Our Ecuador & Galapagos Travel Guide
Whether it’s your first time travelling to Ecuador & Galapagos or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.
At a glance
Ecuador bursts with contrast and colour. It's small – the same size as the UK – yet is an explorer's paradise: lofty Andean peaks, tropical rainforests, white-sand Pacific coastline, and the incomparable Galapagos Islands, home to the animals and birds whose evolutionary adaptations shaped Charles Darwin's theories of natural selection.
Quito, the country's capital, was once a part of the Inca Empire and retains some of the best-preserved early colonial architecture on the continent. The Carondelet Palace, Basilica del Voto Nacional, Cathedral of Quito and many beautiful churches located in the centre of the city are all examples of the capital's rich heritage. Along with Krakow, it was one of the first cities in the world to be designated as a cultural heritage site by UNESCO.
And Ecuador is rich in natural produce, too, and is a large exporter of tuna, plantains, cacao and more recently oil which buoyed country's economy in the second half of the 20th century.
Culture & etiquette
Ecuador is generally quite a conservative country, and a little politeness will go a long way.
Nearly all the standard soft drinks are available in Ecuador. As with most countries, it is advisable to drink out of a glass rather than straight from the bottle or can, as there may have been kept in tap water ice to keep cool. It is also advisable not to drink from the taps, even in the cities. Bottled water is cheap and usually easily within reach. You can find lots of delicious fresh juices made from all the wonderful fruit in the country.
Beer in Ecuador mainly comes from 2 companies. Pilsner, a pale refreshing which is generally the most popular beer is from the Cervecería Nacional, as it is referred to on the coast or Cervecería Andina in the highlands. The other company is based in Guayaquil, the Cervecería Suramérica's main brew is Biela, which is lighter than Pilsner.
There is no good local wine made in Ecuador. You can of course find great new world wine from Argentina, Chile on the shelves and a few imports of French and Italian wine.
For a real kick try a shot of aguardiente -- Spanish for 'fire water', a strong spirit made from fermented sugarcane and all but officially considered the national liquor of Ecuador. It's widely popular throughout the rest of South America as well. There is decent rum found in most areas, most commonly Ron Castillo or Ron San Miguel.
If you travel in Ecuador when the Ecuadorians are in full fiesta mode, you may also get the chance to sample some of the homemade traditional concoctions, such as canelazo a mixture of boiled water, sugarcane alcohol, lemon, sugar, and cinnamon typical of the Andean region. In some communities the traditional beverage chicha, made from fermented maize or cassava, is not complete until the person who is preparing it has chewed the ingredients and spit them back out. So if you are curious be careful to source your chicha from a non-chewing source.
Other alcoholic beverages, you may come across in Ecuador include guarapo, also made from cane; anisados, liquor flavored with anis; secos, cheap and flavorless alcohol good for mixing; Espíritu del Ecuador, a fruity, golden liquor; and rompope, a Latin American version of eggnog, often bought pre-mixed with rum.
Highlights of the cultural calendar include many traditional regional festivals, interspersed with international arts, music and sports events. Major dates include:
6 January - Epiphany (Reyes Magos): Celebrated mainly in the central highlands, most notably in Píllaro in Tungurahua, but also in Montecristi on the coast.
February/March - Carnival (Carnaval): The week before Lent is marked by nationwide high jinks, partying and water-throwing. Beach resorts can get packed to the gills. In Ambato, carnaval is celebrated with the grand Fiesta de las Frutas y las Flores, with parades, dancing, bullfights and sporting events (but no water-throwing).
March/April - Holy Week (Semana Santa): Religious parades take place across the country during Holy Week, when many shops and services close and lots of people head to the beach. The big processions in Quito are on Good Friday.
June - Corpus Christi: A moveable festival in mid-June, on the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday. Celebrated in the central sierra, particularly Salasaca and Pujilí, with danzates (masked dancers), wonderful costumes and, in Pujilí, 5-10m poles for people to climb in order to claim the prizes at the top.
21 June onwards - Festival of the Sun (Inti Raymi): A pre-Conquest festival celebrated on the solstice at important ancient sites such as Cochasquí. Also subsumed into the Catholic festivals of San Juan, San Pedro and San Pablo, collectively known as Los San Juanes in the Otavalo and Cayambe regions.
June 24 - San Juan: John the Baptist's saint day, celebrated particularly heartily in the Otavalo region, beginning with ritual bathing in Peguche and ending with ritual fighting (now discouraged) in San Juan on the outskirts of Otavalo. Outsiders should avoid these two particular activities, but there is plenty of music, drinking and dancing to take part in.
