Airlines in Ecuador
With the exception of flying to the Galápagos Islands, internal flights are generally fairly cheap, rarely exceeding $125 for a one-way ticket. All mainland flights are under an hour and often provide you with incredible views over the Andes.
Flights to most destinations originate in Quito or Guayaquil only. The following are Ecuador’s passenger airlines:
Avianca Serves Quito, Guayaquil, Cuenca, Esmeraldas, Isla Baltra (Galápagos), Isla San Cristóbal (Galápagos), Manta and Coca.
Emetebe Galápagos-based airline that flies between Isla Baltra, Isla Santa Cruz, Isla San Cristóbal and Isla Isabela.
LATAM Flies from Quito to Cuenca, Guayaquil and the Galápagos (Isla San Cristóbal and Isla Baltra), plus New York and various cities in Peru, Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Bolivia.
TAME Serves Coca, Cuenca, Esmeraldas, Isla Baltra and Isla San Cristóbal (Galápagos), Guayaquil, Lago Agrio, Loja, Manta, Quito, Salinas, plus Bogotá and Cali (Colombia), Lima (Peru), New York and Fort Lauderdale (USA).
Cycling in the Andes is strenuous, not only because of hill climbs but because of the altitudes. Road rules are few, and there are not many bike lanes around the country. But, after major investments in infrastructure, the roads are in good shape in Ecuador, and many larger cities have signed ciclovias (bike paths), some of which are closed to vehicle traffic on Sundays, notably in Quito.
Bike shops are scarce outside of Quito, and those that do exist usually have a very limited selection of parts. Bring all important spare parts and tools from home. The country’s best mountain-bike tour operators are in Quito and Riobamba.
Renting bikes is mainly for short tours, mostly from Quito, Riobamba, Cuenca and Baños.
Boat transportation is common in some parts of Ecuador and can be divided into several types.
The most common boat is the motorized canoe, which acts as a water taxi or bus along the major rivers of the Oriente (especially on the Río Napo) and parts of the northern coast. Most people experience this novel form of transport during a tour in the Amazon, as motorized canoes are often the only way to a rainforest lodge.
These canoes often carry as many as three dozen passengers. Generally, they’re long in shape and short on comfort. Seating is normally on hard, low wooden benches which accommodate two people each. Most river lodges provide bench cushions on their boats. If you're taking public transport canoes: bring seat padding. A folded sweater or towel will make a world of difference on the trip.
In the Galápagos, you have a choice of traveling in anything from a small sailboat to a cruise ship replete with air-conditioned cabins and private bathrooms. Passenger ferries run infrequently between the islands, offering the cheapest means of inter-island transport. Only folks traveling around the islands independently (ie, not on a cruise) need consider these.
In addition to the dugout canoes of the Oriente, one live-aboard riverboat, the Anakonda, makes relatively luxurious passages down Río Napo.
Buses are the primary means of transport for most Ecuadorians, guaranteed to go just about anywhere. They can be exciting, cramped, comfy, smelly, fun, scary, sociable and grueling, depending on your state of mind, where you’re going and who’s driving.
There have also been some tragic bus accidents in recent years. Most buses lack seat belts, but if you're on one that has them, do use them.
Most major cities have a main terminal terrestre (bus terminal), although some towns have a host of private terminals – and you’ll have to go to the right one to catch the bus going where you need to go. Most stations are within walking distance or a short cab ride of the town’s center. Smaller towns are occasionally served by passing buses, in which case you have to walk from the highway into town, usually only a short walk since only the smallest towns lack terminals.
Bigger luggage is stored in the compartment below and is generally safe. Theft is more of a concern for objects taken inside the bus. To avoid the risk of becoming a victim, keep whatever you bring onto the bus on your lap (not the floor or overhead).
On average, bus journeys cost a bit more than $1 per hour of travel. Remember to always have your passport handy when you’re going anywhere by bus, as they are sometimes stopped for checks. This is especially true in the Oriente.
