No-one wants to suffocate because there is no air-conditioning and the heat in that cramped bus is stifling. Most people don’t want to feel their life is literally on the edge as the driver makes the journey one long leap of faith as he careers around corners at full speed and plays chicken with oncoming cars in an attempt to make up that lost hour (this attitude doesn’t change even when the driver has his wife and children sat alongside him). No-one wants to break down (it’s never happened to me in Ecuador) or be held up by landslide or a ridiculously long set of roadworks. But if and when you do have these experiences, they’ll provide some of the best stories and memorable moments of your trip.
The great thing about Ecuador is that because so many people don’t have a car, you can find a bus going anywhere in the country at least once a day and usually much more regularly. The cost of travel is very cheap (about $1.50 per hour of travel). You can get a real sense of the geography and the lives of people in rural areas who sometimes have to get on and off a long distance from their houses. You find out what type of music Ecuadorian bus drivers like to listen to or if you’re really lucky they show a Jean Claude Van Damme film.
I’ve never had a problem with crime on a bus but armed robberies do occasionally occur, mainly on local services in the coastal provinces. It is definitely better to travel in the day in these areas. It is also possible to take direct services between the major cities which are safer, quicker and more comfortable.
There are a huge number of bus companies in Ecuador. A few of the big ones have their own offices in the major cities and small towns but the majority operate from the bus stations which you can find in most towns.
Click here for a list of bus operators and the services they operate.
Having a car in Ecuador will give you greater flexibility, firstly to get to locations around and near the cities you stay in and most importantly, to be able to stop and enjoy the stunningly beautiful and dramatic scenery, as well the food sellers which you will find along almost all the routes in the country.
Distances between the main attractions are not that great. However, there are a few things to take into account before you choose this way of getting around.
1. Road quality
Many roads in Ecuador are in bad condition. The government is currently overseeing an ambitious programme to resurface numerous important and even minor routes in all parts of the country (see links below to the website of the Ministry of Transport and Public Works). The highway which runs between Guayaquil and the Santa Elena peninsula is in excellent condition, so you can hire a car to drive to the beach. The Panamericana around Quito is also good, although there are ongoing works to widen it to the north and south which may cause a bit of disruption. There are several routes which connect the highlands and the coast. The road which runs between Aloag and Santo Domingo) is well-surfaced and the most direct route down from Quito. Unfortunately it´s consequently also used by lots of trucks. A good alternative is the road from Calacalí (close to the Mitad del Mundo north of Quito). Unfortunately it´s consequently also used by lots of trucks.
In fact after several years of works most of the roads are now (as of January 2012) in good condition. Information on roads can be found on the government website www.mtop.gob.ec You can find an up-to-date guide to the condition of roads in Ecuador and a guide to which routes are currently being improved. If you want to check this advice email me with your specific routes and I will tell you anything else I know.
2. Journey times
Due to road quality and terrain (you´re often driving up and down) it can be deceptive to calculate journey times based on distances alone.
For a guide to distances between cities and towns, click here.
For a guide to journey times between cities and towns, click here.
This guide is based on bus journeys. I have found that this correlates closely to my driving times. Buses stop frequently to pick up and drop off passengers and then plough on recklessly. Descending from the highlands in a car is like being the tortoise racing the hare. The bus overtakes you on a bend and careers down the road, then at the next little settlement you pass it again while the assistant is helping some old man get his potatoes out of the luggage hold.
3. Road Safety
Ecuadorian drivers are not renowned for their cautious, conscientious driving style. Most seem to be in permanent racing mode. They don´t use their mirrors very much and overtaking is largely a matter of faith, that the person behind will squeeze their brakes. Having said all that, outside of the cities there is almost never enough traffic to trouble you too much. Be aware that if the driver going faster probably, hopefully knows the road better than you. There could always be an unexpected pot hole or a speed bump ahead. Roads are not always well marked or lit so driving after dark can be quite stressful, especially if you are having to overtake trucks and slow moving vehicles while judging the oncoming traffic.
There is car crime in Ecuador but it should not put you off renting or driving. The main places to be vigilant are Guayaquil and Quito. Keep your windows and doors locked at traffic lights or while in a queue (in Guayaquil this means you need air con). If you get lost try and look for a petrol station where you can stop and check directions. In villages and other towns you really don´t have anything to be worried about. Buses sometimes get robbed when they stop to pick people up in the middle of nowhere. So be careful who you offer a lift to.
5. Traffic Laws
The transit law has recently been amended (2008). The law is upheld by the national police apart from in the province of Guayas, where a separate transit police (La Comisión de Tránsito) have jurisdiction. They are quite active across the province and like to lurk on bends or straight stretches along the better paved roads, sometimes with speed cameras. The fines for breaking the law are quite high and cannot be paid on the spot, although most Ecuadorians persist in trying to do so (with a few bills under their licence). Always note the speed limits which are marked by signs but change quite regularly along any stretch of road.
