In a land that boasts the Amazon jungle, active volcanoes, colonial-style cities, and the coolest animals on the planet (hello Galapagos), Ecuador is winning in the size-to-incredible-sight ratio.
Here are some of our tips on getting around this pocket-rocket country like a local, and getting some of the best non-touristy experiences along the way.
What to see
Outside of the Galapagos, there is an awful lot to see and do in Ecuador. In Quito, the old town is wall-to-wall colonial gems and it’s easy to while away an afternoon exploring. This is no tourist zone. Real-life goes on here as normal and you’re just as likely to stumble across a poetry reading in a micro-brewery as meeting a traditionally dressed Canari woman selling her wares.
1. Be sure to stop in at the golden church of Compañia de Jesus for a glorious sensory overload. If you’re lucky you’ll spot an evening wedding with tuxedoed guests.
2. You haven’t partied in Quito until you’ve taken a Chiva bus around the city, dancing while the driver drives up and down the mountains for the best views in town.
For a taste of life on the land, Cotopaxi National Park is only an hour or so from Quito and well worth the drive. Just look for the big snow coloured volcano. This is hacienda country and there are plenty of working farms that you can stay at and help out for a while.
3. Ecuadorians are an outdoorsy bunch. Pull on your hiking boots and join the locals for a trek in Cotopaxi National Park and search out white-tailed deer, Andean foxes and condors.
Heading further inland from Quito you’ll come to Ecuador’s corner of the Amazon. This spectacular area is an ideal place to learn about the local indigenous people and their way of life.
4. Eat like a local trying Amazonian fruit straight from the jungle, cacao treats and even tree worms.
Where to eat
Traditional Ecuadorian food involves a thousand types of beans, plenty of tropical fruits and lots of chicken.
In Quito, head to Mercado Central, the local food market. It’s worth walking around to see the piles of fruit, vegetables and unusual cuts of meat.
5. Go to the food court for a bowl of sopa de pollo. Chicken soup might sound simple but in Ecuador it’s anything but. Lots of flavour, some spice and, if you’re lucky, a chicken foot.
6. For a restaurant experience, head out of the old town to Itchimbia Park where the local dine. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from and some of the best views in town.
7. If you’re going to Cotopaxi be sure to stop by Café de la Vaca. This place is hugely popular with locals, especially on weekends. Meat, milk, cheese and corn are produced at the café’s own hacienda.
8. On the drive down to Otavalo, make a pit stop at Cayambe for leaf cheese and salt biscuits. These quintessentially Ecuadorian treats are so moreish you’ll probably want to stock up for the rest of your trip.
9. For dessert you can grab pan ice cream from a street stall in most towns. Ecuadorian ice cream is made in a copper bowl right in front of your eyes and choices include banana, blackberry and pretty much any fresh fruit that is on hand.
Where to shop
We’re not suggesting you buy a guinea pig or a horse, but a visit to see the weekend Otavalo markets is well worth it. The animal markets start early, so you’ll need to leave Quito at the crack of dawn but the sight of baskets of fluffy chicks (and the leaf cheese on the way) makes it worthwhile.
10. Check out Otavalo’s craft markets for brightly coloured rugs, ponchos, hats and jewellery. Don’t forget to bring cash – there are no ATMs here.
11. Close to Otavalo is Cotacatchi, a village famous for its leather goods. Shop for boots, belts and bags, many of them handmade by the shop owners.
12. Tianguez in Quito’s old town is not only one of the few outdoor cafes in the city (excellent coffee too) but also doubles as a fair trade shop. Goods such as jewellery, rugs, paintings and crafts are for sale at reasonable prices.
What to avoid
There are only a few overly tourist-y places to avoid in Ecuador.
13. If you’re visiting Middle of the World (the invisible line between Northern and Southern Hemispheres), we recommend you avoid the restaurants. They’re expensive, touristy and there are better places to eat just down the road.
14. In Quito, there’s a popular foreign bar called Bungalow, where locals often head to pick up tourists. While we’re sure there a plenty of beautiful love stories that have started here, it’s probably better to go elsewhere and party responsibly.
Words of wisdom
Nothing will surprise and delight an Ecuadorian more than an outsider pulling out a few slang words.
15. Try these and feel the ice break:
La plena? : Seriously?
Cojudo: Stupid (a mild insult so think carefully before using!)
Que bestia! : Amazing! Wild! Crazy!
Amiguis : Friend (usually girls)
Simón : Yeah, man!
Now you’ve got the tips, it’s time to organise a trip! Check out our range of small group adventures in Ecuador now.
Feature image by Ecuadorpostales.