When is the last time you bought something and got a Sacajawea dollar coin for change? Chances are that unless you were buying chips from a vending machine, you can’t remember when. That’s because they’re ALL in Ecuador! Well not all, but we only saw one George Washington dollar bill during our 16 days there. I know there’s a strip club joke in there somewhere, but I digress.
Now some of you may be confused as to why we were using the US Dollar (USD) in Ecuador. You see, back in 2000, Ecuador dumped their Sucre in exchange for the almighty American greenback. Just like other countries that have gone through this process known as dollarization, Ecuador was in a horrible economic crisis (largely due to unregulated banks and dependence on oil export) and needed to put an end to the severe inflation they were experiencing. It got so bad that in 2000 it would have taken 25,000 Ecuadorian Sucre to buy a five-piece Crispy Chicken Nuggets off the Wendy’s Super Value Menu!!!
Are you still with me or did I lose you with the history/economics lesson? Assuming you’re still there, let’s move forward with the financial review of our time in Ecuador.
We had $68 USD a day to pay for all of our daily expenses This included accommodations, food & drink, alcohol, local transportation, activities/entertainment, living expenses/toiletries, and mishaps. As always, money spent on traveling between cities was accounted for separately from the daily expenses.
Continue reading to see what we spent our money on and some tips and tricks that helped us stay under budget.
Total spend: $1,020.36 USD
Total days: 16
Average daily spend*: $63.77 USD
27.2% / $282.86 USD / $17.68 per day
Just like we did in Colombia, we tried our best to find cheap lodging, as we would be spending our days exploring the beautiful equatorial country. Airbnb and Hostelworld once again proved to have the best selection at the best prices, but we tried something new in Cuenca. A combination of poor planning and lack of WiFi/cell reception led to us arriving in Cuenca at 5:00 am with nowhere to go. On top of that, we were dealing with some stomach issues, which were compounded by the 7-hour overnight bus ride from Baños. All of this led us to hop in cab at the bus station and ask the driver to just take us to a hostel near the city center that was open. He dropped us off at Alvano’s Hostal. We planned on only staying there for a day to get some rest, regroup, and find a place to stay, but it ended up being exactly what we needed in a great location and at the cheapest price we could find!
Food & Drink
38.1% / $396.86 USD / $24.80 per day
The cuisine in Ecuador has become very Americanized in the sense that they offer cuisines from all over the world. They too have welcomed the art of having fun with food via fusion, food trucks, and food courts made out of re-purposed shipping containers. Ecuador really is a great place for foodies, but food is not cheap in comparison to other countries in South America. One thing we had trouble finding was cheap street food. Like Colombia, Ecuador does have the cheap menú (three-course meal of the day), but we had grown a bit tired of it. If you want to save big money, making your own meals will be key.
22.2% / $231.00 USD / $14.44 per day
Ecuador has a lot to see and do, and it is all offered at reasonable prices. In Quito, we took two local buses to visit the Mitad del Mundo monument (Middle of the Earth) about an hour out of town. The entire ride cost $0.65 USD per person. The entrance tickets we purchased were $7.50 USD per person, but there is a cheaper option (if you don’t care to go inside the actual monument) and more expensive option (all-access, plus a chocolate bar made on-site). In Latacunga, we hiked up the famous Cotopaxi volcano to the refuge house, which is about 4800 meters above sea level and 1100 meters from the top of the volcano. For $40 USD per person, you get entrance to the park, a driver/guide, and lunch. But the most fun we had was in Baños – the land of hot springs and waterfalls. This little town was our favorite place in Ecuador and needs to be on every backpacker’s/ adventurer’s list. It has so many outdoor activities for CHEAP! We went repelling down seven waterfalls (canyoning), zip-lining (canopying), touring the various waterfalls, riding the swing at the Casa del Arbol, and relaxing in the hot springs. All of this only cost us $64 USD per person total!
SAVINGS TIPS: Never book activities through your hotel/hostel! Always go directly to the tour operator! Just like everything in life, middlemen have to increase the price to slice themselves a piece of the pie. All of the tour operators are offering the same experiences at nearly the same price, so we found that booking all of your activities through the same tour operator was a good way to ensure you have some leverage. You are offering them repeat business, so they should be passing you some savings. If they are not willing to do so, just move on to the next one.
