What makes Ecuador a unique country to travel to?
Ecuador is a Spanish-speaking country approximately the size of Colorado. It has a democratically elected government. In general, tourist facilities are adequate but vary in quality. Crime is a significant concern. Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar as its official currency, and U.S. bills and both U.S. and locally minted coins are accepted everywhere.
Crime is a severe problem in Ecuador. Crimes against U.S. citizens in the past year have ranged from petty theft to violent offenses, including armed robbery, home invasion, sexual assault, and several instances of murder and attempted murder. Very low rates of apprehension and conviction of criminals – due to limited police and judicial resources – contribute to Ecuador’s high crime rate.
“Secuestro Express” Taxi Assaults: Robberies and assaults against taxi passengers, known locally as “secuestro express” continue to present a significant safety concern, especially in Guayaquil and Manta, but also with increasing regularity in Quito. Shortly after the passenger enters a taxi, the vehicle is typically intercepted by armed accomplices of the driver, who threaten passengers with weapons, rob passengers of their personal belongings, and force victims to withdraw money from ATMs. Increasingly, victims have been beaten or raped during these incidents.
In the Guayaquil area, you should call to order a taxi by phone or use a service affiliated with major hotels. If you must hail a taxi on the street, seek out those that are officially registered and in good condition. Registered taxis in Ecuador are usually yellow, display matching unit numbers on their windshields and doors, feature a taxi cooperative name on the door, and are identified with an orange license plate. Still, be aware that passengers have been victimized even in taxis that meet these criteria. U.S. officials associated with the U.S. Consulate in Guayaquil are forbidden from hailing street taxis.
If you become a victim of express kidnapping and/or robbery, cooperation with the assailant usually results in the best outcome, as nothing material is as valuable as your life. Following a criminal incident, U.S. citizens are encouraged to immediately file a police report with the local authorities and to inform the American Citizens Services Unit at the U.S. Embassy in Quito or the U.S. Consulate General in Guayaquil.
Violent Robberies: Armed or violent robberies can occur in all parts of Ecuador, not just the major cities. Many travelers have been robbed after using ATMs or when exiting banks. Travelers should avoid withdrawing large amounts of cash at one time from banks and ATMs, and should use ATMs in protected indoor areas like well-guarded shopping malls. In some cases, robbers have used motorcycles to approach their victims and flee the scene. Tourists have also been robbed at gunpoint on beaches and along hiking trails.
Non-Violent Robberies: Pick-pocketing, purse-snatching, robbery, bag-slashing, and hotel room theft are the most common types of crimes committed against U.S. citizens in Ecuador. They occur throughout Ecuador and incidents have increased significantly in recent years. Pickpockets and other petty thieves are particularly active in airports, restaurants, on public transportation, in crowded streets, bus terminals, public markets, and grocery stores. Backpackers are frequently targeted for robbery, as are travelers carrying laptop computer bags. On buses, luggage stowed below the bus or at a traveler’s feet is sometimes stolen. Thieves in Ecuador often distract the victim, sometimes by purposefully spilling liquid on the victim and pretending to help the victim clean it up, while accomplices snatch the victim’s bag or pick the victim’s pocket. To lower your risk of these or other non-violent crimes, leave valuables in a safe place, or don’t travel with them. Make use of hotel safes when available, avoid wearing obviously expensive jewelry or designer clothing, and carry only the cash or credit cards that you will need on each outing. Stay alert to pickpockets when in crowds and when taking public transportation, and be conscious that distractions can be created to target you.
Carjacking and Thefts from Vehicles: To avoid carjacking or theft from your vehicle while you are stopped at intersections, drive with your doors locked and windows rolled up. “Smash and grabs” occur when thieves break into parked vehicles, but have also been known to occur in slow-moving or stopped traffic, particularly when cars are driven by females in the car alone. Do not leave anything of value in plain view in a car, including sunglasses, sports equipment, purses, briefcases or valuables. Always be aware of your surroundings, and try to travel in groups.
Sexual Assault: Incidents of sexual assault and rape have increased, including in well-traveled tourist areas. Criminals generally target women who are alone, and use alcohol or incapacitating drugs on unsuspecting tourists to rob and/or sexually assault them. These so-called date-rape drugs disorient the victim and can cause prolonged unconsciousness and serious medical problems. To lower your risk, travel in groups, don’t leave food or drinks unattended in public places, and never allow a stranger to give you a drink.
