South America. It's a continent that, up until this year, I had not set foot on, despite being fascinated by places like the Galapagos and Machu Picchu and frequently drooling over photos of Patagonia and the Bolivian salt flats. Other parts of the world had just always pulled me a little more (I won't pretend that I'm not in love with Europe).
But 2016 finally presented me with an opportunity to finally visit South America – and I jumped at the chance!
I didn't have a lot of time, though. So instead of committing to weeks traveling around various different countries, I decided to focus on just one country and one affordable trip. The country was Ecuador and the trip was Intrepid Travel's Ecuador on a Shoestring tour, which is one of the most affordable guided tours I've come across in a long time. (Note: As of 2018, this tour has been replaced with the Ecuador to Peru Adventure, which is extremely similar!)
This was perfect for a week away – Ecuador isn't that far from the U.S. (in fact, no overnight flights at all were required!), they use USD as currency, and I didn't need a visa – and yet it's so different culturally that it really did feel like an adventure.
Read on to learn what to expect from this Ecuador tour!
Before you go
If you're wondering what to pack for a trip like this, here are a few must-have items:
- Light layers (it can get chilly up in higher elevations)
- A raincoat
- Comfy walking sandals
- A mosquito jacket (bugs are no joke in the Amazon!)
- A pickpocket-proof day bag from Pacsafe like this or this
(Some more suggestions can be found toward the end of this post.)
Intrepid also requires you to have travel insurance for the entirety of your trip. You may be covered under your regular insurance plan, but if you're not, I recommend buying coverage through World Nomads. They offer the most affordable basic travel insurance out there.
When it comes to visas, most people won't need one for Ecuador (or Peru). But if you're visiting anywhere else in South America before or after this tour, be sure to check visa requirements before you leave home.
Where will you go?
This 8-day tour gives a nice overview of the diversity of Ecuador. It visits most of the country's different regions, with the exception of the coast. Stops include:
- Quito, Ecuador's capital
- A community stay in Ecuador's Amazon jungle region
- Baños de Agua Santa, where you can find an adrenaline rush
- Otavalo, home to a famous market
(The Ecuador to Peru Adventure removes the trip to Otavalo, adds 2 days in Cuenca, Ecuador, and then includes a flight to Lima, Peru.)
Who will you travel with?
True to any trip with Intrepid, your small group will likely be a varied one. Ages in my group ranged from mid-20s to mid-70s, with people hailing from Australia, the UK, Ireland, Canada, and the US. This is a pretty typical mix for an Intrepid group, in my experience. And, as always when traveling with Intrepid, our group was small – only 11 of us.
This Ecuador trip is actually the first leg on some of Intrepid's longer South American tours (like their 47-day Amazing South America trip), so don't be surprised if some of your tourmates are traveling together beyond Ecuador.
Who is the guide?
Our tour leader, a small Ecuadorian named Daniela, was great. She's been guiding tourists around her home country for years, and it definitely showed. Daniela was a great leader in the sense that she took care of all the little details of our trip flawlessly. We were never delayed, and we were always well-informed about where we were going, what we needed to bring, and when the next bathroom stop would be.
A guide can make or break a tour like this, but thankfully Daniela made it. She arranged extra things for our group (like a hike in Baños and a private mini bus to take us to some extra sites on our way to Otavalo), was always willing to answer questions about life and politics in Ecuador, and recommended some seriously good restaurants along the way. She even spent bus rides helping people practice their Spanish – that's dedication!
How will you travel?
Travel on this tour is done entirely via public transport – mostly by bus.
I had heard awful things about buses in South America (i.e. that it was very likely that your stuff might get stolen), but I'm happy to report that the bus rides were absolutely fine. We had assigned seats on every ride, the buses left on time, and no one had any issues other than being annoyed by Spanish Jackie Chan movies that were played on one of the buses.
Just be aware that some of the bus journeys are long – sometimes up to 5 hours – and that roads in the mountains can sometimes be windy. I made sure to take motion sickness tablets every day!
Where will you stay?
The Ecuador on a Shoestring tour (and the Ecuador to Peru Adventure) is classified as a “Basix” trip by Intrepid, meaning simple yet central accommodation, usually 2-3 star quality. If you are traveling solo, you’ll be sharing a room with at least one other person unless you pay the single supplement fee.
The accommodation on this trip included a hotel in Quito's Old Town with beautiful rooftop views (though beware, it can be noisy at night), rustic cabins at the Shiripuno Lodge in the Amazon, and a comfy and clean hotel in Baños. The hotels both had ensuite bathrooms, while showers and toilets were separate and shared at the Amazon lodge.
What will you do?
