(NaturalNews) Traveling in Ecuador can be very rewarding: It's one of the most beautiful destinations in all the Americas, and there are some truly fascinating things to explore there. I spent most of my time in Southern Ecuador, near Loja and Vilcabamba (the Valley of Longevity), but I also traveled around Quito and Guayaquil, too.
In these travels, I learned some important travel tips that I'm sharing here. If you plan to visit Ecuador, take these to heart: They'll save you all sorts of frustration once you get there.
Watch those numbers
When you buy items at local shops, it's not unusual for them to add up the purchase total on a slip of paper. (Ecuadorian merchants are much better at math than North American workers, most of whom have forgotten how to add...)
When you see the total, you might be shocked to discover that things seem more expensive than they should. Well, here's why: Ecuadorians write the number "1" to look like a "7".
Yep: What looks to you and me like a seven is actually a one in Ecuador. Their sevens have a cross-mark on them to distinguish them from ones.
So if you think your grocery bill total came to $75.70, the truth is that it's probably just $15.10.
Carry a flashlight everywhere
Ecuador doesn't have a lot of street lights. At night, it gets dark. Sometimes really dark. So always carry a flashlight with you wherever you go.
I always carried a head-worn flashlight. It was the easiest to carry and use. In a pinch, you can buy one of these in Ecuador, but they're less expensive to buy in the USA first, before you go. (I don't know the pricing in Canada, Europe or elsewhere, but it's probably cheaper to buy it first.)
I've also seen these for sale at Target stores in the USA.
Learn how merchants describe prices
If something costs you two dollars and fifty cents, that's described to you as, "Dos con cincuenta." That's "two with fifty." They don't say "two dollars and fifty cents." They just say "Two with fifty."
Merchants will often not bother with demanding every single cent. If the total is $2.52, and you give them $2.50, that's usually enough. Likewise they will sometimes give you back slightly less change. If they owe you $1.03 in change, they might just give you a buck. You should be okay with that. It works both ways.
Even in a major Ecuadorian city like Quito, it's difficult to break a $50 or $100. Outside the cities, it's impossible.
In rural areas, you'll even have trouble breaking a $20. Or if you do manage to find some merchant who will take your $20, it usually works like this: You ask them if they can break a $20 for your small purchase. They say yes, they can break it. So you hand them your $20.
Then they run out of their shop and disappear for ten minutes. What they're doing is running around the street trying to find someone who has change for your $20. A few minutes later, they finally reappear with your change. So yes, many local merchants can break a $20 for you, but only if you're willing to wait while they canvass the town looking for change.
To avoid this, always carry $5 and $1 bills. That's the real currency in Ecuador: Small bills!
Taxi drivers are some of the nicest people in Ecuador. I've spent many hours chatting with them during various trips. In Vilcabamba, go with the taxis that look like white pickup trucks. Many of those drivers speak some English, too!
It's good to tip taxi drivers a bit. If your ride is $2, give them an extra 50 cents. If you take a longer trip to a different city, and your ride is $25, it doesn't hurt to give them $28. They really appreciate the tips, and what I learned is that the next time you need a taxi, they show up right away. I generally tip from 10% - 20%.
Taxi drivers are usually fairly honest in Ecuador, except beware of taxis in Guayaquil, which is a city that has higher crime rates than anywhere else in the country. Don't just jump into any taxi you see. You might get taken for a ride there. But in Vilcabamba and Loja, taxis are almost universally safe and polite.
Keep your personal belongings safe
While most Ecuadorians are honest, hard-working people, there are a small number who make a living lifting valuable objects off foreigners. This is especially prevalent at the airports, where a friendly-looking business man in a suit might offer to help you with your luggage and then covertly walk away with your laptop (it's true; it happened to a friend of mine).
Laptop theft is so common in Ecuador now that I know an attorney in Loja who won't even carry a laptop bag anymore. He carries his laptop in an old backpack instead.
Anything that looks valuable -- a laptop bag, camera bag, and so on -- should be disguised as something else. And please don't make the mistake of putting your purse over the back of the chair you're sitting on in a local restaurant. When you finish your dinner, that purse will be history.
Also, here's another trick: If you get on a bus to travel from city to city, the bus worker loading your bags might place your bag under your seat. You think it's safe, right? But what you don't know is that your bag was purposely put under your seat so that the zipper is facing the rear of the bus. Once you fall asleep, the person behind you will quietly unzip your bag and steal anything valuable. You won't figure it out until you get to your hotel room and wonder, "Where my iPhone?"
Ecuador is actually a very safe country to visit. There's not much violent crime compared to other countries, but there is a fair amount of petty theft. So travel safely and keep your belongings hidden and close to your body.
Learn some Spanish!
The best thing you can bring to Ecuador is some Spanish language skills! Some people in Ecuador speak English, but by no means is this a common skill. You'll need some Spanish to get around and enjoy yourself.
If you're an audio learner, I recommend the Pimsleur Spanish courses.
If you're a visual learner, I recommend Rosetta Stone. I've used both courses, and they both taught me a lot.
Please try not to pronounce your Spanish like a total newbie gringo! It's better to have a small vocabulary that you pronounce well than a huge vocabulary that nobody else can understand.
Remember: If you aren't rolling your R's and softening your D's, you aren't pronouncing Spanish correctly. In Ecuador, the letter "V" is pronounced almost like a "B."
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