10 Reasons Why Ecuador is a Great Budget Travel Destination

Ecuador travel

I’m in Ecuador right now, the third time I’ve been here. I’m finally making it to Cuenca this time. I’m sure I’ll be back again because after three trips I have still just scratched the surface.

This is a small country compared to many of its neighbors, but due to some natural geographic advantages, there’s actually more to see and experience here than in most other countries in South America. It’s on the equator, but has mountains covered with snow. It has beaches at sea level, but its capital is the second-highest one in the world. It has steamy Amazon jungle, but in some areas you need a jacket all year. There are plenty of reasons for luxury travelers to come, but here are a few good reasons to visit Ecuador if you’re not loaded with cash.

10) Nowhere is like the Galapagos
It’s not cheap to visit the Galapagos, don’t get me wrong, but if you’re going to splurge sometime, this is a spot that’s worth it. And the dirty secret of the Galapagos is that every ship stops at the same controlled places on each island in order to preserve them. (That’s why everyone’s photos look so similar.) So whether you spend $7,000 each with a luxe tour company or under $3,000 with G Adventures, you’ll have a pretty similar experience, The differences are in how plush your cabin is and what you’re served for dinner. If you’re the type that enjoys haggling, try contacting some Ecuadoran tour companies in Quito instead, especially if it’s close to departure. I’ve heard of people getting a week-long cruise for as little as $1,500 each after airfare and park fees.

taxi prices travel Ecuador

9) Cheap gas = cheap transportation
The other night I needed a cab ride home from the travel industry convention I was at in Quito and was out of cash. “I’ll cover it,” said Max from GoNOMAD. About 40 minutes of traffic later, we arrived at our hotel. I owed Max half of $6 for that ride. Check out the chart above for taxi prices from the airport in Cuenca. Hey, diesel is a buck a gallon and regular gas is a shade over $2. As a result, a nice overnight bus can come in under $12.

8) Beaches nobody knows about.
Can you name one beach in Ecuador? Most people can’t, but there are some nice ones on this Pacific coast near the equator, with strikingly low prices compared to other coastal resort cities. Plus thanks to ever-improving road systems, you can now get to them much faster from Quito (a few hours) or Manta (less than an hour).

7) Fun train trips
There are not many train trips you can do in South America. But Ecuador has spent close to a billion dollars revamping its train system, with new engines, new cars, and new tracks. There’s a new luxe train trip going between Guayaquil and Quito now, but there are also inexpensive short trips you can take for a day, including the Devil’s Nose train ride and one departing from Quito to the south.

San Francisco Plaza Quito

6) Quito is a fantastic colonial city.
The historic center of Quito was in the very first round of UNESCO World Heritage sites and it’s the largest preserved colonial center in South America, dwarfing all the others. It’s not just a few blocks of cool old buildings and then skyscrapers. Here you could wear yourself out walking around the old city. There’s plenty to occupy you for a few days too in terms of plazas, churches, and museums. Try to come on a Sunday when the streets are blocked off for pedestrians and cyclists. See this article (with video) on my Sunday car-free bike riding up through the newer Mariscal part of the city.

5) Cuenca is so nice people forget to leave.
International Living has rated Cuenca the #1 retirement living destination in the world for Americans for several years now. Even if you’re not old and gray though, you’ll see that the reason so many people came and never left is because it’s a beautiful city with great weather. There are also a lot of things to do nearby, with panoramas like the photo at the top of this post, and places to eat well (if you’re not a vegetarian that is…)

Andes vendor

4) They can grow almost anything here.
Want to go to the market with $10 and come back with enough fruit and vegetables for a week? You can do that in Ecuador and it’ll be a great variety too. With so many elevations here and volcanic soil, they can grow most anything, from bananas, sugar cane, and mangoes on the tropical coast to coffee, apples, and berries in the highlands. The only thing they don’t seem to have managed is the right grapes for good wine.

3) Distances are not long.
The official tourism people like to talk about their new roads with the promise you can “eat breakfast in the Andes and have dinner in the Amazon.” And that’s if you don’t fly. You can get from Quito to the beach in a few hours, from Quito to a hacienda next to a snow-covered volcano in a few hours too. When I went from the capital to a remote cloudforest last time, it took less than three hours.

2) Internal flights are not costly.
You can take a cheap bus in Ecuador, or you can get somewhere quickly without breaking the bank. Even if you walk up to the airport counter the day of departure, a flight from Cuenca to Quito is under $80 one-way.

