Unsurprisingly, my friends who told me that I would fall in love with Ecuador were right. At the time I wrote this I was sitting in the Quito airport, mentally preparing to leave the remarkable country of Ecuador, and readying for a whole new culture shock in Peru.
Though my suitcase was packed, underweight, and checked, I still wasn't really prepared to leave. I'd gotten accustomed to the climate, all my friends, traditional Ecuadorean foods; humitas, llapingachos, deditos de yuca…
After visiting the Galapagos, finally getting the chance to explore some of northern Quito, and having some fabulous desserts at a French bakery, I could see myself moving here. It's still not very safe, and I get stared at a lot, and my French is certainly not improving, but hey, you can’t have it all.
I have been so happy here, like I never thought I would be. Ignores catcalls.
The country is so easy to get around in, the living standards are good, the people are nice, there are dozens of cities I have yet to get to know, and it's very close to Colombia! My friends here are people I would return to, probably picking up wherever we left off just the other day.
We can talk for hours in Spanish or Spanglish (the language in which both learners win). But, I do not want to be writing a final carta de despedida to this land; because I just know I will return one day. It won’t be the same. Nothing ever is. However it will be just as good, if not better.
So in lieu of a goodbye to this friend, I’ll let you, dear reader, in on some of her quirks. Because Ecuador certainly has some particularities, beyond that which you would expect from a less-developed country; many disabled beggars, children selling candy & cigars instead of getting an education, bus drivers & their 'pimps,' taxis trying to rip off non-locals.
Without further ado, and because I am leaving on September the 29th, these are the 29 things that are unique to Ecuador, compared to other places I've been.
Ecuador Travel Tips
1. You could get really cold and sick your first week, if you don't keep in mind the altitude change. Quito is about 8000 feet about sea level, higher in some places, and such a drastic change from sea level can cause altitude sickness in some travelers.
If you're flying into Quito then take it easy and chew on some coca leaves your first few days, or consider visiting another lower altitude destination in Ecuador beforehand. Even though it get's cold at night, however, it's still on the equator, so be sure to wear sunscreen!
2. Pizza rarely comes with more than the thinnest layer of tomato sauce, and all the cheese basically tastes the same (unless you buy the crazy-expensive imported stuff), and the one flavor is similar to that of feet. Yes, even on the pizza.
Cooking can make it just marginally better. To be fair, though, this queso fresco is prevalent across South America. It's just the only one in Ecuador.
3. There's rarely a convenience store open after 10pm, even in the cities, so your sudden dying thirst and lack of water filter? Gonna have to wait til morning to buy a bottle of water. Or Doritos. Sorry. Plan ahead.
4. Almuercitos (lunches) are very serious business here, and most every establishment has offerings ranging from $2-$4 a meal, depending on type/presence of meat. The general agreement is that a true almuerzo completo comes with jugo, postre, arroz, menestra y carne or pollo (juice, dessert, rice, lentil stew and some type of meat), and a good price is $2.50.
Everyone is disappointed when they come into the cafe I worked at and we don't have almuerzo options, but rather a fixed menu. Some of them try to convince us to just cook up something special... which never works. I would not recommend trying that, especially if it’s because you are trying to spend less money.
5. Ají (their word for hot sauce made from local peppers) goes well on anything, and is available on every table in Ecuador. Heat level varies, so try it before you pour a generous helping. Soft serve ice cream is another staple that's not hard to find and is actually pretty good, but there are some weird imitators.
Some of these include fruit-flavored oils whipped up to look like whipped cream and then piled onto an ice cream cone, so look for the soft-serve machine or ask to try some of the stuff in the case. Ecuador also has a traditional method of making ice cream, called a paila.
6. This is one of the easiest countries to backpack in all of Latin America. Backpacking Ecuador is made simple by the very connected & cheap bus system, good & cheap hostels, and abundance of free or cheap activities available in each of the dozen or so destinations on Ecuador's backpacking trail.
The abundance of North American & European expats also ups the English level in many cities, which certainly helps.
7. Chocolate is it's own food group here, rightfully so considering that it's the origin of the arriba nacional variety of cacao, the fruit from which chocolate is made (see: the name of this site!). The coffee's quite good, too!
8. Mayonnaise— Ecuador's dominant condiment— along with most other liquids (mustard, milk, ketchup, local beverages, etc.), comes in a bag when it is sent to restaurants or bought in large quantities at the supermarket.
9. Here, the word for strawberry is frutilla not fresa.
10. When at a restaurant, it is customary for the patrons to wish each other buen provecho, or "good meal," whenever someone's food arrives. It is especially common when a group leaves the restaurant for them to say it to their neighbors, even if their neighbors are also about done eating.
