Here below you will find all you need to know before you start planning (and budgeting) your next trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos! Insider tips included!
Where On Earth Is Ecuador?
Ecuador’s name speaks for itself as of its geographical position. It is located in the western corner of the South American continent, bordering with Colombia and Peru. Interestingly, it is named after the Equator, the imaginary line that splits Earth in the two hemispheres.
Even if the Equator crosses not only Ecuador but another 12 countries around the globe (namely Colombia, Brazil, Sao Tome & Principe, Gabon, Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Somalia, Maldives, Indonesia and Kiribati), it is Ecuador (the Republic of) that takes particular pride out of this distinction!
Geography & Climate
Ecuador can be split into four distinct geographical areas: the Sierra (home to the Andean Highlands), the Oriente (covering the Amazon jungle), the Costa (lying across the Pacific coast), and the world-famous Galápagos Islands.
With such a diverse terrain within a single country, the visitor should expect a variation in the climate while traveling from one region to the other. However, there is no significant temperature fluctuation within the same region throughout the year. More specifically:
- The climate in the Sierra region stays rather cool due to its high altitude. During the daytime, the weather is pretty pleasant, but during the night the temperature can drop significantly!
- The Oriente region has a humid and rainy climate most of the time.
- The Costa region also has a tropical (warm and humid) climate regardless of the season.
- And, last but not least, the Galápagos Islands that have been blessed with a warm and dry climate all year round.
With that being said, Ecuador can be a travel destination of choice at any time of the year!
How Can I Get To Ecuador?
The country is served by two international airports, located in Quito (the capital) and in Guayaquil. Direct flights are available from nearby countries (such as Colombia, Peru, Panama, and United States). If you are coming from Europe, then your best shot is a flight via Madrid or Amsterdam. More options are available, but with at least 2 connecting flights in between.
Due to the lack of proximity from Europe, ticket prices to Ecuador can get pretty pricey. The cheapest return flight I have ever found from Europe was departing from Amsterdam on KLM, at around 600€. But if you are not living in the Netherlands, then you will need an additional connecting flight from your home country. In such case, the final ticket cost can easily rise up to 700€ or even more. As most people travel to Ecuador for visiting the Galápagos Islands, please note that you will need an extra domestic flight to get there from the mainland. This should cost you at around 220€ at the very minimum (return-flight).
Having said that, Ecuador is not a cheap destination to reach, at least from Europe. I would recommend combining your visit with another nearby country (if you can afford the time) to make it worthwhile. My decision to visit Ecuador as part of my South America trip was taken exactly on those (financial) grounds!
Entry Requirements for Ecuador and the Galápagos
Let me start by saying that there is no Visa requirement for the citizens of most world countries for entering Ecuador (and therefore for the Galápagos). You will be granted a free tourist visa for traveling in the country for up to 90 days. However, you are only permitted to stay for a maximum of 60 days in the Galápagos.
Before boarding your flight and/or upon arrival in the country, you will be requested to present:
- A passport with a minimum validity of 6 months
- A negative COVID-19 PCR test taken at most 72 hours before departure OR
- A Vaccination Certificate showing that you have received all the complete doses of the COVID-19 vaccine at least 14 days before traveling to Ecuador
- A completed Traveler Health Declaration Form (you will be provided with this paper form onboard)
- The Galápagos Transit Control Card. This is (obviously) requested only if you are traveling to the Galápagos and costs 20$. Before departing for the Galápagos, you will need to pick up your card from the INGALA counter of the respective airport that you will be flying off. To avoid delays in picking up your card, make sure you have done your pre-registration online. Detailed instructions on how to fill in your online form can be found here.
- Once you land in the Galápagos, you will have to present your Transit Control Card and pay the admission fee for your entrance to the National Park (currently at 100$ per person).
