Every few years I do an updated post on travel prices in Ecuador, plus when there’s a new edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations coming out I dive in deep on that research. In reality though, prices don’t really change much on the mainland. One of the main reasons is that Ecuador converted to a US dollar-based economy two decades ago to tame inflation. It has worked, bigtime. “We don’t even know what inflation looks like anymore,” said one hotel owner to me last time I was there. “The only things that go up are imports and whatever the government decides to raise taxes on.”
I have commented on the most prominent of the items that go in that last category: alcoholic beverages in Ecuador. Basically anything alcoholic that is imported has a massive tax now that effectively doubles its retail price over what it would be in the USA, so only domestic items like beer and cheap rum are priced at a point where even middle class people can afford them. Everything else costs more than you would pay in Dubai.
But that’s the odd category out in a country that is competes with Bolivia as the cheapest place to travel in South America (and edges that country out because of far lower visa fees). And it’s not cheap in a Paraguay kind of way. It’s a fantastic bargain because there is so much to see and do here. Thanks to climates that can go from beachfront tropical to snowy mountaintops to the Amazon jungle, changing your weather is as easy as getting on a bus.
It won’t be a bargain to visit Ecuador’s main draw–the Galapagos Islands. They are a fantastic experience you can’t get anywhere else, but are a real budget buster, equivalent to months of travel on the mainland even if you go with the cheapest tour company. Save it for when you’ve got a few thousand dollars tucked away to spend on vacation. The rest of the country, however, is one of the best values in the Americas.
Ecuador has historically been a calm place to visit (in contrast to intermittent flare-ups in neighboring countries), and also you can get to anywhere in a day from the capital, Quito. The country is blessed with an impressive variety of natural attractions though. Massive mountains, Amazonian jungle, beaches, and colonial towns are all here. This small country boasts one of the highest concentrations of volcanoes in the world.
Quito looks a bit better each year and it’s worth spending more time here than in La Paz or Lima. Lots of restoration money has poured into Old Town and much of it is gleaming. It’s a pleasant and relatively safe area filled with cafés and evocative hotels. Rent a bike on a Sunday and ride through with no cars on the main drag or in the historic center.
Atacames and other towns along the coast offer a mellow Ecuadorian beach vacation, with the requisite thatched roof beach bars, drinks served in coconuts, and salsa parties at night. You can head out to the fringes of this scene and find quieter and cheaper abodes if you’d like. There are some beautiful secluded beaches tucked along other locations on the coast, especially in the Los Frailes nature reserve, but most take some work to get to. Montañita is a popular surf spot with cheap lodging and food. You can get a two-hour private surfing lesson for $15 or so.
The next best thing to the Galapagos is to arrange a boat trip out to the protected Isla de la Plata, in Machalilla National Park. Some agencies in the nearest town, Puerto Lopez, offer packages with snorkeling. This island offers a glimpse at some of the same creatures you’d find in the Galapagos, as well as some great whale watching during a few months of the year.
The market in Otavalo is on the “must see” list for visitors to Ecuador and is often thronged with tour groups. It’s a real market for locals, however, so apart from having a good souvenir selection, it also offers a glimpse at how business is transacted here. If you stick around a while and stay later, you’ll see that tradition still rules here and many people still wear the outfits of their village. Besides, it’s widely known that prices rise as soon as the tour buses pull in, and then fall as they depart. Spend the night here or in nearby Cotacachi to see a different side.
Cuenca is the country’s cultural center and probably has more foreign residents than any city its size in South America. Lots of travelers and expatriates are lured by the weather, the pace, and the beauty. Rents here are easily half or less what you would spend in your home country, so Cuenca pulls in a lot of retirees looking to stretch their funds.
Baños has long been another popular stop, with its hot springs, pleasant cafés, dramatic mountain views, serious hiking nearby, and permanent spring climate. The same for Vilcabamba, which is known as the longevity capital.
A few studies have pegged Quito as one of the most affordable international real estate markets in the world and Cuenca is constantly cited as a great international living value. Spending at least $25,000 on real estate gets you a residency permit. Getting a maid is so cheap that very few expats clean their own house and some residents report monthly expenses under $800 a month–total. Medical care is good and affordable. In short, one of the cheapest places to live in the world.
If you don’t like the weather where you are in Ecuador, just change altitude. You climb higher to cool off or head to the beach or jungle to get warm.
Here’s what it’ll cost you these days to travel in Ecuador, as of 2019.
