Backpacking in Ecuador

When you start planning your backpacking in Ecuador route, it’s easy to look at a map and assume that it’s a tiny country, and – in relation to the big guns of the continent - it is small. But don’t be fooled as, by European standards, Ecuador is actually a decent size (around twice the size of England), and it does manage to pack a remarkable amount into its borders.

Ecuador itself is perhaps unfortunate insofar as it is home to (or the starting point for) one of the highlights of the entire continent (some would say the world!): The Galapagos Islands. These really are worth a visit and a remarkable other-worldly experience so, maybe try to spend a bit more time in the cheaper parts of the continent, and keep $1000 or so back for a cruise... This said, do invest some time in Ecuador itself: from Andean bears to tropical beaches - there’s plenty to do.

Ecuador is generally pretty high up on the list for a backpacking tour of South America and, as one of the safest countries in South America, It is a good starting point. It’s not too expensive and is a great place to find your feet, and maybe a few friends to embark on your travels with.

Where is it and what’s there?

Ecuador is equatorial and is neatly divided by the Andes, which run north to south across the country. To the east of the Andes, Ecuador is essentially dense jungle, with wet lowlands which carry water from the Andes down to the Amazon. West of the Andes you’ll find the Pacific Coast, with tropical forests and beaches aplenty.

In terms of neighbours, Ecuador is almost enveloped by Peru to the South and West (hence it is a good northern starting point from which to begin a tour gong south), and shares a small border with Colombia to the north. The Colombian border can be dangerous, and merits the same caution that you would apply if you were travelling around Colombia itself. (see Colombia page for details).

The climate

The climate at sea level is tropical – hence the perfect beaches! As you head east your elevation increases and the temperature decreases. The lower levels of the Andes are tropical and get a lot of rain, and it gets progressively cooler as you work your way up into the mountains: the top of which are snow-capped.

The capital, Quito, has fairly consistent temperatures year round, with average highs of around 22°, and the driest months being June to September. There is always somewhere with an ideal climate in Ecuador – just work out where it is before you go!

Getting there and visas

You can fly to the capital Quitos and this can be a great ‘starting point’ for backpacking in Ecuador. You can also fly to Ecuador’s numerous regional airports easily from elsewhere on the continent. The Pan-American Highway crosses straight through Ecuador and makes travelling into the country from Peru straightforward. You can stay visa free for up to 90 days, and can extend this by a further 90 days at any of the country’s immigration offices.

Getting around

Backpacking in Ecuador is relatively straightforward. Your biggest enemy is the topography: although the roads are generally good – if you look at where they have to go you can see the problem! Pack some travel-sickness medication if you suffer...

Buses are a great way to travel and leave from the terminal terrestre (‘central’ station) in all main cities. They are generally very cheap and long distance buses have air-con and are normally very comfortable. As you head into more rural and coastal areas, buses are still the best way to get about but don’t expect the same level of comfort, and you might have to forget the air-con!

Taxis and minibuses are the primary forms of transport around the bigger cities and – if you negotiate the price in advance – a good way to get about.

Things to do while backpacking in Ecuador

• Check out the volcanoes. The Andes has plenty of volcanoes, but Ecuador is the easiest spot from which to access the highest ones. Several tours for ‘serious’ climbers leave from Quinto, but you don’t have to commit to a 2 week trek. If you head to the Cotopaxi National Park, you can get pretty high up one of the largest active volcanoes in the world fairly easily. The park is also home to bears, pumas and the Andean condor - so well worth heading to.

• Ride up top. The train from Riobamba to Alausi is known as the ‘Devil’s Nose’. You can sit on top and take in some great scenery - and marvel at the staggering route that the train takes. It may be a bit of a ‘classic’ backpacking thing to do – but for good reason!

• Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos are made of 13 major islands – of which 5 are inhabited. They are home to several unique species of animal, and some amazing volcanic geology. You can arrange trips from Quito, but – generally speaking - you will pay more than if you get to the islands first and then find a tour. There are always places on the cruise boats, so there’s no harm in taking a gamble and maybe saving yourself a few dollars... But do try and get there.

• Quito. The highest capital city in the world and the first city to be named a World Heritage Site, Quitos is a great place. There is plenty of evidence of its previous incarnation as a Spanish colonial city, and a multitude of interesting sights to see – or you can just kick back at one of the cities many cafes and just enjoy the bustle of the place.

Ecuador is a fantastic ‘bite-sized’ leg of any backpacking tour. Getting around is quite straightforward, and there are none of those daunting ‘err, that’s three days by bus’ moments! Plus you can do beach, rainforest and modern metropolis over the course of a week or two, and – if you’re just starting backpacking in Ecuador – you can ease yourself into one of the mellower countries on the continent...

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