Ecuador has its own unique customs and social norms that might easily throw the unprepared traveler off-guard. The good news is that learning etiquette in Ecuador is straightforward, good manners are appreciated here, and a little politeness does go a long way.
Keep reading for a few rules of thumb that can help you navigate Ecuador’s cultural nuances, without stumbling over traditions that are easy to respect.
The people of Ecuador have a warm and friendly spirit and are very hospitable folk. Ecuadorian society is an intriguing mix of being very social, while at the same time formal and conservative. Formalities typically increase in the central highlands, while the coastal region and rainforest are more easy-going.
Wherever you go in Ecuador, politeness is a feature of the culture. In general, it is customary to greet people when entering shops, hotels, taxis, etc, or in smaller villages when you pass locals on the street. The most typical greetings in Ecuador are:
• Buenos Días (good morning)
• Buenas Tardes (good afternoon)
• Buenas Noches (good evening)
• ¿Como está? (how are you?)
On social occasions, body language is also important for greeting in Ecuador, where physical contact is the norm. For a new acquaintance a handshake is usually most appropriate, while for greeting friends, or people you know, a single kiss on the left cheek or hug is expected. If you are unsure then just follow the lead of the other person. Expect to use the same greeting again when saying goodbye.
The language barrier is another tricky subject when traveling here if you aren’t familiar with a lot of Spanish. Here are a few tips for making the experience a fun exchange.
For starters, try to learn some basic survival Spanish before you travel, or take a few classes during your trip – this can really help to open up your travel experience, and make the most out of your time in Ecuador. Free online courses like Duolingo can get you started with the basics, or Happy Gringo can help to set up a few lessons with a local teacher in Quito or Cuenca. You’ll be surprised how far just a few words can go when traveling here.
A few Spanish phrases that might come in handy:
• ¿Habla Inglés? (Do you speak English?)
• ¿Como se dice …? (How do you say …?)• Como te llamas? (What is your name?)
• Por Favor (Please)
• Gracias (Thank you)
• Con permiso (Excuse me)
Finally, if your language skills do fail you, then hand signals and a smile will often do the job too.
Keep in mind that Ecuador is a very traditional society, especially in Quito and Cuenca, where family plays an important role, and old-fashioned ideals such as respect for your elders are taken seriously.
When addressing somebody older than you, then use the formal address to show respect:
• Señor (for men)
• Señora (for women)
• Señorita (for a young lady)
• Also, use the politer form of ‘you’: ‘usted’ instead of ‘tu’ (informal).
This respect for elders is especially apparent in small villages and indigenous communities, where the traditions of generations put things into a clear perspective.
Another common phrase that you will hear at mealtimes is:
• Buen Provecho (Good Appetite)
This is like saying “bon apetit”, and is often even said between complete strangers on different tables in a restaurant.
Bargaining is another concept that often leaves those who visit Ecuador in the dark. In some places, like the handicraft market of Otavalo, it is standard practice – asking the price and then countering with a lower offer is the way things work.
So, how to bargain when shopping in Ecuador, without causing offense?
• Haggle at markets
• Be polite but firm
• Enjoy the experience to interact with locals
• Walk away with a smile, even if you don’t reach a good deal
• Haggle in shops or restaurants
• Haggle in taxis – instead, ask them to use their taxi meter
• Be too aggressive in your price offers
• Be rude or show frustration
Tipping habits and expectations vary right across the world, even Europe and North America have vastly differing etiquettes that can easily walk the uninitiated directly into problems. In Ecuador tipping is actually quite simple, the basics are as follows:
• In most restaurants and cafes in the city, a 10% flat service fee is already added to the bill. This is supposed to be shared between the employees, but in many establishments, the servers never see that money, so you might consider leaving a little extra cash on the table, especially if the service was very good.
• Tips are not expected by bar staff, hairdressers, taxi drivers, or most other services.
Similar to most Latin countries around the world, the concept of time is rather different from that of Europe or USA. Ecuador runs on La Hora Ecuatoriana (Ecuadorian time), meaning that punctuality is usually rather relaxed, and things often get done Mañana (tomorrow).
For many foreign visitors or expats living here, this can be the single most annoying local custom to get used to, but as with other cultural norms it is possible to adapt:
• Learn to take it in your stride – it is part of the Ecuadorian lifestyle, so take a breath, smile and slow down with them.
• When meeting a friend, take a book along with you, to kill time in case you are left waiting.
• Communicate using Whatsapp or Facebook to remind your friend about the meeting time & place, and so they can easily let you know when they are running late.
• If you are invited to a party then aim to arrive an hour or so late, otherwise you will likely be the very first one there and might make the host uncomfortable as they will not expect anyone to arrive punctually.
These punctuality rules are of course very generalized, so take care if you do have the luck to meet an unusually punctual Ecuadorian!
Machismo (male chauvinism) is common in most Latin countries, so female visitors need to be aware of a few things:
• Compliments from male strangers passing in the street is common, for some this can be flattering, for others unwanted attention. Either way, it is a cultural nuance, and most easily dealt with by simply walking past and ignoring it.
• Men see their social role as protecting and looking after women, so be careful to not cause your male friend/companion to lose face in a social context. For example, usually, the man will expect to pay the bill at a restaurant, so either let him do so or tread carefully to persuade him to let you pay.
• Ecuadorian boyfriends can become jealous very easily, so take care to include him when talking to other male friends, and ask if he is ok if you dance with one of them. Naturally, this works both ways, so ask him to respect you in the same way when he is with his female friends.
As you can see, becoming familiar with the customs of Ecuador’s culture, and the expected etiquette is a big part of any trip in the four regions of the country. It is also easy to learn the basics, which go a long way to making your Ecuador trip a complete success, full of fun interactions with local people and new friends.