Backpacking Ecuador Travel Guide

Ecuador might be small, but it certainly packs a punch.  As any backpacking Ecuador travel guide will tell you, Ecuador has one of the highest biodiversities for any country in the world and is a mecca for nature lovers who come to visit the Galapagos Islands, the Amazon, and the Andean region of Ecuador. Indigenous culture is still strong in several regions of Ecuador too, and the Otavalo market is one of the best in South America.  I’ve brought together all my Ecuador travel tips in this awesome Backpacking Ecuador travel blog.

Skip ahead to read articles about specific destinations in Ecuador

Vital Information for Ecuador

Currency: US Dollar.  (Check the exchange rate here)

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Capital City: Quito

Population: Estimated at over 16.4 million

Language: Spanish.  Kichwa (Quichua), Shuar and others are also in official use for indigenous people.

In an emergency call: 911

Where is Ecuador?

Backpacking Ecuador Where is Ecuador
Where is Ecuador? Credit Wikipedia.

Ecuador is on the west coast of South America, bordering Colombia to the north, Peru to the south and Brazil to the east.  The Andes run north to south through Ecuador like a spine, with the Amazon to the east, and the Pacific coast to the west, creating a beautifully diverse country.

Away from the mainland, the Galapagos Islands lie some 560 miles (around 900km) off the west coast of Ecuador and are usually reached by plane from Quito or Guayaquil.

Entry Requirements for Ecuador

Americans, Australians, Canadians, and British nationals don’t need a visa to enter Ecuador as a tourist.  Be sure to check with the Ecuadorian consulate in your area for the exact requirements and processes to apply for a visa if your country requires one.

The length of stay permitted on entering Ecuador is up to 90 days, and you may be asked for proof of onward travel, which is more likely if you fly in, although is becoming more common at land border crossings too.  

If you arrive in Ecuador by bus from Peru or Colombia, make sure you ask the driver to stop while you get an entry stamp, as sometimes buses don’t stop at immigration which causes problems for travellers later on.  You are also required to have valid travel insurance before you are permitted entry to Ecuador.  Your passport also needs to be valid for a minimum of 6 months from the date of entry into Ecuador, you will not be allowed to enter Ecuador if your passport expires before then.

If you want to stay longer than 90 days in Ecuador, you will need to apply for a visa before you arrive.  You may also be able to extend your visa once you are in Ecuador by applying at the Ecuadorean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility before the 90 days expires.  If you overstay you will be fined and may have issues returning to Peru in the future, so plan your trip properly.

READ MORE: Your Guide to Crossing Borders in South America

British travellers should use this website for up to date travel advice and entry restrictions when planning to go backpacking in Ecuador.

Americans can use the Department of State website, Canadians click here, and Australians can use has Smart Traveller to help.

Apologies if your country isn’t listed here – a quick google search for “(country name) gov travel advice” should bring up the relevant information for your country.

If you need to arrange any visas, Embassy Pages has a list of all the embassies and consulates for countries around the world.

Waterfalls around Baños - Backpacking Ecuador Travel Guide
Waterfalls around Baños – Backpacking Ecuador Travel Guide

Vaccinations for Travel to Ecuador

There are no mandatory requirements for any vaccinations when travelling to Ecuador, however, a Yellow Fever certificate may be required for some travellers, especially those who have previously been to a country with a risk of Yellow Fever transmission such as Brazil. 

There is a risk of Yellow Fever transmission in some parts of Ecuador, so please see this website for further information, and consult with your doctor or health professional to check current recommendations.  All travellers should ensure their routine vaccinations and boosters are up to date, including measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and the diphtheria-tetanus-polio vaccine. 

Hepatitis A and tetanus are also recommended for most travellers, and other vaccinations such as rabies, TB, Hepatitis B and typhoid are also recommended in some cases.  There is also a risk of Zika in some parts of Ecuador, so speak to your doctor before travelling if you are pregnant or trying for a baby.