Murder: Since September 2009, at least four U.S. citizens in Ecuador have been victims of murder. In most cases, the victims and alleged perpetrators personally knew each other. Investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators is the responsibility of the Ecuadorian government, and do not proceed with the speed and thoroughness we are accustomed to in the United States. Although the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Consulate General monitor and encourage these investigations, our ability to intervene is extremely limited. The Ecuadorian government has established an emergency hotline that callers can use to inform police about murders or contract killings. The number is 1-800-DELITO (1800 335486).
Credit Card Fraud: Increasing numbers of U.S. citizens in Ecuador have fallen victim to fraud related to their credit or debit cards. “Skimming,” the theft of credit card informationduring an otherwise legitimate transaction, is most likely to occur in restaurants or bars, where the skimmer takes the victim's card out of the owner’s view. To avoid skimming, take the credit/debit card to the register yourself and never let the card out of your sight. Also, be sure to monitor your bank account or credit card statement frequently.
Staying Alert in Quito: Stay particularly alert for crime on the crowded streets of south Quito, at the Panecillo, the Historic District, and in the areas of El Tejar, Parroquia San Sebastian, Avenida Cristobal Colon, and Gonzalez Suarez. Quito’s Mariscal Sucre district, a popular tourist area with restaurants, bars, hotels, hostels, and shopping, is increasingly a site of crimes; reported incidents in recent years range from petty theft and sexual assault to shootings. In Mariscal Sucre, travel in groups when possible, avoid hailing taxis off the street or using unofficial taxis, and exercise caution in the early morning hours. Outside the city, stay alert if hiking to the summit of Pichincha, as violent crime has been known to occur there.
Staying Alert in Guayaquil and Elsewhere on the Coast: In Guayaquil, visitors should exercise extreme caution in the downtown area and the southern part of the city. Tourist sites such as the Christ statue (Sagrado Corazon de Jesus) on Cerro del Carmen, the Malecon 2000, and Las Peñas, though well-patrolled by police, are still targeted by criminals hoping to prey on unsuspecting tourists. There have also been reports of armed robberies at restaurants in the fashionable areas of Urdesa and Samborondon.
At the airport in both Quito and Guayaquil, arriving passengers have been targeted by armed robbers who follow them from the airport to rob them. Cases have been reported involving multiple vehicles that cut off and intercept the victim as well as just a single motorcycle rider who robs the victim while they are getting out of their car. The perpetrators appear to focus on travelers who are returning from overseas trips laden with gifts and large amounts of cash.
While you are traveling in Ecuador, you are subject to Ecuadorian laws even though you are a U.S. citizen. Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different from our own. Criminal penalties will vary from country to country. There are also some things that might be legal in the country you visit, but still illegal in the United States. For example, you can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods. Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is also a crime prosecutable in the United States. If you break local laws in Ecuador, your U.S. passport won’t help you avoid arrest or prosecution. It’s very important to know what’s legal and what’s not where you are going.
If you are arrested in Ecuador, under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and customary international law, you have the option to request that the police, prison officials, or other authorities alert the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Outside of Quito and Guayaquil, awareness of international protocols is uneven. If you are arrested in Ecuador, request that the Ecuadorian authorities do this on your behalf. Please note, however, that the U.S. government has no authority to intervene in Ecuadorian legal matters.
Don’t buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are the bootlegs illegal to bring back into the United States, if you purchase them, you may also be breaking local law.
Drug Trafficking: Each year, approximately 20 to 25 U.S. citizens are arrested by Ecuadorian authorities for attempting to traffic drugs between Ecuador and the United States, or between mainland Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands. Many of those arrested claim not to have known they were transporting drugs. Under no circumstances should you ever accept gifts, packages, or suitcases from anyone you do not trust and know well. If you are arrested for drug trafficking, you can expect to serve a lengthy period in pre-trial detention, and if convicted you will likely be sentenced to a long prison term and fined heavily. In nearly all cases, U.S. citizens convicted of drug trafficking in Ecuador must serve their sentences in Ecuador, where conditions of confinement are harsh and far below U.S.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
Adequate medical and dental care is available in the major cities of Ecuador. In smaller communities and in the Galápagos Islands, services are limited, and the quality is generally well below U.S. standards. Ambulances, with or without trained emergency staff, are in short supply in cities, but even more so in rural areas.
