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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Planning a Trip to Ecuador? Part 1

As many of you know, we love to travel. We've switched roles over the years, with Ron now doing most of the planning and me worrying about how to pay for, but there's something exciting about a new adventure.
The Cajas as seen from our guestroom window
So what do you need to know if you're planning a trip to Ecuador? Lots of things...more things that one little blog post can handle, but some general information might come in handy.

The Basics
Climactic Zones
I'll only gloss over the three climate zones: the coast (hot and humid, but with a breeze near the ocean), the Andes (Spring-like and high altitudes) and the Amazon (hot, humid and wet). The Galapagos is famous for its unusual and diverse fauna and is also mostly hot and humid, with refreshing oceans breezes.

Currency (monetary & electric...see what I did there?)
The currency used in Ecuador is the US dollar; US coins are also accepted, but Ecuador also has their own coins as well.

Voltage is the same as the US and Canada (110-115) and adapters aren't required for US and Canadian travelers. 
Taken in late November...there's always something blooming.
Major cities:
The largest is Guayaquil (a little over 2.5 million), the business centre of Ecuador. The city has little to offer tourists, outside of the Malecon, the Iguana park and Santa Ana. (Oh, and a pretty nifty cemetery that's HUGE, but hard to get in to.) It is HOT in Guayaquil, with no cooling breezes off the ocean as it is located up the river basin. You need to shell out a lot of money to get a hotel with a pool and there aren't many restaurants in El Centro that are opened at night, except in the hotels.

Quito is the capital and a beautiful, but busy, city with a population of around 2.5 million. There is lots to see and do in Quito, but as it's at 9,200 feet (-ish) be prepared for some adjustment time. Altitude sickness ranges from shortness of breath and headaches to embolisms and death in the most extreme cases. Most hotels are prepared for such possibilities and have bottles of oxygen ready and waiting, as well as doctors only a phone call away.

The best advice we ever got about adapting to altitude are these three simple things:
    1. Take it easy on the first hikes, hill climbing or strenuous activity - LAY LOW
    2. Stick to clear liquids for the 12 hours, avoid heavy/rich food for the 1st 24 hours.
           (This may be hard there's a lot of food to tempt you but try to persevere.)
    3.  No alcohol for 24 hours. 

Side note: we used this strategy in Cusco and it worked like a darn!)

Cuenca is the smaller sibling of the two big cities. It has a population of about 600,000. It is at 8,400ft, so altitude can still be a problem. It is like Quito for architecture, but smaller and less frenetic.
A local parade...

...passing along our street...

Getting Around
In between these three major cities is a wealth of  smaller cities, towns and villages, broken up by soaring vistas of the Andes with the snow capped volcanoes, rolling tundra and cloud forest. The coast offers endless stretches of agriculture: bananas, rice, papaya, cacao, sugar cane plus the diverse and plentiful beaches. There are the lush humid jungles of the Amazon offering a cornucopia of wildlife and plants, and home of many indigenous tribes that live as they have for hundreds of years.

Important tip 1:
If you look at a map of Ecuador, it doesn't seem very big, but because the Andes run through the centre of the country, it takes a long time to drive most places. The average drive time between Guayaquil and Cuenca is 4 hours; Quito and Cuenca is 10 hours. Routes to get to the coast usually run from larger city to larger city, so you may need to take a circuitous route to get where you want to go. Flying from city to city is (fairly) affordable and saves a lot of time if you are trying to pack a lot of things in to a short visit. 

Flying is most efficient (between larger centres), but can have problems with luggage restrictions, delays due to volcanoes and other issues and, of course is a bit more expensive.

Bus travel is inexpensive, but  some travelers warn about pick pocketing. (We haven't experienced that yet, but know people who have.) It's a great way to see the countryside and can be entertaining with all the vendors that hop and off the buses.It is also a long journey, as previously mentioned, so if you're on a quick trip flying might be best.

Private driver/Group Tours both have their benefits, you usually see more, can stop at places of interest and many people fee safer than on the buses. There is a premium for private service (example it cost us $200 to drive 7 hours to the coast, one way, but there were four of us which made it less expensive than flying.) There are many different types of group tours: ones that focus on resettling in Ecuador, ones that do big city tours and others that give you a taste of the various regions, artistry etc. There's something for everyone.

Trains are available in parts of the country, but aren't relied upon as standard transport. You can take multi or single day trips to various locations and get a similar experience to taking the bus, in that you get a good taste of the countryside.

There are also trekking, biking and hiking companies that will show you around specific areas. 

Stay tuned for part two: Climate - what do I need to pack?

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