Malaria in Ecuador

There is no risk of Malaria in the Galapagos Islands, in high-altitude areas such as Quito and Cuenca, or in Guayaquil.  There is a low risk of Malaria in areas below 1500m above sea level, around coastal areas and in the Amazon region.  Consult with your doctor before travelling to discuss malaria prevention in risk areas.

Colonial Architecture in Quito - Backpacking Ecuador Travel Guide
Colonial Architecture in Quito – Backpacking Ecuador Travel Guide

Is Ecuador Safe to Travel?

Ecuador has its problems, but to me, they’re no worse than anywhere else in Latin America, and it is usually a lot better than what is portrayed in the media!  That said, do read the Ecuador travel warnings on your government’s website to be fully informed.  Don’t panic though, just take the same precautions you would anywhere in the world.

Travel is not recommended within 20km of the border with Colombia, aside from at the official border crossing at Tulcán.  Be extra careful around Esmeraldas, where a couple of terrorist bomb explosions have occurred recently.

Travel on buses in Ecuador is common and usually safe, but pickpocketing and thefts on buses are extremely common, as tickets are cheap and no passport is required to board.  If you are backpacking Ecuador and plan to take buses, always keep your personal belongings on your lap, not at your feet or above your head, and try to travel during the day instead of taking night buses. 

Use official taxis, and either ask your hostel or hotel to call one for you or in Quito and Guayaquil you can take one from a taxi rank if, ensuring the taxi has a ‘transporte seguro’ logo.

The Swing at the End of the Earth in Baños - Backpacking Ecuador Travel Blog
The Swing at the End of the Earth in Baños – Backpacking Ecuador Travel Blog

Be careful going out at night, and heed local warnings about where to go, and where to avoid, especially in big cities like Quito and Guayaquil.  In Quito, do not hike up to the Angel statue at “El Panecillo” as muggings are common here – while I was in town someone in my hostel was robbed at knifepoint there. 

A common technique for attacking tourists is using a drug known as ‘scopolamine’, which is used to subdue victims and is transferred through touch – be very wary of anyone you don’t know offering you leaflets, drinks, food, etc.

I, unfortunately, had my passport, laptop and some money stolen from my locker in a hostel in Baños which put a downer on my time in Ecuador, but this could have happened anywhere.  Read more…

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Altitude in Ecuador

The Andes mountains in Ecuador are high enough to cause some altitude sickness, in particular in Quito which is 2800 metres above sea level.  When you arrive in Quito, give yourself a couple of days to acclimatize to the higher altitude before attempting any strenuous activities, or head to lower ground and work your way back to Quito slowly. 

Altitude sickness can be extremely serious; a headache and tiredness are common symptoms, drink plenty of water and take paracetamol to help with the headache.  If you feel sick, nauseous or disorientated, seek medical attention immediately.

Why go Backpacking in Ecuador

Although Ecuador is one of the more expensive countries in South America (due to using the US dollar as its currency), Ecuador’s small size means that you can do a lot in a short time.  And there is plenty to do here!  As well as the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador is also a great place to explore the Amazon, or hike a volcano, visit colonial towns and enjoy local culture and food.

Typical Food in Ecuador

Food in Ecuador is surprisingly varied, given the small size of the country.  Typical dishes you will probably come across include Encebollado fish soup, other seafood like Ceviche on the coast, and lobster is popular here too.  In the Galapagos Islands, I had a huge lobster for $20, which isn’t the cheapest meal, but still way below what you would pay in Europe and the US! 

Cuy (guinea pig) is common in the Andean regions, in particular in Cuenca and Baños, and Llapingachos are delicious grilled patties made with potato and cheese.  Don’t miss Locro, a thick, hearty soup served with avocado, yum!