Pharmacies are readily available in any city; however, you might find that the availability of some medications is sporadic, and formulations and brand names will differ from products available in the United States. Narcotics and tranquilizers are extremely limited in availability. Pharmacists sometimes dispense medications without requesting a prescription. These individuals may have little training and often prescribe broad-spectrum antibiotics. Consider any advice from them accordingly. Folk healers and traditional markets in some parts of the country offer herbal and folk remedies. You should exercise caution when exploring these remedies, as the formulations can be questionable and some components may interact with other prescription medications.
Many tropical diseases are present in Ecuador, including malaria, dengue and yellow fever (which are transmitted by mosquitoes at lower altitudes), leishmaniaisis (transmitted by sand flies), chagas disease (transmitted by triatomine bugs) and tuberculosis (transmitted from person to person via respiratory droplets). To protect yourself from insect-borne diseases while at lower altitudes, use insect repellants, clothing treated with permethrin, and bed nets.
In Ecuador, yellow fever is found only in the Amazon basin. Ecuadorian authorities might require you to show a certificate of yellow fever vaccination when entering or leaving this area, or when continuing travel to other areas of South America. If possible, you should obtain a yellow fever vaccine prior to departure from the United States. You can also obtain the vaccination in Guayaquil from the Jefatura Provincial de Salud, Panama y Padre Aguirre, (tel): 04-230-3160, Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. The vaccine is free if you do not need an international certification; otherwise it costs $10.40. Antimalarial medication significantly reduces the risk of contracting malaria. There are no vaccines or prophylactic medications for dengue, leishmaniaisis or chagas. If you become ill with fever or flu-like symptoms during or after travel in a high-risk area, you should promptly seek medical attention. Note that the onset of these diseases may be delayed by up to a year.
Your Health and High Altitudes: If you travel to Quito (elevation: 9,400 feet) or other highland areas, you will typically require some time to adjust to the altitude, which can adversely affect your blood pressure, digestion, and energy level. Mountain climbers in particular should be cautioned not to underestimate the time required to adjust before beginning a challenging climb at altitude. Consult with your personal health care providers before undertaking high-altitude travel, as there are medications available to help combat the effects. If you have heart or lung problems or the sickle cell trait, you may develop serious health complications at high altitudes.
Safety and Security
Natural Disasters: Ecuador has many active and potentially active volcanoes, including around the capital of Quito and other popular tourist destinations. Other potential environmental threats include flooding, earthquakes, and tsunamis. In the event of a natural disaster, transportation, water, communications, and power systems may fail due to damaged infrastructure or heavy ash fall. Roads may close and flights in or out of Ecuadorian airports might be cancelled due to adverse conditions.
Three active volcanoes within 100 kilometers of Quito threaten the city primarily with ash fall. Baños, a popular tourist destination, is located at the base of the Tungurahua volcano. Tungurahua has erupted explosively several times in the last decade, including several eruptions throughout 2010 and 2011 that produced significant ash fall. Travelers to Baños, especially on the western side of town, should be aware that mud or lava flows could pose a significant and immediate threat. If you are in Baños when a volcanic eruption occurs, stay alert to the sirens and instructions from local authorities, and follow the arrows on the street to reach the evacuation shelters in the Santa Ana neighborhood on the main road on the east side of town, towards Puyo.
Earthquakes sometimes trigger deadly tsunamis, which could strike coastal areas of Ecuador or the Galápagos Islands. Ecuadorian national authorities put out warnings of potential tsunamis, but the response on the local level is uneven, and on one recent occasion in the Galapagos Islands, there was no coordinated evacuation when a tsunami struck.
Ecuador’s National Risk Management Secretariat and the Ecuadorian Geophysical Institute monitor Ecuadorian volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis in Ecuador, issuing regular reports on their activity. In the event of a natural disaster, pay close attention to the news media for updates.
Civil Unrest: Political demonstrations occur frequently throughout Ecuador. During demonstrations, protesters often block city streets and rural highways, including major arteries such as the Pan American Highway, disrupting public and private transportation. Protesters sometimes burn tires, throw rocks, damage cars and other personal property, and on occasion detonate small improvised explosive devices. Police response to demonstrations varies, but may include water cannons and tear gas. U.S. citizens and U.S.-affiliated interests are not usually targeted, but you should avoid areas where demonstrations are in progress and be prepared with back-up transportation plans. Peaceful demonstrations can turn violent with little or no warning, and you could become a target.