Ecuadoran food1) You can get filled up for cheap.
Traditional food in Ecuador is not the healthiest stuff in the world: think lots of friend things with corn in them and thick stews and soups with cheese. It’s pretty tasty though and if you’re not on a diet (or are doing a lot of hiking), you can eat a set meal for a few dollars or buy street food for even less. If you’re cooking yourself, you can feast on food that’s very fresh.

So what’s not to like about Ecuador? Well the president apparently thinks only rich people should be able to drink any alcohol. Everything besides domestic beer is now crazy expensive because of super-high import taxes. Prices are double or more what you would pay in the USA for everything else and when I was in a supermarket this week I saw Stella Artois and Negra Modela for $15 a six-pack. Seriously! A bottle of Bacardi was $40.

The traffic in Quito is pretty brutal (a metro is on the way) and nobody seems to have much good to say about Guayaquil, the largest city. But hey, no place is perfect and considering the price-to-value ratio of the experience here, Ecuador is probably the best deal of all in South America.

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Comments
  1. Gerald

    Those taxi prices are insane! That won’t even pay for the subway in some cities in Europe. How much is a local bus?

    • daniel

      0.25$ a little quarter :v

  2. Jeff

    When we moved to Cuenca in early 2010, the most expensive taxi ride was $2. Now we regularly pay $4 from El Centro (downtown) to our house in the northeast corner.

    So, yes, it’s cheap here, but not nearly as inexpensive as it was. Correa plans to phase out fuel and propane subsidies (that’s why gas prices are so low) by 2016, so Ecuador’s era of inexpensive everything will soon be over.

    Tim, sorry I missed you when you were in Cuenca (we met in Toronto at TBEX). I’m currently in Vilcabamba, away from Cuenca’s cold winter weather.

    • Tim Leffel

      Thanks for the update Jeff. I was going to get in touch with you but I don’t think I ever got your card at TBEX and couldn’t remember the name of the blog.

      It wasn’t very cold in Cuenca though – just when we climbed altitude up to the national park. Mid-60s at night when I was there. Very pleasant.

      I guess a $4 taxi to the suburbs from the middle of a good-sized city is more than $2, but you’ve got to admit that’s still an extreme bargain compared to most parts of the world. It’s funny – the people I met who are living there think Ecuador is the best value on the planet if they travel outside the country frequently. But then people who have been there five years or more complain that, “It’s not as cheap as it used to be.” But what place is as cheap now as it was five years ago? Around the world, the cost of basic goods has universally gone up since 2008. But Ecuador has much lower inflation, so I’d bet its prices have risen less than anywhere else in South America. Except maybe for the price of real estate in Cuenca specifically, which is rising faster than the rest of the country because of the gringo effect.

    • zeus

      AFTER THE 2015 SAFEGUARDS, AND APRIL 2016 EARTHQUAKE ECUADOR HAS BECOME REALLY EXPENSIVE —- ESPECIALLY FOR LOCALS, THANK YOU CORREA!!!
      NOW I JUST CAN’T WAIT TO SEE HOW MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE THINGS WILL GET AFTER THE SUBSIDIES ARE ABOLISHED…

  3. Eitan Herman | Places to visit

    I’ve never been to Ecuador but I have read your this article.I won lot of travel information about Ecuador.You are great writer right now.

  4. Priscila

    Ecuador, our peace of paradise. Come and have a ball in its amazing places.
    No comments for political groups¡¡¡¡

  5. Hanna

    Hi! Ecuador is surely inexpensive country to travel, also it´s one of the cheapest countries to visit the Amazon rain-forest. The variety different fruits and vegetables is also amazing. The distances are short, but a short trip by buss can take ages.

  6. steve

    Those beer and spirit prices are still cheaper than in Australia, but obviously a greater proportion of total income for residents.

