There is hardly any other countries on Earth that is both as compact and diverse as Ecuador. Located in the northwest corner of the South American continent, Ecuador is cut through by the equator (with about 2/3 of the country in the southern hemisphere, and 1/3 in the north), and hence its name, which literally means “the equator” in Spanish. Being the fourth smallest country in South America, Ecuador, however, boasts a great deal of biodiversity: from the Amazon rainforest in the east to the soaring Andes in the center, the Pacific coast in the west, as well as the Galapagos Islands far in the Pacific ocean (yes, the pristine wildlife paradise that inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is under the Ecuadorian sovereignty). Ecuador seems to have it all.

Not only is it diverse, Ecuador is also one of the most liberal countries in the world in terms of immigration policy. It is remarkably often the final destination for world-renowned fugitives running away from Western powers. Julian Assange has been seeking asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since June 2012. Edward Snowden was originally on his way to Quito from Hong Kong before getting stuck in Moscow. These facts were more than enough to convince me to make a trip to this South American country. An additional interesting fact about Ecuador is that its official currency has been the USD since 2000. Hence, there would be few visa or forex hassles for most travelers going there.

This post summarizes some of the highlights of my Ecuadorian trip in May 2015. Itinerary and tips presented here can be easily generalized to any travelers to this fascinating country on a budget.

Quito

Elevated at 2,850m above sea level, the Ecuadorian capital is the word’s second highest – after Bolivia’s La Paz. At this height, Quito feels alpine cool all year round even though it is just at the equator. As a matter of fact, this “tropical” city can feel surprisingly chilly when the night falls or when it rains (which happens quite often during the spring–summer months in the northern hemisphere). My first immediate impression of this city is that it boasts an magnificent array of colonial heritage: monuments, plazas, churches, and colorful hilly residences dating back to the 16th century when the Spanish conquistadors founded San Francisco de Quito.

Quito’s colonial heritage is mostly well preserved, functional and utilized as they have always been where folks are still living in centuries-old little pretty houses with elaborate ironwork on balconies and window frames typical of the Andalusian region. A lot of them are found along the winding cobbled streets in Centro Historico – the city’s historic center. Strolling around and exploring the gems of Centro Historico sits atop my itinerary the first day or two. Unsurprisingly, Quito’s historic center is listed as one of UNESCO’s world heritage for obvious reasons. Walking along the cobbled streets of Centro Historico offers a meditative experience that feels both timeless and serendipitous.

Of the many plazas in Centro Historico, one that you cannot miss is the beautiful Plaza Grande that is surrounded by government buildings, museums, and luxurious hotels and bustling crowds of tourists, citizens and street vendors. This is arguably the most lively part of town during the day.

At the heart of the historic center is the Plaza de San Francisco, the plaza that you must not miss. This place is huge and truly impressive, whose one large side is flanked by the magnificent Church and Convent of St. Francis. While the convent now has turned into an art museum, fine restaurant, and gift shop complex, the cathedral is still in use. The art museum houses an less-than-impressive collection of paintings and sculptures made during the colonial period, all of which are Christian-themed. Remarkably, the cathedral features an impressive and elaborate golden Baroque altar.

The huge public space in the center of the plaza is mostly frequented by tourists for priceless photographic opportunities and street-food vendors. Interestingly, many of those street vendors are Kichwa women often seen strutting in their traditional costume composing of high heels, long tights and skirt, a colorful poncho to cover, and topped with a bowler hat (which I found particularly interesting to observe). Flocks of pigeons often come to the square late in the afternoon, where the indigenous folks would feed them. All of which creates a dramatic and lively scene at the wide open space.

