The first time I came to Ecuador there were many things that caught me off guard. When a lot of people think Ecuador they think Quito, coast, and the Galapagos right? I was in for a big (yet amazing) surprise. I arrived to Cuenca, a gorgeous colonial city in the south of the country, and began to travel the Andes Mountains region in awe of its beauty. Despite my fantastic experience, I was taken aback by a few things when it came to weather conditions, customs, and ins and outs of Ecuador travel, and found myself wishing that I had been more prepared for my Ecuadorian adventure.
Here are a few tips I’ll recommend if you’re coming to Ecuador whether to relocate or travel. After a couple of years here, I really suggest you keep the following in mind to make the most of your experience.
The weather is not what you will expect it to be.
Unless you’re traveling to the Galapagos or to the coast in a great season, expect some pretty crazy weather conditions. Ecuador being the “country of four worlds” means very unexpected weather. You’ve got extremely different climates between the mountains, coast, islands, and jungle. Despite the fact that Ecuador sits on the equator the weather varies so much due to the mountains, geological patterns, and elevation. It really depends on the day, but it can be C O L D if you are in the mountain region, heading to any of the volcanoes or lakes, and sometimes even cooler than you’d expect in the jungle or on the coast. It is always great to have flexibility in your travel dates once you’re in Ecuador given the thick fog patterns, which can disrupt some beautiful views if you’re there at the wrong time!
It takes longer to get anywhere than you would think.
Ecuador really is a small country all things considering (smaller than the size of Texas). I used to look at a map and see landmarks relatively close to each other and thought it would be easy to hop from one spot to another. Nope. If you’re headed somewhere 140 miles away, you’d think that would be a about 2.5 hour bus right? Think again – you’re looking at a bus upwards of 8 hours. On many roads that curve through the mountains you’re not going more than 50-60km per hour. And if you’d like to go to the jungle, Do not jam pack your trip to Ecuador. Take your time. Pick your top priorities and e n j o y the ride.
Extra advice: Busses are very easy to use in Ecuador and very cheap and safe! You can fly between the major cities if you want to save time, but generally flying in Ecuador and South America is very expensive. Private transport is easy to hire from any lodging, but will also cost you $15-$20 per hour.
Be respectful and at least try to speak Spanish.
The Ecuadorian people are friendly and kind, but like most parts of the world, they appreciate it when you make an attempt to speak Spanish. The majority of expats who live in Cuenca do not speak Spanish and many don’t make the effort to try, which has given a poor reputation to expats living in Ecuador. You will hear English in areas with a thriving tourism industry, but be prepared with some basic phrases out of respect for the local people. Don’t worry, you will be able to get around Ecuador with hand signals and broken Spanish.
Do not bring large bills.
Americans will love that Ecuador made the switch to use the US dollar as their currency in 2000. But, I’ll tell you now that it is hard enough to use a $20 bill anywhere you go unless you’re at a corporate store or grocery store. If you bring a $100 I’m not even sure where you could use it.
What I wish I knew before coming to Ecuador…
- Whenever possible, make your reservations via phone when it comes to hostels/non-corporate hotels. I almost always call the hostel directly instead of booking online since most are using paper agendas anyways, I trust the phone call method more
- Pedestrians do not have the right of way in Ecuador. Be careful of crosswalks and do not assume that drivers will see you and give you the right of way.
- Speaking of the streets, expect to see street dogs (and dog poop) in most cities.
- The busses in Quito and Cuenca are great and affordable. However, every expat’s least favorite part of downtown Cuenca are the bus fumes along the major routes. You’ve been warned.
- Ecuador really is the country of 4 worlds – you will see much more Sierra than you expect, looks a lot like Ireland or Scotland but in addition to the cows and horses you’ll find lamas and alpacas.
- Ecuador is full of fantastic, delicious fruits and vegetables, but culturally it is a very meat and carb-heavy diet. It is easy to have a very healthy or very unhealthy diet depending on your habits. Like many places in the world, you can eat out with a high salt and sugar diet + fried foods, or you can cook at home and have the healthiest food of your life. Its all about balance 🙂
I hope these cultural travel tips come in good use to you! Was there anything else that caught you by surprise in Ecuador? Let me know in the comments!