  7. LARay

    And here are some reasons why Ecuador is NOT such a great travel destination (except the Galapagos – the Galapagos is fantastic!).
    The ugliness of Ecuador is staggering. Everywhere you look, and I mean EVERYWHERE, there is formerly beautiful scenery that has been ruined by the Ecuadorian people. It’s quite a depressing place for an outsider because we can see so much potential beauty in the mountains, forests, etc., but most of the beauty has been stripped by a culture of people with no vision or leadership. Ecuador could be a beautiful country, especially the Andes, the cloud forests, the volcanos and the Amazon. But unfortunately most of the beautiful areas have been spoiled. For example, on my excursions around a tourist town called Baños I saw:
    – A beautiful big waterfall, except right beside it was a concrete block shack topped with rusty tin and surrounded by trash. It looked unused and could be removed, but nobody has the vision to do that.
    – Another potentially beautiful waterfall, but at the base of it were locals washing their clothes and letting the soap and other pollutants be carried downstream. And some genius decided it was a good idea to put a bunch of power lines right beside the top of the waterfall too.
    – A cable car that went across a gorge. The cable car was powered by a loud diesel engine that belched smoke into the air just below the entrance, so the smoke rose and choked the people waiting to get on the cable car. At the destination end, the riders are greeted by a half finished shack and a pile of trash. You can go for a little hike if you dare, but you have to walk across a wooden bridge with rotten boards and hope you don’t fall through. I’m sure their criterion for replacing the rotten boards is to wait until one breaks. If somebody falls to their death then they’ll hope it was a local that won’t bring any attention.
    – Many of the streams had ugly pipes in them to divert water to things like trout farm tanks. But many of the pipes seem to serve no purpose at all. Why not remove the ugly pipes that serve no purpose?
    The ugliness of the towns is nothing short of astonishing. The towns are nothing but collections of unfinished concrete block houses surrounded by trash and leftover building materials. I’m not talking about just a few buildings that are under construction. I’m talking about almost every house in every town. Our tour guide told me that the houses are left unfinished on purpose just in case they decide to add another story to the building someday. At least 50% of the houses (if you can call four bare walls of concrete blocks covered with a tin roof a “house”) and other buildings have rusty rebar sticking out the top. Of course by the time they get around to building up someday, the rebar will have rusted to nothing, but at least it had the benefit of providing rust colored stripes running down the sides of the buildings. Many of those houses have spare building materials piled on the roof (next to the rusting rebar sticking out of the roof). The other 50% of the buildings [that don’t have rebar sticking out the top] are also ugly to the extreme. My tour guide said that most of the buildings are built without any permits, sometimes on public land or often on somebody else’s land, and then they’ll bribe some government official for a permit after the fact. No doubt the corruption in Ecuador is rampant just like any Spanish speaking country.
    Some people will say “the people are poor so it’s not their fault.” HOGWASH. This ugliness has nothing to do with being poor. It has everything to do with a culture that has absolutely no vision about how to create a clean, beautiful setting versus just slapping something together with no pride or caring. As in all poor countries, I saw lots of people sitting around doing nothing. Couldn’t they spend some of that spare time cleaning up their yards? Or cleaning up the trash that decorates every hillside? Or getting rid of those unneeded and unused shacks (and surrounding trash) that are ruining the things that tourists (i.e. money spenders) want to see?
    Yes, of course more money would help, but you could give these people a boatload of money and they would use it to build more unfinished ugliness. The problem is the culture, which desperately needs vision and leadership, but apparently none exists. All too typical in any country that speaks Spanish.
    It would be interesting to pick a town at random and move out all of the Ecuadorians and replace them with Swiss. Give the Swiss people the same jobs and income that the Ecuadorians had and see what happens. Within five years the town would be completely cleaned up. The trash would be gone from every yard and street. The leftover building materials would be disposed of or stored out of sight. There would be no more buildings with rusty rebar sticking out the top. The waterfalls, hillsides and other tourist attractions would be free of unused shacks and piles of trash. The local plants would be used for colorful decoration. AND TOURISTS WOULD WANT TO COME THERE AND SPEND THEIR MONEY!
    The most puzzling ugliness was at the tourist destinations. Why would a cable car operator, who caters to tourists of course, think it’s a good idea to have unused rebar and concrete blocks and other trash laying around in the walkway between the parking lot and the cable car? How could anyone think it’s a good idea to put up a rusty little chicken house right beside a huge waterfall that tourists will come to see? Why would anyone think it’s a good idea to put plastic pipes in an otherwise beautiful stream to divert water to a random location that serves no purpose?
    Would I recommend Ecuador as a tourist destination? Definitely not. The beauty that existed long ago has been spoiled and stripped by the Ecuadorian people.
    The Galapagos Islands are officially part of Ecuador but they are wonderfully protected so I do highly recommend the Galapagos. But be warned about the airplane trip to the Galapagos. If you are a tall American, you won’t be able to fit into the seats that are designed to accommodate under 5-foot-tall Ecuadorians.