11. Batidos & jugos (smoothies and juices) are everywhere, usually made with fresh fruit from the market, but sometimes made with frozen pulp. It’s worth asking if the "jugos son hechos con pulpa o fruta fresca?
12. The proper way to drink a beer is for everyone in the group to get a glass, no matter the size of the group, and share a big bottle of beer; once that runs out you can buy another bottle. On weekend the bottles come from crates of beer, and a few bottles will be opened at first, to inaugurate the crate.
13. When drinking in a group, nobody ever has their own bottle, unless they're a tourist, since buying the big bottles and sharing is cheaper. But if you try to take one of the big Pilsener or Club bottles away from a restaurant, they make you pay $0.25 a piece.
The bottles actually go back to the Ecuadorian manufacturer, in the only form of formal recycling I witnessed in Ecuador.
14. The foam from a beer bottle is immediately thrown to the ground, whether you are inside or outside of an establishment. Unfortunately, this means that most clubs have very sticky dance floors, or rules which prohibit eating & drinking on the dance floor.
15. Legitimately, I have never seen a can of beer in the country, and if you try to ask for one you'll probably get some very confused looks and mutters of “silly gringos…”
16. Once you are done drinking your case of beer, you will need this word: chuchaki. That's Ecuadorian for hangover, and you can have it, be it, do it, and hate it all at once. It is neither verb nor noun, but both.
17. So-called "Panama hats" are actually from Ecuador, and always have been. You'll see older women walking around wearing them, and they're sold in most markets. When they first reached North American markets it was by way of the Panama Canal, hence the misnomer. This is the only place I've seen people actually wearing them, and it makes for some iconic local fashion.
18. Ecuador literally means equator in Spanish. Can you think of any other countries named by geography?
19. Mannequins here are all freakishly realistic compared to other places I’ve been. To me, all of them look like truly terrified people.
20. Ecuador is one of the few countries in the world, outside of the US, which uses American Dollars as their currency. They even have some coins that are only usable in Ecuador, and even though they are US currency, cannot be used in America.
21. Nobody but the tourists wears shorts in Quito, the capital city. It is simply not done. It seems like it may actually be more common for an Ecuadorian woman to breastfeed in public than to wear shorts; they're not taboo, just weird.
22. Despite the official religion of Catholicism, it is not uncommon for a young couple to have a baby out of wedlock, and simply raise the child remaining boyfriend and girlfriend rather than husband and wife. Both of my co-workers were in this situation, and it's no longer a reason for which most families would disown you (according to them).
23. Menestras Del Negro. Once you see it, you cannot stop seeing it; this chain restaurant is everywhere. The food seems decent and reasonably priced, and in Ecuadorian society the name "Black Man's Stew" isn't actually discriminatory, but descriptive.
It's the logo that I and every other non-Ecuadorian I’ve met, have taken offense to. The name combined with the logo is what makes it racist and very surprisingly, widely accepted.
24. Once you get to small towns like Mindo, it's the norm for anyone who has a car to become a taxi driver to pick up some extra cash, especially during high tourist season. It’s pretty safe once you get out of the big cities.
So all the random guys muttering "taxi" vaguely in your direction as you walk by? They're not licensed taxi drivers, but they'll probably get you where you wanna go, for a price. That pick-up truck barreling down the highway? They’ll actually pick you up, again, for a price.
25. Instead of garbage bins, restaurants leave their trash in a pile of bags on the street corners at night, to be picked up by the trash truck. Or is that just Quito?
26. Cheap flowers everywhere! Especially roses. Ecuador has recently become famous for their roses, and for awhile while I was living there I bought a dozen roses for dollar every Friday after work. Some of the "Dutch roses" is Amsterdam were actually imported from Ecuador, I guarantee you.
27. Endearing sorts of nicknames for anyone whose name you don’t know or forget are the norm. Think m’ija, mi amor, nena, amiga, gringa…
28. Also related to names is the practice of using La & El before the names of people and before letters when spelling out a word. For instance, I became La Max, and my co-worker was El Mark; spelling my name went like this: La “M,” La “A,” La “X.”
29. Businessmen in nice suits rarely carry a briefcase, usually spotted instead with a nice backpack which complement their tie. These are not your schoolboy backpacks, however, but sleeker Armani-style versions.
I hope these Ecuador travel tips help some of you out when traveling to one of my favorite countries. ¡Que le vaya bien! Anything weird you've noticed when traveling around Ecuador?
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