Although my focus here is on traveling from the U.S. to Quito, much of what I recommend applies elsewhere in South America, indeed in much of the world.
There’s WIFI everywhere. Ecuador is in the middle of an exciting explosion of Internet access, and you’ll see netbooks advertised daily in newspapers and magazines. That said, feel free to bring a laptop, iPhone, iPad or whatever else you want to use to get online. In fact, having one will make it very easy for you to communicate with the States. Here’s the caveat — bring a good lock for a laptop and make sure you keep up with anything else that’s portable and valuable. Once down here, keep the laptop in a safe or always locked up, depending on your living situation, when you’re not using it. There’s not much of a laptop-in-café culture down here, and that’s probably because laptop thefts are so common. If you are the kind of person who does like to use a laptop at a café, stop by Nocion Café, at Foch y Seis de Deciembre. A little place, painted orange, the owners are a friendly young couple. You’ll see netbooks and MacBooks side by side in this café. And their espresso is fantastic.
For calling the US, I strongly recommend setting up a Google Voice account (and learning to use it) and then a Skype phone number. The Skype number is a paid feature of Skype’s otherwise free services, but it’s not that expensive (ca. $20 for three months?) and it attaches a phone number to your Skype account. This is a way for people in the US to call you without paying international fees. You set up the number with whatever area code you want, so for some people, this will just be a local call.
Of course, you can still use Skype to connect with other Skype users (for voice, video, and text chat), but now you also have a number that friends and family can call from their phones and connect to you on Skype.
Add Google Voice to the mix, and you have a way to call any phone number in the US (and Canada) for free. It’s hard to explain how Google Voice works if you aren’t familiar with it, but basically you tell Google Voice (via its website) who you want to call and which phone number of yours you want it to use (in this case, the Skype number), and Google Voice connects your laptop with the phone number you want to call. I set this up for business (since I am working while down here), and it has also been useful for keeping in touch with family. The catch with Google Voice is that you have to register for it, and you have to register while you’re in the US. You can’t sign up for it once you’re down here. But, if you signed up for it ahead of time, it will work while you’re down here.
Speaking of geographically restricted content, Amazon digital downloads, Pandora, Hulu, and Crackle don’t work outside the US. The iTunes Store and Joost will work, but if you want to get access to the others, you can use a VPN or web-based proxies. They’re not as reliable (mainly because you are relying on someone else to keep them working), but when they do work, it’s just like being in the US.
For backing up your computer, I recommend Dropbox. Use the paid version if you have more than 2GB of data you want to keep backed up. It works flawlessly down here. Plus, if the unfortunate happens and your laptop is stolen, breaks, or otherwise inconveniences you, Dropbox will have all of your data accessible to you online (and ready to sync with a new computer).
A Flickr Pro account will let you create as many Sets of photos as you want, and since you can upload photos at full resolution, it’s a great online backup for your photographic recordings of your experiences. YouTube will back up any videos you take (edited or raw), within their time/GB restrictions. Use Vimeo if you have videos longer than 8minutes. The privacy settings for Flickr, Vimeo, and YouTube allow you to store videos/photos on their servers but leave them private if you want to.
For local communications, you’ll want a cell phone. Any GSM cell phone (except an iPhone purchased in the US*) will work down here. If you have one, just bring it and plan to replace the SIM card with one from an Ecuatoriano company. There are two major companies, Movistar (a division of the Spanish telecommunications company Telefónica) and Porta. Both have equivalent cost features and coverage in Quito (in my experience), but Movistar has better coverage outside of Quito. So, I went with Movistar. If you have a GSM phone and want to use it, expect to pay about $25 for a local SIM.
Because my iPhone wouldn’t work down here (see below), I bought the cheapest cell phone Telefónica would sell me ($60) with no monthly plan. Instead, I buy minutes $6 at a time. You can purchase cards with scratch-off codes to recharge your minutes or, more and more often, have your phone’s minutes magically recharged at tiendas all over town. I stop by the same places where I pop in to buy water and add $6 at a time to my phone.
*I have an iPhone and brought it with me. Sure enough, there is some kind of software lock on it that keeps it from working with anything but AT&T, so I was not able to use a Telefónica (Movistar) SIM card with it. I still use it on WIFI networks, but I keep it in airplane mode to keep it from roaming. Of course, you can buy an unlocked iPhone from Movistar, but plan to pay more than a grand for it.