There are rarely classes to choose from – whatever is available is the class you ride. Most autobuses (buses) are nondescript passenger buses (as opposed to school-type buses), and they rarely have a bathroom on board unless they’re traveling more than four hours. Some of the long-haul rides between large cities have air-conditioned buses with on-board toilets, but they are few and far between.
These usually stop for a 20-minute meal break at the appropriate times. The food in terminal restaurants may be somewhat basic, so if you have dietary restrictions or are a picky eater, you should bring food with you.
Reservations & Schedules
Most bus companies have scheduled departure times, but these change often and may not always be adhered to. If a bus is full, it might leave early. Conversely, an almost empty bus may spend half an hour dando vueltas (driving around), with the driver’s assistant yelling out of the door in the hope of attracting more passengers.
The larger terminals often have information booths that can advise you about routes, fares and times.
Except on weekends and during vacations, you’ll rarely have trouble getting a ticket, but it never hurts to buy one a day or two in advance or arrive an hour or two early.
Most tickets will have a seat number, and some fellow passengers adhere to the assigned seat, while some are more libertarian. If you want a window seat, specify ventana to the ticket seller.
Car & Motorcycle
Driving a car or motorcycle in Ecuador presents its challenges, with potholes, blind turns, and insanely fast bus and truck drivers. The good news is that infrastructure has dramatically improved, with new roads and bridges, and better road signage, making road travel much smoother. Speed bumps ('sleeping policemen' to Ecuadorians) are sometimes painted, but often, invisible.
Ecuador’s automobile association is Aneta, which offers a few services to members of foreign automobile clubs, including Canadian and US AAA members. It provides 24-hour roadside assistance to Aneta members.
You are required to have a driver’s license from your home country and a passport whenever you’re driving. The international driver’s license can also come in handy when renting a car (though it’s not officially required).
There are two octane ratings for gasoline in Ecuador: ‘Extra’ (82 octane) and ‘Super’ (92 octane). Gasoline is sold by the gallon and costs about $1.90 per gallon for Extra and about $2.25 per gallon for Super; note that the latter is not always available in rural areas and prices can vary.
Car & Motorcycle Hire
Few people rent cars in Ecuador, mainly because public transport makes getting around so easy. Most of the international car-rental companies, including Avis (www.avis.com), Budget (www.budget.com), Hertz (www.hertz.com) and Localiza (www.localiza.com), have outlets in Ecuador, but it is difficult to find any agency outside of Quito, Guayaquil or Cuenca.
To rent a car, you must be at least 25 years old and have a credit card, a valid driver’s license and a passport. Occasionally a company will rent to someone between 21 and 25 years old, though it may require a higher deposit. Typical rates start at around $40 per day for a compact car, but can go over $100 for a 4WD vehicle (high clearance can be a life saver during ventures off the beaten track). Be sure to ask if the quoted rate includes seguro (insurance), kilometraje libre (unlimited kilometers) and IVA (tax) – most likely it won’t.
The best place to hire a motorcycle is in Quito. In the Mariscal, Freedom Bike rents touring and off-road bikes with gear as well as scooters and bicycles.
You can also hire motorbikes in Baños, where 250cc Enduro-type motorcycles are available for about $10 per hour or $40 per day. Riders with their own machines will find helpful information at Horizons Unlimited (www.horizonsunlimited.com).
Car-rental companies offer insurance policies on their vehicles, but they can carry a hefty deductible – anywhere between $1000 and $3500, depending on the company – so be sure you read the fine print. Even if an accident is not your fault, you will likely be responsible for the deductible in the event of a collision.
Hazards in Ecuador include potholes, non-obvious speed bumps, blind turns and, most obvious of all, bus and truck drivers who pass other buses and trucks at seemingly impossible moments. Always be alert for stopped vehicles, sudden road blocks and occasional livestock on the road. Signage in Ecuador is poor.
