Past and Present
Ecuador’s nationalist military seized oil resources from foreign companies in the 1960s, and by 1972, the military was using their newfound revenue to industrialize Ecuador. When the oil money began to run out, the military-controlled country returned to a democracy, but the end of the oil boom — and the debt created by the foreign borrowing of the military regime — left Ecuador in a major economic crisis. Climate disasters, including flooding and a severe drought, exacerbated the economic freefall. A minor war with Peru, government corruption, civil unrest, and the subsequent overthrow of President Lucio Gutiérrez in 2006 have all contributed to the current state of Ecuador, which, despite economic growth, remains a nation with nearly 26 percent of the population below the poverty line.
President Rafael Correa, a social democrat, now leads the country with a focus on ending poverty. Despite his much-criticized handling of Ecuador’s oil resources, he has overseen massive development in cities like Quito and Cuenca. While this development — including new parks, better police presence, and accessible public transportation — has improved safety in the most-visited areas of Ecuador, there are several urgent items to consider before visiting.
Before traveling to Ecuador, it’s recommended to visit a travel-medicine clinic four to six weeks prior to your trip. Travelers should make sure to be vaccinated for measles, mumps, and rubella (one vaccine, the MMR); for diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus (DPT); and polio. Hepatitis, typhoid, yellow fever, and even rabies are also good choices to vaccinate against. While malaria is rare in Ecuador, it can occur, especially at elevations of less than 5,000 feet (1,524 m). Travelers are advised to take precautions, including using insect repellent, wearing long pants and shirt sleeves when hiking, and even using prescription medication, which is available at travel clinics (or through a primary care physician). Using mosquito nets over beds is also encouraged.
Much of Ecuador’s water comes straight from the Andes, but despite the relative purity of mountain water, stomach afflictions are common for travelers who ingest unfiltered or unboiled water. Non-prescription diarrhea medication can be purchased at home or in Ecuador, although it hopefully won’t be required during a trip. The smartest tip: bring portable water filters, and check the cap seals on bottled water.
The burundanga tree, or “devil’s breath,” grows wild in South America, and is humorously known as “borrachero,” the “get-you-drunk tree.” Mothers warn their children not to sit under the burundanga tree, because even inhaling the pollen of its drooping yellow and orange flowers can produce strange dreams. The chemical inside its seeds is scopolamine, which can be used as a powerful anti-nausea medication and sedative; in Ecuador, it’s harvested for these medical purposes, but its accessibility has taken a dark turn.
Gangsters, thieves, and rapists in Ecuador have been drugging victims with pure scopolamine from these very trees, using it in powder form that can be dissolved in a drink, sprinkled on food, or even blown in a person’s face. In Quito alone, an average of ten people are brought to the emergency room each month after being drugged; often, they’ve temporarily been rendered so docile from the scopolamine that they have already withdrawn all their cash for a thief, helped a burglar ransack their own home, or worse.
Travelers should never take food, drinks, or cigarettes from strangers, and shouldn’t touch offered leaflets or phone cards, either: even paper materials such as these can be soaked in the drug, which can be absorbed through the skin.
Road Safety in Ecuador
Driving in Ecuador can be a frustrating experience for travelers who are accustomed to driving in the U.S. In the provincial areas, traffic laws are rarely enforced, and drivers tend to ignore posted signs and lights. Rural roads often remain unpaved or are in generally poor condition. The road systems in major cities, however, are typically well planned and orderly, though riddled with congestion. As in many countries, cities in Ecuador have rush hour traffic. A vigilant and confident driver should be able to handle the roads here, but only during daylight hours: driving the unlit roads outside of urban areas at night is extremely dangerous, and is worsened by potholes in road, animals dashing in front of cars, heavy fog from the mountains, and torrential rains that can cause mudslides.
Driving during daylight hours is recommended, and can keep one’s risk of highway robbery low. Perhaps the most important rule of the road in Ecuador is knowing who to get on the road with: Travelers are better off calling a radio taxi from a dispatch number than hailing a cab from the street, lest they fall prey to an “express kidnapping,” the term used for phony cabbies who hold unsuspecting travelers hostage in their cars until they’ve turned their pockets out or have been taken to an ATM and forced withdraw all their money. If one must hail a cab, taking note of the license plate number — and getting a good look at the driver — is imperative.
As far as guided tours go, travelers must never get into the car or van of a “tour guide” who has solicited them. Only tours that have been prearranged with a reputable company or related business are safe. You can greatly ease your worries if you book your transportation through Anywhere whilst you are finalizing your trip to Ecuador.
Crime and Tourism
Ecuador’s latest crime rate statistics show about 12.5 murders per 100,000 people in the country, which is lower than some cities in the US, including Kansas City and Cincinnati, Ohio. Of course, being a traveler in a foreign city always puts a person at a disadvantage, and criminals in Ecuador have targeted tourists before.
Over 100 metric tons of cocaine moves through Ecuador each year, which has contributed to the rise in violent crime. Most drug-related crime only directly affects dealers, buyers, and police, but rising crime rates in general can affect travelers as well. While the most commonly reported crimes against travelers are petty theft and armed robbery, it is important to know all the angles a criminal could strike from.
