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Safety Travel Safety: Americas: Ecuador

Ecuador: Republic of Ecuador
Capital: Quito
Population: 13,447,494
Currency: US dollar (USD)
Languages: Spanish (official), Amerindian languages (especially Quechua)
Religions: Roman Catholic 95%
Borders: Colombia 590 km, Peru 1,420 km

Ecuador straddles the equator and encompasses a startling variety of climatic zones. Perennially snow-covered mountain peaks of the Andean highlands dot the central spine of the country. To the east the mountains drop to the tropical Amazonian jungle and to the west are the coast plains bordering the Pacific Ocean. The Islands of the Galapagos lie over 600 miles offshore, and contain an ecosystem of continuing importance to science. In addition to its geographic diversity, Ecuador has a diverse ethnic population consisting of indigenous, immigrants from a variety of European, African and Asian countries and people of mixed races and cultures. Recently Ecuador has become home to immigrants from other Latin American countries. At the same time, many Ecuadorians have emigrated, especially to Spain and the United States, creating a network of Ecuadorian communities abroad.

Ecuador is an open society with a democratically elected government. The highlands and the coast have traditionally been at odds politically. Each is represented by the two largest cities, Quito, the capital in the highlands, and Guayaquil, the commercial center on the coast. Occasional disturbances do occur in Ecuador, which are detailed in the section on Safety and Security.

Ecuador adopted the U.S. dollar in 2000. The former currency, the sucre, is no longer in circulation. Both U.S. coins and Ecuadorian coins, which are equivalent to the value of the U.S. coins, are used.

With three sites on the World Heritage list, the colonial city centers of Quito and Cuenca and the Galapagos Islands, plus breath-taking natural beauty, tourism is a major industry in Ecuador. In general tourist facilities are adequate, but vary in quality.

The U.S. Embassy in Quito advises against travel to the northern border of Ecuador � to include the provinces of Sucumbios, Orellana, Carchi, and northern Esmeraldas Province. U.S. Government personnel are restricted from travel to these areas due to the spread of organized crime, drug trafficking, small arms trafficking, and incursions by various Colombian terrorist and criminal organizations. Since 1998, at least nine U.S. citizens have been kidnapped near Ecuador 's border with Colombia. One U.S. citizen was murdered in January 2001 by kidnappers holding him for ransom.

Political demonstrations occur sporadically throughout Ecuador. Protesters sometimes block city streets and rural highways, and public transportation tends to be disrupted during these incidents. Protestors also occasionally burn tires, throw Molotov cocktails, detonate improvised explosive devices and fire handguns into the air during demonstrations. Police response may include water cannons and tear gas. Travelers are advised to avoid areas where demonstrations are in progress. They may keep informed by following the local news and consulting hotel personnel and tour guides.

Strikes and disturbances by local fishermen in the Galapagos Islands sometimes impact the movement of tourists and access to some sites. The Islands are over 600 miles from the mainland, and help may be slow in arriving in the case of an emergency. Travelers to the Galapagos are urged to contact tour operators and visit the Consular Affairs homepage for the most recent information when planning their trips to the Galapagos.

Since 1993, leftists in various locations in Ecuador, including Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca, have placed hundreds of �pamphlet bombs,� small explosive devices that release political literature. Small dynamite bombs also have been detonated at a McDonalds in Guayaquil, an American Airlines office in Quito and at various Government of Ecuador buildings. Although no foreign tourists have been injured in these explosions, American citizens visiting or residing in Ecuador are urged to exercise caution and avoid suspicious looking packages. U.S. citizens should carry identification at all times, including proof of U.S. citizenship. When driving their own vehicle or rented vehicle, they should be sure to have proper vehicle registration papers with them. Travelers to Ecuador 's beach areas should be aware that strong currents, undertow, and underwater hazards may exist and are not always posted. While some beaches have lifeguard stations, they are usually unmanned.

Violent and non-violent crime is on the rise in urban Ecuador. In an increasing number of cases, thieves are armed with guns or knives. The Ecuadorian Government has increased police patrols in tourist areas, but travelers in resort areas along the coast and in Quito and Guayaquil should remain alert to their surroundings and maintain constant control of personal belongings. It's not a good idea to wear expensive-looking jewelry and watches. Avoid the interior regions of large city parks day and night and exercise caution around their perimeters. Public markets, airports, bus terminals, restaurants, and crowded streets provide opportunities for non-violent crimes such as pick pocketing, burglary of personal effects, and thefts from vehicles. Sexual assaults are also on the rise in urban areas. Backpackers are frequently targeted for robbery and snatch and grabs. Always be aware of your surroundings and try to not travel alone.