Food and Drink Prices in Ecuador
I don’t often tweet my lunch, but I did when I got a three-course lunch for with pineapple juice for $2 in Cuenca, two blocks from the main plaza. They had free Wi-fi, so I couldn’t resist. This was a great deal, but you don’t have to walk very far in Ecuador to find a big lunch for $3 or less and street snacks are super-cheap.
Ecuador has not really been known historically as a foodie destination, but as in Peru, many travelers are impressed with their meals here and chefs are reconstructing traditional Andean dishes to wow visitors. Some tour companies are even offering gastronomy tours of a week or more. Besides being able to grow nearly anything in this varied climate, the Ecuadorans also make great cheese, have plenty of seafood, and grow some of the world’s best coffee and cocoa beans. Be sure to sample some good chocolate, especially the more experimental options coming out of here.
Street snacks (corn pancakes, empanadas, nuts, humitas) – 20 – 50 cents
Set meal of the day: $2 – $6 (the latter a cloth napkin kind of place)
2-liter soda: $1
Soda/coffee in restaurant: 50 cents to $1.50
Domestic beer in restaurant: $1.50 – $2.50
6-pack of domestic beer in store: $4 – $5
Glass of wine in restaurant: $5 – $12
Ice cream in shop: $1 – $1.50
Ice cream novelty from store: 40 cents – $1.25
Juice at juice stand: 40 – 75 cents
Pizza slice with a soda $1.50
Giant helping of french fries with a hot dog on top – $1-$1.50
Rolls from a bakery: 10-15 for $1
Seasonal fruit/vegetables: 50 cents to $1.25 a kilo
Transportation Travel Costs in Ecuador
Gasoline is around $2 a gallon here (under 50 cents per liter), while diesel is about half that, so transportation is cheap. Check out this photo for the prices from the airport in Cuenca! Uber is available too if you don’t even have that much cash on you.
The roads improved massively over the past decade. Half the reason the longest-term president the country has ever had enjoyed such an unprecedented high approval rating was all the road projects that got finished.
He also got the train lines upgraded to reach from Quito almost to Guayaquil, but they’re not really used much for practical transportation. Routes are more like tourist sightseeing trips and are priced accordingly. Fun, but not an economical way to get from A to B in most cases.
Taxi in cities: $1.75 – $6
Hour+ taxi ride from Quito airport to center: $22 – $33
Local bus ride: 25 – 50 cents
Tram ride in Cuenca – 35 cents
Overnight intercity bus ride $8 – $14 (around a dollar an hour)
Short intercity bus ride: $1.50 – $5
One-way flight from Quito to Cuenca: $75
Hostel and Hotel Prices in Ecuador:
Lodging prices have stayed amazingly stable since I first visited the country in the ’00s. If you’re a backpacker, it’s best to be traveling with someone else because a cheap double room is usually far less than two hostel beds—and there aren’t all that many hostels outside the main draw places.
Mid-range hotels are generally a good deal in Ecuador. Nice places with a private bath and breakfast start at around $20 for a double and for $40 to $60 you can usually find a beautifully appointed hotel room in an interesting building. You can often get a large family suite for $50-$75. Except at the cheap places, you’ll be hit with a service charge and tax though, which combined can be as much as 25% of the room charge.
Top hotels here are a real bargain by international standards. Of the 108 hotels in Baños, only four will usually top $100 a night. Only the very best hotel in Cuenca consistently gets more than $100 a night double. The best selection is usually on Booking.com.
Hostel bed in Quito or Cuenca – $7 – $15 per person
Basic double hotel room with private bath, maid service, breakfast, hot water – $10 to $40
3-star equivalent hotel double – $24 to $75 (cheaper outside the cities)
National park cabin – $5 per person
Other traveler prices in Ecuador:
Claro or Movistar Sim card: $4 – $5
B&W/color copies – 2 cents/7 cents
Roses – 25 cents each, or a bouquet of flowers for $1
Flower bouquets – $1.50 – $5
Haircut in a barbershop or salon – $2 – $3.50 (or $5 with a manicure)
One hour massage in a salon – $10-$15
Half-hour “health massage” in a health food store: $2 – $5
Admission to most museums and sites – $1 to $3.50
Hand-woven wool or alpaca scarf that took days to make: $15 – $20
Full day at a water park: $10
Portions of this post were excerpted from the 5th edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations, scheduled to come out in July of 2019.