A large (tasty) lobster - Backpacking Ecuador Travel Blog
A large (tasty) lobster – Backpacking Ecuador Travel Blog

Transport in Ecuador

Flights in Ecuador

There are some internal flights between Guayaquil and Quito, although buses don’t take much longer once you have taken into account the time waiting at the airport and are a great deal cheaper. 

To get to the Galapagos Islands you will need to take a flight, which can be arranged from Quito, although all flights pass through Guayaquil, so Guayaquil may make more sense as a departure airport depending on your other travel plans.  Flights to the Galapagos Islands are not cheap, although if you book in advance and are flexible with travel dates you can find some good deals. 

There are two airports in the Galapagos Islands; Baltra on Santa Cruz Island, and San Cristobal airport.  If you plan to island hop in the Galapagos, it may be worth flying in and out of different airports.  Check Skyscanner for up to date prices and availability below, or download the Skyscanner app here.


Buses in Ecuador

Due to its small size, you can easily cross Ecuador in eight hours if you need to.  Bus travel in Ecuador is very cheap compared to other day to day costs in Ecuador. 

However, Ecuador buses are notorious for pickpockets and thieves so be very careful with your belongings.  Keep them on your lap at all times, never by your feet, and check out these tips for buses in South America. 

Chivas are also common in Ecuador, these colourful party buses drive around the streets with pumping music and flashing lights and are an essential Ecuadorian experience!

READ MORE: Bus Travel in South America

A Colourful Chiva Party Bus in Quito - Backpacking Ecuador Travel Guide
A Colourful Chiva Party Bus in Quito – Backpacking Ecuador Travel Guide

Trains in Ecuador

There are some tourist train routes in Ecuador, including the Nariz del Diablo which is a beautiful journey across the dramatic Andean scenery.  Check out the Tren Ecuador website for details of available routes.

Taxis in Ecuador

Taxis are useful to take in busy cities but be wary of flagging down fake taxis.  Ask your hostel or hotel to call a taxi for you or call one yourself from a reputable radio taxi firm.  Alternatively, you can also use Uber or Cabify if you have WIFI or data on your phone.

Where to Stay in Ecuador

If you are backpacking in Ecuador on a tight budget, you could try Couchsurfing, although hostels are plentiful and generally of good quality.  Check reviews for recommendations from other travellers and choose your host or hostel carefully as you would in any destination.  Hostelworld is a good choice to book hostels and to see what options are available.


You can also find homestays, budget hotels, and luxury hotels in Ecuador too, so there is something for every budget.  In busy times and public holidays, it is advisable to book ahead, especially in popular destinations.

A Cute Cabin in the Forest of Mindo - Backpacking Ecuador Travel Guide
A Cute Cabin in the Forest of Mindo – Backpacking Ecuador Travel Guide

What to do in Ecuador

Ecuador is a joy for nature-lovers, and a trip to the Galapagos Islands is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you won’t forget.  Although it is off the itinerary for many people backpacking Ecuador due to the costs involved, if you can afford it, you won’t regret it! 

On the mainland, Quito is a bustling capital city with a magnificent cathedral, great restaurants and a surprisingly green attitude, especially on Sundays when several of the main roads are closed to cars to create cycle routes around the city. 

Otavalo has one of the best markets in South America, which you could visit on a day-trip from Quito or spend a couple of nights exploring the area.

READ MORE: Ziplining in Mindo

The beach town of Montanita is popular with backpackers for surfing and its party scene, whereas Mindo is a beautiful area in the cloud forest, close the Mitad del Mundo, where you can have one foot on either side of the Equator. 

Cuenca is a charming colonial city, with cobbled streets and white-washed buildings, and Baños is another pretty town close to waterfalls, volcanoes and natural springs.  If you enjoy outdoor activities, visit Cotopaxi National Park and hike Cotopaxi Volcano, or head to Quilotoa Lake for more beautiful scenery and hiking.  Let’s not forget the Amazon either, where you can venture into the jungle for an incredible Amazon experience.