- A return flight ticket to mainland Ecuador (requested only if traveling to the Galápagos)
- Travel Insurance with emergency medical and evacuation coverage (requested only if traveling to the Galápagos)
Even if the requirement for travel insurance was raised only for the Galápagos, I still had my Travel Insurance with Mondial Assistance in full force throughout my entire South America trip. The insurance program of my choice (Globy Annual) covers unlimited multi trips over the course of a full year and up to 60 days per trip. It includes medical, hospitalization, and repatriation expenses (including those incurred due to COVID-19), compensation due to loss or damage of luggage, and additional compensation in case of a personal accident. Even if you are not a frequent traveler yourself, you can still get your single trip insurance program from Mondial Assistance with the exact same coverages (and trip duration) as mine, starting from 9.50€!
How Much Time (and Money) Do I Need?
When I spontaneously decided to fly into Ecuador from Paraguay, I thought I had made a wise decision considering the time I had left in South America (2 weeks). I was also expecting that Ecuador will have a similar cost of living (for a tourist) as the other South American countries. Soon after I had done my homework, I realized that I was totally wrong on both!
To start with, 2 weeks seemed hardly enough for just the mainland! And to my even bigger surprise, I found out that ever since the US dollar was introduced as the official currency of the country, the prices in Ecuador went pretty high. Especially the touristic services are (in my personal opinion) extremely overpriced. With that in mind, I clearly had to cut short on my itinerary and skip something between the Galápagos Islands and the rest of the country.
Truth be told that was an easy decision to take since I was already aware that the Galápagos were among the most expensive destinations worldwide. Still, I did a thorough research on the pricing for such a side trip, so that I could share info with all of you.
Here below you can find a detailed info on the time and cost element for both itineraries.
© Antonio Busiello
As a quick heads up, a stand-alone cruise in the Galápagos is currently priced at around 1.800€ at the very minimum (on a budget cruise ship). This is an 8-day cruise tour that will take you around the different islands that are not accessible in any other way.
- Included in the price: English-speaking guide, accommodation (solo travelers have the option to either share the cabin with another traveler or pay a 70% supplement for single occupancy), food, and snorkeling gear.
- Not included: Alcoholic and bottled beverages, Crew and Guide Tips, Credit Card fees.
Cost-wise, and to my surprise, I was told that the tour prices in Galápagos have gone down considerably due to the pandemic. In the pre-COVID era, prices were nearly double! Having said that, if someone desperately wants to visit the Galápagos, NOW IS THE RIGHT TIME!!!
Of course, you should not forget to add to your Galápagos budget the cost of the flight from/to mainland Ecuador (currently estimated at 220€), and the entrance ticket to the archipelago that is considered as a National Park (120$).
Budget travelers tend to skip the cruise tour and stick to a self-exploration of the 3 main inhabited islands (namely Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isla Isabela) that are well-connected with each other by boat. From any of these islands, you can take day trips to get further out and explore more. This can clearly save you a lot of money, but on the downside, it will add more days to your itinerary, as you will have to embark every day on a different excursion.
To my personal opinion, and even if I am not in favor of such organized tours, the cruise is by far the best option for getting a thorough overview of the Galápagos archipelago. Considering that each island has a unique flora and fauna, and is therefore offering a totally different experience to the visitor, sticking to only 2 or 3 islands would feel as if you are only scratching the surface of this natural paradise.
Time needed for the Galápagos: This is a very personal decision that very much depends on your available time, budget and interest in wildlife. However, considering how expensive it is getting to and entering the Galápagos, plus that this is a once in a lifetime experience, I would highly recommend that you maximize the time of your stay to get the most out of it. If you decide to go for one of the cruise tours, then you will definitely need to reserve 8-10 days in total. Self-explorers usually stay for an average of 7-10 days, as well.
