Traveling in Ecuador is very safe. Follow these guidelines and you will be even safer.
• Check in with friends and family regularly, especially if you are young and this is your first time traveling! Make sure someone else always knows where you are, where you are going, and when you will next have internet access / the ability to contact them.
• Always be wary of pick-pocketers. They are professionals. Sometimes they will take advantage of crowded or crazy situations to disorient you and slip a hand in your bag. Do not put wallets and phones loosely in side or back pockets.
• It is recommended to only use official taxis at bus terminals or airports. If you are not at a place with an official taxi stand, it is recommended to use an app like Uber or Lyft, or one of the taxi-calling apps available for Ecuadorean cities (such as AzuTaxi for Cuenca.) Definitely use Uber in Guayaquil. While you’re at it, install the “maps.me” app and download the offline maps pack for Ecuador. It’s like Google Maps but you don’t need to be online to use it. It is very rare, but sometimes “fake taxis” pick people up and rob them. Many people call taxis from the street with no problem. Your risk tolerance is your own personal choice and responsibility.
• You can easily buy a sim card for your phone in most airports and bus stations (you’ll need an unlocked GSM phone.) We recommend Claro as they have the best coverage in rural areas. You can pay for “regular” credit i.e. just calls and texts, or “ilimitado” which includes calls and 3G/4G data.
• You should take some time and learn the following in Spanish: Basic phrases that you will need for your travel, how to ask for help for various things, and numbers 1 through 100 as well as price and payment-related vocabulary. It will help you immensely. Most people here do not speak English. However in airports and larger cities you are likely to encounter some English-speaking Ecuadorians.
• In general, do not accept “help” from strangers, even if they seem well-meaning. Many thieves are VERY good actors. Also note that sometimes people use distractions of cute young children to aid in pick-pocketing, or sometimes the children themselves are the pick-pocketers.
• Generally it is safe to put your luggage bags in the undercarriage of the bus. Anything you bring with you on the bus, if it is valuable, we would highly recommend keeping it on your lap and keeping a careful eye on it. Putting things in the overhead compartment is rather risky and most petty thefts on buses seem to occur that way. Note that putting a backpack on the floor under your legs can be fine, but some thieves will actually reach under seats, unzip pockets, and take stuff when you are not paying attention. No need to be paranoid, but be wary and ever-vigilant.
• Be aware of scopalamine – mere skin contact with the dust of this drug can render you docile and subservient. Do not accept flyers being handed out on the streets, and beware of skin contact from strangers. However, intoxication with this substance usually happens at parties/ bars/etc, and we assume that as you are traveling to a raw vegan community, you will not be partaking in such unwholesome activities.
• NEVER walk down the streets absorbed in your smartphone, not paying attention. If you’re going to do this, you might as well just donate your smartphone to the nearest criminal-looking dude and get it over with.
• Be aware of the “fake bus attendant telling you where to put your stuff” scam. It goes like this: You just got on a bus at the bus station. You are sitting there minding your business. You have your bag on your lap or on the seat next to you. Some guy comes up, who you assume is an employee of the bus company, since you’re gullible tourist and you don’t know any better, and he is a good actor. He is well-dressed and acts professional. He tells you that you should put your bag under your seat or in the over-head compartment. He gives some random reason like, making space for other passengers, safety, or whatever. He might even be somewhat forceful, making you think he is an authority figure or bus employee – he may actually take your bag and put it in the overhead himself. ALWAY REFUSE. Take your bag and put it on your lap and respond rudely to him. He will go away. If you put the bag where he wants you to put it, then he’ll get off the bus, one of his friends will get on and sit behind you, and when you aren’t paying attention, he will slip a hand into your bag under the seat, or pretend to be getting his own stuff from the overhead, and get off halfway through the ride. The idea they have is to try to get you to put your stuff in a place where the thief can easily get to it. When you arrive at your destination you will be sans wallet, iPhone, laptop, passport, whatever.
• Armed bus robberies are rare but generally happen more on the coast. Routes from Guayaquil to other coastal cities are often the target. When you get a bus ticket from Guayaquil to Cuenca, always say “un boleto a Cuenca, POR EL CAJAS.” This will take you on the El Cajas national park route, which is shorter and safer. The night buses on the other route (Molleturo) tend to be robbed a few times a year – plus that route is longer and the road is not as good.
• In cities, one common armed robbery is 2 men riding up behind a pedestrian on a motorcycle. One jumps off with a knife or a gun, gets what he wants, jumps back on, and they drive away. Always be wary of motorcycles with 2 men after dark. They will take advantage of people wandering down the street absorbed in their smartphone.
Some of this advice may seem to paint a pretty dire picture, but we are trying to prepare you for the rarest circumstances. You are safer in most parts of Ecuador than you are in Detroit, Baltimore, or Hartford. Happy travels!