The “express kidnappings” mentioned above are a classic way tourists are victimized, with Guayaquil and Manta being the cities with the most frequent incidents of this. Taxis (except those called from a radio dispatch) are to be avoided in these cities.
In Quito, certain parks should be avoided: La Carolina and El Ejido parks are known crime hotspots. The districts La Floresta and La Marin are places where tourists are often targeted as well, and ambling around these neighborhoods can be a bad idea. The Trolebus in Quito is a convenient way to traverse the city, but is a daily work station for petty thieves, who may pickpocket or even cut purses open.
In Guayaquil, it is the Kennedy, Alborada, and Urdessa districts that should be avoided, especially at night; even Malecón Simon Bolivar, a popular shopping and dining area, hosts muggers known to target the tourists there.
The Cuyabeno National Park near the Colombian border has a history of kidnappings: in 2012, a group of British tourists were surrounded at gunpoint and held against their will by a gang there, and later in the year, two Canadians — out for a hike on the reserve — were also held hostage and ransomed. Travelers should always be in groups and with reputable guides when exploring isolated areas or hiking a trail.
Women certainly should not drive alone in Ecuador: smash-and-grab thieves often target solo female drivers. Of course, female travelers should also be wary of rapists: while most victims of rape in Ecuador are Ecuadorians, a few rapes have been reported by travelers in the past 5 years.
Guerilla activity, terrorism, and violent protests are among the things one does not have to worry about in Ecuador. Though protests against the government occasionally break out, the worst consequence for travelers is typically a traffic jam or delayed bus. Travelers must not, however, join in any protest: arrests of foreigners have been made this way, and a U.S. passport will not help.
Due to limited police and judicial resources, apprehension of criminals is not to be expected. The police may come quickly to calls for help in major cities, but they are notoriously poor at follow-up. After being victimized in a crime, travelers may find police in Ecuador to be very unhelpful, and U.S. citizens are recommended to turn to the U.S. Embassy for support.
Safest Places to Visit
• For health, the cities of Quito, Guayaquil, and the Galápagos Islands are a safe bet: there is no malaria present in these destinations, and the water used by restaurants is drinkable.
• Taxis are safest in Cuenca, which has a strict radio-taxi system.
• Baños de Agua Santa, often referred to simply as Baños, has a low rate of violent crime, and is a bright, pretty city to walk in. Thieves still target foreigners for petty theft, however, and cell phones and cameras should only be used on the streets during daylight hours.
• Montañita, a small surfing town about 112 miles (180 km) outside Guayaquil, is crowded with charming shops and restaurants, and feels very safe due to an economy entirely based on pleasing visitors, as well as a strong hippy community of expats.
• Loja is considered the music capital of Ecuador, and has a small community of expats that claim it to be the best place to live in the country. It is a college town, with two major universities, and the locals tend to be educated and cultured, valuing music, art, and reading — priorities reflected in the shops, activities, and street performances there. With a much lower crime rate than the major cities of Ecuador, travelers report feeling safer in general in Loja.
• The cultural strength of bohemian Otavalo, where many tribal indigenous people live, is part of what makes it one of the safest places in Ecuador: if anyone harms one of the tribal people there, according to local lore, they may find themselves victim of the city’s “justice in our own hands” policy of silent, vigilante elimination. Dark as this sounds, the town is full of people on their best behavior, and is considered a kid-friendly destination with street puppet shows, dance performances, and lots of arts-and-crafts.
• Cotacachi is an artisan city with the most indigenous people in a concentrated area in Ecuador; areas with high numbers of indigenous people tend to be relatively safer than the “melting pot” cities. It even holds a UNESCO award for being an all-literate city, and of course, education is an effective crime-deterrent. For hiking or biking, the trails around Cotacachi are very safe.
Ecuador has a lower crime rate than many other much-traveled places such as Belize, Mexico, Brazil, and Guatemala. Being constantly alert when outside, and maintaining a vigilant account of one’s possessions and oneself, are logical practices in any city. And remember: don't carry possessions that can't be easily replaced.
Don’t hail cabs from the street; always call a radio cab instead.
If there is no option but to hail a cab, take note of the license plate — and the driver — before getting inside. If possible, text the plate number to a friend or family member.
If a taxi pulls alongside you and the driver offers a ride to an unfamiliar place (like a club), don't get in.
Don’t walk alone at night. Walking in a group is far safer.
No short-cuts: as tempting as it may be to walk through an alley or wooded area to get somewhere, these areas can be sketchy and aren’t worth the risk.
Walk facing traffic, making it more difficult for a driver to follow you and force you into a car.
Walk unburdened: use comfortable shoes, clothes that let you move, and don’t carry too much. This will help you on the off chance that you need to run.
Listening to headphones while out and about is not recommended. Stay alert with your full hearing capabilities.
Never carry items that you don't want to lose. This includes expensive objects such as jewelry, electronics, and large sums of cash.
Learn the location of local police stations, hospitals, and establishments that are open late. They may be a lifeline at night.