visitors are targets.
In 2012, in the old town and in La Mariscal in Quito, 2 British couples were attacked by taxi drivers and accomplices who boarded the taxis to assist in the robbery. The passengers were pepper sprayed. The victims were later released in an isolated area of Quito. On 28 December 2013, a Japanese tourist was murdered, and his wife seriously injured by a taxi driver in Guayaquil.
The use of unregistered taxis significantly increases the risk of becoming a victim of crime, including armed robbery and express kidnapping. Try to book a taxi through your hotel or by calling a known radio taxi service. If you are using an authorised taxi (yellow cab) in Quito and Guayaquil make sure it has the municipality registration number sticker displayed on the windscreen and doors; the orange license plates or the new white plates with an orange strip on the top and video cameras inside. Avoid hailing a taxi on the street. Larger supermarkets and airports have taxi ranks.
In mid 2013, the Ecuadorean National Transit Agency launched the ‘Secure Transport’ project throughout Ecuador. This includes the installation of security kits – video cameras, panic buttons and GPS – inside interstate buses and registered taxis. You should only use the yellow registered taxis, with the ‘transporte seguro’ logo, if a radio taxi isn’t available.
You can also order a secure taxi from a new free smartphone application ‘Easy Taxi’, available for Android and iPhone. A photo, the name of the taxi driver and the vehicle description will be sent to the customer.
Volunteer and Adventure activities
If you’re joining a ‘volunteer’ or ‘adventure expedition’ programme, where possible make sure the UK organisation responsible for the travel has an official local agent in Ecuador with sufficient autonomy and resources to handle an emergency situation. Be wary of unauthorised intermediaries ‘enganchadores’ trying to offer you cheap hotels or tour deals.
If you’re planning to undertake adventure activities like canopy, bungee jumping or quad biking, make sure you use a reputable local tour operator and the equipment is in good condition. In May 2012 and January 2016, 2 foreign tourists died in Mindo and Bucay areas due to canopy accidents.
Use of traditional hallucinogens
Traditional hallucinogens, often referred to as ayahuasca or San Pedro, are found in Ecuador. These substances are often marketed to tourists as ‘spiritual cleansing’, and typically contain dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a strong hallucinogen that’s illegal in the UK and many other countries. There are many risks involved. Consumption isn’t regulated. Intoxicated travellers have been assaulted and robbed. Health risks are not well understood, and on occasions people have suffered serious illnesses and in some cases deaths after taking these drugs, which are often taken a long way from medical facilities making the risks even greater.
There is a 20 km exclusion zone along the entire northern-border with Colombia under army control. The FCO advise against all travel to this area except the official border crossing town of Tulcan in Carchi province. Guerrilla groups, drug traffickers and criminal gangs are active and there is a risk of kidnapping and a high risk of crime. Foreigners, including oil workers, are potential targets.
If you’re crossing the border at Tulcan (Rumichaca land official border point) you should enter and exit the town via the main highway. Lago Agrio (also known as Nueva Loja), the main town in the border province of Sucumbios, and San Lorenzo, in the border province of Esmeraldas, both lie within the 20km zone.
The FCO advise against all, but essential travel to the area bordering Colombia in Carchi province inside the 20km exclusion zone. The border area in Carchi province is home to various eco-lodges, near El Angel Ecological Reserve. Illegal armed groups and criminal gangs are present in the area. If you’re travelling to this area, make sure you travel with a reputable operator with good communication systems, emergency plans in place and an official guide.
The FCO advise against all, but essential travel to the area of Tarapoa and the Cuyabeno reserve in Sucumbios. In February 2012 a group of tourists including British nationals were assaulted at gunpoint by a criminal gang in the Cuyabeno reserve. In September 2012 a group of tourists were robbed and 2 tourists were kidnapped in the Cuyabeno reserve but subsequently released.
There is a higher risk of crime in southern parts of Sucumbios province, including Coca (also known as Francisco de Orellana). There are popular eco-lodges in the area along the Napo river, between Sucumbios and Orellana provinces. Use only reputable operators to visit this area. Some lodges are a long distance from the nearest major hospital and helicopter evacuation may be necessary in an emergency. Reputable eco-lodges in this area have good communications and emergency plans in place.
The Ecuadorean Ministry of Tourism and the National Telecommunications Corporation (CNT) have launched a Tourist SIM card (“travel SIM”) available for purchase for smartphones or tablets, aiming to provide tourists with various services during a 30 day period. It includes 1GB of data, free Facebook and Whatsapp, and voice call/SMS credit.
You can drive a hire car using a UK licence or International Driving Permit.
The Ecuadorean police recommend that you also get a local temporary driver permit. Always carry your passport, driving licence, vehicle registration and proof of insurance with you when in the vehicle.
Road conditions are variable. Heavy rains and mudslides often close or wash away roads, which can cause significant delays and accidents.
Serious accidents are very common, mainly due to careless driving, speeding and badly maintained vehicles. Ecuador has one of the highest rates of road accidents in Latin America. In May 2014, near Papallacta region, a road collision involving a bus carrying foreign tourists caused the deaths of 2 British nationals and injury to others.
If you’re a passenger in a vehicle travelling at an unsafe speed, you should firmly instruct the driver to slow down.
Where possible, avoid travelling by road outside major cities after dark. If you take public buses, check the reputation of the bus company and make sure it’s insured with a ‘SPPAT’ (formerly SOAT), mandatory traffic accident public insurance. There is an online interstate bus booking system.
When taking yellow registered taxis in the major cities make sure the taxi meter is reset. As of May 2015, the minimum charge in Quito is US$1.45 during the day and US$1.75 at night, even if the meter registers less for your journey. If you or the hotel called a taxi, agree a price before you get in.
The national rail company, Tren Ecuador, offers a range of train routes along the Andean and coastal regions in Ecuador. Most of the rail system has been repaired.
Travelling on the roof of trains is no longer allowed due to serious risks posed by overhead cables and bridges.
The new Quito ‘Mariscal Sucre’ International Airport is in Tababela, at about 37 km towards the north-eastern part of Quito. The main connecting roads have now been completed. Journey times from the airport to central Quito can vary from 30 to 60 minutes depending on the time of day.
There have been incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships in and around Ecuador’s waters. Sailors should be vigilant and take appropriate precautions.
There have been several serious accidents in the Galapagos Islands involving boats operated by tour companies. You should ask about safety features before making a booking, and check that life boats and the life vests are provided before boarding.
Presidential and parliamentary elections were held on Sunday 19 February 2017. The second round of presidential elections will be held on Sunday 2 April 2017.
Street demonstrations, protests and strikes are common. Although most are peaceful, they can turn violent. You should monitor local media and avoid all large gatherings.