Activities that are included in the price of this trip include:
- A walking tour of Quito's historic Old Town
- A 2-day Amazon experience, which includes a jungle hike, chocolate making, and possibly river tubing
- A visit to the Otavalo market
(On the Ecuador to Peru Adventure, there's no trip to the Otavalo market, but walking tours in both Cuenca and Miraflores in Lima are included.)
This trip allows for quite a bit of free time, especially in Baños, where you can choose to do other things like go zip lining, try canyoning, or visit the local hot springs. Our guide also organized some extra optional things for us along the way, such as:
- A half-day tour to the Devil's Cauldron waterfall and Casa del Arbol in Baños
- Private transport to Otavalo so we could also stop at some viewpoints and the Equator
- Group hikes (for free) in Baños
How much does it cost?
This is one of the most affordable tours I've seen from Intrepid. Costs usually range from $900-$1000 (USD) for the 9-day Ecuador to Peru Adventure tour. That doesn't include your airfare to Ecuador, but does include all accommodation and transport, as well as 7 breakfasts, 2 lunches, and 2 dinners.
Is Ecuador safe?
Certain cities in Ecuador (Quito included) do have a reputation for being a bit dangerous. I'm not talking about getting kidnapped or anything like that, but pickpocketing and petty theft is fairly common. The best way to prevent this is to be aware of your surroundings, travel in a group after dark, avoid carrying a ton of cash or valuables on you, and make it difficult for someone to rob you (i.e., men, don't have your wallet clearly visible in a back pocket, and ladies, invest in a cross-body purse, or perhaps even a pickpocket-proof one from Pacsafe).
I also would not recommend leaving cash or anything else valuable (like your passport) in a hotel safe unless you personally have the key/code for it. We had an incident at one of the hotels on this trip where the “safe” was just a drawer at hotel reception, and at least two people ended up having cash stolen. (Though, putting $2,000 worth of cash in a clear plastic bag and handing it over to a complete stranger probably wasn't the best idea to begin with…)
If you're worried about keeping your stuff safe but lack an actual safe to put it in, consider picking up a portable safe for your trip, which you can secure around a sink or something else fixed to the floor in your room. Remember that most crimes are crimes of opportunity – make it difficult for someone to steal from you, and chances are they won't!
What should I bring?
Along with perhaps a portable safe and a good handbag, I would also recommend:
A mosquito jacket – In Quito and Baños, you won't need to worry about disease-carrying mosquitos. But you WILL have to worry about them in the Amazon. Mosquitos here can carry anything from Zika to malaria, so you definitely don't want to get bitten if you can avoid it. I bought an ExOfficio Bugsaway Damselfly Jacket, which is a lightweight mesh jacket impregnated with bug repellent. It works beautifully – paired with some bug spray, I didn't get one mosquito bite!
Bug spray – You'll need it in the Amazon, where you'll also have to contend with sandflies. Sandflies don't carry diseases, but their bites get VERY itchy. I took roll-on DEET, as well as a Picaridin spray that is safe for clothing and gear. These, combined with my mosquito jacket, worked perfectly.
Layers – Even though Ecuador is on the equator, that doesn't mean that it will be hot everywhere. The Amazon will indeed be hot and humid, but it will be much cooler and drier in Quito, which sits at an elevation of 9,350 feet. Make sure to have a light jacket or fleece on hand.
A rain coat – I went to Ecuador in March, and it rained nearly every day for at least a little while. I took a Columbia Evapouration jacket with me, which is light and packable but also completely waterproof. I also love the Columbia Arcadia jacket for women.
Would I recommend it?
So, at the end of the day, would I recommend Intrepid Travel's Ecuador on a Shoestring tour?
Bottom line: yes.
Despite long bus rides and sometimes worrying about stuff getting stolen, I do think this is a great introduction to Ecuador. South America can be a daunting destination, so having a tour leader to help you along the way is a great way to ease into traveling there.
Plus, you really can't beat the price!
Do it as a digital detox
Intrepid has just launched a line of digital detox tours, which will encourage people to leave their devices behind and fully experience destinations rather than seeing anything from behind a screen.
The Ecuador on a Shoestring tour was one of the first trips offered as a digital detox. (As of 2018, digital detox offerings include trips in Cuba, Mongolia, Patagonia, and Antarctica.)
I decided to disconnect on my own Ecuador trip, and I can tell you that, while it IS challenging (especially for someone as device-addicted as me), it's worth doing.
Read more about this digital detox trip here.
Is this a trip YOU would consider doing? Have you ever been to Ecuador?
*Note: I did receive a complimentary tour of Ecuador from Intrepid Travel. As always, though, opinions are 100% my own.