Country Facts – Ecuador
This information is provided to offer guidance to those seeking to live and work overseas. For more information we recommend that you speak with your national government Foreign Office (or equivalent).
Ecuador Country Guide
Over the years Ecuador has been recommended time and again as one of the best expat destinations in the world. It’s not difficult to see why…
For one, the volume of ancient history present here is truly mind-boggling. From old Incan temples to quaint colonial buildings and some of the best-preserved cities in all of Latin America there is just so much to see here.
Then of course there’s the wildlife, for which Ecuador is duly famous. From the Galapagos Islands, which inspired Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, to the vast swathes of Amazon rainforest, scientists have officially classed the country as one of the few “megadiverse” areas in the world.
Combine all this with a comfortable climate and a very low cost of living and it’s no wonder that many Westerners find that in Ecuador they can live a life they only dreamed of back home.
Sitting comfortably as it does on the equator (hence the country’s name), Ecuador enjoys an enviable climate. While the specific weather patterns vary with altitude, most of Ecuador is considered tropical or sub-tropical. Typically the weather is warm and wet, with carefully demarked wet seasons during which the majority of the rain falls.
Down at sea level the coastal region can be very hot indeed while more mountainous areas are cooler. The capital city Quito is the highest official capital city in the world which, at 2,800 metres above sea level, can be positively fresh at times.
Much of Ecuador has been carefully protected over the years and swathes of virgin Amazon rainforest still prevail here, now protected by a brand new constitution which recognises in law the so-called “Rights of Nature”. The protection offered to the forest has helped Ecuador to be named the most biologically-diverse country in the world, making it a mecca for wildlife fanatics around the world.
Four distinct geographical regions are recognised in Ecuador, helping to illustrate the diversity of the habitats on offer. These are coast (Costa), highland (Sierra), the Amazon jungle (Amazonia) and lastly the world-famous Galapagos region (Region Insular), and all are ripe for exploration.
Ecuador’s long history begins with it becoming the home for the Inca people. These advanced tribes were successfully building pyramids and discovering medicine thousands of years before their more famous Egyptian counterparts. They were also discovering gold and turning it into jewellery and beautiful objects for the home.
Today many native Indians still survive and thrive in Ecuador. Indeed their languages are encountered frequently and are fully accepted as an integral part of Ecuadorian culture.
However now the Amerindian faces are mixed with those of European decent, thanks to the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the 1500’s. While at the time they brought disease and war, they also brought European culture and the horse to South America, which transformed the area beyond all recognition.
Today Ecuador is one of the most populous Latin countries in the world. This Latin flavour permeates through the country, affecting everything from the Ecuadorian culture to the cuisine and the music.
The first cultural difference you will notice in Ecuador is just how family-centric society is in comparison to many other countries. Much free time is spent with extended family groups and the birth of a new baby in the family is a major cause for celebration.
Whilst most countries have their own national dress it is interesting to note that Ecuador maintains a huge range. While the basic outfit may be seen across the country, each region has its own unique slant on the design. This means that it can be possible to identify an Ecuadorians origin from the specific version of the dress he or she sports.
Since the arrival of the conquistadors, Spanish has slowly become ever more popular in the country. It is now the official language of Ecuador though there are many secondary languages spoken. Many of these are native Amerindian languages, of which Quichua is by far the most commonly-spoken.
Note that even experienced Spanish speakers may still struggle in Ecuador for a number of reasons. Firstly the Ecuadorians speak Latin American Spanish which is rather different the classic Catalan language spoken in Spain itself. In addition there are a number of dialects spoken in Ecuador, with three main versions prevalent. There are said to be “great variations” between them that can take considerable time and effort to learn.
English may be understood in more tourist-centric areas but generally speaking a degree of Spanish language skills – no matter how weak – are likely to come in handy from time to time. As with so many other nations, even learning a few basic words can be helpful for impressing the locals and endearing yourself to them through your efforts.
There are many ways to get around Ecuador. To start with there is a regular and reliable bus service operating right across the country. While the going may be slow, prices are cheap. Note that reports of thefts and muggings exist on buses and at bus stations. While these situations are unusual it pays to take care of your belongings if you opt to travel in this manner, so as to avoid becoming another victim.
