Quito is a city brimming with culture, vibrance, and excitement. Although some travelers might think so, Ecuador’s capital city is more than just a gateway to the adventures the rest of Ecuador has to offer. I’ve noticed that backpackers often tend to skip the big South American capital cities. While I understand why, Quito is one of those that should not be overlooked. It is an adventure in its own right and is well worth spending a few days in. This guide to Quito for backpackers should fill up your time in this vibrant South American hub quite nicely.
Where To Stay in Quito
The most popular neighborhood for travelers to stay in Quito would be the Centro Historico. As the most historic and scenic district of Quito, that’s really no surprise. It is the main hub for many hostels, hotels, and other accommodation. It serves as a perfect starting point to get settled in Ecuador, with everything you could need found right in the area.
While in Quito, I stayed at Community Hostel, a laid-back but exciting property with rooftop views overlooking this beautiful city in the center of the world. With activities every day and night, you could never get bored staying here. I ended up staying for a week, which some might argue is too long for Quito. However, with the multitude of adventures both inside and outside of the hostel, I never had any shortage of things to do or fellow travelers to go on adventures with.
Aside from its great location, it is also perfect for travelers on a budget. Dorm beds are available for around $10 a night. And if you’re too lazy to go out and find food yourself, they have generous breakfasts for $3 and large family dinners for $5. Karaoke nights, rooftop bonfires, and bar crawls round out Community Hostel’s great social atmosphere. With its central location and plethora of tours and activities, it is tough to beat Community Hostel as the best place to stay in Quito for backpackers.
How To Budget For Quito
The currency of Ecuador is the U.S. dollar, which means Americans won’t have to worry about exchange rates or anything like that. I’m telling you that now so you don’t have the awkward conversation with someone when you ask what the exchange rate is fresh off the plane. Not my brightest moment, for sure. While Ecuador is a relatively cheap destination, some parts of Quito, especially the touristic areas, can be significantly more expensive.
Figure out the public transportation if you want to travel as cheaply as possible. If you aren’t in Quito for long and don’t feel the need to figure out the public transportation system, Ubers and taxis are also relatively cheap when shared. From my experience, getting a taxi or an Uber will run you around $3 for every ten minutes of travel time.
With a lot of mercados in Quito, it is easy to keep food costs to a minimum. I don’t typically grocery shop while I travel but skipping restaurant meals in favor of a quick snack from a convenience store is how I save money on food. However, while I was in Quito, I never skimped out on food. If you are one of those travelers that relish in local food like me, you can get set meals at local restaurants for as low as $2. Look for places advertising desayunos or almuerzos (literally breakfast and lunch). It’ll usually include a juice, a glass of water, a soup, and then whatever meal you want for your lunch, typically rice, meat, beans, and veggies.
If you are a partier like me, the nightlife in Quito might be the most expensive part of the city. However, Quito offers easily the best and most diverse nightlife you can find in Ecuador. I’m not usually a bar crawl type of guy but in a city like Quito that can often be dangerous, traveling in groups is advisable rather than taking on the nightlife on your own. The bar crawl I did with Community Hostel cost only $12 and I feel like I got at least $50 worth of alcohol out of it. It was wild.
If you plan on staying in hostels, on average, you can expect to spend around $10 a night for a dorm or $25 a night for a private room. Lower end budget hotels in Quito can be as low as $20 as well. If you plan on staying outside of the Centro Historico and further away from the tourist areas, you might be able to find accommodation for cheaper but you’ll have to travel into the Centro Historico to see the popular attractions.
The Best Things To Do In Quito On A Budget
The main attractions of Quito are mostly centered around its historic architecture and the scenic rolling hills surrounding the main area of the city. So basically, there’s going to be a lot of churches, museums, and narrow old-timey streets to explore. You’ve also got a wide selection of cultural things to do in Quito. Throw in a couple of nearby hikes and day trips and you’ve got a pretty well-balanced city for the outdoorsy traveler.
Basilica del Voto Nacional
This is one of the best places in Quito to catch an epic view. The cathedral itself is beautiful both on the inside and out. It was modeled after Notre Dame, although given an Ecuadorian twist by replacing the original gargoyles with wildlife native to Ecuador. It is free to visit the church grounds, although it costs $2 to enter the towers to catch a great panoramic view of the city. The $2 is well worth it because there is a lot to explore inside. The stairs keep on going and going, giving you different views on every level.
Located on Rui Pichincha, the tallest mountain surrounding Quito, this will give you some of the best views of the city. It is a great spot for nature lovers to go, and the brave even attempt to summit the towering Rui Pichincha. For those okay with a calmer approach to travel, the Teleferico, or cable car, is the place to be for some good views and photo ops with llamas and swings.
Virgen del Panecillo
You can pretty much see this anywhere from Quito’s Centro Historico. It is the winged statue of Mary located atop a hill overlooking Quito. It is made of aluminum and was a gift from Spain as repayment for taking a lot of Ecuador’s gold. Aluminum for gold is considered a fair trade, I guess. Although considered dangerous to walk to, one can take a taxi for around $2 from Quito’s Old Town and catch some magnificent views of the city. Coming around sunset when the city starts to light up is a must.
Free Walking Tour of Quito
This three hour tour is well worth the tip that you’ll inevitably have to give your tour guide at the end. It takes you through local markets, important historical sites, monuments, and some of Quito’s most notable destinations. It also gives you some background on the city and the country, which is crucial if you are just arriving and need to familiarize yourself with everything.
Explore the Old Town
This goes without saying, really. It is the most touristic part of Quito and you’ll wind up here one way or another. I’ve listed a few highlights, though, so you aren’t just wandering around aimlessly like I tend to do.