    • Manny

      I only wanted to leave this reply cause of Larry’s post. What a dick. Generalizing all Spanish speaking countries as dirty, he has obviously never been to spain, chile, Argentina, many, many parts of Mexico and many parts of Central America, Larry, you should just stay in the states… He sounds like such an asshole, “let’s see what would happen if the Swiss lived here,” well the Swiss were never colonized and forced out of thousands of years of culture. In fact They’ve had it pretty good throughout history, so yes, they are light years ahead of Ecuador and all those Spanish speaking countries with “no leadership or vision,” as you call it. I guess Larry, that before you start traveling the world from the privileged vantage point of your American high horse, you should pick up a history book and feed that retarded mind of yours some information.
      And yes, I am a fellow American (from the states) as well.

    • Tim Leffel

      Laray, you obviously feel strongly about this since your comment is longer than my whole post. But have you been to other protected areas in Ecuador like Mashpi or Las Cajas? Have you hiked the protected volcanoes? They’re stunning and kept free of what you’re describing.

      Most of what you’ve listed here I could also show you in Mexico, Honduras, Cambodia, or Nepal. You’re putting your first-world sensibilities into a third-world country and expecting the two to be the same. They won’t be for many decades. The visionaries—like the developer of Mashpi—are the people who have spent a lot of time abroad.

  8. Denise

    What are the definite Must See places in Ecuador? My husband and I will in Esmeraldas for the month of March. Is this a good time to visit the Galápagos Islands? What is the best or most economical way to get the islands? We are not into the large organized tour groups and we are not divers, but we do like to explore. How do you recommend getting from Quito to Esmeraldas, bus, taxi or fly? Any recommendations would be appreciated.

    • Tim Leffel

      Any guidebook will lead you in the right direction on this and unlike most of what you find on the web, will be well-researched. I like the Moon Handbook one the best, but Lonely Planet, Footprint, and others are reliable too.

  9. stormy

    Interesting comments. Larry’s was most disturbing, but not enough to change my travel plans. In August, I’m going to Quito with my son and a few of his friends. (all in their 20’s and me at 60 something). This will be my first time leaving the continent of North America. It scares the heck out of me going to a third world country like Ecuador. We will visit the Amazon, and stay at the Samona Lodge, we will see Cotopaxi… and trip around in the Quito Zoo. The horror stories frighten me. The diseases and getting my shots frighten me. The long ass bus ride from Lago Agrio to the Amazon freaks me out. But I am going. I have my passport, and my packing lists, and water purification tablets. I hope to survive traveling in Ecuador with a bunch of 20 year olds and live to use my passport to travel to another continent.

    • Tim Leffel

      It’ll all be less, ahem, stormy than you expect. Crime is lower than the USA and though it’s certainly poor in many areas, it’s not Bolivia. They use the U.S. dollar, so inflation is very low. The shots are probably just things you’d get for any developing country–there’s nothing out of the ordinary there unless you’re living in the jungle for an extended period.

  10. Holly

    Hi, I am travelling to Ecuador & Peru next month (April) with my 6 year old . I really want to go to the beach in Ecuador but I am worried because many of the pictures don’t look very sunny and I really need a beach break. I am also worried about my son in the ocean because of the surf. I am considering changing my tour to include Cuba instead of Ecuador. Do you have any advice?

    • Tim Leffel

      There’s a defined beach season there where the water is warm and it’s sunny. Outside of that time, hardly anyone goes. It’s on the Equator, but because of the way the sea currents work, it’s not a balmy beach spot all year. That’s true for most of the Pacific until you get to Colombia and Central America heading north.

    • Angelina

      Holly would be interested in any info if you did go to Ecuador. I’m heading there Dec with 2 children and also considering a beach break.

  11. ALEX MENZEL

    GO TO TENA. Hi guys, I am agree with the title of this article. Ecuador is a fine, not expensive destination. And i would love to mention about a place called Tena in the Amazon region which is an amazing place that offers similar things like the town banos but is not that crowded with tourist. Expending there 3 days you will be able to do trips by canoe, visit ethnic groups, do rafting o kayak, walks to the jungle eat amazing food like “tilapia en maito” etc. The best part was that Tena is 1 hour 45 min to San Rafael Waterfalls. Totally recommend to go to Tena. I stayed in hostel Zumag Sisa and did the rafting and jungle tour with aqua extrem. Both did a great job.

  12. Robin Moore

    Hey, are there any casinos in Ecuador? We love it in San Jose, Costa Rica, because of the casinos and flat ground for walking around. The weather in San Jose is perfect for us too.

    • Tim Leffel

      I don’t think so. Lots in Lima, but I don’t believe it’s allowed in Ecuador.

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