An alternative is to take one of the many taxis found in larger towns and cities, though here too care must be taken. There have been cases of more crimes being committed against taxi patrons. The safest way to minimize your risk is to avoid hailing a taxi on the street and instead book one through a reputable firm.
In many cases hotels and suchlike will order a taxi on your behalf. These registered taxis are typically much safer and a new nationwide hotline will let you validate the credentials of any taxi driver before entering their vehicle.
Before you begin your journey also check that the meter has been reset to avoid you either deliberately or accidentally being overcharged for your journey.
If you would rather drive yourself then it is entirely possible to rent a car in Ecuador. It is perfectly legal to drive with either a UK or an international driving license, though you should aim to keep your license, passport and insurance papers to hand at all times when in control of a vehicle.
Roads in Ecuador are rather variable. The government has invested considerable money into the building of a number of major highways, which now offer exceptional transport links between many of the major cities. Unfortunately the rainy season can plan havoc on more rural roads, either burying them under landslides or washing them away altogether.
If you are visiting in the wet season therefore make sure you pay attention when travelling on quieter roads.
At present most of Ecuador’s railway is shut to the public though there are plans afoot to refurbish the network and open it as a tourist attraction.
The healthcare system in Ecuador is rather variable. Within major cities the standards are considered quite high. A recent survey ranked Ecuador at 20th in the world for the most efficient healthcare so visitors should have little to worry about the quality of care.
The situation outside the main cities however is markedly different. Ecuador is still a developing country and outside the main tourist hubs you may find yourself struggling to find a hospital or clinic. The few that you might be directed to are normally under-funded and lacking in features, making a visit to one of the bigger cities necessary.
Ecuadorian residents have access to free medical care rather like the National Health Service. Sadly tourists and short-term expats do not benefit from the same arrangement. The cost of medical care in Ecuador means that comprehensive medical insurance should be considered a priority and is currently strongly recommended by the British government.
The currency in Ecuador has undergone a fascinating journey over the years. In the age of Spanish rule it should come as no surprise that the Ecuadorian currency was known as the Peso. Three hundred years later this all changed, with a successive currency known as the Sucre being introduced to replace the Peso.
Things got even more complicated in 2000 during the world economic crisis when Ecuador once again changed its currency. Now, the official currency of Ecuador is the US Dollar.
Interestingly while Ecuador does of course not manufacture US Dollar bills, it does produce its own smaller denomination coins. Known as “centavos”, these coins are equivalent to US cents, and the various centavos coins manufactured in Ecuador are in the same sizes and denominations as the standard US coinage.
Within major towns and cities credit cards and travellers cheques are readily accepted, though outside the main hubs cash will be required.
There have sadly been a number of cases of visitors being mugged while using ATMs. Furthermore petty crime in the form of thefts and muggings are also not uncommon, especially in some parts of Quito. You are therefore advised to carry as little cash with you as possible, and to conceal what you have in a money-belt for security.
Security experts suggest carrying a “decoy” wallet with a small sum of money in it to draw attention away from your money belt should the need arise.
The education system in Ecuador is held is reasonably high regard having improved considerably over the last few decades. Sadly, unless your children speak fluent Spanish it is unlikely that the public schooling system will be of much benefit.
Instead, you’ll likely want to make use of one of the many international schools which teach in English, though most include Spanish lessons on a regular basis in order to help pupils learn the native language.
While the standard of education at these private schools is generally higher than at non fee-paying schools, parents should be aware of the costs involved, which many expats consider excessive. As a result many parents opt to home school their children or even to send them to another country for education.
You should be aware that virtually all the international schools are based in Quito and so should you reside elsewhere transportation to and from school should also be a consideration.
Another alternative is arriving in the country some months before the school year begins in September so your children can undergo some intensive Spanish tuition before starting at their new school.