In Quito, travelers should be particularly alert on the crowded streets of south Quito, at the Panecillo, in Old Quito and in the areas of El Tejar, Parroquia San Sebastian, Avenida Cristobal Colon and Gonzalez Suarez. The Mariscal Sucre District is a popular tourist area in Quito with numerous restaurants, bars, hotels and shopping sites. Since 1999, several U.S. Government employees and private U.S. citizens have been targeted there, prompting the U.S. Embassy to put certain bars off-limits and to declare a nighttime curfew in the area for its employees. The presence of additional police has had little effect on the rising crime rate.

In Guayaquil, extra caution should be taken in the downtown area, in the street market area of La Bahia, at the Christ Statue (Sagrado Corazon de Jesus) on Cerro del Carmen, in the airport area, and in the southern part of the city. The riverfront park area in Guayaquil called the Malecon and the passage up to the lighthouse in the Las Penas area are generally safe and well patrolled although at night caution should be observed.There have been repeated instances of travelers followed from the airport and intercepted by robbers using two vehicles to cut off the traveler; although there is some evidence that those most at risk are people who appear to be returning for family visits laden with gifts and large amounts of cash, there have been instances of robbery of people who did not fit this profile. There have been numerous armed robberies of restaurants and their patrons, including in the fashionable areas of Guayaquil. Guayaquil has also experienced a dramatic increase in kidnappings for ransom, often in connection with hijackings.

Many beach areas are relatively deserted at night; crimes such as rape and robbery have been reported in 2003. Armed robbery of inter-city buses is on the increase. There have been several reported incidents in 2003 of passengers being robbed on buses. The Embassy recommends that you use legitimate taxicabs as a way to get around the larger cities. Public transportation can be dangerous � both from a traffic safety and personal security point of view.

Criminals sometimes use incapacitating drugs on unsuspecting tourists in order to rob them. These so-called "date rape" drugs, called scopolamine in Ecuador, are administered into drinks in order to drug the unsuspecting victim. This drug can render the victim disoriented and can cause prolonged unconsciousness and serious medical problems. Never allow a stranger to �buy� you a drink and never leave your drink unattended. During 2003/2004, several American citizens reported thefts of property following ingestion of such substances.

While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to that country's laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law. Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offenses. Persons violating Ecuadorian laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Ecuador are strict, and convicted offenders can expect lengthy jail sentences and heavy fines. U.S. citizens arrested in Ecuador for drug-related offenses may experience prolonged pretrial detention without bail. Prison conditions are sub-standard.

Under the PROTECT Act of April 2003, it is a crime, prosecutable in the United States, for a U.S. citizen or permanent resident alien, to engage in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign country with a person under the age of 18, whether or not the U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident alien intended to engage in such illicit sexual conduct prior to going abroad. For purposes of the PROTECT Act, illicit sexual conduct includes any commercial sex act in a foreign country with a person under the age of 18. The law defines a commercial sex act as any sex act, on account of which anything of value is given to or received by a person under the age of 18.

Under the Protection of Children from Sexual Predators Act of 1998, it is a crime to use the mail or any facility of interstate or foreign commerce, including the Internet, to transmit information about a minor under the age of 16 for criminal sexual purposes that include, among other things, the production of child pornography. This same law makes it a crime to use any facility of interstate or foreign commerce, including the Internet, to transport obscene materials to minors under the age of 16.

Medical care is available, but varies in quality and is generally below U.S. standards. Ambulances, with or without trained emergency staff, are in critically short supply. Acute surgical and cardiac services are not available on the Galapagos Islands. Serious cases must be evacuated to the Ecuadorian mainland or the United States for treatment.

Travelers to Quito may require some time to adjust to the altitude (close to 10,000 feet), which can adversely affect blood pressure, digestion and energy level. Travelers are encouraged to consult with their personal health care providers before undertaking high-altitude travel. In particular, travelers with heart or lung problems and persons with sickle cell trait may develop serious health complications at high altitudes.

Scuba divers in the Galapagos Islands should be aware of limited facilities for decompression should the problems arise. A privately owned decompression chamber opened in 2001 on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos Islands. The Ecuadorian Navy operates a second decompression chamber at the San Eduardo Naval Base in Guayaquil. Due to the high costs for these services and associated emergency transportation, divers are advised to obtain adequate medical evacuation and divers insurance.

