The rugged Andes and tracts of impenetrable rainforest present formidable barriers to overland exploring in Ecuador, but traveling through this dramatic topography is a fundamental part of the country's adventurous appeal.
The good news? Transportation in Ecuador is generally light on the wallet, particularly if you stick to the buses. And wherever there are roads, you can pretty much guarantee that there'll be a spluttering local bus to take you down them.
If you’re wondering how to get around Ecuador, here's the lay of the land when it comes to local transport, from bus travel to renting a car.
Bus travel in Ecuador
The bus – that beast of burden favored by many South American nations – reigns supreme in Ecuador. If there’s a road, whether it’s paved or gravel, it’s likely that some lavishly decorated rattletrap bus will take you down it. On many city-to-city routes, you can take a comfortable modern coach – they’ve become much more common in recent years, replacing many of the wheezing old buses on long-distance routes. Air-con, reclining seats, Wi-Fi and onboard movies usually come as standard.
As is often the case, bus travel offers some colorful insights into the lives of ordinary Ecuadorians. It's a great way to meet and speak to local people. Expect your own apparel to feel decidedly dull next to the felt hats and colorful shawls of your fellow passengers.
Need some hand-holding? Ecuador Hop is a gringo-friendly, hop-on-hop-off bus service with a variety of routes and passes, traveling to destinations across the country (what you lose in local color, you make up for with convenience). Ditto Wanderbus Ecuador, although their itineraries are slightly more rigid.
Alternatively, head to the nearest public bus station with your Spanish phrasebook and go it alone. In most towns and cities, the bus terminal – typically called the Terminal Terrestre – is on the outskirts, with regular services to almost anywhere. If you’re in a hurry and want some creature comforts, make sure you book onto an autos de lujo, one of the aforementioned coaches with all mod-cons.
Exploring Ecuador by car and motorcycle
If you enjoy the freedom of the open road and being in charge of your own destiny, you could always rent a car in Ecuador. National licenses are sufficient for renting a vehicle (you'll also need your passport), but if you get stopped by the police expect less friction with an international license. The backbone of the country’s road network is the Pan-American Highway, which broadly follows the Avenue of Volcanoes; a series of eight snow-capped peaks that run down the spine of Ecuador. Remember to keep your eyes on the road – the scenery is pretty spectacular!
Most of the main highways are in good repair, but road conditions deteriorate significantly when you peel off onto minor roads, so consider hiring a 4WD. In terms of rental agencies, most of the usual international suspects are present at airports and downtown in major cities. Petrol is cheap by international standards, but bear in mind that some roads have tolls, which can drive up costs.
The weather can change quickly in Ecuador; landslides are not uncommon during downpours, so check the forecast before setting off. Local bus and truck drivers show limited respect for road rules and the country has one of the highest rates of road accidents in Latin America; traveling by motorbike is only for the brave.
Ecuador's historic train line
In 2013, amid much fanfare, Ecuador reopened the historic railway line between Quito and the port city of Guayaquil. This impressive railway runs from high up in the Andes to the country’s tropical shores, via volcanoes, jungles and the legendary Devil’s Nose – a stretch of track that goes down the side of a mountain.
Before the pandemic, the rebooted route was served by a luxurious train, providing travelers with a thrilling way and atmospheric way to discover the country. The four-day trip on Tren Crucero cost around $1000 and included food and stays at haciendas (estate houses) along the way. Covid put the brakes on the Tren Crucero, and at the time of publication, there was no indication of when the service would resume. Keep your eye out for news, because this really is one of the best ways to travel in Ecuador.
Taxis in Ecuador
Given how extensive and affordable the buses are, it’s unlikely that you’ll be taking a taxi for intercity travel. However, most urban areas have them and they can be useful for short hops out of town to outlying sights. Ecuador's taxis are usually yellow, but only taxis in major cities tend to be metered. While drivers tend to be honest, it’s worth agreeing on a price before setting off.
Traveling across Ecuador by air
Viewed from the sky, Ecuador really is something to behold. The Andean landscape is pockmarked with volcanoes that tumble towards the jungle, which makes for quite a spectacle when viewed from above (providing the clouds play ball). The views are one of the perks of flying in Ecuador, although the melting glaciers below may persuade climate-conscious travelers to stay on the buses.
Unless you have lots of time and money at your disposal, you’ll need to fly to get to the Galapagos Islands and probably also the Amazon rainforest (although long-distance buses can take you to some areas). LATAM and Avianca are the main domestic carriers.
Accessible transportation in Ecuador
Like much of South America, Ecuador places significant obstacles in the path of people with disabilities, from uneven sidewalks without ramps to steps at the entrances to public buildings and hotels. Few long-distance buses are wheelchair accessible, so you may need to forego travel by road and take to the skies instead to traverse the country.
Though the rules are not always followed, long-distance buses are supposed to carry disabled passengers for free, and disabled travelers also get discounts on internal air travel. Alternatively, you could book an accessible tour through the likes of Latin America For All, which can help bridge many of the challenges that travelers with disabilities face in Ecuador. For more information, see Lonely Planet's Accessible Travel Resources.
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