Exploring Ecuador on a Budget with Intrepid Travel

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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!)

Banos, Ecuador

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!

Ecuador on a Shoestring tour with Intrepid Travel

Before you go

If you're wondering what to pack for a trip like this, here are a few must-have items:

(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.)

Napo River in the Amazon in Ecuador
Napo River in the Amazon
Textiles at the Otavalo market in Ecuador
Textiles at the Otavalo market
Banos, Ecuador from above
Banos from above

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.

Ecuador on a Shoestring tour
Me and Roisin heading into the Amazon!

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!

Hiking to the Virgin Mary statue in Banos, Ecuador
Daniela leading us on a hike.

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.

Hotel in Quito
The courtyard of the Hotel San Francisco in Quito.

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.

Rooftop in Quito, Ecuador
The rooftop of our Quito hotel.

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.)

Quito, Ecuador
Quito, Ecuador
Amazon in Ecuador
In the Amazon

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
Devil's Cauldron waterfall in Banos, Ecuador
Swing bridge at Devil's Cauldron waterfall
Splitting the equator in Ecuador
Doing a split across the equator
Hiking to the Virgin Mary statue in Banos, Ecuador
Hiking in Banos

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).

Quito, Ecuador

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!

Eating cacao in the Ecuadorian Amazon
Me in my mosquito jacket, eating cacao fruit.

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.

RELATED: Travel in the Time of Zika: Avoiding Mosquito Bites on the Road

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.

Casa del Arbol in Banos, Ecuador
Rainy afternoon at Casa del Arbol in Banos

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!

Street art in Banos, Ecuador
Street art in Banos

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.

Volcano in Ecuador

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. 

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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35 Comments on “Exploring Ecuador on a Budget with Intrepid Travel

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  1. I’m currently on the basix ultimate South America, including Ecuador on a shoestring and I can’t fault it. We’ve been seriously impressed with the accommodation on a basic tour, much better than we expected. We’ve visited some amazing places and had fab guides. Highly recommended.

    Great post Amanda!

    I’ve travelled with Intrepid before to Vietnam. About 9 years ago! And I had just the best time! 🙂

    Surprisingly, outside of the Domincan Republic, I’ve never been to South America. I love the Asian continent you see…! However, I would consider this trip and perhaps for a little longer still, since I would be coming from Germany!

    The hotels look quite OK although I would probably be wary of going on trips that say “basix” these days lol! How basic was it really? Are we talking cold water and thin mattresses or homestays? Homestays I can live with, but constant cold water and hard-stone pillows remind me of my trip to India. Aaargh!

      “Basix” can mean different things depending on the trip. But on this one you stay in hotels with real beds (even the Amazon lodge has real beds!), and I never had to take a shower in cold water. 🙂

    A few years ago I was in Ecuador and saw all that you did and more. It’s a great first time to South America place to visit because it’s small, currency is familiar, yet exotic. I spend a few weeks on a volunteer project cataloging orchids in Mindo Cloud Forest. As awesome as it was, Ecuador, for me, will always be the place I caught malaria. [That mosquito jacket would have been a good idea].

      Oh no!!! Malaria is no good. 🙁 I’m in Africa now, and there are a few places here with mosquitos, but not enough for me to want to take antimalarials – hopefully my mosquito jacket will do the trick again!

    Okay, now I have to visit Ecuador! I have wanted to for so long, and one of my best friends has been talking about it for so long, and I can see why! That hotel with the beautiful balcony and flowers looks gorgeous, as well as every other photo. The digital detox also sounds like a wonderful idea, I try to do that on every trip of mine because those are the best moments, with the most vivid memories. Intrepid travel seems like a great company to go with and was one I was considering. I will definitely choose them once I finally visit Ecuador!

      Intrepid is a great company to travel with, and Ecuador is indeed very cool!

    That is a great price! I spent two days in Ecuador, on either end of a Galapagos trip, and really loved it – I would love to go back.

    I’m an adventurous traveler, but very wary of bugs indoors…total irrational fear, I know…so, were there bugs where you slept? 😀

      We stayed in fairly basic hotels, and no, no more bugs than usual inside!

    Ecuador is such a lovely country with so many things to offer, it’s cheap and the people are very friendly. And there is so much more to see than just Galapagos!

      Yup, it’s definitely more than just the Galapagos!

    Yay for exploring a new continent! 🙂 I’ve not yet travelled with Intrepid but I have many friends and family members who have taken numerous trips with them and they all love it. Ecuador on a Shoestring sounds like a great trip and I love the concept of a digital detox trip. It’s very telling of the time we live in if the idea of a digital detox experience is very challenging, but I genuinely don’t know if I could do it. So kudos to you for traveling without tech! 🙂

      I’ve traveled quite a few times with Intrepid, and have always had a great experience!

    Wow, I love your pictures! Especially the tree swing, breathtaking. “Rainy afternoon at Casa del Arbol in Banos”. I would say brave, courageous but not ordinary.

      That swing looks a lot scarier than it actually is – and on a clear day you can see a volcano in the background!

    In terms of South America, my friends have recommended Ecuador above all! I guess when I make my way over there (unfortunately Dutchies do have to take an overnight flight) Ecuador will be my first stop!

      Awesome! Like I said, I think it’s a good intro to the continent, but not so huge as to be overwhelming. I thought a week was a good amount of time there!

    Wow, super impressed with your split haha! I love South America…those landscapes are just to die for. Such a beautiful area of the world! I’m totally itching to go back, and Ecuador seems like a really interesting option.

      If you’ve never been to Ecuador before, I would definitely recommend it!

    I’ve been thinking about doing a trip to Ecuador, but am going back and forth due to safety (I’d be going solo). This tour with Intrepid sounds like a great opportunity to see Ecuador, in a bit of a safer atmosphere…and on a decent budget too! Thanks for sharing, Amanda!

      This is perfect for a solo traveler who doesn’t want to go completely alone. And you really can’t beat the price!

    Sounds like you had a great time!
    I think it’s a great idea to “unplug” for trips–doing that helps you to experience your surroundings more fully.

      I’ll be writing more about the digital detox experience in an upcoming post! It was indeed good for me, but also challenging!

    It was really fun reading this because I just got back from 6 weeks in Ecuador and it’s cool to see your experiences at many of the same places I went! I spent 3 1/2 months total in South America and I can tell you that like 95% of buses have action movies one after the other (gets wearing on a 17-hour bus trip). I also saw some pretty gory scenes and nudity so parents might want to be aware of that when taking kids on buses there. One person on one bus I was on did get robbed, but in large part it was ok and I was really attentive about my stuff. I also met people who had been mugged but they were out alone after dark. Just common sense stuff I think will keep you quite safe in Ecuador. Great pictures and I’m glad you had fun! I hope you’re able to see more of South America in the future! 🙂

      Ugh, I don’t think I could have put up with Spanish Jackie Chan movies for 17 hours!! Haha. And yes, I think most people would be safe in Ecuador as long as you take a little extra precaution.

    I did a similar tour in March, visiting the same places. Loved Ecuador, also my first time in South America, and I thought it was a good introduction…even though my bug bites are still healing, two months out. Love your blog!

      Yeah it was a nice introduction to South America for me. As for the bug bites, ugh! You need to get yourself a mosquito jacket! Haha.

    Amanda —

    It looks like you had a really amazing trip! I’ve always wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands, but never thought about the rest of Ecuador. Now I’m intrigued! I especially love the photo of you on the swing! 🙂

      You know, I was the same way! I never really thought much about Ecuador beyond the Galapagos, but it’s actually a really cool country! A lot to see/do in a relatively small place.

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