Money in Ecuador: How far can $1 get you?

Ecuador is one place where a little money really does go a long way. Not only does the country use United States currency, but it’s amazing how many things you can purchase for just one dollar. Whether you are looking to drink an oversized beer at a pub or feast on 20 fresh bananas (just try to scarf them all down before they turn brown!), it comes as no surprise that Ecuador repeatedly makes the list of budget-friendly places to visit–as well as our top picks for adventure destinations in 2012.

Start the day with a cup of coffee–or four. Most cafes will give you your caffeine fix for 25 to 35 cents a cup. Just don’t be prepared to get Starbucks-style java: in Ecuador, coffee is usually a cup of hot water with some instant coffee served on the side for you to stir in. If that’s not up your alley, you can get a large party-sized cup of made-to-order juice for just a dollar at a fruterias, or fruit shop. They let you choose any mix of fruit of vegetables your heart desires, and no sugar or water will be added. Don’t be afraid to try a fruit you’ve never seen or heard of before, either: I tried guanábana, maracuya, naranjilla and tomate de arbol while I was there, and still find myself craving them all. On the other hand, if you simply prefer soda or bottled water, it’s also sold at a reasonable price: 30 to 60 cents depending on the size. Most of it comes in glass bottles, too-a fun game to play is to see how long your bottle has been in circulation; my record was a bottle that dated back to 1994.Being introduced to new flavors and climates doesn’t always agree with out bodies, but in Ecuador it’s no bother. If you are having altitude sickness, a stomachache, or a mild allergic reaction, just drop by a pharmacy where there is no need to buy a whole box of medicine-pills are sold individually and they’re usually cheap. Buy what you need, and if you don’t feel better the next day just come back for more. You can also buy a lot of medicines you would need a prescription for in the U.S.-but that’s a whole different story.

Getting around in Ecuador is cheap, too. A taxi will take you up to a mile for just a dollar, while the city bus will take you anywhere around major cities like Quito and Guayaquil for just 25 cents. Buses run all over the country, and as a general rule the cost is $1 per hour-making the uncomfortable 10-hour bus ride from Quito to the coast totally worth it.

As for food, you might not be able to get a complete dinner for a dollar–but choclo con queso, or corn on the cob served with a chunk of cheese, will hold you over for awhile. Some more familiar menu options for just a buck include pizza, fruit cups, and foot-long hot dogs, which are sold in parks and on streets from vendors. Just keep in mind that hot dogs are served with some unfamiliar options like mayonnaise, tomatoes, and crushed potato chips.

Drinking in Ecuador might be one of the best deals to be had. A large bottle of beer is just a dollar at many pubs, and if you search hard enough you might be able to find mixed drinks like cuba libres and rum and coke for the same price. Don’t leave the country without trying a canelazo, a traditional drink made with fruit juice and sugar can alcohol, served hot. And if you smoke when you drink, you can get a cute half-pack of ten cigarettes for just a dollar.

When it comes to souvenirs, a dollar can get you a few things. At Quito’s Mercado Artesenal, handmade bracelets, earrings, coin purses, and finger puppets can be picked up for a dollar or less. Take a short bus ride to the famous Otovalo Market, the biggest bazaar in all of South America, and you can get even better deals.

Although the deals sound great, take my advice: if you plan on visiting bring a roll of quarters and the smallest bills you can imagine. Nobody in this country seems to have change, and very often convenience stores would rather refuse selling you anything than change a $10 bill. The horror stores of cab drivers chastising people for using “enormous bills” when trying to pay a $3 cab far with a $5 bill are true-and if you find yourself with a $20 bill, be prepared to have a panic attack.

[Photos by Libby Zay and Andres Felipe Mena]