Food & Drink
Ecuadorian food is simple yet wholesome, typically consisting of a hearty combination of meat, vegetables and either rice of potatoes as a source of carbohydrates. Yucca and plantains are popular sources of fibre in the diet though they can be something of an acquired taste. In general the traditional Ecuadorian diet can be considered basic yet healthy.
It is not uncommon to find guinea pig on the menu (known as “cuy”) so the more squeamish visitor should be careful to ask as to the source of meat in a dish before ordering.
Generally speaking there are far fewer international restaurants than many other countries. This is especially so in more rural areas so some expats choose to bring with them staples that they cannot be without.
There are two things every visitor to Ecuador needs to know. Firstly, that the dangers in Ecuador are generally considered to be greater than in many other tourist destinations. However, just as importantly, the second point is that the vast majority of visits to Ecuador occur without incident.
In other words you should not let the following warnings prevent you from visiting this amazing country. We mention purely for completeness and as a list of dangers to educate yourself about.
Pretty crime has already been mentioned previously however a worrying trend in Ecuador right now seems to be the drugging of tourists with “scopolamine”. This drug relaxes the victim and makes them easier to mug. The drug is normally given orally so be careful of anyone approaching you to offer a drink or food. If in doubt, consume food only in reliable eateries to avoid such risks.
While much of Ecuador is perfectly safe throughout the day, there are areas which should not be visited after dark. These vary over time with gang activity so do your research in advance and visit the Foreign Office website for the most up-to-date information.
Ecuador is a major producer of hard drugs and is also a transit route for mules from nearby Columbia. For safety it is generally recommended to avoid the militarized zone on the Columbian border where fighting can break out from time to time. Also avoid any hint of contact with drugs as the penalties, if caught, are severe.
Lastly be aware that Ecuador boasts a large number of volcanoes. The many dormant ones can make for a truly memorable day out, though the active volcanoes should be avoided. Check local news before travelling in order to ensure you know which volcanoes should be avoided at present.
Places to Visit
Ecuador’s history and natural beauty mean it is a country with a huge amount to offer the tourist or expat alike. Even the most fleeting glimpse at the top sites could take months, so expats should consider themselves perfectly placed to enjoy every last experience that Ecuador has to offer.
Here are some of our favourite places to visit in Ecuador:
Quito is the capital city of Ecuador and located high up in the Andes mountain range; so high, in fact, that some first-time visitors find themselves short of breath to begin with. Once you have acclimatized a little it is very easy to be won over by the old-school charm of this World Heritage Site – so named because it is supposedly the best-protected Latin American city of all.
In many ways Ecuador’s “second city”, Cuenca isn’t just beautiful to visit. Another World Heritage site, Cuenca is home to a vast array of ancient Incan ruins so is possibly the best place in all of Ecuador to learn more about the country’s distant past.
Lastly while here take a trip to Las Casas Colgadas – a group of homes built actually over-hanging the edge of the local canyon. These breath-taking buildings seem to defy gravity, looking like they could crash over the side of the cliff at any moment.
The Galapagos Islands harbour a vast array of unique species found nowhere else on the planet. From giant Galapagos tortoises through to tiny finches and sea-faring black iguanas, the Galapagos Island’s isolation has driven the evolution of more endemic species than almost anywhere else in the world.
Understandably these islands are fiercely protected due to the value of the wildlife present here so possibly the best way to enjoy the Galapagos is on one of the carefully-planned trips. Take a boat ride and a guide to fully appreciate all the wildlife spectacles on offer here.
While the Amazon is of course a huge forest that can be accessed from a number of countries in South America it has been suggested that Ecuador is one of the best places to visit. The reasons are firstly that few countries are cheaper and secondly that higher levels of protection are in place here, meaning a more authentic experience for you.
For the truly passionate wildlife observer, try taking a dawn trek through the cloud forest with a guide. Early in the morning, flitting through the mist, you will find more creatures than later in the day. Even a jaguar, South America’s biggest cat, isn’t necessarily out of the question.
For more information on moving abroad visit www.gov.uk/knowbeforeyougo.
Of course, if you’re planning on travelling to Ecuador please ensure you have adequate expat travel insurance.