Ecuador is not a country to visit if you’re after resorts and theme parks. But for our purposes—letting our kids experience other cultures coupled with a chance to see the rare animals of the Galapagos—Ecuador was a fantastic family vacation destination, and we were quite surprised at not seeing other families traveling here.
Geographically, we explored a very small area of mainland Ecuador in the two weeks we were there, but we explored it deeply—taking buses, living in hostels and shopping in markets among indigenous Andean people. I had backpacked through the area with a friend 20 years prior and knew some Spanish, but it was new ground for the rest of the family.
I planned our trip so that we could experience many of the highland weekly markets primarily around Quito and the Quilotoa Loop. These are totally different from anything my children had experienced before and have no entry cost attached. We could’ve taken a group tour of these markets, but opted to take public buses and easily guided ourselves around. The markets provided an opportunity to see real life and sample lots of the local foods.
Self-guided walks around the Quilotoa Loop towns, high in the mountains, gave the children experience at walking at altitude (2800m – 3800m) and an understanding of the hardships making a living on these steep hillsides.
At the beginning of the trip, as I mentioned, I was the sole Spanish speaker. But before too long, the children gained the confidence and the words to be able to buy food and bus tickets, ask for the bill and thank the restaurant owners for the food. (Time will tell whether they retain these phrases, but I’m happy to report they were still in use when we returned to New Zealand.)
They didn’t always need Spanish to get by anyway. At one hostel we stayed at in a nontouristy town, the owner had a girl the same age as our twins. Despite speaking different languages, the girls played together and really looked forward to seeing each other whenever we returned to the hostel.
We traveled between towns on the buses, purchasing tickets at the bus stations just prior to departure like the locals do. There was always a bus within the hour. Around town, we always walked, took a cab or boarded a local bus. Sleeping, eating and traveling like locals translated to a cost-effective adventure and a way to save for the Galapagos, the splurge leg of our trip!
The ROAM Report: Ecuador
Travelers: Poz (Mum), Steve (Dad), Jack (12), Molly (9), Kate (9)
Date: May 2017
The Good Stuff
The People The Ecuadorian people are wonderful. They were always proud of their country and went out of their way to help us and make us feel welcome. We also found them to be honest and fair when it came to prices.
Rainy Day Fun The Interactive Science Museum (Museo Interactivo de Ciencias) in Quito was a highlight for the children. Plenty of hands-on science and math-related activities. We anticipated an hour of two here, but ended up staying most of the day.
Quito’s Old Town The free walking tour run out of the Community Hostel in the Old Town of Quito was great too. The local English speaking guide showed us all around the sites and told us plenty of information about them for two hours.
In the Cloud The cloud forest town of Mindo had plenty of child-friendly activities. There is a wonderful butterfly farm where you can hang out with many different species of butterflies; bush walks and waterfalls to swim in; zip-lining through the cloud forest and chocolate tours. There are plenty of tourist type restaurants which were a godsend after the wonderful food we had on the Galapagos just prior to coming here.
The Equator! We did a day trip, traveling on a local bus (one hour) from Quito to Mitad del Mundo, a tourist attraction situated on – you guessed it – the equator! (A taxi or guided day trip were also available but more expensive). We visited the Intiñan Museum where our ticket price included a guided tour, which we all enjoyed.
The Biking Dutchman We did a biking day trip out of Quito with Biking Dutchman Mountain Bike Tours. This tour included bikes, transport and lunch. Jan drove us to Lake Artesana (4200m) and followed us down as we biked. This trip gave us access to an area we wouldn’t have seen without our own transport and we loved the opportunity to be on bikes again, after our cycling fun in the Galapagos. This trip is extremely family friendly. The biking was all on remote, sealed roads and there is also the option of jumping in the van for anyone who needs it. This was on our last day in Quito. Jan was happy for us to bring all our luggage with us, which enabled us to fit this trip in. (The road back from Lake Artesana is relatively close to the airport.)
