For whatever reason, South America had never really been on our radar. Chalk it up just to not knowing any better I suppose, while we have friends that have traveled all over Japan, the U.K., Southeast Asia, we never really knew anyone who’d seen much of South America, so we never really knew anyone to recommend it. We’ve now become its biggest advocate, from just a short while in Ecuador we’ve come to love it, and here are some of our personal favorites from our time there.
Places to Go
We didn’t get too far outside of Quito and the Galápagos, which is a shame because we know there is so much more to experience in this country. Here are our favorites of what we did get to see.
• The Mitad del Mundo, (Middle of the World). The Earth’s equator passes right through Ecuador (ecuador actually means equator in Spanish), and you can get right up and see it for yourself, just a quick cab ride from Quito. There’s a huge yellow line demarcating the equator where you can take your picture, it really is a bit of a tourist trap but we enjoyed it nonetheless. There’s also a several-story museum where you can learn more about the country, and at the top get a beautiful view of the surrounding city. *Disclaimer: although it was thought to be on the equator when it was constructed, it’s pretty widely accepted now that they fucked up and the actual line of zero-longitude lies some 200 meters north of the marked line and monument. If you want to “see” the actual equator you’ll have to use a GPS and go there yourself, but personally the monument was enough for us.*
• Mercado Central. One of my favorite things to do in foreign cities (or anywhere, actually) is to check out the markets, it gives you such a good idea of what foods, handicrafts, textiles, etc that locals shop for. Mercado Central was also a great place to stop in for lunch while wandering around old town (as they also have a huge food court), we went on recommendation from a local we met and ordered the same dish he and his wife get when they go - fried sea bass, shrimp ceviche, and popcorn, more than enough to split, just $6 USD and so so good. Keep in mind that the market itself is not really meant to be an attraction per se, we heard other tourists complaining that it was boring and dirty but it’s where the locals go and that made it more than interesting enough for us.
• The Galápagos Islands. It’s a lot of travel to get there and it’ll cost you a bit of money, but if you can, you will love these islands, I promise. Almost anywhere you go in the islands will be beautiful, but a couple favorites were the Sierra Negra hike on Isla Isabela (otherworldly volcanic landscape), Tortuga Bay in Santa Cruz (white sands, warm waves, speckled with marine wildlife), and scuba diving, anywhere. Check out our full post on the Galápagos for a summary of everything we did there, tons of pictures, as well as a list of personal tips for visiting the islands yourself.
• Plaza de la Independencia (Independence Square), absolutely bustling with life, tourists, vendors, street performers, and locals alike. It’s the main public square in Quito and a huge symbol of independence and executive power for the country. It’s also flanked by several monumental buildings, including the Presidential Palace, Archbishop’s Palace, and the Cathedral of Quito. If you happen to be there on a Monday, then go to the plaza at 11 am for the changing of the guard.
• Cotopaxi National Park was my favorite place we got to in continental Ecuador - a protected area just a few hours south of Quito, home to one of the world’s highest active volcanos. We went horseback-riding through the desolate, foggy terrain, spotting all kinds of different cacti and wildlife, including a ton of wild horses. If you don’t go horseback-riding then you can go hiking, or biking, or even just a drive through is nice - watching the landscape change along the way from Quito was breathtaking.
Food to eat
We didn’t stay in Ecuador as long as we’d have liked, thus didn’t get to eat as much as we’d have liked either. The food was truly a pleasant surprise though, we didn’t know much about South American cuisine going in, but pretty much everything we did get to try we loved.
• Shrimp ceviche. The country of origin of ceviche is hotly debated (many say Peru), but it’s since become a staple throughout all of South America. In Ecuador, shrimp ceviche is especially common/amazing, as shrimp is one of the country’s biggest exports. They’re marinated with red onions, cilantro, vegetables, and a lot of tomatoes and lime juice which “cooks” the shrimp. We usually found it served with a lot of the marinade (so much that it was very soup-y in texture). You’ll get this as an appetizer for a lot of meals or just get it on its own!
• Morocho. A very sweet, hot and thick drink that tasted sort of like a mix between horchata and rice pudding. It’s made from hominy corn, milk, cinnamon & sugar, and some optional ingredients like raisins or anise.
• Llapingachos (and other street food). We hadn’t had street food this good and this cheap since Vietnam. Often for as low as $2 USD you can get tons of different dishes like arroz con pollo (rice with chicken, a South American classic), or a full plate of meat, potatoes, roasted Andean corn (tostado), salsa, salad, etc. One of the most classic Ecuadorian street foods is llapingacho - potato patties, stuffed or topped with cheese then fried on a hot griddle. There are also so many other ones you shouldn’t miss, like empanadas, corviche (fried dumpling/fritter), or emborrajados (sweet fried plantain strips). Portions are huge, too, we found a common rule of thumb was that if a meal cost more than $4 USD then it was more than enough to split.
• Bolon de verde. One of my favorite things we had in all of Ecuador was bolon de verde - green plantains, mashed and then formed into a balls and deep fried. They’re often stuffed or mixed with other ingredients too, cheese or chorizo or chicharrones, and topped with various salsas and salads.
• Fruit. All the tropical fruit you can get, it’s different down there. Sour green mangos or grosellas (gooseberries) with salt, tangerines being juiced on every street corner, guayabas (similar to guavas), fresh or in espumillas (meringues). Markets had huge stalls lined with all types of colorful and oddly-shaped fruits we’d never heard of before, definitely stop in and look around or get some jugos de fruta.
Our time in Ecuador felt far, far too short - from volcanoes in the countryside to the bustling city of Quito, the amazing food and the absolute wonder of the Galápagos - we could have spent a lot longer here. We had no expectations going in, really, but Ecuador made our first impression of South America a great one.