Getting around Ecuador: Transportation Tips
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Ecuador’s inexpensive and generally reliable buses are the country’s preferred form of public transport, and trundle along just about anywhere there’s a road. By contrast, the train network covers only a small fraction of the country.
The road network is limited by North American and European standards, but expanding and improving all the time thanks to recent investments in the country’s infrastructure, supported by the introduction of road tolls. Less than twenty percent of the highways are paved so expect a bumpy ride if you’re going on any but the most important routes. The Panamericana (Pan-American Highway, often called la Pana by locals) forms the backbone of the country’s road network, linking all the major highland towns and cities from Tulcán to Loja and on to Peru. A handful of other good roads spill down the Andes to important coastal cities including Guayaquil, Manta and Esmeraldas, while in the Oriente the road system is the least developed and exists almost entirely to serve the needs of the local oil industry.
The network’s biggest problem has always been the weather, with floods and landslides both common, knocking out roads sometimes for weeks at a time. Even in fine conditions, rough terrain means travelling around Ecuador’s highland regions is often much slower than you might expect: going the length of the country by bus from the Colombian border to Peru, a distance of 818km on mostly paved roads, takes around 18 hours – an average speed of 45kmh.
Ecuador’s comprehensive bus service makes getting around simple. Hundreds of companies ply the country’s roads, often with dozens competing on the most popular routes, transporting people at little cost to all but the remotest regions. Levels of comfort can vary widely between companies: some have fleets of air-conditioned buses with TV, toilet and on-board snacks, while others run beaten-up old monsters with cracked windows, growling gears and belching exhausts. As a general rule, luxury buses (ask for an autobús de lujo) travel the most popular long-distance routes, leaving regularly all day and night, and require passengers to have a pre-booked ticket. They won’t allow standing passengers on board, and only stop at scheduled destinations, reducing journey times.
The further into the backwaters you go, the more the comfort level is likely to drop. Standard buses will stop anywhere for anyone who wants to get on until every available crack of space has been filled. Obviously, the remoter the area, the less frequent the buses will be and most local and provincial services won’t run much after nightfall. At the margins of the bus network, pick-up trucks (camionetas), minibuses (busetas) and open-sided trucks converted to hold wooden benches (rancheras or chivas) often fill the vacuum. If you’re unsure of the area you’re travelling to, note that most drivers know their routes well and are happy for you to ask them to stop at your destination – they’ll let you know when you’ve arrived. For reasons of safety, avoid travelling at night on buses, when hold-ups and accidents are more likely.
Larger towns usually have a main bus terminal (terminal terrestre), where all the long-distance bus companies are based. In smaller towns, company offices and departure points may be scattered around, though they’re usually never very far from the central square or main thoroughfare. Out of town, it’s easy to hail non-luxury buses if you stand in a place where they have plenty of time to spot you; the standard gesture to flag one down is an apathetic point to the ground in the middle of the road next to you.
You can buy your fare from the conductor (ayudante) on board, who will come and collect it. Generally speaking, bus journeys cost roughly $1 per hour of travel. Overcharging is uncommon, but keep an eye on what others are paying. To get off, make for the door and say “bajo” or “gracias”. Alternatively, if you can, it’s a good idea to buy your ticket at the company office in advance to guarantee yourself a seat, something you can do on all long-distance buses whether luxury class or not – seats towards the front lurch less.
Local city buses in the larger towns generally carry a board in the window showing their route, with a list of street names and key landmarks. There’s normally a flat fare (currently around $0.25), which you pay as you enter. Local buses often stop to pick up and put down anywhere on request, though in some city centres proper bus stops, marked “parada”, are respected.
The old traveller’s adage, that all the fun is in the getting there, is never truer than with Ecuador’s trains. A train ride here is a real treat – you can sit on the roof enjoying the scenery (do take care of overhead cables and tunnels), while the train slowly rattles down the track – but not a way to travel the country.
The network currently comprises three short tourist routes: Riobamba to Sibambe, down the vertiginous Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose); Quito to El Boliche (by Cotopaxi national park); and Ibarra to Primer Paso in the northern highlands. Work is currently ongoing to restore the Quito–Durán (near Guayaquil) line.