Hitchhiking is never entirely safe in any country, and we don’t recommend it. Travelers who decide to hitchhike should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. People who do choose to hitchhike will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they are planning to go.
Hitching is not very practical in Ecuador for three reasons: there are few private cars, public transportation is relatively cheap and trucks are used as public transportation in remote areas, so trying to hitch a free ride on one is the same as trying to hitch a free ride on a bus. Many drivers of any vehicle will pick you up, but will also expect payment, usually minimal.
Local buses are usually slow and crowded, but they are also very cheap. You can get around most towns for $0.25. Local buses often travel to nearby villages, and riding along is a good, inexpensive way to see the area.
Outside of Quito the concept of a fixed bus stop is pretty much nonexistent. Buses stop (or at least come to a slow roll) when people flag them down. When you want to get off a local bus, yell ‘¡Baja!,’ which means ‘Down!’ (as in ‘the passenger is getting down’). Another favorite way of getting the driver to stop is by yelling ‘¡Gracias!’ (‘Thank you!’), which is unmistakably polite.
Ecuadorian taxis come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but they are all yellow. Most taxis have a lit ‘taxi’ sign on top or a ‘taxi’ sticker on the windshield. In Quito and other bigger cities, licensed taxis have an orange or orange-striped license plate, with ID numbers clearly marked on the sides.
Always ask the fare beforehand, or you may be overcharged. Meters are rarely seen, except in Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca. A long ride in these cities should rarely go over $5 (unless traveling to Quito's bus terminals, which are quite distant from the center). The minimum fare nearly everywhere is $1.25, and you’ll be required to pay $1 in Quito even if the meter only says $0.80. On weekends and at night, fares are always about 25% to 50% higher.
You can hire a taxi for a day for about $40 to $60. Hiring a taxi for a few days is comparable to renting a car, except that you don’t have to drive. But you will have to pay for the driver’s food and room. Some tour companies in Quito rent 4WD vehicles with experienced drivers.
In less urban areas, you’re also likely to see ecotaxis (a three-wheeled bicycle with a small covered carriage that fits two people) as well as taxis ecológicos (motorcycle taxis with a two-seater carriage).
In certain towns, especially in rural areas where there are many dirt roads, camionetas (pickup trucks) act as taxis. If you need to get to a national park, a climbers refuge or a trailhead from a town, often the best way to do so is by hiring a pickup, which is usually as easy as asking around.
Much to the delight of train enthusiasts, Ecuador’s rail system has finally been restored. Unfortunately, it's not useful for travel, as the routes are used for day trips designed exclusively for tourists. The trains run along short routes, typically on weekends, sometimes with return service by bus. The most famous line is the dramatic descent from Alausí along La Nariz del Diablo (The Devil’s Nose), a spectacular section of train track that was one of the world’s greatest feats of railroad engineering. The second is the weekend train excursion between Quito and the Area Nacional de Recreación El Boliche, near Cotopaxi.
Other routes run from Durán (near Guayaquil), Ibarra, Ambato, Riobamba and El Tambo (near Ingapirca).
For departure times, ticket prices and itinerary information, visit Tren Ecuador (www.trenecuador.com).
Truck (Ranchera & Chiva)
In remote areas, trucks often double as buses. Sometimes these are large, flatbed trucks with a tin roof, open wooden sides and uncomfortable wooden-plank seats. These curious-looking ‘buses’ are called rancheras or chivas, and are seen on the coast and in the Oriente.
In the remote parts of the highlands, camionetas (ordinary trucks or pickups) are used to carry passengers; you just climb in the back. If the weather is good, you get fabulous views and the refreshing sensation of Andean wind in your face. If the weather is bad, you hunker down beneath a tarpaulin with the other passengers.
Payment is usually determined by the driver and is a standard fare depending on the distance. You can ask other passengers how much they are paying; trucks typically charge about the same as buses.