Although most tours and activities are safe, there are risks involved in any adventure activity. Know and respect your physical limits before undertaking any strenuous activity. Be prepared for extremes in temperature and rainfall and for wide fluctuations in weather. A sunny morning hike can quickly become a cold and wet ordeal, so it's usually a good idea to carry along some form of rain gear when hiking in the rainforest or high paramo, and to have a dry change of clothing waiting at the end of the trail.
Avoid sunburn and sunstroke -- be sure to bring along plenty of sunscreen and a hat when you're not going to be covered by the forest canopy. And don't be fooled by an overcast sky; I've been burned to a crisp on what seemed to be extremely cloudy days in Ecuador.
Altitude sickness is perhaps the biggest concern for visitors to Ecuador, especially those taking part in active adventures in the highlands and paramos. Altitude sickness is caused by reduced concentrations of oxygen in the air at higher altitudes. Symptoms include headache, fatigue, stomach upsets, dizziness, and sleep disturbance. Shortness of breath, quickened pulse, and general malaise can also occur. Exertion and alcohol consumption can worsen the symptoms. Altitude sickness affects everyone differently. Some will feel its effects in Quito at 2,850m (9,350 ft.) above sea level, while others will find no noticeable effects in the capital. Almost everyone will feel some effects over 4,000m (13,123 ft.). It is essential to stay fully hydrated, and, with time, often a day or two, most people will acclimate to all but the most extreme altitudes. In serious cases, you should try to head to a lower altitude as soon as possible.
If you visit any of the country's rainforests or cloud forests, particularly in the lowlands, remember that it really is a jungle out there. Don't go poking under rocks or fallen branches. Snakebites are very rare, but don't do anything to increase the odds. If you do encounter a snake, stay calm, don't make any sudden movements, and do not try to handle it. Also avoid swimming in major rivers or lagoons unless a guide or local operator can vouch for their safety. Those in El Oriente may have caimans, electric eels, or piranhas.
Bugs and bug bites will probably be your greatest health concern in the Ecuadorean lowlands and beaches, and even they aren't as much of a problem as you might expect. Bugs are primarily an inconvenience, although mosquitoes can carry malaria or dengue. Strong repellent and proper clothing will minimize both the danger and the inconvenience; you might also want to bring along some cortisone or Benadryl cream to soothe itching. At the beaches, you may be bitten by pirujas (sand fleas); these nearly invisible insects leave an irritating welt. Try not to scratch because this can lead to open sores and infections. Pirujas are most active at sunrise and sunset, so you might want to cover up or avoid the beaches at these times.
And remember: Whenever you enter and enjoy nature, you should tread lightly and try not to disturb the natural environment. There's a popular slogan well known to most campers that certainly applies here: "Leave nothing but footprints; take nothing but memories." If you must take home a souvenir, take photos. Do not cut or uproot plants or flowers. Pack out everything you pack in, and please do not litter.
Searching for Wildlife
Animals in the forests and paramos are predominantly nocturnal. When they are active in the daytime, they are usually elusive and on the watch for predators. Birds are easier to spot in clearings or secondary forests than they are in primary forests. Unless you have lots of experience in the tropics, your best chance of an enjoyable walk through the forest is with a trained and knowledgeable guide.
Here are a few helpful hints:
- Listen. Pay attention to rustling in the leaves; whether it's monkeys or birds up above or coatis on the ground, you're most likely to hear an animal before you see one.
- Keep quiet. Noise will scare off animals and prevent you from hearing their movements and calls.
- Don't try too hard. Soften your focus and allow your peripheral vision to take over. This way you can catch glimpses of motion and then focus in.
- Bring your own binoculars. It's a good idea to practice a little first, to get the hang of them. It would be a shame to be fiddling around and staring into space while everyone else in your group oohs and aahs over a trogon or honeycreeper.
- Dress appropriately. You'll have a hard time focusing your binoculars if you're busy swatting mosquitoes. Light, long pants and long-sleeved shirts are often your best bet. Comfortable hiking boots are a real asset, except where heavy rubber boots are necessary. Avoid loud colors; the better you blend in with your surroundings, the better your chances of spotting wildlife.
- Be patient. The jungle isn't on a schedule, though your best shot at seeing forest fauna is in the very early morning and late afternoon.
- Read up. Familiarize yourself with what you're most likely to see. Most nature lodges and ecotourism-based hotels have wildlife field guides and bird books, although if you're serious about this, it's always a good idea to have your own copy. The best of the bunch for most would be David Pearson and Les Beletsky's Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands: Traveler's Wildlife Guide (Arris Books, 2004). Also, bird-watchers will want to purchase a copy of Birds of Ecuador Field Guide (Comstock Publishing, 2001), by Robert Ridgely, Paul Greenfield, and Frank Gill. Be forewarned, though, that the latter book is extremely hefty.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.