There’s a slogan that followed me everywhere I went in Quito, “Ecuador is all you need.” It was plastered to the sides of green tourist buses and graffitied across the crumbling, stucco walls of historic buildings in old town, and it’s true. Ecuador is one of the most varied, vibrant, and adventurous countries I’ve ever been to. The best part? It’s easy to do on a budget. Here are a few tips I wished I’d known before I hopped on a plane to South America.
- Skip the Hotel – A Good Hostel Is Easy to Find
For the first half of my week in Ecuador, I was city-hopping with a group of 5 friends. In Quito, we stayed at Hostal L’Auberge Inn, a colonial-style courtyard building with vintage accents and dark wooden ceiling beams. Double rooms were around $20 USD per night, and were simple, clean, and central. The most remarkable thing is that this pricing for these amenities was pretty standard for Ecuador. On the Quilotoa Loop, you can get a shared dorm with a jaw-dropping view of the countryside for $15-$20 per night, including dinner and breakfast.
- Uber Everywhere
If you feel like sticking it to the man, saving money, and helping a few Venezuelan refugees along the way, then Uber is the way to go in Ecuador. Though illegal, Uber is cheap and readily available all over the country – use the wifi in your hostel, restaurant, or coffee shop to log in! Because the police can technically still give drivers tickets, cabbies may have you sit in the front seat so that it looks like they’re just driving a friend. Due to the rapidly escalating financial crisis in Venezuela, many displaced citizens are opting to drive Uber, and I personally enjoyed practicing my Spanish with them, hearing their stories, and helping support their families during this time of transition. Perhaps the most useful side-effect of using Uber over traditional cabs is the ease of payment and customer service. Two of my friends got taken on a wild ride for over 90 minutes in the Ecuadorian farmlands and were able to quickly get the excess charges reversed!
- Splurge at Every Bakery
Where else are you going to get 10 pan de sals for only a buck? I don’t know what I would have done for breakfast most days if it weren’t for the plethora of sweet-smelling bakeries serenading the alleyways of Quito and her neighboring villages. Most bakeries had freshly baked options for the sweet or savory addict, and many of the choices are 50 cents or less.
- Bring Cash
Though nerve-racking, paying in cash is the quickest way to get a discount in Ecuador – even at hotels. Many businesses will charge you a 10-15% credit card fee on top of your bill if you can’t pay in cash. The good news is that since the year 2000, the US dollar has been the official currency of Ecuador, so if you’re coming from the states, no need to exchange anything! Before you leave, head to the bank and take out a few hundred dollars in small bills – few places will even consider breaking a $20, and that goes for museums, hotels, and restaurants too. I literally had a clerk in a world-class museum stare at me, dumbfounded, when I tried to pay for my ticket with a twenty. Plus, when you have change, it’s much easier to haggle in shops and markets!
- Dance Salsa at Lavoe
Neon pink lights swirl hypnotically around a slick, wooden dance floor as men in tight pants and women in shimmering stilettos shimmy and spin into the wee hours of the night. Lavoe was one of my favorite experiences in all of Ecuador, not just for the sexy people watching, but for the slice-of-life cultural time-capsule that allowed me to leap right into the foray, no questions asked. Dress up in your backpacker finest and hit Quito’s most notorious salsa club, named after the late singer, Hector Lavoe. Most nights of the week (check the website first!), entry is free before 10:30pm, and mojitos are 2 for the price of one. Sit back, have a drink, and watch the country’s best salsa dancers light up the floor.
- Chow Down at the Hare Krishna Temple
For all you vegans and vegetarians out there, this one’s for you. You can get a cheap, tasty breakfast or lunch for under $3 in the heart of Quito. My group had the hardest time finding mid-city vegan options that were open before noon, and the Hare Krishnas did not disappoint! Govinda’s has a sunny, courtyard dining area full of vintage flair in the center of old town, making it a welcome oasis for hippies, health food nuts, and animal lovers alike. If you’re looking for a restaurant with meat on the menu, the menú del día at most local joints nearby will hook you up with a three-course lunch for under $5.
- Be Intrepid Outdoors
Perhaps the most breathtakingly magical thing about Ecuador is the sheer number of 20,000-foot stratovolcanoes within a day’s drive from Quito. If you’re planning to summit a massive, glaciated peak like Cotopaxi or Cayambe, then of course you’ll want to shell out some money for a reputable guide and proper gear. But, it you’re keeping it more mellow and trekking the Quilotoa Loop or just hiking up to the refuge on Cotopaxi, you can probably do some research and guide yourself or hire a modest tour company and save your precious pennies. My friend Erika and I scheduled an entire evening in Los Angeles to eat lasagna while sorting through the trails, maps, bus schedules, and hostel bookings for Quilotoa. We came out with a solid understanding of how to get around in the countryside and what to expect once we turned ourselves loose in Sigchos. Our rough-and-tumble group of friends self-guided the Quilotoa Loop and had an incredible, 3-day adventure, earning an extra sense of pride and accomplishment when we finally reached the fabled crater lake. A similar approach could be taken when visiting Cotopaxi as well, using buses and Ubers or taxis. Or, you could opt for an economical tour company that picks you up in Quito and includes breakfast and lunch for only $50 per person like we did. Treat yo self!
Some days, I feel as though I lived a thousand short stories in just the brief week I spent exploring Ecuador. My conversational Spanish doubled, I laughed until I couldn’t breathe, and I hiked and climbed my poor lungs ragged. Ecuador truly is a feast for every part of an adventurer’s soul. I hope you find yourself there soon, friend.