Bucket List Worthy Let's Save Some Dough
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 rideand one departing from Quito to the south.
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.
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…)
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.
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.
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.
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.
This article originally appeared on Tim Leffel’s World’s Cheapest Destinations Blog.