Work and Travel Ecuador

If you are backpacking Ecuador slowly, you might want to take advantage of the volunteering opportunities available to allow you to work and travel Ecuador without spending much money.  You can find volunteering placements in Ecuador on work exchange websites like Workaway, HelpX and WorldPackers, where you pay a small fee to register on the site which allows you to browse available opportunities and contact the hosts. 

Volunteering work varies from working at a hostel to teaching in schools, helping to build eco-projects or helping a family to care for their kids.  Volunteering in Ecuador like this is a great way to meet local people and become part of the community, and to save money.  There are even opportunities available on the Galapagos Islands. 

In exchange for part-time work, volunteers usually get lodging and some food included.  Spanish is useful but not always essential to work and travel Ecuador.

Rural life in Ecuador - Backpacking Ecuador Travel Guide
Rural life in Ecuador – Backpacking Ecuador Travel Guide

Volunteering in Ecuador

Other volunteering companies offer ‘Voluntourism’ placements, where you pay a fee to join an organised volunteer program, usually costing anywhere from $300 to $600 and above per month.  Try South American Explorers for listings.

Volunteering in the Galapagos Islands

In the Galapagos Islands I volunteered at Hacienda Tranquila on San Cristobal Island and loved it, although it doesn’t seem to be running anymore. 

We were working on various projects to help the local community and environment, for example clearing out areas of land with invasive plant species and re-planting native species, tidying and painting a kids’ play area, and helping a local farmer prepare and plant crops. 

The initial investment wasn’t cheap, but in my time off I got to explore San Cristobal Island during the two weeks I was there, and then went island hopping for another week.  Check out the available placements on Worldpackers to see where you can volunteer in the Galapagos Islands.

Suggested Ecuador Backpacking Route

This Ecuador backpacking itinerary gives a good idea which backpacking route to take so you can go to all of the best places to visit in Ecuador.  Of course, this will change depending on onward travel plans, how much time you have, what kind of things you like to do, and how much money you have to spend (in particular for the Galapagos). 

I travelled by bus from Peru to Ecuador, and continued north to Colombia, so I will start the itinerary like this, although it is easily reversed and adjusted to suit your plans.

An Iguana in the Galapagos Islands - Backpacking Ecuador Travel Guide
An Iguana in the Galapagos Islands – Backpacking Ecuador Travel Guide

Backpacking Ecuador Itinerary

Cross the Peru Ecuador Border at Huaqillas.  The border crossing is notorious for scams; I took an international bus both times I crossed this border, which went from Mancora in Peru to Guayaquil.  Although going to Guayaquil as your first stop may seem like you’re skipping southern Ecuador, the distances are small enough that it is quick to continue to your next stop. 

From Guayaquil you could go straight to the Galapagos, as all flights pass through here from Quito on the way to the Islands.  Alternatively, from Guayaquil head to Montanita on the coast, Cuenca in the heart of the country, or further south to Loja if you have time.  You can also get a bus direct to Loja from Piura in Peru if you wish.  From Loja, spend a day or two exploring southern Ecuador in the Parque Nacional Podocarpus, and Zamora.

Then make your way to beautiful Cuenca.  Ingapirca is the most important Inca site in Ecuador, so if you are not sick of ruins after Peru, be sure to visit.  From Cuenca, if you haven’t been to Guayaquil yet, pass through on your way to the beach towns around Montanita. 

Head back inland to Baños, then Latacunga from where you can visit Quilatoa Lake, and the Cotopaxi National Park.  Quito has to be included in any Ecuador itinerary, it would be a shame to miss it!  And it is a great base to explore the north of Ecuador for example Mindo, Mitad del Mundo and Otavalo. 

Flights to the Galapagos Islands are also available from Quito, and Quito is a good starting point for any Amazon adventures.  After Otavalo you can take a bus to Tulcan and cross the border to Colombia.

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The Essential Guide to Backpacking Ecuador on a Budget