transport experiences
Transport in Ecuador

In this section you can read about some of my more memorable experiences of using different forms of transport to get around Ecuador. The articles are listed below so that you can scroll down immediately to the one you want to read about.

La Nariz del Diablo
A moto taxi to Agua Blanca
The taxi dilemma in Guayaquil
Bus travel in Guayaquil


La Nariz del Diablo

On Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays a steam train leaves Riobamba at 7am and heads south towards Alausí, a journey of approximately 4 hours winding through rural Ecuador. When I took the trip, on a Sunday in 2006 we got up at 5.30 and joined a crowd of 90% foreigners on the roof. It was freezing cold and I thanked my young nephews for forcing me to buy some gloves the previous day. Sitting on the roof gives you unrivalled views of the Ecuadorian countryside and a glimpse of rural life, albeit tainted by people[s hope that the passing train will bring them presents.

Since the death of some Japanese tourists who were caught by a power line in 2008, safety on the roof has been tightened slightly. The train pauses at Guamote where there is time to grab a quick coffee or even breakfast. While we were sharing some sweets with other passengers the train started to move without warning. The sweets went everywhere, so did our coffees. We gulped the final bits of our chicken and rice and ran after the train which fortunately was going slow enough to catch and climb up on the roof again. More exciting than First Great Western. The train then continues to Alausi, where it is also possible to board the train. From here the route descends until it reaches a precipice where the line seems to terminate until the train stops, shudders and lurches back in the other direction. It continues to zig/zag down "La Nariz del Diablo" to the lowlands below. Until the line to Guayaquil is restored, you also get the added bonus of travelling back up to Alausi.

A moto taxi to Agua Blanca

On one of my first trips to Ecuador we travelled to Puerto López on the bus from Guayaquil. As it wasn’t whale watching season we decided to make a trip to see the archaeological site at Agua Blanca which is a little way out of the city. It was recommended that a moto taxi would be the cheapest way to get there.

Puerto Lopez is full of moto taxis and when you’re standing on the main street there it seems like they’re zipping along. We found a driver who was quite happy to take us and we cruised out of town. Once we left the buildings behind and hit a long straight stretch the limitations of the two stroke engine quickly became apparent. We were literally moving at a walking pace, in fact Jefferson Pérez probably would have overtaken us. The one good aspect was that it gave us lots of time to enjoy the corridor of overhanging trees along the road.

After an age we reached a turn off from the main road which is clearly marked (and guarded) to Aguas Blanca. We now had to proceed along a dirt track, bumping and skidding, passing cows as we descended onto a dry river bed. It seemed that the engine would cut out at any moment but it kept on ticking over all the way to the community. The driver collected his money happily and agreed to come back in a couple of hours. I couldn’t believe he’d want to put his vehicle through all that again but sure enough, at the end of the tour there he was. I guess he and his bike were used to it and funnily enough even for us the journey back seemed a bit quicker and smoother.

The taxi dilemma in Guayaquil

The dilemma is, should you get in a taxi? They’re cheap, convenient and a complete law unto themselves.

I have a problem with taxi drivers. It’s not because they like to sound off about the world, it’s not that they are rude – they have almost always been friendly. In fact when I do get a taxi I like to sit in the front and chat. I’ve learnt a lot about life in the marginalised parts of Guayaquil from them and much of the little Quechua I know came from a taxista Riobambeño (from Riobamba).

The problem is that there are always too many taxi drivers, especially in poorer countries. I remember once walking around Vicuña in Chile on a Monday morning. It is no more than a village, located most of the way up a valley which terminates abruptly at the foot of the Andes. But there was a whole army of taxi drivers waiting outside the bus station, chatting, with their car doors open and little apparent hope of picking up a fare that day or the next. Surely there must be more useful things that these people could be doing.

This feeling has remained and grown stronger in Guayaquil. The main reason here is the beeping. If you walk down a street it seems that every other car that passes gives you a toot. It’s not because you’ve got a cute arse, at least not in my case, nor because there is a traffic obstruction. They are touting for trade. Although you have made absolutely no indication that you want a taxi, they think you might. The problem is not only with the yellow cabs, there are just as many people driving around in their own cars trying to earn a bit of money on the side as an illegal taxi. Given how frequently people who get in these cars end up getting robbed its amazing that there is still a market, but they keep on beeping.

When these drivers slow and beep, shouting “taxi” at me, I like to put on an interested face to keep them thinking, until they finally give up hope or wave, and then withdraw my hand as if to say, “No, I don’t know you after all” Obviously if you don’t live here you won’t need to bother with these pointless exercises but I hope that it stops a few from beeping so fervently for at least 20 minutes.

Sometimes it’s actually necessary for me to get in a taxi. As I’ve said, with the exception of Friday rush hour and Christmas Eve you won’t have any problem finding one. They’ll stop for you wherever you are, however inappropriate or dangerous it may seem. Don’t forget this if you’re ever driving behind a bus or a taxi here.

The problems really start when you get in. The cars are generally getting more modern but there are still a few ancient Ladas out there that feel like everything is about to drop of. If you get in one of those you probably won’t have a window lever and opening the door can be a tricky operation. Sometimes the drivers have meters but prices can always be negotiated beforehand. You should be able to pay about a dollar for each kilometre and almost never over $5.