Ecuador has over 30 potentially active volcanoes, seven with recent eruptive activity or signs of unrest. Beginning in September 1998, the Guagua Pichincha Volcano, located just west of Quito, began exhibiting a significant increase in the number of tremors and an accompanying rise in magma level. Since October 1999, there has been an intermittent series of explosions. Volcanic ash fell on Quito during some of the explosions, causing temporary closings of area schools and the airport. In the event of a full-scale eruption, geological experts conclude that the city of Quito is protected from possible lava flows, avalanches, and lateral explosions by the bulk of Pichincha Mountain, which stands between the city and the volcano crater. Parts of Quito could be affected by secondary mudflows caused by heavy rains that usually accompany an eruption. The entire city could also be affected by slight to significant ash falls and resulting disruptions of water, power, communications, and transportation.

The town of Banos, a popular tourist destination located approximately 80 miles south of Quito, is situated near the Tungurahua Volcano. The volcano has been ejecting significant amounts of ash and incandescent rocks over the past three years. Geological experts advise that an explosive eruption could occur quickly and with little warning. The resulting pyroclastic flows would pose a significant and immediate threat to Banos and several small villages in the vicinity. Travelers are advised not to overnight in Banos or the surrounding area.

In 2002, Reventador Volcano, 60 miles east of Quito, erupted. There were no casualties, but lava and mudflows closed a major Quito/northern-border highway and Quito was blanketed by ash that shut down the Quito airport for about a week.

Since the fall of 2001, Cotopaxi Volcano, located 40 kilometers southeast of Quito, has shown signs of �waking up.� The most significant eruptive hazard is the possibility of mudflows towards the towns of San Rafael in the north and Latacunga in the south. The city of Quito could also be affected by ash fall and disruptions of water, power, communications, and transportation.

The Quito City Government and the Ecuadorian Geophysical Institute monitor these volcanoes and issue regular reports on their activity. In the event of eruptions, travelers are advised to pay close attention to the news media for updates on the situation. Besides Guagua Pichincha and Tungurahua, other volcanoes in Ecuador may, from time to time, also exhibit increased activity. Further information about these and other volcanoes in the Western Hemisphere is available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration via the Internet at

While in a foreign country, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Ecuador is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance.

Safety of Public Transportation: Poor
Urban Road Conditions/Maintenance: Good
Rural Road Conditions/Maintenance: Poor
Availability of Roadside Assistance: Poor

Road travel throughout Ecuador is especially dangerous at night. Many roads are poorly maintained or unmarked. Heavy rains and mudslides often close or wash out roads. Heavy fog is common in mountainous areas. Driving practices differ from U.S. standards. Pedestrians are particularly at risk, and may constitute the majority of those killed or injured in traffic accidents. Inter-urban and inter-provincial bus passengers are often targets of crime, including robbery and rape.

Ecuador �s frontier regions are largely rural, poor and lacking in police presence. Narcotraffickers, criminal organizations and smugglers of all types use clandestine border crossings to move their goods. The Embassy advises against driving on all but the most traveled highways.

For specific information concerning Ecuadorian driving permits, vehicle inspection, road tax and mandatory insurance, contact the Ecuadorian national tourist organization offices in New York via the Internet at

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has assessed the Government of Ecuador's Civil Aviation Authority as Category 2 - not in compliance with international safety standards for the oversight of Ecuador 's air carrier operations. While consultations to correct the deficiencies are ongoing, any of Ecuador 's air carriers with existing routes to the United States will be permitted to conduct limited operations to the U.S. subject to heightened FAA surveillance. No additional flights or new service to the United States by Ecuador 's air carriers will be permitted unless they arrange to have the flights conducted by an air carrier from a country meeting international safety standards. For further information, travelers may contact the Department of Transportation within the United States at tel. 1-800-322-7873, or visit the FAA's Internet web site at

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) separately assesses some foreign carriers for suitability as official providers of air services. In addition, the DOD does not permit its personnel to use air carriers from Category 2 countries for official business except for flights originating from or terminating in the United States. Local exceptions may apply. For information regarding the DOD policy on specific carriers, travelers may contact the DOD at tel. (618) 229-4801.

Tour Boat Safety: A significant number of Ecuadorian tour vessels, including many operating in the Galapagos Islands, do not meet internationally recognized maritime safety standards. The Government of Ecuador now requires that vessels carrying more than sixteen passengers comply with the International Safety Management (ISM) code established by the International Maritime Organization. A copy of the vessel's ISM certificate should be made available upon request. Large tour boats (those carrying eighty passengers or more) generally have better safety records than smaller tour boats, particularly those carrying sixteen passengers or fewer. The Government of Ecuador has very limited search and rescue capability in the event of an accident.

Please also refer to the separate Worldwide Caution Public Announcement.

August 11, 2004

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