Ecuador is divided into four different regions: The Amazon (el oriente), the Andes mountains (la sierra), the Pacific coast, and the Galapagos Islands. Two out of our three months in Ecuador we spent volunteering in three different places. I loved my time in Ecuador. The stunning mountains, the people I met, the things I learnt while volunteering, the fertile soil, and the possibility to buy peanut butter in many little local stores.
Volunteering in agriculture in Pimampiro
We worked at Santiago’s farm for almost two weeks. He was a kind host with lots of interesting ideas for the future. We worked from Monday to Friday from 8am to 12:30pm. I performed work such as picking weeds, picking fruits and vegetables, painting walls, and helping his mum in the kitchen. It was nice to work in the morning and have the evening off to relax. I enjoyed the time Santiago spent with us outside of work. He took us on a hike, to a zip line, and to the local river. Santiago had issues with people not showing up so he accepted everyone and within a couple of days, there were 16 volunteers and organization fell apart. The food quality went down and we rarely had proteins, fats, or vitamins in the meals. We slept in a cabin with mud walls that was built by previous volunteers. Unfortunately there were holes in the mud wall and the roof. So we got wet at night from the rain. I believe this project has great potential. I loved the other volunteers I met. It is a projects that attracts lovely people.
Quito surprised me with its beautiful old buildings. Especially the old town, the church San Francisco (full of gold), and La Ronda. A cobblestone street with lots of bars and restaurants that gets crowded at night and weekends. All of it we visited on a free walking tour. Pictures below are from the Govinda’s restaurant.
Latacunga is not really a nice city and most people stay there only one night. We stayed with such a great Ecuadorian couple that we went back a month later for a few days. Like us, Andrea and Diego want to build their own tiny house in the future, grow their own food, like Jazz, love to cook, eat bananas with peanut butter, and live as sustainable as possible. They made us realize that a Ninja blender/food processor would be very useful. Unfortunately hard to clean. We made our own peanut butter. The curry peanut butter was my favourite. It has been a while since we connected so well with somebody.
Hiking the Quilotoa Loop
The Quilotoa Loop is a self-guided hike for several days through the Andes Mountains, rivers, valleys, and canyons, a volcano with a beautiful crater lake located in Quilotoa, spectacular views, Quechua communities, alpacas, and cosy hostels.
In the morning we took a bus from Latacunga to Quilotoa (2.50 USD each, 2.5h). In Quilotoa we stayed in the Alpaca Hostel. Normally the hostels on the loop include dinner and breakfast. But this hostel let us use the kitchen and paying less (8 USD each for a private double). The next morning we got up very early to see the sunset on our way down to the Crater Lake. It took us around 40 minutes. On the bottom we laid down on a jetty and enjoyed the silence, peace, and the warmth of the first rays of the sun. We were the only people there. The path up was more challenging and took us 50 minutes. Before you leave a hostel make sure to get a map. We trusted Maps.me. Something we would bitterly regret later. On our way to Chugchilán we ended up at a river. I knew we had to cross. It was starting to get dark and on the other side of the river we saw a sign, “Chugchilán 1.74 km”. There was not a bridge (anymore) and on the other side was a steep hill with sand. My heart started to beat very strong, I felt foggy-brained, and very weak. I was close to tears. We somehow managed to cross the river. I climbed on a rock that was in the river and jumped from there on the other side. After, my boyfriend threw our backpacks to me. Luckily there were some roots I could hold myself when I climbed up the sand hill. Some of the roots broke. My mouth has never been that dry. It took us around 45 minutes to climb up. Later we found out that this route is considered as very dangerous and not the official way anymore. So instead of 5h it took is 8h from Quilotoa to Chugchilán. In Chugchilán we stayed at the Cloud Forest Hostel (15 USD each for a private double) which is run by a lovely and very helpful family. When we arrived I saw a huge Saint Bernard dog. He looked like Balu (the dog I had seen in photos from the hostel in Isinlivi where we were going to volunteer). It turned out that he was. So on our 4.5h hike from Chugchilán to Isinlivi he followed us, thanks to a bag full of bread the hostel gave us.
Useful information to hike the Quilotoa Loop:
- The crater rim climbs to 3’915 meters above sea level at its highest point. So if possible stay 2-3 days in Quito or Latacunga before the hike to adjust to the altitude.