Fantastic article Kelly!! Salutes from Washington DC
Great tips, Kelly. Specifically regarding money, weather and bus fumes in El Centro
Very good introduction Kelly! My wife and I are planning to relocate to Cuenca early next year. We visited for 5 weeks in 2016 and, after considerable thought, feel now is the time to take a chance and discover Ecuador and South America.
I wish I could commend the article, but it is super-simplistic and not 100% factual. Misleading in parts. First, let me say that “cold” is a relative thing. If you’re from Floriday, Cuenca is going to feel cool to you at times. Chilly at others. You rarely need more than a light jacket outside, and small space heater inside during the cooler months. The size of Ecuador is just a fraction smaller than the state of Colorado — not even remotely close to Texas. Saying it’s smaller than Texas is like saying a hamburger is smaller than a cow. And the meal are not meat *and* carb heavy; they are seriously carb heavy, for sure, but the serving of meat is usually very small in a traditional setting. You’re more likely to get a spoonful of meat, then potatoes *and* rice and probably some other carb. Specialty and ethnic restaurants are more generous with their meat portions.
And what kind of nonsense is it to say that pedestrians do NOT have the right of way here? The law specifically states the opposite, as long as pedestrians are crossing at a marked zebra-striped crosswalk, or are crossing where there are lighted indicators stating that they’re free to cross. There’s no question about whether or not they have the right of way — it’s a matter of whether or not the driver heading in their direction is paying attention and is willing to give them the right of way. If I’m in a marked crossing and I’m sure the oncoming driver can see me, I cross. They don’t like it, but I cross. I’m not trying to encourage anyone to take chances, but it burns me up to see little old men and ladies with canes and walkers doing their best to run across the street before the big pickup or SUV runs them over. And, of course, motorcyclists don’t *give* the right of way to anyone, including other vehicles. You definitely have to be very careful and “choose your moment” to cross the street, but I personally don’t yield my pedestrian rights to motorists if I think I can otherwise cross safely (and that’s me, speaking for myself).
Finally, her statement: “Don’t worry, you will be able to get around Ecuador with hand signals and broken Spanish.” Yeah, you’ll get around, but you’ll be wildly misunderstood, or not understood at all. At a minimum, you’ll be extremely frustrated by your lack of ability to find what you want and get what you need. Anyone who’s going to travel the backroads of Ecuador needs at least a little “survival Spanish” under their belts. And don’t believe articles in International Living that refer to Cuenca or any of the other cities being “English-friendly.” Cuenca has a fair number of English speaking natives (many are returnees from living abroad), but for the most part, you can’t do much of anything in Cuenca unless you speak some slight degree of Spanish or take someone with you who does. Or hire a guide — I made a trip to a city inside the Amazon region to a small city with a number of local attractions. I even found a map on where they were. But me and my traveling partner couldn’t find these places, and our Spanish at the time was too weak to either ask or understand the directions people gave. (And the previous night I had turned down an offer from a guide to show me that area for $80.)
So what is the publishing criteria for articles on Gringo Tree? Is fact-checking a requirement? It would appear not.
We were in Ecuador at Thanksgiving 2017. I too wanted to see the possibilities of relocating there for retirement. We visited Quito, Riobamba, Banos, and Cuenca, spending most of our time in Cuenca to assess the potential of the city. Loved it. Three things became apparent to me. 1) A good grasp of Spanish is necessary. It is true that Gringos can get by without in Cuenca but a little off the beaten path, it is impossible to get by with only English if one wants to enjoy the country to the fullest. 2) Prices differ a great deal and they are going up. Being a Gringo aggravates the pricing issue in every respect. It is natural that Ecuadorians are opportunistic and profit maximizing as Ecuador is not without its economic problems and they have to make a living. Moving there just for cheap living is not an enduring reason. 3) The country marches to the beat of its own drum. They don’t care much about what Gringos think especially when they don’t make an effort to integrate. So, obnoxious and loud-mouth Americans are not welcome and there already seems to be a bit of a negative perception in this regard! Don’t forget; it is their country and you are a guest. In summary, it is a beautiful place but plan and tread carefully.