The most difficult part of a trip to a new country is often learning the rules when it comes to tipping. No one wants to be an ugly American but sometimes we unintentionally make mistakes, causing locals to roll their eyes! We’ve learned some of these lessons the hard way, sometimes tipping too much, not enough, or not at all.
To complicate matters, expats in Ecuador often debate the culture of tipping. We want to point out a simple fact: expats are not tourists. Sometimes what an expat does to fit into their community is not what a tourist should practice while on tour.
Tipping in Ecuador
Before we talk about a decent tip, let’s talk wages. The minimum wage in Ecuador is approximately $390 per month. When earning an annual wage, workers also earn two bonus months of salary bringing the minimum annual salary to approximately $4,325. A full-time worker in the United States working a $15/hour job would earn a little more than that in a single month.
This is one reason why even seasonal work as a tour guide can pay better than minimum wage. Even a few days of work a month can pay more than a full-time job in a local restaurant or hotel.
No matter who you encounter along the way, a small tip can make a huge difference to a better quality of life for those working in Ecuadorian tourism.
Here’s a primer on how we tipped on our last trip to Ecuador.
Tipping at Restaurants
Most Ecuadorian restaurants add a 10% service charge to the final bill. However, there is no guarantee that workers at the restaurant will receive that service charge as a tip. In more expensive restaurants aimed at international tourists, we will add 5-10% on top of that service charge, especially if service was excellent. In mom and pop kinds of places, we often round up the bill or leave a couple of bucks in cash or coin for the server.
Tipping in Taxis, Cars, and Boats
Most of you will end in a taxi at some point or another. Unless you are using a service like Cabify, you will be paying the driver in cash. It is common to round up to the even dollar.
Sometimes, we hire a driver for a full day. Generally, there is a fixed rate but if the driver is extremely helpful, especially if they stop along the way so that we can take great photos or see a sight we never heard of, we add $5-10 to the final bill. We always buy the driver lunch. If you are sharing a driver with several other people, consider chipping in a couple of dollars each for each leg of the trip and make sure his or her lunch bill is covered.
Occasionally, we take boat trips. We tip those drivers as well, especially if they are good at maneuvering the boat for better wildlife viewing. We usually saved the tip for the end of the trip on a multi-day excursion. In Cuyabeno, a $5-10 tip from each guest would come as a surprise to most drivers as tips are usually reserved for the naturalist guide.
Tipping for Photos
While tipping someone for photos in Ecuador is not very common, it is worth mentioning. Those of you who have traveled to Peru will be aware that many locals will stand in strategic locations to attract tourists and their cameras. They will wear native costumes and often pose with llamas. While this rarely happens in Ecuador, it is beginning to happen more often in popular tourism areas.
Be prepared to give a 50 cents to $1 for staged photos with locals. If you don’t want to pay for these photos, consider asking to take photos after having made a purchase or during a local festival or parade when people are less likely to take offense.
Tipping Tour Guides
If you take a free walking tour or similar offering, your guide will only earn money from tips. Our general rule of thumb is $2-3 per hour. If you end up being the only person on tour, please tip a little more.
If you have signed up for a group tour through an agency, the guides should be paid by the agency. You can always ask. In these situations, we generally tip up to $5 per couple for a half day and $10 for a full day. If we had a marvelous time and the guide went out of their way to make our experience in the group more personal, we will tip more.
There is a caveat to this – if we end up on a tour that is all Ecuadorian tourists and just ourselves, we have noticed that no Ecuadorians tips. In fact, this is a point of contention among many tour guides. For this reason, they prefer to work with international tourists. On the other hand, group tours aimed at national tourists are designed to run through as many people as possible. In this case, we may still tip but we try to do it as privately as possible. We only do this when the service has been exemplary.
Tipping Naturalist Guides like Birding Guides
A naturalist guide, especially bird guides, have specialized knowledge that warrants paying extra for their services. If you do not hire the guide directly and are using their services via a birding lodge or birding tour, they are getting a base pay from the company. Nonetheless, the company expects that the guide earns a tip. These guides are rarely hired as full-time workers. Furthermore, base pay can be very low. We tend to tip an additional $5 per guest for half day and $10 per guest for a full day. The exception to this rule is when the guide is also a part owner in the business.
You may find that you hire a birding guide directly and know exactly how much they are earning. In this situation, we tip extra when the services are especially good. A small group of 2-3 birders might pitch in to add another 20-30% or so to the base fee. If the base fee started very low, we may go a little higher.
Tipping Staff at Hotels and Hostels
We usually only tip staff at hotels and hostels when there is a group tip jar at reception. This is the best way to guarantee that the staff actually receives the tip and that it is shared between all of the people who have made your stay a good one. The exception to this is when porters bring luggage into the rooms, especially if they have had to climb three flights of stairs because there is no elevator! Then we tip a $1 per bag to the person who did all the heavy lifting.
Tipping Staff at Lodges
Stays at birding or nature lodges are generally include all meals and lodging. For this reason, the staff is not only making your beds they are serving all your meals. Often they provide additional services like washing your muddy pants or providing a cool glass of lemonade on a hot day or hot canelazo on a cold one. Almost every lodge we have stayed at has a group tip jar so that the entire staff can be fairly compensated. And our favorite places provide tipping guidelines. This is especially common in places with a mixed-international audience. When no guideline is suggested, we tip $5-10 per guest per day.
Occasionally, someone on staff will also volunteer to serve as a bird or naturalist guide. We tip this person separately, generally at the end of the trip. For a trip that lasts a couple of days, this tip would be $10-20 per day depending on how many hours they spent with us.
Last But Not Least
In conclusion, I think it is fair to reiterate a single point – Ecuadorian minimum wages is very low. Even a budget traveler can afford to be generous.
If you have your own tipping guidelines that you would like to share, please reach out in the comments below. We’re curious to know how you came to them!