Ecuador is one of Earth’s most geologically diverse wonders offering some of the world’s most incredible natural beauty. This small Northwest South American country is not typically on people’s travel bucket list, but with tourism becoming increasingly popular to that region, I’ll give it a few years until it is (just wait until they hear about the chocolate.) 😉 So, should you visit Ecuador? Do you like off-the-beaten path travel? Do you like rice, beans and chicken? Do you seek adventure? Do you want to zip line, bungee jump, ride in fast cable cars, and swim in natural hot springs? Do you want to stay in relatively nice accommodation for two weeks for the price of one night in Hawaii? Are you okay in high altitudes? Do you love hiking or bird-watching? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then YES! Ecuador is for you.
Ecuador, Spanish for “equator”, was the first stop on our six-month world travel adventure, and it truly has everything. We spent two weeks in the country and rented a car to have easier access to all the places we wanted to visit. If you aren’t susceptible to car sickness, then it is very easy to get around the country by bus, which is the cheapest method of transport. Because I have vertigo and am sensitive to motion sickness, long windy bus rides were out of the question. For around $450 USD for two weeks, we rented a car (most cars are manual in South America). We reserved our rental car through Budget and reserved on the spot when we arrived to the airport in Quito. Be aware that Thrify forces you to take their local insurance, which is not necessary if you have your own. Our credit card (Chase Sapphire Preferred – the credit card most highly recommended for travel), includes full coverage insurance. Most car rental companies will have a maximum for how many kilometers you can drive. Ours was 1,500 (around 940 miles), which we exceeded by a bit. Anything over the maximum kilometer reading will be charged $.20 per kilometer, so we ended up paying around $50 extra, which was completely worth it for all the amazing sights we got to see.
We loved the ease and convenience of having our own vehicle and not having to rely on bus schedules. However, the more budget-friendly way is to travel by bus. Keep in mind that most of the center of Ecuador lies along the Andes Mountain Range, so most of the cities are at very high altitude. One of the reasons we began in Mindo was to slowly acclimate to the higher elevations. We used Googlemaps to get around, which has mostly steered us in the right direction, not to mention, Google voice attempting Spanish words was quite entertaining. There are some newer roads that must not have been updated in the app yet, so there were a few places where we got a bit turned around.
CURRENCY & COST
Ecuador uses U.S. dollars, so if you are coming from America, it’s really convenient! There are plenty of ATMs, but you should exercise caution when taking money out. Cover your card number when inserting into the machine, and cover your pin when you enter it. Try to use ATM machines that are inside of a building rather than street-facing.
Ecuador is relatively cheap; it is more expensive than Peru or Bolivia, but less expensive than Chile and Argentina. We are mid-budget travelers meaning we aren’t living the backpacking cheap hostel dorm life, but also aren’t staying in nice hotels. We stayed in a few hostels but mostly Airbnb for the comfort of privacy and our own kitchen.
Having never been to South America before and being a total safety freak, I was very cautious about everything, though we quickly learned that Ecuador is extremely safe. I would say that in most of the cities we visited, I felt safer than I did walking around downtown Seattle at night. There is virtually no homelessness, though there are harmless beggars in some cities (most are elderly and toothless). The streets are very well-kept, clean and well-lit at night.
One thing you should know about Ecuador is that feral dogs are everywhere. However, most of them are not rabid and actually live quite good lives. They are not dangerous and will not attack you on the street, but be careful about petting them (trust me, as a dog-lover, it was so tempting to want to go up to all of them and give them cuddles.)
3 DAYS IN MINDO, ECUADOR
We flew into Aeropuerto Internacional Mariscal Sucre in the country’s capitol of Quito, at 9,350′ elevation. Luckily, we flew in from Colorado (Denver –> Miami –> Quito), so we were already relatively acclimatized to the elevation. Because we arrived late, we stayed only one night in Quito and then the next morning drove to Mindo.
Sitting at 3,500′ elevation, Mindo is located just a two-hour drive Northwest of Quito. If you enjoy peaceful, quiet small towns engulfed in nature, then this town is for you. We began in Mindo for two reasons: it sits at the lowest altitude of all of the towns we visited, so that we could slowly acclimate. Also, having just quit our corporate jobs in Seattle, we wanted to begin our trip by disconnecting from city life and diving into nature to clear our heads.