29 June - San Pedro and San Pablo: considered especially important in the Imbabura province, this fiesta is also celebrated countrywide. Bonfires are lit the night before, and young women wishing to have children are supposed to jump over them.
24 July - Birthday of Simón Bolívar: countrywide celebration of the birth of El Libertador. Public holiday.
10 August - Independence Day (Día de la independencia): public holiday commemorating the nation's first (thwarted) independence uprising in Quito in 1809.
15 August - Fiesta de la Virgen de El Cisne: the venerated statue of the virgin is paraded by thousands of pilgrims for 72km from El Cisne to Loja, where it stays in the cathedral until 1 November (the reverse pilgrimage takes place then).
September - Yamor Festival: A big shindig in Otavalo held during the first two weeks of September, with processions, music, fancy dress, fireworks, dancing in the streets and not a little Chicha del Yamor, the fermented corn beverage the festival is named for.
24 September - Mama Negra de la Merced: The religious one of two important fiestas in Latacunga, marked with processions and focusing on the Virgen de la Merced.
9 October - Independence of Guayaquil: big celebrations take place in Guayaquil on this public holiday.
12 October - Columbus Day (Día de la Raza): marks the discovery of the New World. Rodeos held in Los Ríos, Guayas and Manabí provinces, an expression of muntuvio culture.
2 November - All Souls' Day/Day of the Dead (Día de los Difuntos): an important holiday throughout the country. Communities go to cemeteries to pay their respects with flowers, offerings of food and drink, and incantations. Colada morada, a sweet purple fruit drink, and guaguas de pan, bread figures, are eaten and drunk.
3 November - Independence of Cuenca: the city's largest celebration also a national holiday.
First Friday or Saturday of November - Mama Negra: Famous fiesta in Latacunga with colourful parades and extravagant costumes, centered around the Mama Negra - a blacked-up man in woman's clothing, who parades through the streets on horseback. Events continue up to November 11 celebrating the Independence of Latacunga.
21 November - Festival of the Virgin of El Quinche: pilgrims and bystanders celebrate at the famous church outside Quito.
6 December - Foundation of Quito: this public holiday sees festivities across the capital, with parades, dances, bullfights and sporting events.
25 December - Christmas Day (Navidad): Midnight mass or Misa del Gallo is followed by a family meal. Look out for Pases del Niño around this time, processions during which families who possess a statue of the baby Jesus carry them to the local church to be blessed during a special mass.
31 December - New Year's Eve (Nochevieja): A particular Ecuadorean tradition is to create and display años viejos, large effigies of prominent personalities associated with the year's happenings - these are ceremoniously burnt at midnight, dispelling the old year in a flash (and a burst of firecrackers).
Food & drink
Ecuador is fast making a name for itself as one of South America's foodie hotspots. With an amazing variety of spices and exotic fruits available in abundance, Ecuadorian chefs have been experimenting with tantalising dishes, though traditional fare is still the norm. All over the country you will find various national and regional dishes, most of them containing many wonderful local vegetables. Prices for a meal can range from $3 to a blow out $50 a head at some top restaurants. The average price for a nice meal is about $18-$20.
Specialities in Ecuador can differ from according to location but a few national delicacies include: Cuy- guinea pig; Llapingachos - cheese and potato patties, usually topped with a fried egg; Fritada - chunks of fried pork, typically served with a thick slice of avocado, fried sweet plantain, corn, hominy and llapingachos; Locro - this creamy potato and cheese soup is not to be missed. It is also sometimes served with avocado, and Empanadas- this is a stuffed pastry, the stuffing is usually a combination of meats, cheese, herbs, vegetables or fruit.
Seafood and fruit are 2 linchpins securing Ecuador's up and coming culinary scene. The fruit is native, juicy and fresh, including blackberries, bananas, passion fruit, little orange, dragon fruit, prickly pear and many exotic others. The coast offers delicious seafood in abundance, served at incredible prices. Some coastal favourites include: Viche/Biche - a fish stew with balls of mashed plantain, peanuts, fish and yucca; ask for a generous helping of lime to get the full flavor of this dish; Ceviche/Cebiche- pieces of raw fish (or shrimp, clams, crab or other seafood) marinated in lime juice and salt with onions and tomato; Encebollado- fish soup made with onions and yucca; known locally as the ultimate hangover cure; Conchitas Asadas - black clams that are roasted or broiled until they open; Cazuela de mariscos- a seafood stew made with tomatoes, onions, peppers, green plantains, cumin, achiote and other spices; versions vary, sometimes also made with peanuts and coconut milk. If you asking for the fish or seafood dish of the day you will rarely be disappointed.