On the second day of my stay in the capital, I made a visit to the towering Basilica del Voto Nacional, the cathedral that dominates Quito’s skyline. Apart from its being so tall and huge, and located on the top of a hill, the cathedral sports distinctive Gothic revival architecture, which signals that it’s relatively new (as compared to the colonial ones). Tourists can buy a ticket (for around 3 bucks) to climb up to the (almost) very top of the cathedral’s tower (through a wiggling and rusted, creaky iron ladder) to get a commanding view over the entire city’s skyline and the Virgin of Quito statue on the other hilltop.

The Andes

Quito was exciting for the first few days, but it quickly ran out of attractions because all it had were the historic center and those hilltop observatories surrounding it. To get to the real thrill, I had to venture out of the city to get to more authentic Andean towns and villages, where the local Quechuas would go about their daily lives as they have for centuries. The journey first look me to Latacunga, a sleepy Andean town located just two-hour bus drive south of Quito. Many travelers use Latacunga as a brief stopover to the mighty Cotopaxi just 25km away or as the gateway to the Quilotoa loop – for me, it was the latter case. Wandering around the cobbled streets of the historic downtown was interesting and provided lots of photographic opportunities and architectural viewing pleasures. The town, however, was pretty dead after 8pm, and the only visible hostel in town (that I stayed in) seemed to be the Hostal Tiana, where delicious continental breakfast with fresh pineapple juice was provided each morning.

Quilotoa loop is a string of remote Andean villages dotted around the famed Laguna de Quilotoa (or Lake of Quilotoa) – a gorgeous crater lake at the center of all the purposes of visiting the loop. The villages can be visited on foot on a multi-day hiking trail or more conveniently by bus for a few bucks, which I opted for. My first stop along the loop was the Sunday morning indigenous market in Pujili, where you can purchase anything from plantains, ponchos to live sheep or llamas to take home. Indigenous markets provide an authentic lens into the daily lives of the Kichwa people – natives of the Ecuadorian Andes. I was particularly fascinated by their colorful costume and sampling the local food.

The highlight of the loop is of course the crater lake itself. At an elevation of almost 4,000m on its highest rim, the Lake of Quilotoa is perhaps one of the highest crater lakes in the world. Hiking along its rim was an incredible experience because the view down the bottom was simply breathtaking, and on a clear day, you could see the snowcapped Cotopaxi from afar. Hiking down to the bottom is quite a different experience, where a well-paved trail has been developed, and along the way you’d encounter all sorts of people – locals and visitors – stopping to take pictures, and also animals – dogs, donkeys, and horses – mostly used as means of transportation together with their copious amounts of ‘heavenly’ smelling dung. Watch out for shit down there!

The reward for the hike down was the closeup look at the beautiful crater lake, whose water is gorgeously emerald and volcanic gases can be seen bubbling up from the active volcano. The walk up was a hell of a hike because the thin air at such an elevation would make you feel so breathless. My Korean companion had a particularly tough time, and it took us 4X the effort to come up. Bringing sufficient water and energy-rich snacks is thus essential for a pleasant round-trip hike. The real reward, however, comes once you reach the rim on the way up and realize it’s the finish line of the excruciating hike. The lake would look ever more beautiful then, especially when the cool alpine breeze blows at your sweaty face to cool you down.

Compulsive selfie with the emerald lake #ecuador #laguna #quilotoa #craterlake #emerald #selfie

A photo posted by Joele (@vietexob) on

The Pacific Coast

The Pacific coast towards the west of the country boasts a great deal of attractions, most importantly the weather is tropically warm and the beaches are gorgeous – a stark contrast to the alpine central region. An important city on the Pacific coast is Guayaquil. In fact, it is the country’s principal port and the largest and most populous metropolis. Just two hours drive north of Guayaquil lies a charming fishing-village-turned-surfing-heaven called Montañita. Watching this documentary was enough to convince me that it was going to be my next destination on the Ecuadorian coast after much hiking on the Andes. It was time to relax on a sunny tropical beach and enjoy some fresh seafood.