At the time of writing, the section from Quito to Latacunga was near completion; check the website of the Empresa de Ferrocariles Ecuatorianos (EFE) for the latest.
Flying within Ecuador is a quick, convenient albeit pricey way of avoiding the country’s serpentine and often clogged roads. Those short on time can cut an all-day bus journey down to a 30-minute hop – and if the weather’s clear, enjoy wonderful aerial views of volcanoes and rainforests on the way. Domestic carriers include Avianca, LATAM and Tame, plus a number of small-scale and local charter companies, particularly in Cuenca and in the Amazon. With the exception of services to the Galápagos, internal flights can be inexpensive depending on the type of ticket, how far in advance you purchase it, and the popularity of the route – generally starting from $100 for a round-trip, including taxes. Busier routes should be booked days, if not weeks, in advance of holidays. The weather can be a problem, particularly in Quito and the Amazon, resulting in fairly frequent delays, cancellations or diversions.
If you intend to zoom around the country in a short space of time, or want to get to really off-the-beaten-track destinations, renting a car is a worthwhile option. You will need to be at least 21 years old (extra charges are often payable if you are under 25) and have a major credit/debit card for the deposit. Theoretically, you only need your national licence to rent a vehicle, but you’re strongly advised to bring an international licence as well – the Ecuadorian police, who frequently stop drivers to check their documents, are often suspicious of unfamiliar foreign licences and much happier when dealing with international ones. The national speed limit is 100kmh on highways (or less if indicated), and usually around 50kmh in towns or urban areas. Note that there are some draconian penalties for minor motoring offences, such as not wearing your seat belt; driving the wrong way down a one-way street is supposedly punishable by a fourteen-day mandatory jail sentence.
For convenience’s sake, you might want to arrange your car rental in advance through your nearest branch of an international rental company, but it nearly always works out cheaper to sort it out when you get there, typically at the airport in Guayaquil or Quito. Costs are comparable to Europe or North America: in general, expect to pay around $35 a day or $230 a week for a small hatchback, and from around $80 a day or $550 a week for a mid-sized 4WD, including insurance and IVA (tax) – always make sure you’re clear whether a price quoted includes insurance (generally around $5 a day), IVA and unlimited mileage. Check, too, what the excess is on the insurance (that is, the amount up to which you are liable in the event of an insurance claim). This is known as el deducible and is usually frighteningly high – around $1000 in the case of damage to the vehicle, and around $3000 for theft or “total destruction”, as the rental companies alarmingly put it. It might be a wise precaution to use agencies such as www.insurance4carhire.com, which provide year-long cover for rental vehicles, pay all excess costs and cover anyone named on the rental agreement.
When choosing which type of vehicle to rent, remember only a small portion of the country’s roads are paved, and those that are surfaced can be in an atrocious state of disrepair. Four-wheel-drive, or at least high clearance and sturdy tyres, definitely comes in handy on unpaved roads, especially in the rainy season, but isn’t necessary for the big cities and better-maintained parts of the road network. Air conditioning is another consideration for long journeys in the lowlands and Oriente.
Ecuadorian drivers tend to be undisciplined and sometimes downright dangerous; aggressive overtaking is particularly common, as is abruptly veering over to the wrong side of the road to avoid potholes. As long as you drive defensively and keep your wits about you, however, it’s perfectly possible to cover thousands of kilometres without running into problems. Never drive at night if you can avoid it, as this is when most accidents occur, in part due to the absence of decent road markings, lighting and the lack of signs alerting drivers to hazards. In addition, although ambushes against drivers are extremely rare, when they do happen it’s most often at night.
Never leave valuables in your car at any time, or your car on the street overnight, as it will almost certainly be broken into; try to stay in hotels with a garage, or else leave your vehicle overnight in a securely locked parqueadero.
In the event of an accident, you should try to come to an agreement with the other party without involving the police if you can. This may not be possible if it is serious, and the upshot often is that both parties are detained until one admits liability. Unsurprisingly, hit and runs are common in Ecuador.