Where to Stay
We rented a one-bedroom Airbnb on the outskirt of the town, which was lovely. For only $22/night, we got an entire cabin to ourselves, fully equipped with a kitchen, dining room, bathroom and bed. The windows opened to the outside so we got to hear the symphony of birds and insects all day and night, and it was almost as if we were camping outside.
For families within the mid-range budget, I would recommend Dragonfly Inn. This B&B also has a restaurant that serves good food at decent prices! We dined here on our first day for lunch and had enchiladas.
Because we visited during off-season (April), we had practically everything to ourselves including attractions, restaurants and hiking trails. Because of this, we had greater bargaining power. Depending on which town you visit in Ecuador, most prices are negotiable unless you see them listed. High season in Ecuador is July and August, so try to avoid those times since it can get very crowded.
In Mindo, all the activities were within walking distance from the town, which is tiny (around 10 blocks by 10 blocks.) Mindo is a great place for families because of the laid-back small town vibe and numerous things to do with kids. We saw several families, most from Germany and some from the U.S. and Canada. We saw kids ranging from four years old to teenagers, and they all seemed to be having a great time!
Las Cascadas y La Tarabita (Cable car to the Waterfalls)
For $2 per person, you can take a cable car that zips you across the cloud forest high above the trees (around a 30-second ride) to the other side where you can hike to six different waterfalls. You can take as long as you’d like; we spent a full day and found it well worth it. Be sure to pack snacks and lots of water, as there are no concessions within the waterfall area. You’re in a cloud forest after all!
Once you get to the other side, the cloud forest is your oyster! Take your time, go on a few hikes, or simply stand in awe of the beautiful nature that ensconces you.
If you’re lucky, you might even see some wildlife! But keep your eyes peeled because they blend in pretty well!
For an additional fee, you can swim in these waterfall pools:
Zip Line Over the Cloud Forest
We chose to do three cables for $8 per person, which took around 45 minutes. You can also choose to do six cable cars for a higher price. You do not need to make reservations in advance for any of these activities during off season; you simply walk up and pay cash on the spot and they will take you. However, if you are visiting during peak season, it would be better to make reservations in advance. While it is possible to walk to the zipline, if you have a car, I recommend driving as it is a fairly long walk, especially if you have kids.
Visit La Mariposaria (butterfly sanctuary)
If you are going by foot from Mindo town, you must walk on a dirt road for around 3 kilometers. If you have a rental car, you can also drive, but it’s a fun, nice and easy walk. Entry fee is $7.50, which I feel is only worth it if you either have kids or are a butterfly enthusiast. The sanctuary is quite small and you can see it all within five minutes, though many people stay longer to admire the butterflies.
**TIP** – do not wear sunscreen or bug spray when you visit this butterfly sanctuary because it is poisonous to the butterflies and they WILL land on you! And yes, it tickles and you will probably giggle.
Visit Paz de las Aves Bird Refuge
If you are a birder, Mindo is one of the best places in the world for bird watching. You are very likely to see Mindo’s famous Cock of the Rock Lek, as this is where they mate! Cock of the Rocks are vibrantly red in color with beautiful black feathers.
Try Ecuadorian Chocolate
One of the things that Ecuador is most famous for (besides bananas and the equator), is chocolate! Chocolate is grown and sourced here, and there are plenty of places to try it!
There are several different options for food (even pizza for your kiddos who may not be accustomed to cultural food!) Our favorite place for dinner was El Quetzal, which is both a restaurant and a chocolatier. They also do chocolate tours showing the process from bean to bar.
OTHER NOTEWORTHY EATERIES:
La Reposteria – cafe, vegetarian friendly
The Beehive – International cafe, pastries, chocolate
Restaurant Oasis – German, vegetarian friendly. This place has incredible breakfast, but we also ate dinner here as well. They serve smoothies and healthy cuisine at very low prices.
WHAT WE SPENT IN THREE DAYS IN MINDO, ECUADOR
Eating Out: $125
PER DIEM (3 days): $80