4.2% / $43.31 USD / $2.71 per day
Ecuador did not have Uber or any other ride-share programs at the time of our visit. That was ok though, because taxis and buses were very affordable. The average bus ride was $0.30 USD per person, and cabs were about $2.00 USD per trip (of course this depends on the distance traveled). The one tip I have for saving money here is to avoid getting a taxi at your port of entry (i.e. airport, bus station) to go to your hotel/hostel. With that said, sometimes it is worth it to hop in cab and have the driver drop you off at your doorstep instead of having to figure out where you are going, ride multiple bus lines with all of your belongings in tow, and then walk to your accommodation. Oh, and doing this all at 5:00 am after being on a bus for 15+ hours.
My favorite of the local beers was Pilsener. For $2-3 USD per beer at a bar or restaurant, you get 650 ml (about 22 ounces) of that frothy goodness. Cocktails will be closer to $6 USD. The cheaper option, as always, is buying alcohol at the grocery store.
2.9% / $30.55 USD / $1.91 per day
It was almost May and my last hair cut was over 4 months ago, so it was time to get some hairs cut. I am very prejudice when it comes to hairdressers/barbers, so it had to be a young person with stylish hair himself or herself. After window-shopping at several salons, I finally found my barber! The price was astonishing; $4 USD for cut and shampoo in the downtown district of the capital city. When he was done, Ashly was ready to love me again! Besides the haircut, we had to do laundry on two occasions. Laundry was only $0.50 USD per kilo ($5 USD total) at our hostel in Cuenca, but it was not that cheap in Quito. Our Airbnb host listed his property as having a washer and dryer (it is one of the filters we usually choose). When we asked how to use the machines, he said we were unable to use them. We showed him that the appliances were included on his listing, but he still refused us. All he did was apologize and update the listing to avoid confusion with future guests. In dire need of clean clothes, we went to the fluff-and-fold shop around the corner. They charged $2 USD per kilo! It sucked having to spend $20 USD on laundry, but everything worked out for us in the end. Perturbed, we immediately explained the situation to Airbnb via Twitter. They responded hours later with an apology and a $50 USD coupon code to use on a future Airbnb stay. Just like that we went from spending $20 to making $30! One more reason to use Airbnb ☺
0.5% / $5.50 USD / $0.34 per day
Keeping with tradition, we purchased a magnet and a bracelet. The rest of the spending was a bouquet of yellow flowers that I bought Ashly because she was stuck in our room trying to sleep away the illness. Awww that’s so cute…I know.
0.5% / $5.51 USD / $0.34 per day
Don’t you love checking out of your room and going to the bus station only to realize you left something important back at your accommodations? Neither do we, but sadly, this is what happened to us in Cuenca. So I left Ashly at the bus station with our bags and grabbed a cab back to our hostel. 15 minutes and $4 later, I was back at the bus station with ALL of our belongings this time, ready to go to Peru.
If we had a dollar for every time someone back home told us to be careful in Colombia, then we’d use that money to live in Colombia like kings. Well, maybe only for a month. The country synonymous with Pablo Escobar and cocaine has spent the last decade trying to rebrand itself as a must-visit destination. After spending nearly 3 weeks there, we can say firsthand that it needs to be at the top of every backpacker/budget traveler/digital nomad’s list. Beaches, mountains, rivers, jungle…whatever you’re looking for, they have it. And it can all be had at an affordable price. After all, that is what you are here for, right?
As budget-conscious travelers, we had $50 US Dollars (USD) to work with per day. At about $2,800 Colombian Pesos (COP) for every USD, we had about COP 140,000 at our disposal every day. With this, we paid for all of our daily expenses that included accommodations, food & drink, alcohol, local transportation, activities/entertainment, living expenses/toiletries, souvenirs, and mishaps. Money spent on traveling to other cities was treated as a traveling expense and was accounted for separately from the “daily average spend*.”
Continue reading to see what we spent our money on and some tips and tricks that helped us stay under budget.
Total spend: $868.76 USD
Total days: 18
Average daily spend*: $48.27 USD
Accommodations 26% / $234.37 USD
Before our trip started, our goal was to find the cheapest places to live that still offered us what we considered to be our minimum requirements (i.e. private room, bathroom, kitchen, and WIFI). We figured that since we would be out and about most days, this would be a great place to try to save money. Airbnb and Hostelworld proved to be our best options. At $10 a night in Cartagena and $20 in Medellín, we were able to save our money and use it on better things – like food and activities!