Hitching is not recommended as a safe way of getting about, but it’s widely practised by Ecuadorians, particularly in rural areas. For backpackers, the bus service is such that you’ll only really need to hitch in the remoter places – you’re most likely to get a ride in the back of a pick-up truck. The etiquette is to ask “¿Cuánto le debo?” (“How much do I owe you?”) at the end of the journey, at which point you may be asked to pay a small amount, rarely more than the bus fare would have been, or let off for free. If you’re worried about being overcharged, ask “¿Cuánto sería?” (“How much would it be?”) before climbing aboard.
Most towns in Ecuador have a fleet of yellow taxis – in rural areas, green-and-white camionetas (pick-up trucks) take their place. In tropical areas, you may also come across mototaxis – motorbikes with small trailers converted to take passengers, who sit on a couple of makeshift benches. Since 2014 it has been compulsory across Ecuador for taxi drivers to have a taximeter, though a small percentage are still without one. The new law has led to fares for some journeys going up and others going down, with the result that some passengers and drivers still prefer to negotiate a price. In Guayaquil, most taxi drivers still refuse to use the taximeter, even when they have one. The minimum fare is usually $1–2, depending on the size of the town or city, and is higher at night, with a standard short journey, outside Quito or Guayaquil, typically costing $1.50–4. Most drivers are honest, but where drivers refused to use the taximeter, the best way to avoid being ripped off is to ask locals what the standard fares are to various destinations. Always agree on the price with the driver beforehand, and don’t be afraid to haggle. Tipping isn’t necessary, but it’s common to round up fares.
Taxis are also sometimes the best way of getting to out-of-the-way places such as national parks or mountain refuges, particularly if you’re in a group and can share the cost. Hiring a taxi for the day costs from about $60. App-based taxi-services, including Uber, Cabify and Easy Taxi, are available in Quito, Cuenca, Guayaquil. They are easy to book and identify, plus they offer transparent fees and the ability to file a complaint. Never use an unmarked cab.
Unless you’re on a private boat transport to a smart jungle lodge, seats are invariably wooden and thoroughly uncomfortable. Bring something to sit on and keep food and water with you, as the bulk of your luggage will usually be put under wraps at the front of the boat.
The most likely place you’ll end up in a boat is in the Oriente, where the best of the jungle is often a boat ride away. On the coast, the coastal highway now runs the entire length of the Ecuadorian seaboard, meaning you’re less likely to need to travel by boat, but it’s still fun to tour through the mangroves around San Lorenzo or Muisne. A few communities in the northern lowlands are still only reachable by river boat.
A chartered boat (flete) is more expensive than going on a public one, though you can reduce costs by gathering a group; the fare is usually fixed for the journey regardless of the number of passengers. Travel around the Galápagos Islands is almost exclusively by boat.
Even if Ecuador’s chaotic roads don’t always make the ideal cycleways, cycling can offer unrivalled closeness to the land and its people. Besides, cycling is growing in popularity within the country and there are a growing number of cycleways in the major cities and along the coast, most notably the 21-kilometre route between Canoa and Bahía de Caráquez. For proper cycle touring, you’re best off bringing your own bike and equipment from home. The best cycling is off the busy paved roads, so you’ll need wide tyres, decent pannier clearance, plenty of low gears, and preferably 36-spoke wheels. It’s good to know that once you’re out of the scrum of Quito, the busy Panamericana is often paralleled by unused dirt and cobbled roads. A good rack, fully waterproof panniers and a secure bike lock are essential. Bicycle repair shops (talleres de bicicletas) are far more widespread than bike shops, but will only have parts for rudimentary repairs – bring a comprehensive toolkit and a selection of essential spares. When planning your route, don’t forget that at this altitude you won’t be able to cover anywhere near the distances per day that you do at home: reckon on about half.
In the UK, the Cyclists’ Touring Club, is an excellent source of information for cycle tourists, and has factsheets on a range of subjects including recommended itineraries for touring in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.