The transit law has recently been amended (2008). The law is upheld by the national police apart from in the province of Guayas, where a separate transit police has jurisdiction. This transit police is now called the Comisión de Transito del Ecuador but I think they still only operate in Guayas and there is an unclear process of reorganisation. The officers are quite active across the province and like to lurk on bends or straight stretches along the better paved roads, sometimes with speed cameras. The fines for breaking the law are quite high and cannot be paid on the spot, although most Ecuadorians persist in trying to do so (with a few bills under their licence). Always note the speed limits which are marked by signs but change quite regularly along any stretch of road. You can read a summary of the most pertinent parts of the transit law here.
It’s possible to buy a car even as a foreigner. New cars are quite expensive and as everything can be fixed here, used ones don’t lose that much of their value. If you are buying a used car you should be very careful and get everything checked out by a mechanic you trust. I can help you with this in Guayaquil. Click here to find more information on buying and registering a car in Ecuador.
It’s possible to rent a car in all the big cities. There are lots of offices near to the airports in Quito and Guayaquil. You must be over 21 to rent a car and may have to pay a surcharge if you are under 25. Click here to find more information on renting a car in Ecuador.
Some hire companies offer a vehicle with a driver but if you only need it for day trips it may be cheaper to find a trustworthy taxi driver and engage his or her services.
There are people in Ecuador with high specification machines but not that many. Therefore even if you wanted to, (and I imagine you don’t) buying a new or used bike in Ecuador will be neither cheap nor easy.
If you you want to bring your own bike you can read my pages on shipping and bringing a car into Ecuador – much of the information is relevant. In addition, www.horizonsunlimited.com has lots of helpful information.
The car section on this page details the potential dangers on the road due to careless drivers. While you see many riders in the cities it is less common to see them on the highways outside. So look out for other vehicles because they won’t be looking out for you.
A number of companies provide motorcycle rental or tours.
Cycling gives you the advantage of getting closer to the people and the rhythm of life in the places you pass through. You can travel as slowly as you want, choose your own routes and when you’ve had enough you can also put the bike on a bus. A number of companies offer cycling tours or tours which involve some cycling. For a list of operators click here. Ecuador is one of the smallest and most densely populated countries in South America so you shouldn’t feel really lonely for too long if you are cycling through. However, it will be hard work.
Unlike in Colombia there are not many people who are crazy enough to cycle though the highlands by bike, let alone downhill to the lowlands. The people you do see are almost always foreign tourists. The main deterrents are the altitude and the danger of being on the road in a very vulnerable position.
Road quality is improving but still very variable, especially on the side roads you might want to use to avoid traffic. Many are currently being resurfaced which in the short term presents more problems. Check the guide to roads or feel free to contact me with your itinerary and I can try to advice you about the current situation.
You are unlikely to encounter ideal cycling conditions very often. The weather is very changeable. The routes through the western or eastern lowlands will be humid and possibly wet. The highlands can be hot or cold, wet, or when it’s not wet the air can be dry and dehydrating. You will be cycling at altitude and the winds can be fierce. Plan for the challenge and try to take local advice to plan your departure times.
If you are going to do it you should bring a touring bike, panniers and strong racks. There are plenty of car mechanics and vulcanizadoras (tyre specialists) in every town and village who should be able to help you with any problem if you can’t find a dedicated bike mechanic. People do use bikes, they just don’t tour on them. If you have a problem with a rack a cerrajería might be able to weld a solution.
If you want to hire a bike for a short trip check out the cycling page in the activities section for more information.
At the present time there are a few small journeys which you can make by train, all operating specifically for tourists. The best known is the trip down “la nariz del diablo” near to Alausí. You used to be able to travel between Quito and Guayaquil and a few other destinations by train but the lines were damaged in the El Niño floods at the end of the 20th century and not repaired. The present government has a project to bring the main line back into use but it’ll need a lot more money and work.
Click here to find out details on all the train journeys.
There are opportunities to make water journeys in the coastal and Amazon region. On the coast you can take small launches to see dolphins and visit the Isla Puná close to Guayaquil and to explore the mangroves and wildlife in many locations Reserva Manglares Churute, Puerto Hondo, the Río Chone near to Bahía de Caráquez and the islands near San Lorenzo). You can also travel to see whales and visit the Isla de la Plata in Machalilla National Park. Some people visit Ecuador on a cruise ship, which stop in Esmeraldas or Manta.
If you take a rainforest tour in the Amazon you will almost certainly spend some of the time travelling in a dug-out canoe. On the Río Napo you can also take a tour on a steam paddler or travel downriver from Coca to the frontier at Nuevo Rocafuerte.