Estimated Budget for the Galápagos: If you go on a cruise tour, you should expect a minimum spent (including flights and entrance ticket to the Galápagos) of around 2.200€ per person. If you opt to do a self-exploration, then your final budget will very much depend on the number of day trips you will be adding to your itinerary. I have no visibility at all on the pricing of such day trips, but even if they are also heavily discounted due to the ongoing pandemic, I do not expect that they can get lower than 100€ per person.
Insider’s Tip: As a closing note, please keep in mind that it is worth taking the risk of heading to the Galápagos without having pre-booked a cruise tour. Local tour operators tend to work on Last-Minute deals. This literally means that any remaining seats on a departing cruise ship are offered at an alluring last-minute price. In this way, you can eventually travel on a middle-range (or even first-class) cruise ship at around the same price as a budget cruise ship. Budget cruises rarely have any empty seats, so you should not expect to get a lower price out of them.
II. Mainland Ecuador
As mentioned earlier I had 2-full weeks available for exploring Ecuador’s mainland. In the end, I only used 10 days, leaving a number of places behind for a future visit…
Here below you will find my personal suggestion on the allocation of your time in mainland Ecuador:
- Quito: 3-5 days (3 days for the city itself, 5 days including some side day trips you can take from there)
- Mindo: 1-2 days (it can also be visited as a day-tour from Quito)
- Banos: 2-3 days (2 days seemed quite enough to me, but you can add one more day to your itinerary if you want to take a day trip to the Amazon jungle)
- Latacunga: 1-2 days (small town that serves as a great base for getting to Quilotoa and Cotopaxi)
- Cuenca: 3 days (just because I simply loved this place). You can limit your stay to 2 days, if you cannot afford the extra day
- Guayaquil: 1 day (I had my departure flight from this city. If you are running out of time you can simply skip it)
Note: Unfortunately, the Nariz del Diablo Tren and the Tren del Hielo have permanently ceased their operations. It seems there is an ongoing negotiation for getting the Ecuador Railways sold to a foreign investor. If this negotiation turns out successful, then the railway operations in Ecuador (including those popular routes) will be soon up and running.
Time needed for Mainland Ecuador: 2 weeks at the very minimum (but even more, if you can afford it)
Estimated Budget for Mainland Ecuador: As mentioned earlier, Ecuador is not as cheap as someone would expect. I am giving you some insights on each cost element here below, and depending on your travel style, I will let you do the final math and come up with your personal travel budget:
- Day trips to the various attractions are ranging between 50-70 USD. If you rely solely on tour operators, this can easily blow your budget. Good news is that you can still do a lot of things on your own, by using public transportation. Of course, you need to add extra time and effort to make this happen, but it’s still possible. For those interested in organizing independently their day or multi-day trips in mainland Ecuador, I have created the dedicated article “The Ultimate (Beyond Galápagos) Guide for Exploring Ecuador On Your Own”.
- When it comes to accommodation, you have a wide variety of options to choose from so you can plan your stay according to your own budget (indicative price for a dorm 8-10$, private rooms starting from 20$).
- Food prices in touristic restaurants are slightly below European prices (oh yes, they are a bit pricey for South American standards). Yet, if you are able to trace a local restaurant (ask around for advice), you will be surprised at how cheap you can fill in your tummy!
- Bus tickets within the city range between 0.25-0.40$ (ridiculously cheap, but you need to be extra cautious of pickpockets when traveling with public buses).
- Long-distance buses are also pretty affordable with the ticket price calculated on the basis of 1-1.5$ per hour. Indicative prices on some long-distance buses I used here below:
- Quito – Cuenca: 14$ (9 hours)
- Cuenca – Banos: 11.50$ (7 hours)
- Ambato – Guayaquil: 9.40$ (7 hours)
* Given prices and Entry Requirements as per July 2021. Keep in mind that, at the time of my visit in Ecuador, there was a special pricing for the Galapagos cruises due to the ongoing pandemic. Entry requirements in the country (and the Galapagos) are still subject to change on a short notice. Please always refer to the COVID-19 Travel Regulations Map for current updates.