- Leave your luggage you don’t need at a hostel in Latacunga. Most hostels offer this service.
- If you want to stay at Llullu Llama in Insinlivi it is necessary to pre-book by email as this is it only has limited space available. For the other hostels you will be fine simply turning up each day.
- It is possible to camp right next to the Crater Lake in Quilotoa and other places on the way. If so make sure to have a very warm sleeping bag.
- Start hiking early in the morning. It often gets cloudy in the early afternoon.
- Take enough money. There are no ATMs.
- Bring snacks and water with you before leaving Latacunga. Food is more expensive in the mountains.
- Bring all your warm clothes with you as the weather changes rapidly and can get very cold. Especially in Quilotoa.
- Consider it as part of the adventure to get lost. It is normal. In case of doubt, ask a local.
- The area is considered as very safe. Dogs are the main hazard.
- WIFI is hard to come by. Although a couple of hostels in Chugchilán do have access.
Our route: Latacunga > Quilotoa > Chugchilán > Isinlivi > Latacunga
- If you want to have the Crater Lake in Quilotoa at the end take a morning bus to Sigchos (2.5h) and start trekking from there to Isinlivi (3-4 hours).
- If you want to see the Crater Lake, but you have only one day, catch a bus from Latacunga to Quilotoa. It takes around 4-5h to walk around the Crater Lake. It can be exhausting since the path is along the hilly crater rim.
- It is also possible to take a bus to Chugchilán, spend the night and then do the 5-7 hour hike from there to the Crater Lake.
Volunteering in Isinlivi
Isinlivi is a tiny indigenous village on the Quilotoa Loop deep in the Andes Mountains at 2,800m. We volunteered there for a month in the beautiful eco-friendly mountain lodge Llullu Llama. Our main task was to make sure the guests are happy, well-informed about the area and feel at home. This included check-in/check-out of guest, serving dinner/snacks, breakfast, serving drinks from the bar, helping with administration on excel, and playing appropriate music.
For our work we got free accommodation and food. Even though we worked every day we felt very relaxed after. The cozy living room, amazing view, the possibility to use the spa, and the comfortable bed definitely played a role. We experimented in the kitchen a lot. A wonderful break from travelling.
A small magical town high in the Andes. Known for the healing powers of its hot springs and adventurous activities like bungee jumping, rafting, and zip lines.
We decided for the famous Ruta de Las Cascadas (Route of the Waterfalls). A 21 km long mostly downhill bike ride. We rented a bicycle in Baños (5 USD each, lock included). Along the way we stopped at the Manto de La Novia waterfall where we took a cable car ride to see the waterfall up close (1 USD). A fun and a bit of a thrill ride.
Most I liked the impressive Pailón del Diablo waterfall. Entrance is 1.50 USD. After a short hike and some crawling on all fours we could even stand behind the waterfall. Make sure you have either a rain jacket or umbrella with you if you do not want to get wet. The bus ride back was 2 USD each (bicycle included).
Like many other big cities in South America, Guayaquil has some dangerous places and is not so beautiful. But thanks to a family we stayed with we had a relaxed time. They made us feel at home, drove us around, and the parents joined us to Isla Santay. On the island are an eco-village and some crocodiles. Nevertheless the Parque de las Iguanas was more interesting. The iguanas are very trusting and therefore great to watch. I enjoyed walking along the Malecón. A nice boardwalk along the river. I liked Las Peñas. A lovely neighbourhood with many art galleries. And the Museum of Anthropology and Contemporary Art is worth to check out (free).
One day we met with a friend of mine from Switzerland, Stephanie. She is working for two years in Guayaquil with cocoa beans. One of the aims is to standardise the fermentation process. Thanks to her we could visit a cocoa farm, the middleman, and the company who exports the cocoa beans. The middleman is mainly a place where the farmers bring their cocoa beans. Those beans ferment there for a week and after get sold to the company. Cutting out the middleman would give the farmer a better price and the consumer a lower one. But often the farmers need the money right now and do not have time another week. It made me think about my mom who buys some of her food directly from a farm instead of from a grocery store. I am much more aware now how important it is to support a farmer directly.
Montañita is a surfer’s paradise with laid back beach parties all night long. There are only a few hostels that are immune against the music. Whereas in the mountains the rainy season just finished on the coast it just started (June). Anyway this did not keep us away from going to Puerto Lopez for whale watching (25 USD each). A good time is between June and September. We even saw the blue-footed boobies. A very rare bird species. Unfortunately the sea was very wild that day and I got pretty seasick.
