We never really knew what to expect from Ecuador. Before arrival we knew that Ecuador is a small country that grows coffee and cocoa, we also knew it was neither the richest or poorest in South America and that the President was a somewhat radical character (sheltering Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for one). Other than this we knew little about the place so we arrived pretty much without preconceptions.
Thanks to our Spanish course we spent seven weeks in Ecuador in the end, far longer than we’ll spend anywhere else. Also thanks to the Spanish course we were able to live with some of the locals and really get a little more under the skin than we’ll be able to do anywhere else.
So after seven weeks what did we find? Our overall impression was of a country undergoing a great deal of change. President Correa has raised taxes which has angered many people however at the same time, everywhere we looked we saw evidence of those tax dollars being spent. From the new roads all over the country, to the rainforest villages that have only just received power, to the new Airports in Quito and Guayaquil, to the government signs everywhere promoting Ecuadorian goods and the protection of the environment. It was hard not to feel that the life of most Ecuadorians has improved measurably over the last 10 years.
One example that particularly stuck out for me was in Ahuano in the rainforest. In the morning we saw some villages well outside of town that had only recently received both power and a road to connect them with Ahuano. In the afternoon we walked through the high school in Ahuano. We noticed an abandoned block and asked about it. Jamie, our guide told us that it used to be the dormitory for the boarding students. Since the road had opened the students in the villages that we’d seen no longer needed to sleep at the school as it was now possible to make the journey every day.
However there is a cloud on the horizon. Despite efforts to diversify, a lot of the money that has been invested in infrastructure has come from the oil industry which is really the heart of the Ecuadorian economy. Petrol in Ecuador is also subsidised to the point where even America looks expensive by comparison. As I write this the oil price has fallen massively over the last few months and I suspect that the Ecuadorian government is considering which infrastructure projects to suspend if it hasn’t already suspended some. I suspect that the next few years are going to be a little harder for Ecuador unless it diversifies its economy quickly or the oil price rises dramatically.
But enough about the economy and a little more about the country itself. First the bit that everyone has heard of, the Galapagos islands. If you haven’t already decided to see this wonderful natural environment I’m not sure I can say much to convince you. One thing I will say is that it doesn’t need to come at the cost of a hugely expensive cruise. While we took the cruise option (albeit at a last minute heavily discounted rate) our friend Jacqueline took a flight directly to the Galapagos and booked a 6 day land based tour plus a few day trips. She stayed on San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz and Isabella and although I don’t think she would recommend it over the cruise option, it was a fraction of the price at around $800 for 10 days excluding flights (another $400) she saw just as much wildlife as us and thanks to having a little flexibility she was also able to do a dive and saw sealife that we couldn’t. If you are on a budget and primarily interested in the wildlife then there is definitely an option for you that is worthwhile.
What we heard time and again from Ecuadorians however is that most tourists fly into the country then straight out to the Galápagos islands without seeing anything of the country. One aspect of Ecuador that stands out for me about the country is that it contains so much variety is so little landmass. In a continent of huge countries and vast distances to travel, Ecuador is the exception. It is possible to plan a route around Ecuador’s major attractions without taking a bus for longer than five hours. In that time you can surf in the lovely warm(ish) waters of the Pacific ocean, see beautiful colonial cities recognised by UNESCO for their cultural heritage, explore the rainforest, party with hippies on the beach, mountain bike, white water raft, paraglide, or just walk, exploring one the many climates from sea level to 6000m, semi desert to volcano to rainforest.
I could say positive things about Ecuador all day but it’s only fair that I include a few negatives. Firstly the food. For a country that can literally grow everything Ecuador had a surprisingly bland cuisine. The fresh juices and fruit salads are amazing but beyond that it seems that Ecuadorians largely eat deep fried meat with rice. The coast is an exception but even there the fayre is still fresh fish fried with rice. As a vegetarian it was common to be served two or three carbs on one plate (chips, rice and pasta is the record I think) and although the food was no worse that I expected, it was a disappointment when compared with Colombia. There is good food to be found in Ecuador especially in larger cities but it does not compare well with either Colombia or Peru.
Next the money. For a number of years Ecuador has used the dollar after suffering huge inflation in it’s own currency. This has had some interesting effects. First is that it is a little more expensive than Colombia for food and drink, although accommodation was often slightly cheaper. Secondly anything imported is expensive, costing more than you’d expect to pay back home. A good example of this is the bottle of Chilean wine that we bought our host José Maria when we left Quito. In England the same vineyard, grape, vintage etc costs £8 or £5.99 on special offer. In Ecuador (which is much closer to Chile) the cost was $23 (£15). Similarly our North Face backpacks that we desperately needed cost us at least 20% more than we would have paid at home and possibly up to 50% more. When you consider that that the average Ecuadorian salary is far lower than that of the UK. It explains why thousands of Ecuadorians drive across the border to Colombia or Peru to buy their new electrical goods.
Now it seems wrong to end a post about such a wonderful country on a negative note so I’ve saved my favourite subject until last; the people! I believed it at the time but having been to three more countries since, and also hearing from other travellers I firmly believe that Ecuadorians are the nicest people in South America. Like the Colombians that we met the Ecuadorians seemed totally honest with no desire to make a quick buck out of tourists. They also seemed extremely trusting, for example try taking a mountain bike for a ride around the block in England before renting it leaving no security whatsoever! With both host families that we stayed with we felt part of the family, being invited to meet the family friends in Quito and getting taken on a drive around the town at Grandma’s insistence in Manta. This is not to say that Ecuador is perfect, there are gangs that operate on the Metrobus in Quito to slit purses and lift valuables, but unfortunately every developed country has similar problems and crime of this type is rarely violent is Ecuador so while we were a little more careful in Quito we felt extremely safe everywhere else in the country.
So in summary if you are heading to South America make sure you stop in Ecuador, you might only be coming for the Galapagos but stay for the people, culture, colonial architecture and above all the nature. While the food will make you dream of Peru it is still better than in Bolivia!