Ecuador. Image from Metropolitan Touring

Q TRAVEL – This is the first of two articles about Ecuador through the eyes of a writer living in Costa Rica. The second will compare the similar economic and political problems of the two countries.

It is a short flight to Quito from San Jose. Presently, you have to change planes in either Colombia or Panama.

From the US, there are direct flights from several airports including New York, Miami, Fort Worth, Houston and Atlanta. There are flights from Europe too.

Essentially, it as easy for tourists, snowbirds and expat residents to fly to Ecuador as it is to Costa Rica. This ease of access, together with beaches, ecological diversity and political stability make Ecuador an obvious rival to Costa Rica for both tourism and residency.

Tourism is the largest Costa Rican industry. In Ecuador, it is the 4th largest.

Statistics for international arrivals show under 2 million for Ecuador and nearly 3 million for Costa Rica. These numbers include migrant workers as well as tourists and returning residents. So, is smaller Costa Rica winning the competition for tourists as it might seem?

Unlike Ecuador, which has only a Pacific coast, Costa Rica has the advantage of both Pacific and Caribbean beach resorts. Ecuador is more attractive for those interested in eco-tourism. The uniqueness and fame of the Galapagos pulls tourists to Quito and thence to the high Andean and Amazon basin eco systems.

There is no contest on bio diversity. Our Bird Book for Costa Rica lists less than a third of the number of species in its Ecuadorian equivalent. My favorite is the Plate Billed Mountain Toucan.

Botanical, insect and mammal diversity follows a similar pattern. At the Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve, close to Quito, we were astonished by the colorful birds that came to visit us.

This is also the best place to see the elusive Olinguito, pictured. They visit most evenings.

Because Ecuador limits access to the Galapagos, this drives the price up for tourists. National Geographic tours there start at over US$7,000 for ten days. This appears to impact the costs in other places in Ecuador. Targeting fewer, high-end tourists is a smart national strategy. It avoids too much habitat damage but still brings in the dollars.

Galapagos Island landscape. Image from Metropolitan Touring

We found all aspects of accommodation, food and travel more expensive than comparable locations in Costa Rica. We were charged US$15 for two Nescafe coffees and a cake at a tourist café. For us, it was worth the high cost, because of the friendly people, diverse wildlife and splendid architecture.

Another advantage Ecuador has over Costa Rica is its incomparable colonial heritage. We advise our visitors here to delete San Jose from their itineraries. Apart from traffic and crime problems, it is one of the least attractive capital cities in the world, with few old buildings and much squalor and urban sprawl. The colonial center of Quito is the best preserved we have seen in Latin America. The civic buildings, hotels and esplanades are truly world class. Gold, extracted by the enslaved natives, was used to decorate the incredible interiors of enormous baroque churches.

You see many more Amerindians around Ecuador with their distinctive features, colorful costumes and separate cultures. Visiting the far fewer original inhabitants of Costa Rica requires special expeditions.

Tourists from Costa Rica must envy the large modern and functional Quito airport and especially the splendid modern road access. As with most other advanced Latin American countries, most of the highways in Ecuador put those here to shame. Unfortunately, both countries have similar traffic problems in their capitals.

What about expat living?

There are opportunities to live the good life in beach resorts and in old colonial cities like Cuenca, where many US citizens are settling. They tell of free healthcare, low crime and housing that costs a third of that in Costa Rica.

Some locals resent the wave of immigrants driving up property prices beyond the means of existing inhabitants. We found that food prices are less, away from tourist traps. I paid US$1.50 for a meat empanada and a decent coffee in a side-street in Otovalu, the town an hour from Quito where they have an amazing market for clothes local crafts and extremely silly hats. I bought three.

One thing visitors and expats need to be aware of is that much of Ecuador is very high.

We met Americans in shorts shivering in Quito. “Well we saw it was on the equator and thought it would be hot.” At 10,000 feet (3,000 meters, a few hundred meters shy of the Cerro de la Muerte, the highest point in the Costa Rican section of the Inter-American Highway) not only can it get cold, but it also leaves new-comers short of breath. Those with breathing difficulties may wish to avoid visiting the high Andean area altogether.

So, what is the overall verdict?

It is certainly worth visiting Ecuador as a tourist.

For those wishing to settle it is definitely another possibility to explore.

Click here to read part two of Chris’ article on Ecuador.