A beautiful city to walk around with colonial buildings and along the river Tomebamba, art galleries (e.g. Art Gallery Miguel Illescas), a free symphony each Friday evening, a huge local market at Feria Libre, and the breathtaking Cajas National Park (especially the Laguna Toreadora) just 30 minutes away by bus. The bus stop is on the left side of the Feria Libre outside the bus station.
Cuenca attracts many expats to retire. We stayed with Stan and his wife Sharyl that we met at the hostel we volunteered. Stan is a wonderful person. He is 83 years old and still goes hiking twice a week. Sharyl is very skilled in creating a very comfortable home. Both of them seemed very interested in our plant-based diet. So we made them a coconut peanut butter curry, guacamole, avocado hummus, bread, Corviche, and Salprieta. The last two are both Ecuadorian dishes. Stan even made us a delicious plant-based banana cake without added sugar. One of the best I ever ate! And he taught me how to make coconut oil. Since he was raving about our cooking in front of his friends we ended up at their places and cooked for all of them as well. I am so grateful that we met, for our long conversations, and his eagerness to learn new things. It was such a great stay. During our stay Stan joined Couchsurfing. In an email he wrote me that now their meals are full of interesting conversation and lots of laughter. Sharyl is very happy even with all the young people coming and going. In the past she has been hesitant to entertain anyone, perhaps due to her depression. She is a changed person, lost weight and seems already to be enjoying better health.
Vilcabamba lies in the Sacred Valley of Longevity. One of those places in the world where people supposedly live to extreme old age. That myth has been debunked. Though through the perfect climate, air, water and growing conditions apparently people are healthier into old age. Vilcabamba attracts a large expat population, including highly spiritual people that speak with plants, trees, water, air, and animals. We volunteered in Tumianuma for three weeks on a biodynamic farm.
Volunteering in Tumianuma on a biodynamic farm
The farm of Walter and Susan lies in a sacred valley 30 minutes walking distance from the closest town, Tumianuma. We helped weeding, ploughing, planting, picking coffee, collecting wood, feeding chickens/cat/fish/dogs, collecting eggs, preparing meals, water the vegetables and flowers, and dig an irrigation system. It was nice to see the seeds we planted starting to grow out of the ground.
We worked from Monday to Friday from 8:30 am till 11:30 am and on the weekends we watched over the farm while Walter and Susan went back to Vilcabamba. Since we were in charge of the food we could make a list of food we would like. In the afternoons and evenings we read a lot, went for walks, took a bath in the river, or observed the thousands of fireflies and the Milky Way in a clear night´s sky. It was a great experience. Walter cares about the people who helps him on the farm and he took time to teach us various methods of farming such as biodynamics, permaculture, traditional Ecuadorian techniques, and vertical gardening systems. He also gave me an old phone since my one broke which I really appreciate. Unfortunately most apps do not work anymore even though the phone is only a few years old. One more reason why I would like to buy a Fairphone when I go back home. My dad just bought one. He told me the camera is not the best but the rest works proper.
Loja is just another big city. One day was enough to visit the Parque Recreacional Jipiro, the Puerta de la Ciudad, and the Plaza Parque Central. So we left one day earlier than planned to go Peru.
A typical meal includes a soup and a plate of rice with meat. It is possible to get a meal in a local restaurant (almuerzo: soup, a filling main course, and a fresh fruit juice) for around 3 USD. If you do not eat meat they are almost everywhere happy to replace the meat with an egg or sometimes beans. I was very happy when I found a Govinda’s restaurant in Quito and Cuenca (3 USD). Unfortunately the one in Cuenca was not that convincing. But there was another restaurant in Cuenca (Good Affinity, vegan, 3 USD) I really liked.
One of my favourite Ecuadorian street food is Cevichochos (1 USD): Chochos, corn, fried plantains, and tomato sauce. In Baños at the Pailón del Diablo waterfall we had a delicious empanada filled with avocado, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, and potatoes (1 USD each).
In the Andes, the food consists of rice, pork and root vegetables. On the coast it is common to get seafood with coconut milk and rice. In the province of Manabí are many dishes that include peanuts. E.g. Sal prieta: A condiment for dishes based on fish, plantain or rice. It contains toasted corn, toasted peanuts, coriander, dried oregano, salt and black pepper. Or Corviche (green plantain, peanut butter, and fish). We learnt how to make them and just left out the fish.