Northern Border Region: Due to the spread of organized crime, drug and small-arms trafficking, and incursions by terrorist organizations near Ecuador’s border with Colombia, the U.S. Embassy in Quito advises caution when traveling to northern Ecuador, including the provinces of Sucumbios, northern Orellana (including the city of Coca), Carchi, and northern Esmeraldas (including the city of Esmeraldas). U.S. government personnel are prohibited from traveling to the northern border unless case-specific permission is granted. Embassy personnel are not permitted to go to this region on personal travel of any kind. At least 11 U.S. citizens are known to have been kidnapped in this region during the past 11 years.
Safety in the Galapagos Islands: The Galápagos archipelago is located more than 600 miles to the west of continental Ecuador. Geographic isolation and the lack of local resources may present challenges to travelers there. Dangers posed by lax enforcement of marine safety laws and rudimentary medical facilities are exacerbated by the difficulty of performing evacuations from the islands. A significant number of Ecuadorian tour vessels operating in the Galápagos do not meet international safety standards. The Government of Ecuador requires that vessels carrying more than 16 passengers comply with the International Safety Management Code established by the International Maritime Organization. However, the quality of oversight, crewmember proficiency, and other requisites for safe vessel operation may vary substantially. Travelers should inquire about safety features when boarding vessels. Be sure to look for life boats, flotation devices and, if possible, take a moment to inspect the life vest you would be using if there were an accident.
Medical resources in the Galápagos Islands are severely limited. Acute surgical, cardiac, and other types of specialty medicine are not available. There are two hospitals, located on the Santa Cruz and San Cristobal Islands. These facilities have limited personnel and resources, and often do not have basic medical supplies. Some cruise ships have on-board physicians available, who charge a fee for their services. Scuba divers in the Galápagos Islands should be aware of limited facilities for decompression. Serious injury or illness in the Galápagos typically requires costly medical evacuation to the Ecuadorian mainland or the United States for treatment. Medical evacuations by air ambulance can run upwards of $50,000 and take significant time to arrange. For that reason, the purchase of traveler’s health insurance that includes air evacuation is strongly recommended.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
Although some of Ecuador’s roads and highways have greatly improved in recent years,road travel throughout Ecuador can still be dangerous, especially at night. Some roads are poorly maintained, or affected by heavy rains and mudslides. Mountain roads may lack safety features such as crash barriers or guard rails, and conditions are frequently made more treacherous by heavy fog. Highways are often unmarked and unlit, and do not have signs indicating destinations. In addition, slow-moving buses and trucks frequently stop in the middle of the road unexpectedly. In the countryside, livestock is often herded along roads or grazes on roadsides. Lacking sidewalks, many roads are also used by pedestrians.
Driving practices differ from U.S. standards, and drivers often disobey traffic laws and signals. In all areas, buses stop without warning to pick up or drop off passengers. Drivers often turn right and left from any lane and rarely yield to pedestrians and cyclists. You might encounter intoxicated drivers at any time, though the chances of a drunk-driving accident are higher on weekends and Ecuadorian holidays. On the coast in particular, many vehicles are poorly maintained and breakdowns are common.
If you are the driver of a vehicle involved in an automobile accident, even if you are not at fault, you may be taken into police custody, especially if injuries are involved or if you do not have insurance. If injuries or damages are serious, you may face criminal charges.
Driver’s Licenses: You may drive in Ecuador using your state-issued driver’s license for up to 90 days. If you are staying in Ecuador for a prolonged period, you should contact the Comision de Transito del Ecuador to obtain a valid driver’s license.
Importing a Vehicle: You should investigate local regulations before attempting to import any vehicle into Ecuador on a temporary or permanent basis. If you are able to register a vehicle in Ecuador, you will be required to buy local liability insurance, called SOAT.
Bus Travelers: Intra- and inter-city bus passengers are often targets of crime, including robbery and sexual assault. Numerous bus accidents occur every year in Ecuador, and many buses are overcrowded, poorly maintained, and lack seat belts or other safety features. In Guayaquil, security on public transportation is a major concern. Armed criminals have been known to board local city buses and rob passengers of jewelry, money, and other valuables. There have been instances in which routes between cities are blocked by criminals, who force the bus to stop and then board the bus to rob passengers.