Plaza de la Independencia
Plaza de San Francisco
Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus
Republica del Cacao
Because there’s always time for chocolate. Stop by here for some ice cream or brownies or hot chocolate on a chilly day.
Honestly, just walk around and you will find some epic views of Quito. My favorite road to walk down is Calle Venezuela. It is right along the Basilica del Voto Nacional and gives you a clear view of the Virgen del Panecillo as well. You will catch plenty of gorgeous views just by walking around the Centro Historico.
Things To Do In Quito On A Slightly Bigger Budget
Ecuador is a relatively cheap country but some things will cost you money if you want to experience them. A lot of these will still be much cheaper to do in Ecuador than in other countries, from exploring the Amazon to summiting a 6,000 meter behemoth of a volcano.
Cotopaxi is the 5,900 meter tall volcano that you might be able to see on a clear day in Quito. Its snow-covered peak is both an imposing and provoking sight to see. Whether you decide to summit it or just make a day trip to the national park, it might run you a bit of coin. A popular tourist package is the Cotopaxi Hike and Bike. For $55, you get transportation there and back, breakfast, lunch, and the opportunity to hike up to the refuge at 4,800 meters and then bike down to a lagoon in the national park. It takes up a full day, but if you’re lucky with the weather, it is well worth seeing Volcan Cotopaxi in all of its majesty.
Laguna del Quilotoa
This is one of the most marvelous places in Ecuador. I overheard a young kid ask her dad, “why are there places like this?” and that about sums it up. It doesn’t look like a real place. It is a fantasy imagined in your dreams. A jagged volcanic rim nearly 4,000 meters tall, yet inside, a greenish-blue lagoon of some of the most stunning waters you’ll ever see. The hike can be treacherously windy, but the combination of terror and views makes for an unforgettable experience. A day trip to Quilotoa from Quito will run you about $60, although for a little bit more, some will include a side trip to a local market like Otavalo.
Day Drink (or night drink) at Plaza Fochs
Plaza Fochs is Quito’s main nightlife hub. It is also considered to be quite dangerous at night although I have went twice and haven’t had too many issues. The only one was when a taxi driver gave me counterfeits as change when I was irresponsibly sauteed at 3 AM. There are a lot of bars here which gives you a good variety to choose from.
Visit The Center of the World (Mitad del Mundo)
For about $20, including transportation and entrance fees, you can take a tour to go to the center of the world (and also the fake center of the world). There’s a large monument and museum marking the Equator in Ciudad del Mitad del Mundo. Unfortunately, that isn’t even the real equator. Just a bit down the road, you can visit a tacky, yet fascinating, museum that tries to milk more out of the equator than they should. I’m not trying to diss it, but people come to see the Equator but they want you to feel like you get your money’s worth. So they throw in a little gig about shrunken heads, a chocolate making tutorial, and other stuff.
Then the good stuff happens and you get to try to balance an egg, see how the Coriolis effect works, and then try to balance on the equator. It’s good fun, but tacky. But it is what you make of it.
Is Quito Safe To Travel To?
This is the elephant in the room but Quito has started to build a reputation as a dangerous city. Very few people are out after dark which just adds to the eeriness. During the day, Quito is perfectly fine and travelers are protected by the hustle and bustle of the central districts. At night, even the locals hardly go out. Keep your wits about you and try to travel in groups once the sun sets. Take a taxi at night no matter what and never flash your valuables.
It doesn’t help that shortly after leaving Ecuador in September of 2019, the country faced a series of riots that turned violent. Although most of the action was restricted to big cities like Quito and Cuenca, the international attention that was suddenly focused on Ecuador was not great. The riots were intense at the time, although not an accurate reflection of how the country of Ecuador is usually.
Where To Go After Quito
There are a ton of incredible places throughout Ecuador to visit. A lot of these places are still very much off of the tourist radar.
EcuadorHop is a great option to hit the main spots of Ecuador. It can pick you up directly from most locations in Quito and take you down to the more southern destinations. Cotopaxi, Quilotoa, Baños, Montanita, and Guayaquil are all options on the EcuadorHop pass which makes travel in Ecuador much simpler and more efficient.
You don’t have to worry about showing up at hectic bus stations and crowding yourself onto a bus and worrying about keeping an eye on your stuff all the time. You can manage pretty much everything online through a streamlined process that is as simple as setting the date you want to leave and where you’re going to be picked up from. Seriously, it’s great and it makes travel so much easier.
As I mentioned before, this is a popular stop for adventurous travelers. Many people come here with the goal of summiting Cotopaxi, while others come just to hang out and enjoy the views. If you need a more rural setting, finding a place to stay near Cotopaxi National Park is a good getaway.
Quilotoa is without a doubt one of the most beautiful regions of Ecuador. The region is still very remote and if you choose to escape for a bit, I can’t recommend the Black Sheep Inn in Chugchilan enough. One of the best ways to see Laguna del Quilotoa is to hike from Chugchilan to Quilotoa or vice versa. It is an unforgettable adventure that takes you through some scenic corners of Ecuador that many tourists don’t get just by taking a day trip to Quilotoa.
For a more local home base, Latacunga is just over an hour south of Quito. It is close to Cotopaxi and Quilotoa, affording you more time if you decide to day trip there from Latacunga instead of Quito.
Don’t really need to say anything about this one. If you’ve got the cash, go.
This is Ecuador’s adventure capital. Zip lines, white water rafting, waterfalls, canyoneering and more. It is also the gateway to the Amazon, with excursions to the jungle another popular thing for travelers to do. Community Hostel also has a property in Baños that is both spacious and centrally located.