Foreign Correspondence: Ecuador or Peru – Which is better for rookie travelers?

Brian Morgan, left, and friend Seth Jarsky, mountain biking at Cotopaxi, an active volcano in the Andes range in Ecuador. That’s Cotopaxi behind them.
Brian Morgan, left, and friend Seth Jarsky, mountain biking at Cotopaxi, an active volcano in the Andes range in Ecuador. That’s Cotopaxi behind them. Courtesy of Brian Morgan

Brian Morgan, 42, is the founder of Adventure Life (, a Montana-based travel company that organizes and operates tours around the world. Morgan began the company after receiving a master’s degree in economics and traveling in Ecuador and Peru – both still among Adventure Life’s top destinations. Morgan, who lives in Missoula, Mont., currently spends four to six weeks overseas per year.

Q. Ecuador and Peru are next to each other in northwest South America. For tourists, what are the practical differences between them?

A. Ecuador is very manageable; it’s about the size of Colorado. Peru is about the size of Spain, France and Germany combined. This makes visiting quite different.

In Ecuador, it’s easy to go out on a rafting trip, them come back to Quito – the capital – or go down to the jungle and then come back to the mountains. Sometimes in the same day.

In Peru, you really have to plan a trip to spend time in each region.

The difference is big-versus-small in other ways. Peru is very proud; Peruvians are very big, personality-wise. In Ecuador, people don’t have personalities that take up as much space.

Ecuador is cheaper, as long as you don’t go to the Galapagos Islands (of Ecuador). Peru’s economy has been strong, with a commodity boom in the last 10 years. Hotels, guides and transportation there are more expensive.

Q. Similarities?

There are many. The native language is basically the same: Quechua. The countries share a lot of the same music. Peru is known for Incan culture, but that ancient culture spanned both. In fact, the Incan capital was at one point in present-day Ecuador.

Peru is internationally known for its cuisine, but I’ve found the two cuisines very similar. Both have guinea pig as a specialty; both have great ceviche.

More people go to Peru and travel around the Peruvian mountains – yet culturally you’ll get similar experiences in the Ecuadorian Andes.

Q. What’s a don’t-miss in Ecuador?

A. Well, I said “as long as you don’t go to the Galapagos Islands,” but that’s where people go. It’s not an Andean experience, but a must-go place.

What’s great about Ecuador is you have beaches, mountains and jungles you can do very easily in a week. In a sense, those three things are the must-do.

Q. A don’t-miss in Peru?

A. Machu Picchu is the must-go place. Then it would be a toss-up between Lake Titicaca, the Amazon and maybe Colca Canyon.

The canyon is known to be the deepest in the world. It’s different from the Grand Canyon – it’s caused by movement of tectonic plates, not by erosion. It’s a gorgeous site with hot springs in places, plus soaring vistas. It’s also a prominent place to see the Andean condor, and the condor is a major part of mythology in the Andes.

Q. How’s the tourism infrastructure in these countries?

A. It’s nothing like Costa Rica, where with limited or no Spanish you can comfortably fly in, rent a car, get GPS and drive around. It’s not that easy to do at this point. You could wind up in places that don’t even speak much Spanish.

Costa Rica is more nature- and resort-based. But so much of the experience in Ecuador and Peru is culturally focused, and having a guide opens doors for you.

Roads in Costa Rica are fantastic; in Ecuador and Peru, you may end up on dirt roads suitable for four-wheel drive. And the roads aren’t signed as frequently.

Q. Is there a high season? A shoulder season?

A. Ecuador literally means “equator” – the equator goes right across it. Climate is primarily influenced by elevation. Quito is more than 3,000 meters (9,843 feet) above sea level. It’s like springtime year-round in the Andes.

In both countries, there’s only a little variation in prices throughout the year in both places.

During Peru’s (May-September) high season, hotels are often more full, so maybe there’s not as much choice. Also, some of the archaeological sites, including Machu Picchu, are more crowded.