The Not So Good
Sneaky Thievery The main thing that wasn’t great, was we had some things stolen from a backpack on a bus. We had read about the opportunists that ply the buses and thought that the backpack between the legs would be safe. The thieves sat behind us and emptied the bag from under the seat before making a hasty exit. It sounds impossible as I write this, but unfortunately, it did happen! I would recommend having backpacks on your lap and even strapped on. Our large backpacks, the responsibility of the bus crew, were safe under the bus. This was the only time in the whole trip this happened and we never felt unsafe at any other time.
Mi Familia No Intienda Although I was keen to utilize the Spanish stored at the back of my brain for the last 20 years, I was the only Spanish speaker in the family. Whilst I went to South America knowing this, it was huge being the only one who could read the menu, order the food, ask directions and so on. Most guides we had spoke English, but everyone else, including some hostel staff, were sole Spanish speakers. Booking some online accommodation was sometimes in Spanish too. I loved the fact that Spanish is still the main language of Ecuador, just be prepared with a few key Spanish phrases if you are going to travel there.
Where’s the Starbucks? Even though the Ecuadorean highlands are known for their Arabica plantations, the coffee we sampled just wasn’t that great.
Good to Know
No Bookings GoWe had some accommodation nights prebooked, but others we kept flexible so we could move on when we needed to. Our lack of reservations never posed a problem, partially because we traveled in May which is not high season. We typically stayed three or four nights in each spot, enabling us to travel one day then have a couple of days to explore before moving on.
Base Camp We stayed four nights in Quito when we first arrived, to acclimatize to the altitude and see the sights. We returned to this same hostel when we came back from the Quilotoa Loop two weeks later; this trick enabled us to leave all our gear for the Galapagos (snorkeling gear, wetsuits and warm weather clothes) in Quito and not lug everything around on our travels. When we returned to Quito, we did a huge rearrangement, stashing away our raincoats, puffer jackets and thermals in packs we didn’t open in the Galapagos.
Hostel Life The hostel network in Quito and the highlands is extensive, enabling us to have sole occupancy of dorm rooms for a reasonable price, and most hostels also had a guest kitchen where we could cook when the hostel-provided meals didn’t cut it. In the smaller towns, some of the hostel accommodations are quite rudimentary.
Local Buses There is an efficient intercity bus network. At approximately $1 per hour per person, the buses were a great value.
Meat-and-Potatoes Country We always ate in local restaurants and at the markets. We found the food in the highlands of Ecuador very meat- and carbohydrate-based. Sometimes there was little choice at a restaurant and the children found this quite challenging. A typical dinner was a piece of meat (chicken, steak or chop), rice or potatoes, a lentil or bean stew and a salad garnish. There were often fruit shakes with or without milk. Where possible, we bought fresh fruit, veggies, eggs and bread at the markets and bakeries and made our own meals. In some of the cities we found restaurants serving non-Ecuadorian food, such as Mexican food and pizza—a welcome relief from the meat and potatoes!
Great Food Bandido Bar, next to Community Hostel in Quito had amazing craft beer and pizza. Seafood restaurants in Guayacuil were also highlights.
Tastes of Home We also had a few foods from home always on hand—Marmite and peanut butter; the children’s favorite hot chocolate drink, called Milo, and a couple of bags of milk powder; Earl Grey and English breakfast tea and coffee bags; and packets of the children’s favorite breakfast cereal.
Check the Weather May 2017 was slightly wetter than usual in the Ecuadoran highlands, with rain rolling in most afternoons. We planned our day accordingly and were pleased we had packed our raincoats so we could still get out and about. Being high, the air temperatures were cool, especially at night. Some days we wore shorts and T-shirts, but other days we needed our thermals and puffer jackets. We would have chosen a different season had we not been traveling to the Galapagos, where the weather was perfect in May.
Held the Amazon I had contemplated visiting the Amazon as part of our mainland trip, but we didn’t for three reasons. 1) We would have needed an extra week to do it justice; 2) we would have needed antimalarial medication and 3) the weather there isn’t the best at the time of year we visited. Next time!
by Nicola “Poz” Poswillo, March 2018
© ROAM Family Travel 2018 – All rights reserved
Keywords: family vacation, family travel, travel with kids, travel with kids, ecuador family vacation, budget ecuador, ecuador with kids, quito with kids