Lots of first-time visitors to Ecuador make a beeline to the country’s biggest tourist attractions. Which is fine — you need to take that walking tour of Quito’s historic Old Town, and you should definitely get on a yacht in the Galapagos. But if you want to experience Ecuador like a local, you’ll want to slow down and appreciate the subtler details, from coca tea to roasted cuy (guinea pig.) Yes, you read that correctly. Read on to discover five of our favorite local experiences in Ecuador.
#1 Get Into Coca Culture
Feel a little woozy when you step off the plane? It’s not just jet lag. Quito, at an altitude of 9,350 feet, is the second-highest capital city in the world. (La Paz, Bolivia ranks first.) Locals treat the most common symptoms, like headaches and shortness of breath, with steaming cups of coca tea. Look around — on street corners, you’ll see people drinking it out of disposable cups, and in the reception areas of hotels and hostels, the staff offers cups to weary travelers.
The coca plant is native to Andean regions. You’ll notice raw or dried coca leaves for sale in packets in the marketplace; the tea is prepared by submerging the leaf in hot water. Coca tea is subtle and calming, like an herbal infusion — it tastes something like green tea — and saying gracias (thanks) when you’re offered a cup is a quick way to fit in culturally.
Just don’t try to take any coca leaves home with you: the coca plant is also the basis of a much more powerful illicit substance, and possession of any part of the plant is illegal in the U.S. Though coca tea is harmless, trying to carry the leaves back home with you could mean trouble at border control.
#2 Explore Ecuadorian Cuisine
You could play it safe with a plate of arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) and a bottle of mineral water. Or you could do as the locals do and dine on a range of traditional dishes ranging from roasted cuy (guinea pig) to ceviche with popcorn.
Come again? Guinea pig? That's correct: it's a delicacy in Ecuador (and in other destinations in Latin America, including Peru.) Usually, the animal is flattened, then roasted on a stick, and served with potatoes, rice, and/or corn. You'll spot it more in rural areas, though it's also on offer at street markets and even upscale restaurants in larger cities.
If you're not ready to feast on rodents just yet, consider these other classic Ecuadorian dishes. Look for llapingachos (potato patties stuffed with cheese), often served with eggs and grilled chorizo at street stands. It's also a popular side dish in family-run restaurants.
Ceviche isn't a novelty for South American travelers, but in Ecuador, it's served with crispy popcorn. (Pro tip: that's not an appetizer to snack on before the main dish comes out. You're supposed to sprinkle the popcorn on top of the ceviche and let is soak up the dish's citrusy juices, then spoon it into your mouth.)
#3 Shop in a Marketplace
What is there to buy in Ecuador's markets? The better question might be — what isn't there to buy? Market-hopping is a national pastime for Ecuadorians, and just as fun for tourists, whether you're shopping for a perfect woolen poncho or just picking up some snacks to throw into your backpack.
The most famous mercado (market) in the country is in Otavalo, located in the Andean highlands of northern Ecuador. It's easily accessible as a day trip destination from Quito; the most popular days are Wednesdays and Saturdays. The marketplace is best-known for textiles and artisan crafts representing the region's native indigenous groups. You'll also find gold-beaded necklaces and jewelry made from tagua (palm) nut, alpaca blankets, woven gloves and sweaters, painted bowls and gourds, and original artwork. Bargaining is allowed, but be respectful.
Even if you don't make it to one of the better-known artisan markets, just take the time to stroll through the local marketplace in any town or city you visit in Ecuador. It's a one-of-a-kind chance to purchase exotic fruits, watch the locals in action, and strike up a conversation with vendors. Don't forget your camera: Ecuador's markets are famously colorful, and you'll find them in many of Ecuador's most popular places to visit.
#4 Stay in an Old Hacienda
Ecuador is full of old haciendas that were built by wealthy Spanish colonials in the 17th and 18th centuries. Some don't exist anymore; others have fallen into disrepair. But a good number have been converted into hotels or restaurants open to the public. Check into one for an evening or two to enjoy the peace and quiet.
If it's too late to change your hotel plans, consider visiting a hacienda that offers day tours, like Hacienda Pinasquí. Built in 1790, it's one of the oldest haciendas in the country. And since it's located near the Otavalo market, you could do both in one day. There's a restaurant onsite, too: it's an atmospheric place to try a traditional Ecuadorian soup while warming up next to the open fireplace.
#5 Pick Up a Panama Hat
Don’t let the name fool you. The Panama hat is actually from Ecuador.
The hat was originally woven with leaves of a palm-like plant that's indigenous to the coast of Ecuador. Later, the same style of hat — brimmed, and light both in color and in weight — was woven from straw and exported to Asia. But the sailing route for exported goods took the shipment of hats through Panama, and the hat took on the name of port it passed through instead of its place of origin.
Pick one up for yourself at a marketplace in Ecuador: the Cuenca marketplace specializes in them (and in basketry, too.) Stylish and breathable, it's an ideal souvenir and great addition to your wardrobe if you're traveling through South America.
For more great experiences in Ecuador, check out Best Things to Do in Ecuador.