Travelogue: Mainland Ecuador 2021 and the Lessons I Learned

Lake on mainland Ecuador

Instead of sending my characters off to exciting places, I decided to have an adventure for myself. COVID be damned, I went out to see the world. First stop: Mainland Ecuador. This is part 1 in a series of 4 posts recapping that trip along with any helpful tips I can offer to others planning an adventure.

(I’m not affiliated with any of the linked businesses below – just linking for your convenience and mine when I return to Ecuador.)

Mainland Ecuador (August 28-September 7)

In short: It was AMAZING!

In long…

Speaking the Language

I travelled with my adult daughter, who speaks fluent Spanish, and that was a great help. I’ve been learning on the ol’ Duo Lingo, so I know how to say the very basics and can read a menu. But I struggle with understanding what’s being said back to me. I muddled through the few times I was left on my own to communicate, and all of our guides and some of the hotel staff spoke English, so I think I would’ve been fine on my own, but travelling with a Spanish speaker definitely improved the experience (I knew I had kids for a reason).

A Change of Plans

Our actual itinerary changed from the planned itinerary just days before our first flight took off. One thing I learned about traveling during COVID times is that you can’t count on group activities meeting minimums, and therefore, be prepared for cancellations—or book private tours, transportation, etc.

In my case, the hop-on-hop-off bus pass I’d booked with Ecuador Hop to get from Quito to Quilotoa to Baños de Agua Santa to Cuenca was cancelled. To the company’s credit, they worked to arrange alternative transportation for us, but I was uncomfortable leaving the details to be worked out so close to our arrival in Ecuador, so we decided to scrap our plans for Quilotoa and Baños, added an extra day in Quito, and booked a flight directly to Cuenca (for under $60), where we gained an extra 2 ½ days. We’d originally scheduled only 2 days in Cuenca, and the more I learned about it the more I wished we’d have more time there, so we were happy with this change in plans (although Quilotoa and Baños de Agua Santa are top of the list for my next trip to mainland Ecuador).

Itinerary Overview

This is what the actual itinerary looked like:

Quito – 3 nights (arrived after 11pm the first night)

  • Private Day Tour with Let’s Go to Ecuador (highly recommend!)
    • Museo de Padre Almeida
    • Historic Center & Churches
    • La Florida Excavation Site
    • Equator
  • TeleforiQo/Pichincha
  • Basilica ‘n Beer

Cuenca – 5 nights (Don’t look at me like that! There is SO much to do in Cuenca & surroundings.)

  • Hiking Tours with Cuenca Bestours (highly recommend)
    • Cajas National Park
    • Inca Trail / Ingapirka
  • Walking Tour of City
    • River Walk
    • Panama Hat Factory
    • Chocolate Tasting
    • Parque Calderón
  • Pumapungo Archaeological Site (Museum closed)
  • Cathedral Tower
  • Flower & Artisan Markets
  • Thermal Baths & Spa in nearby Baños (not de Agua Santa)
  • Amaru Bioparque & Zoo

Mindo – 2 nights

COVID Travel Requirements

At our time of travel, mainland Ecuador required either proof of COVID-19 vaccine OR a negative COVID-19 test. We presented our vax cards once—at the airline counter at our point of origin, Chicago—and before we left, we printed and filled out the required Travel Declaration Form, which we handed over upon arrival in Quito (they also offered these forms on the plane prior to arrival). Easy peasy.

To return to the United States, we needed a negative COVID-19 test taken within 3 days of the initial flight in our return itinerary. Since we flew into the Quito airport from Cuenca two days before returning home, we got antigen tests at the MedicalVIP in the Quito airport, very nice, clean, efficient facility. There were only a couple of other people in the waiting room when we arrived, and the process moved along fairly quickly. We received our results less than 45 minutes after the tests were administered. To keep up with requirements, I found the US Embassy’s page on Ecuador to be the best resource for the US:

Also, a completed attestation form is required when you check into the first flight of your journey back to the states. You can pre-print or complete the form online when you check in at a kiosk at the Quito airport.

Mask Wearing

At the time we visited Ecuador, face masks were required everywhere, indoors and out. Many of the shops sell pretty embroidered masks. Some restaurants and other places took a quick temperature check upon entrance. Most businesses, churches, and museums had trays on the ground with, like, Astro-turf in them, and you were supposed to step in them as you entered, but that wasn’t really enforced. In Quito, compliance w/ face masks seemed near 100%. In Cuenca, it was more like 90%, and in Mindo…well, mask wearing wasn’t as big of a thing there.

As a guest in the country, I was happy to comply with the rules, but when climbing church towers at high altitude or facing anything more than one flight of stairs, I kept my distance from others and lowered my mask – because passing out for lack of oxygen is bad for my health – and nobody ever hassled me for it.

Travel Style & Budget

I’d describe our travel style as “deluxe backpacker” with budget accommodations (averaged $15 per person per night for private rooms) and mostly budget dining (averaged about $16 per person per day for all food & beverage), but we didn’t use any public transportation. We splurged a bit on:

  • Private day tours ($203 per person for a total of 3 day tours)
  • Private transfer to and from Mindo from Quito Airport ($45 per person each way)
  • Inter-country flights Quito-Cuenca-Quito (just over $100 total per person for BOTH flights)
  • Massages in a lava cave! ($25 p/p for massage plus $15 for two hours in thermal baths)

Those working in the tourism industry have been hit hard financially by the pandemic, and everyone we met along the way was happy to see us—one tour guide started out by profusely thanking us for coming to Ecuador. It’s more important than ever to remember to tip and to do it generously when you can.


As two women traveling independently for the most part, the only time I felt unsafe was when we came across a super mean dog at dusk on a remote dirt road leading out of Mindo (more on that in the Mindo post). The people were lovely, and in the historic center of Quito, there was a definite police presence. On two occasions, when we apparently didn’t do a great job of blending in, officers approached us and just kind of checked in to see if we needed anything and offer advice.

Which is not to say you shouldn’t take precautions. We followed recommended safety guidelines, like not going out after dark in Quito’s historic center, and we left our passports and cash either camouflaged and locked in our bags at the hotel or in money belts tucked under our pants. When in Peru a few years ago, I kept my actual passport on me at all times, so that’s what I started out doing in mainland Ecuador, but the police who approached us advised us to carry a copy instead (as many of you here also advised), so that’s what we did from that point. We used crossbody purses with zippered closures, which we kept in front of us with one hand on them.

We noticed that especially in Quito, the locals tend to wear plain, surgical-style face masks. We were excited to wear the fancy masks we’d purchased for the trip, but after getting a lot of friendly compliments on them, I realized they were attracting too much attention, making us stand out as tourist, so we toned down our mask game.

To be completely honest, I felt much safer travelling these cities in Ecuador than I do going into many cities in the US.

Random Tips

Bring mostly small bills – 1s, 5s and 10s. You’ll have difficulty getting change for a 20 on mainland Ecuador. One bakery in Cuenca couldn’t (or wouldn’t) even change a 5.

Know the cross streets of your hotel – and anywhere else you plan to take a taxi to. The closest cross streets to a location are what taxi drivers in mainland Ecuador go by rather than street addresses.


Travel on for detailed trip reports for Quito Cuenca Mindo.