The car then pulls out into the traffic. Unwritten taxi rule #1: Don’t use your indicator. Rely on the brakes and alertness of the drivers behind you. It continues to accelerate and vere between lanes looking for the fastest passage to your destination. Unwritten taxi rule #2: never stop. It’s like the driver needs the toilet. He will keep inching forward, grabbing any available space alongside him or take a wild detour rather than just wait for the traffic lights to change. Unwritten taxi rule #3 (also applies to 99% of amateur drivers in Guayaquil): Contrary to logical reason, you can make the traffic lights turn green if you beep long and hard enough. Unwritten taxi rule #4: red lights only mean something if there are actually vehicles moving across and blocking your route, otherwise just take your chances. This attitude, which also applies to 99% of amateur drivers, leads to absolute gridlock on busy junctions at rush hours in Guayaquil when they have to bike in some transit cops to sort out the mess.

Despite all this, the drivers are almost always extremely personable, very happy to talk about the terrible driving of people in Guayaquil with absolutely no self-recrimination and delighted to deliver you to your destination safe and sound.

NOTE: Although I’ve never been robbed, a lot of people I know have suffered robberies in taxis. What happens is you get in, they phone a friend and a few minutes later another car stops next to the taxi, an armed robber gets into the taxi and takes what you’ve got. Recently they’ve even started taking people to the cash machine. There’s a few steps you can take to avoid this.

1. Have the number of a taxi company and phone to book your taxi. They are unmarked cars, known as taxi amigos. However the company will tell you the make and model, the number of the registration plate and even the name of the driver. These taxis only cost more than the normal ones if you book them in advance, otherwise they usually take about 15 minutes to arrive.

2. Don’t get in an unmarked “taxi” in the street under any circumstances unless you have booked it in advance.

3. If you get in a yellow taxi note the number of the registration plate and the personal taxi registration number written on the side of the vehicle. You can also ask to see the driver’s taxi ID to check he looks like his picture. An honest driver will be happy to do all this because they’re just as hacked off with the crime as everyone else.

4. If your driver makes a call on his cell phone then just tell him you want to get out the car. If he receives a call and you don’t understand any Spanish it might be best to get out as well. This doesn’t include using their radio.

5. Sit in the front of the car and be personable. Ask the driver if he has any children. He will do and by the time he has finished talking about them you will be at your destination.

After all this griping, I do know some good guys who are taxistas in Guayaquil. Click here to contact them if you need a ride. (B3 k)

Bus Travel in Guayaquil

Buses in Guayaquil can be uncomfortable, noisy and dirty but there are also some good reasons to enjoy them:

1. A bus passes by every 5 minutes
Each route belongs to a different co-operative, for example the 56 route which runs from Orquideas down to the south is operated by Sometimes there is very little difference between different routes. In any case each route is covered by loads of buses. So you can wait almost anywhere, at any time of the day, and a bus will come along pretty quickly.

2. Buses are cheap
Passengers only pay 25 cents per journey. It doesn’t matter if you want to go round the corner or round the city twice. Its even cheaper for pensioners and students

3. Bus drivers stop for you anywhere
Don’t worry about looking for a paradero – no-one else does. Just wait where you are and stick out your hand. 99 times out of 100 the bus will stop. If you’re unlucky it probably means a transit cop is standing behind you. When you want to get off just shout “PARE”.

4. On-board entertainment
Your driver will probably have the radio tuned into a station playing the latest “bachatas” – Caribbean ballads that tug at the heart and the guitar strings. If you’re really lucky a busker might get on with his guitar. One time a really talented guy rapped about his hard-knock life.

5. On-board refreshment
Watch for the guy who gets on and leap the barrier. Don’t worry – if he was going to rob you he wouldn’t bother with that. It’s because he doesn’t want to pay the fare – he’s going to sell you some sweeties. Listen as he peals out his heartwrenching tale of woe (learnt by rote) and pleads that he is an honest man trying to earn an honest buck to feed his family because there is no other work. I’ve no doubt that the story is true – why else would they be doing it. It’s just that I’ve heard so many that sound exactly the same that I’m convinced there is a finishing school somewhere for giving the spiel as quickly as possible. Try and keep 10 or 25 cents handy so you can buy 2 or 5 of the sweets.

6. You get a sense of how the people breathe and move
Travelling in a taxi or private car is a sanitised experience. Travelling by bus enables you to see the full cross section of Guayaquil society (except for the real elite). Men in suits going to a meeting. Women in uniforms coming home from work. Vagabonds going nowhere. Schoolchildren. Fat women squeezed into a seat. Old guys going to play chess. They all get off and on.

Having said all that there are some things you should consider:

1. Every now and again buses do get stopped and robbed. Usually in the early morning or evening. Don’t carry too many valuables. Keep a $5 or $10 dollar note handy – its better than a nuzzle in your face. In four years of travelling by bus on an almost daily basis I’ve never had a problem.

2. Bus drivers don’t care about your safety. They try to start off as soon as your back foot lifts off the ground. They stop for everyone and make up the lost time by careering along in between. They brake when you shout “Pare” but unless you have a baby or you insist, they try and keep trickling along rather than just stop properly. It’s often easier to get off at a traffic light.

3. The ride is pretty uncomfortable. There are some larger buses which at least have leg room. Many are almost like mini-buses and it is impossible for non-pigmys to sit without jarring their knees.

4. The routes are difficult to decipher. There are no maps, no timetables and no guide to tell you what bus goes where. A few main landmarks along the route are usually written on a large sticker on the front windscreen. If in doubt check with the driver before you pay.

A few years ago the city authority launched the metrovía – a revolution in mass transit, previously only seen in Quito! Modern, clean blue buses cruise along established routes stopping at designated stops, where all doors open for users to get on and off. You pay before boarding. The bus is a bit like an airport shuttle bus except more crowded. Users quickly found out that the air-conditioning was useless and as the windows don’t open and they’re packed in like sardines at peak hours, things can get pretty smelly. However, the system is clean, well organised, safe and you still only have to pay 25 cents for one journey of any length. Plans to extend the network are currently being developed.


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