It could, and has been argued that Ecuador reflects the whole of South America in one country. There are four main geographical regions: the Pacific Coast, the Galapagos, the Highlands and the Amazon. Each is host to wonderful wildlife, scenery and plant species. The name 'Ecuador' derives from the fact that the country borders the Pacific Ocean at the Equator. It also shares borders with Colombia and Peru, and a large series of rivers that follow the southern border spill into the northwest area of Peru.
The Pacific Coast stretches along western Ecuador, characterised by sunny weather and unspoilt beaches. There are five provinces, with 640 km of coastline between them. These regions are home to an expansive network of rivers and spectacular beaches. Understandably then, the provinces of Esmeraldas, Manabí, and Guayas are a draw for tourists from all over the world and are regarded as The Coast's jewels. The area is made up of fertile plains, rolling hills, and sedimentary basins traversed by a plethora of rivers, making their way into the Pacific from their sources high in the Andes.
The Galapagos Islands are made up of 13 islands, 17 islets and many little rock cluster formations, lying roughly 1,000 km from Ecuador's coastline. These islands are volcanically formed and Galapagos is one of the most active volcanic centres on earth, with nine active volcanoes. The islands remain best known however for their unique flora and fauna, with many of the species found nowhere else on earth. They make up a world of their own, one in which apparently 'fearless' animals can be viewed at incredibly close quarters. It's easily possible to swim alongside sea lions and penguins, and on land too, encounters with the giant tortoises and varied bird species can take place in close proximity, though none of the animals should be touched, tempting as it might be.
The Amazon Region is comprised of the High Amazon and the Amazon Lowlands. The Andean foothills make up the former, and here you'll find the Napo, Galeras, Cutucú, and Cóndor ranges. The most impressive elevated regions of this area are in the north and include Volcano Sumaco. The Lowlands, found further to the east, are home to some of the nation's most beautiful and important rivers: the Putumayo, the Napo, and the Pastaza.
The Highlands take the form of The Andes Mountain Range. This majestic range of mountains crosses the country from north to south. The Occidental and the Oriental Ranges are born from this mountain system as it divides in the province of Loja, in turn forming plains and valleys along the Andean Corridor. Between the two ranges there is a plateau, this reaches heights of approximately three thousand metres. The Highlands Regions, commonly referred to as La Sierra, is made up of ten provinces, each of which have important peaks such as Chimborazo, the Illinizas, Cotopaxi, Cayambe, and Antisana.
Buses are the vital veins of Ecuador, transporting people around inexpensively from city to city, village to village. The network is extensive, and serviced by dozens of different companies, and the buses - especially the long-distance luxury variety - are reasonably comfortable (short haul, local services are often the slowest and most rickety).
Hiring a car, with or without a driver, is doable and a good way to see the country at your own pace. Speak to a WEXAS Travel consultant about hiring a car before you leave. Road surfaces and markings can be poor, especially in rural areas and Ecuadorians are not renowned for their driving so beware and drive defensively, particularly at night - avoid driving after dark if possible.
If you're in a hurry, consider flying. Domestic flights are quick and reasonably priced and can substantially reduce travel times, even with checking-in times and short delays. In comparison, trains are far from wide-ranging, quick, easy or on time, though still fun if you can find a service that fits in with your travel plans.
The history of pre-Inca Ecuador gets lost a bit in legend but it's generally accepted that the first permanent sedentary culture was the Valdivia, who came from Brazil some 6000 years ago. Following them was the Chorrera, perhaps the most influential of Ecuador's early cultures and the Bahía, Jama-Coaque and Panzaleo who practiced the shrinking head technique known as tzantza.
Into the first millennium AD, these disparate groups joined to form more organized, larger and more hierarchical societies, the likes of which the Incas met when they first arrived in the mid 15th century. The arrival of the Incas disrupted centuries of relative peace, and despite some fierce opposition, and heavy defeats on both sides, the Incas soon came out on top - and heavily punished the groups who had opposed them.
But the Incas didn't last long. The emperor Huayna Capac died in 1526, leaving his Empire to two sons. Partition was inevitable and a bloody civil war divided the empire until Huáscar was defeated by Atahualpa on the Ambato River, near the site of the modern day city of Ambato.