Other typical Ecuadorian food:
- Ají is a spicy sauce that contains tomatoes, cilantro, ají pepper, onions, and water.
- Patacones are the fried green plantains
We bought almost all our food in little stores down the road or at big food markets. Some examples to have an idea: 1 banana (0.05 USD), 1 pound lentils (0.80 USD), 1 avocado (0.50 USD), 1 pound quinoa (0.90 USD), 6 tomatoes (1 USD), 1 carrot (0.10 USD), 1 pound peanuts (1.90 USD), 1 pound peanut butter (2 USD), 3 mangos (1 USD), 1 pound chickpeas (1.50 USD).
A common theme amongst coffee producing regions in Latin America is that the good stuff is for export. So, Ecuadorians are more likely to serve you weak, instant coffee.
The tap water at most places is not recommended to drink. Although Ecuadorians may do so. Their stomachs are used to it. It is best to boil the tap water. On the beach the water contains chlorine.
- Couchsurfing is popular in Ecuador.
- hostels are available for 6 USD per night in a dorm. The only hostels we stayed in was on the Quilotoa loop which are between 15 and 19 each, including dinner and breakfast.
- volunteering is a nice option to spend a few weeks at one place.
- Camping is possible at many places (e.g. Quilotoa loop, Cajas National Park)
- Ecuador has a very good and comfortable bus system. Long-distance buses typically cost about 1-2 USD per hour. On the coast it is 2.50 USD per hour. Local buses inside a city are usually from 0.25 to 0.35 USD. Buses usually stop whenever you like.
- If you are travelling by car all 50 km is a toll for 1 USD.
- We hitchhiked often. It was much easier than in Colombia. Sometimes we waited less than two minutes. Sometimes more than an hour. That is usually the time we took a bus. Only a few people asked for money. Either we waited for another car or we agreed on a price. Often hitchhiking is faster than travelling by bus. Mainly because buses stop very often.
Things to know
- Most public toilets are free but do not have toilet paper.
- Many parks do have WIFI.
- Child labour is unfortunately very common.
- Most dogs are only outside, very territorial, and are not used to endearment. Be careful!
- Most roads are in a very good condition. Much better than Colombia and Peru.
- Ecuador is run by a democratic government. The people have had much control over the presidents in the past, voting them in and then kicking them out.
Like anywhere else it is important to be careful and use plain common sense. Ask which the neighbourhoods you should avoid are. Petty theft and slashing is very common. Especially in bigger cities (e.g. Quito) and busses. At night time the streets of big cities can be dangerous. It gets dark around 6:30 pm, so from then onwards it is recommended to take a taxi if going out. Smaller cities are safer. I loved to be able to hike in the mountains without being afraid of getting attacked.
Medical care is free for tourists in public hospitals. Also for travellers with no travel insurance. Malaria is present everywhere except the Galapagos and Quito. The Yellow fever vaccination is required if you have previously been in a country where it is present.
Many people picture Ecuador as being a really warm tropical country. Well it is not. Only on the coast and in the jungle it is warm but in the heights of the Andes it can get very cold. Since Ecuador is at the equator there are no seasons like in Europe. The temperature varies only a few degrees at each place over the year. But Ecuador has a very diverse range of climates. There is a distinction between a rainy (summer: October to May) and a dry (winter: June to September) season.
- The best time to visit Ecuador for beaches is surprisingly the rainy season. The rain only falls in short tropical bursts in the afternoon. The dry season can be too cool as well as cloudy and often overcast.
- It rains year round in the Amazon, but December to May is particularly soggy, with roads more likely to be blocked.
Spanish is the official language although Quechua is widely spoken across the country. Some other indigenous languages remain in use. English is taught in schools. But most people have only a very basic knowledge of English or none at all.
Official currency since 2000: US dollar (USD). Ecuadorian coins have the same value as their US equivalent.
Citizens of the United States, Canada and most European countries do not require a visa unless they want to stay for more than 90 days in one calendar year (90 days adding every entry in one year). It is possible to extend your stay in Ecuador between 90 and 180 days. This Visa is between 250 and 450 USD. We both did not have to show a return or onward ticket on the border.