Staying healthy on a trip to Ecuador is predominantly a matter of being cautious about what you eat and drink, and using common sense. Know your physical limits, and don't overexert yourself in the ocean, on hikes, or in athletic activities. Many people need a day or two to acclimate to higher altitudes.
Before You Go -- No specific shots or vaccines are necessary before traveling to Ecuador, although vaccinations against Hepatitis A are always a good idea.
General Availability of Health Care -- In general, the health care system in Ecuador is pretty good and can handle most emergencies and common illnesses.
Although pharmacies are well stocked and widespread, you should still carry with you sufficient supplies of any prescription medicines you may need. Most over-the-counter remedies commonly available at home should be relatively available in all but the most remote destinations around Ecuador, although you may have some trouble figuring out what the local equivalent is.
Pack prescription medications in your carry-on luggage, and carry prescription medications in their original containers, with pharmacy labels -- otherwise they won't make it through airport security. Also bring along copies of your prescriptions in case you lose your pills or run out. Carry the generic name of prescription medicines, in case a local pharmacist is unfamiliar with the brand name. Don't forget an extra pair of contact lenses or prescription glasses.
If you suffer from a chronic illness, consult your doctor before your departure. For such conditions as epilepsy, diabetes, or heart problems, wear a MedicAlert identification tag (tel. 888/633-4298; www.medicalert.org), which will immediately alert doctors to your condition and give them access to your records through MedicAlert's 24-hour hot line.
Bees, Snakes & Bugs -- Although Ecuador has Africanized bees (the notorious "killer bees" of fact and fable), scorpions, spiders, and several species of venomous snakes, your chances of being bitten are extremely minimal, especially if you refrain from sticking your hands into hives or under rocks in the forest. If you know that you're allergic to bee stings, consult your doctor before traveling.
Snake sightings, much less snakebites, are very rare. Moreover, the majority of snakes in Ecuador are nonpoisonous. If you do encounter a snake, stay calm, don't make any sudden movements, and don't try to handle it. As recommended above, avoid sticking your hand under rocks, branches, and fallen trees.
Scorpions, black widow spiders, tarantulas, bullet ants, and other biting insects can all be found in Ecuador. In general, they are not nearly the danger or nuisance most visitors fear. Watch where you stick your hands, and shake out your clothes and shoes before putting them on to avoid any unpleasant and painful surprises.
Dietary Red Flags -- Travelers to Ecuador should be very careful about contracting food-borne illnesses. Always drink bottled water. Avoid beverages with ice unless you are sure that the water for the ice has been previously boiled. Be very careful about eating food purchased from street vendors. Some travelers swear by taking supplements such as super bromelain, which helps aid in the digestion of parasites; consult your doctor to find out whether this is a good option for you. In the event you experience any intestinal woe, staying well hydrated is the most important step. Be sure to drink plenty of bottled water, as well as some electrolyte-enhanced sports drinks, if possible.
High-Altitude Hazards -- Of concern in areas of high altitude is altitude sickness. Common symptoms include headaches, nausea, sleeplessness, and a tendency to tire easily. The most common remedies include taking it easy, abstaining from alcohol, and drinking lots of bottled water. To help alleviate these symptoms, you can also take the drug acetazolamide (Diamox); consult your doctor for more information.
Malaria -- Because mosquitoes can't live at high altitudes, malaria is not a risk in Quito, Cuenca, Baños, or Otavalo. Although located at sea level, there's no malaria risk in the Galápagos, either. But because there is a small risk of malaria for travelers who plan on spending time in the jungle areas of El Oriente or the Pacific lowlands, the CDC recommends that you protect yourself by taking the drugs mefloquine, doxycycline, or Malarone. However, I'm not a huge fan of malaria vaccinations. Insect repellent and protective clothing are probably your best protection against malaria and other mosquito-borne illnesses.
Tropical Sun -- Limit your exposure to the sun, especially during the first few days of your trip and, thereafter, from 11am to 2pm. Use a sunscreen with a high protection factor, and apply it liberally. Remember that children need more protection than adults. Don't be deceived by cool weather or cloud cover. I've been foolish enough to think I didn't need sunscreen on a severely overcast day, and paid the price with a painful sunburn.
What to Do If You Get Sick Away From Home
The best and most modern hospitals can be found in Quito and Guayaquil. Most other major cities and towns will have a hospital or two. Your home country's embassy or consulate can provide a list of area doctors who speak English. If you get sick, consider asking your hotel staff or concierge to recommend a local doctor -- even his or her own.
Before leaving home, find out what medical services your health insurance covers. You may have to pay all medical costs up front and be reimbursed later. Medicare and Medicaid do not provide coverage for medical costs outside the U.S. To protect yourself, consider buying medical travel insurance.
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.