A wasted, bitter and divided empire was how Pizarro and the Spanish arrived in 1532. Armour, horses and gunpowder were new to the Incas and the conquistadors were both respected and feared because of it. Less than a year after their arrival, Pizarro summoned Atahualpa for negotiations, ambushed him, murdered his entourage and later tried and executed him in 1533 for crimes 'against the king', among others.
Atahualpa's war-general Rumiñahui was, understandably, quite annoyed, and fought the Spanish for a further two years, burying Inca treasures and razing Quito to the ground, before he himself was captured and executed. This effectively brought an end to the great Inca Empire, though the influence of the empire is still evident in Ecuador today, in language and the arts.
From 1535 to the 19th century, Ecuador was held under Spanish colonial rule, first as a province of Peru and then as the Audiencia de Quito (in 1739 it was transferred again to the viceroyalty of Columbia). Life for the majority was poor and desolate, though agriculture and the arts boomed and there were few if any major revolts against Spanish rule until the 1800s when an increasingly disparate social structure between prosperous landowners and effectively enslaved laborers was becoming more evident.
There were several attempts to liberate Ecuador from Spanish rule. The first of note, led by Juan Pío Montúfar who installed a new government in Quito, latest just 24 days before royalist troops quelled it. And it was a decade until Simón Bolívar freed Venezuela, Colombia and then arrived in Guayaquil in Ecuador in 1820 to do the same thing. The final blow to Spanish rule came two years later on May 24 at the Battle of Pichincha where Bolívar's forces defeated the royalists and took Quito. After a few years of flirting with the idea of a unified South America, Ecuador was finally independent in 1830.
Like other countries across Latin America, the period following independence was far from settled, with an increasing tension between liberals and conservatives often ending in violent assassinations on both sides. Still today, this division remains - though it is markedly less volatile - with the conservative base at the capital of Quito and the liberals at Ecuador's largest city, Guayaquil.
Though Ecuador escaped the military dictatorships that others endured throughout the 20th century, the military still played a role in politics, ousting numerous presidents, often numerous times. The discovery of oil in the 1970s brought some stability to the economy and political sphere - though severely threatened large swathes of the Ecuadorian Amazon basin - but it was short lived as slumping oil prices and a catastrophic earthquake in the late 80s reopened the gap between rich and poor, right and left. Strikes and short, ineffectual presidential terms marred the 1990s and a stumbling economy and sky-high inflation led Jamil Mahuad to replace the national currency with the US dollar, a process known as dollarization. It was a controversial decision that proved highly costly to individuals and to Mahuad, too, who was ousted by Vice President Gustavo Noboa.
In recent years the economy has stabilised and social and welfare reform has brought a higher standard of living to a larger demographic. It remains fragile however and subject to international prices and even the severe weather patterns of El Niño.
Politically, the country stays near the edge - a state of emergency was declared in 2010 following a police strike - but Ecuador continues to be one of the continent's safest travel destinations.
Ecuador has a strong tradition of high-quality craftsmanship. The markets can be loud, intense, but often host exceptional local crafts. Produce can range from weaves and mats to clothes and chess sets. Bargaining is accepted - if not expected - however larger stores have fixed prices. Tourist stores are generally over priced and stock low quality items.
High-end restaurants in Ecuador will add 12% tax and 10% service charge to the bill. Should you choose to tip further, 5% for the waiter who served you is considered satisfactory - tip your waiter directly, do not leave money on the table.
At the airport, tip porters about $0.25 per bag and at top hotels, bellboys would usually get about $1 per bag. Generally taxi drivers are not normally tipped, but if you would like to tip a helpful driver, it is advised to leave them the small change from a metered ride.
Guides are often paid fairly low wages, and they always appreciate a tip. The rate is dependent on the tour you undertake. As a guideline, about $5 per person a day for a group tour is about right, with about $2-$3 for the driver. On a private tour you would expect to tip the guide about $10 per day.
Where to eat
Family run eateries known as comedores or salones are common, and offer both amazing value and authentic set menus, though pick carefully in terms of general cleanliness. The bigger cities all have run of the mill fast food pizza outlets or Chinese restaurants, other restaurants vary from basic to rather good, serving both Ecuadorian and international specialities.
In the bigger and more touristy cities, especially Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca, the food scene is exciting, eclectic and often elegant, running the whole range from neon-lit food chains to exclusive up-market eateries, serving every sort of cuisine.