Montañita is much more than your typical beach town. It has some of the best waves in Latin America – and surfers flock here from wide and far to ride them. Not only surfers, but also hippies or any kind of free spirited people would call this place home (or at least an extended stopover on their journey). My first impressions of this town were that there were a ton of hostels everywhere, people hanging out shirtless in the tropical heat and humidity, surf shops, bars, and tattoo parlors at every street corner, the night was always too young and everybody was always in a party mood. Remarkably, even though the town seems to survive entirely on tourism, the majority of the tourist facilities here are small businesses and family-run, where the locals are super chilled and friendly. All of which gives it ever warm and authentic feelings. Montañita is also surprisingly much more liberal than the rest of the country, where marijuana is openly traded on the streets and an LGBT beach bar is found amidst all the surf shops.

Being in a surfing paradise, what else could I do more but surf? Well, the first thing I needed to do was to learn how to surf. My hostel owner recommended the local shop run by her friend called Locales Pro. For 20 bucks per 2 hours of lesson on excellent waves, I was able to do some basic stuff after the first session and get a certificate after the second one. Surfing is fun, but it’s very taxing on your back and shoulders – no wonder why all those surfers are so fit. You think it’s just jumping and standing on the board, but it requires a lot of muscular coordination. Half an hour surfing is like an hour in the gym.

The beach of Montañita is great for many things and not just surfing. Swimming is not recommend though because of the strong rip currents that could take swimmers far offshore – and I’ve been warned about that. One of my favorite things of taking a beach holiday is to watch sunset (or sunrise) on the beach, when the colors of the day become the most spectacular. Sunset in Montañita is no exception, dramatic as always, even more so with surfers in the backdrop.

Life's a beach #ecuador #montanita #beach #sunset #surf #lifesabeach

A photo posted by Joele (@vietexob) on

Sun, sand, sea and surf #ecuador #montanita #sun #beach #surf #lifesabeach

A photo posted by Joele (@vietexob) on

There is no short of accommodation in Montañita, but if you seek a more serene place away from all the rowdy party scenes in town, El Cielo hostel is one such place (also where I stayed at). The hostel is run by a Polish-Brazilian couple who decided to call this town home. (Like most expats here, running a hostel seemed like a lucrative business.) It is pretty small, simple and homey styled (since the couple actually lived in there), supported by bamboo structure and surrounded by a lush garden (from where you’d get fresh papayas for breakfast in the morning). The only problem with this place (actually its major problem) is that it is infested with mosquitoes when the night falls. I still had crazily itchy mosquito bites one week after leaving the hostel. Staying there, and the lush tropical settings, reminded me of The Mosquito Coast – one of my favorite movies since I watched it as a teenager.

The Food

Ecuadorian food is as diverse as the country is. The main ingredients typically depend on what region: in the mountainous region, there are more red meat, plantains (they have lots of those there), lentils, corns, and soupy stuff; while on the coast, you’d have fresh seafood, delicious tropical fruits, and ceviche. One thing for sure is that they have some of the best soups (sopas) I’ve ever had. One of the must-try dishes in Ecuador is ceviche – or raw seafood ‘cooked’ by being cured in citrus juices. Typically, fish ceviche is raw while shrimp and squid are cooked. Therefore, taking extra caution is a must when consuming fish ceviche to make sure that it is fresh, free of parasites, and properly prepared from a experienced chef. You certainly don’t want to have gastrointestinal mishaps while traveling in South America.

Ecuadorian food galore. Best sopas ever! #ecuador #foodporn #sopas

A photo posted by Joele (@vietexob) on

Last but not least, the Amazon rainforest and the Galapagos Islands were left out of the itinerary due to lack of time and cash (much for the latter). Any visitors to this amazing country should really consider those if budget allows. From my research and conversations with other backpackers, Baños is a popular gateway to the Amazon. Visiting the Amazon rainforest is always an item in my long bucket list waiting to be crossed out someday.

Presentation slides of the post are available here as well as the photo essay.