Food & Drink 31% / $265.97 USD
Colombia is street food paradise! We understand that street vendors are not up to US Health Department standards, but there is no better way to learn about a culture than by indulging in their cuisine. Plus our immune systems could use a little workout. Empanadas and buñuelos were the tastiest options. And they were the cheapest as well at only COP 1000 for the empanadas and COP 500 for the buñuelos. Not a week goes by that Ashly isn’t still pining for the delicious, little fried dough ball known as el buñuelo. When we wanted an actual sit down meal, we would go to the nearest restaurant and order menu. It is basically the meal of the day, and for about COP 8,500 ($3 USD) you get a juice, soup, and choice of main dish (dessert too if you’re lucky). If it weren’t for our daily dose of ice cream, we probably could have stayed under budget. But hey…YOLO!
Activities/Entertainment 24% / $208.29 USD
Out of all the spending categories, this was the one we were willing to go over on. Knowing that we were going to spend as little as possible on accommodations allowed us to move those saved dollars elsewhere. And like the millennials that we are, we chose experiences. Colombia has a lot to do [Read what things we think you can’t miss here!] With that said, we suggest shopping around as there are many vendors selling similar or the same experiences. You can also pit them against one another to see who will offer you the best price or throw in some extras – like a meal or drinks. We used this tip in Cartagena and were able to spend the day boating and sunbathing on Isla del Pirata for 25% less than the asking price! Another tip is to do some of this stuff by yourself. Most tours just mark up the price on activities due to the convenience they are offering you. You have to be willing to organize your own transport and guide yourself for the day, but it is well worth your time when traveling on a budget. Another plus is you get to go at your own pace which results in you spending more time doing what you want to do and less time on what you don’t.
Local Transportation 11% / $91.70 USD
Getting around town can get quite expensive if you stick to taxis and ride-sharing apps (Colombia had Uber and Cabify at the time of our visit). In Cartagena, we found the buses to be our budget’s best friend. Sure, each ride is like a roller coaster mixed with a visit to the chiropractor, but it’s a bargain at COP 2100 ($0.75) per person per trip. Fortunatley, Medellín has a far more developed public transport system and the metro is at the heart of it. The metro is very comfortable, simple experience we’ve ever had and only cost COP 2300 ($0.80) per person per trip. And lastly, we walked whenever it was possible. It is good for your health and your wallet!
Typically, beers will cost around COP 7000 ($2.45) at a bar or restaurant. The cheaper option is buying your booze at the grocery store where you can get a 6-pack of Colombia’s very own Aguila for around COP 8500 ($2.95). As you can see, we did not spend very much on alcohol. We opted to spend our money eating ice cream every day instead.
Living Expenses/Toiletries 2% / $16.59 USD
The bulk of the spend here was due to needing to buy boardshorts and nail clippers since I – in my last minute style of packing – forgot those items at home. There was laundry as well, which we were able to do at our Airbnbs for COP 5000 ($1.75). The rest was due to public bathrooms. You see, public restrooms aren’t exactly free everywhere else in the world and Colombia is no different. You may be able to get away from paying if you are not going to be using their toilet paper – which they hand you a pre-cut amount on your way in – or if you are bringing your own. At about COP 1000 ($0.35), it isn’t expensive, but still an annoyance when you come from the land of the free…toilets.
Souvenirs 0.2% / $1.57 USD
Colombia, like most countries, has plenty of cheesy souvenirs to go around. We did not plan on spending much in this category, but we knew we would be indulging in our guilty pleasure of collecting a magnet from each country. This has been a tradition of ours since our early days of traveling together. In addition to the magnet, I’m also collecting a bracelet from each country and wearing it until it falls off…kinda like that one guy you know that went to Coachella in 2016 and still has the wristband to show it. We were able to purchase both for COP 4500 from a sweet woman who handmade all of the items in her store.
Mishaps 2% / $17.64 USD
This is where we keep track of any money we give to panhandlers and any unnecessary expenses we incur. Most of the spend here was due to a cash management issue we had in Guatape. I forgot to get cash prior to our day trip and the entrance fee for La Piedra could not be paid with our credit/debit cards. Since we had limited time to spend there, we decided to take a tuk tuk (small motorbike taxi thing) into the town of Guatape to get cash from the ATM. I am still kicking myself over it. Lesson of the day: cash is king, so don’t leave home without it!