Transport in Ecuador
Ecuador's inexpensive and generally reliable buses are the country's most useful and preferred form of public
transport, trundling along just about everywhere 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. Less than 15 percent of the highways, however, are paved so expect a bumpy ride if you are going on any but the most important routes. The Panamericana (Pan American Highway) forms the backbone of the country's road infrastructure, linking all the major highland towns and cities from Tulcán to Loja.
A handful of other good roads spill down the Andes to important coastal cities such as 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 - floods and landslides are common - while the rough nature of the terrain means that traveling in the country's highland and mountainous regions is often much slower than you might expect: traveling the length of the country by bus from the Colombian border to Peru, a distance of 818km (508 miles) on mostly paved roads, takes around 18 hours - an average speed of 45km (28 miles).
Ecuador's comprehensive bus service makes getting around simple, with hundreds of bus companies plying the country's roads, often with dozens competing on the most popular routes. 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.
The further into the backwaters you go, the more the standards of comfort are likely to drop. Ordinary buses will stop anywhere for anyone who wants to get on until every available crack of space has been filled - you are likely to end up sharing the aisle with a bag of clucking chickens and a fat sackful of corn. If you can, bring your luggage in with you and keep it in sight, but don't panic if it is put on the roof because it'll usually be covered in a tarpaulin to keep both the weather and light fingers at bay - don't feel shy about climbing up and checking it is secure. Fortunately, bus drivers are increasingly unwilling to let people ride on the roof, where they can get at your stuff. Obviously, the remoter the area, the less regular the buses will be, and generally speaking, the last bus isn't likely to be 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 ) often fill the vacuum. If you are unsure of the area you are traveling 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. Also, for reasons of safety, avoid traveling at night on buses.
The old traveler's adage, that all the fun is in the getting there, is never truer than with Ecuador's trains. If you are in a hurry this is not the way to go; landslides, delays and problems are frequent and services are regularly suspended. The situation changes all the time, so check the current state of affairs first - South American Explorers is a good place to ask. When everything works, however, a train ride is a real treat; you can sit on the roof enjoying the scenery, while the train slowly rattles down the track.
Flying within Ecuador is a quick, convenient and relatively inexpensive way of getting around. There are three main domestic carriers, TAME, SAN (the domestic arm of Saeta) and Ecuatoriana, plus a number of local small-scale and charter companies, particularly on the coast. TAME offers the most extensive service, flying to most of the country's major centers, with ticket prices between roughly $30 and $60, apart from flights to the Galápagos Islands, which are disproportionately expensive. With internal flights it is particularly important to reconfirm your seat, as overbooking is not uncommon, though note that you can't book one in advance on most flights.
Given that so much of Ecuador is covered by regional and local buses, few travelers find it necessary to rent a car to get around. However, 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 your own vehicle is a fast and convenient option. You will need to be at least 25 years old and have a major credit card for the deposit. Theoretically, you only need your national licence to rent a vehicle, but you are 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. Note that the national speed limit is 100km per hour on highways (or less if indicated), and usually around 50km per hour in towns or urban areas.
While hitching is not recommended as a safe way of getting about, particularly in rural areas, it is widely practised by Ecuadorians. For backpackers, the bus service is such that you'll only really need to hitch in the remoter areas - you are most likely to get a ride in the back of a pick-up truck, the preferred private vehicle in rural Ecuador. As with stopping a bus, face the oncoming vehicle and point vaguely at the road a few yards from your feet. 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 are 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 some Oriente towns, white pick-up trucks ( camionetas ) take their place. Only in Quito are you going to find metered taxis ; everywhere else taxis operate on a fixed-fare system, with a standard short journey typically costing around $1. If you are dropping someone off, the driver will often charge this as an extra journey, even if it is only a few hundred meters from your final destination. For longer distances and in larger towns, such as Guayaquil, the fixed rate doesn't apply, and it is far more difficult to know what the fares should be. Most drivers are honest, but the best way to avoid being ripped off is to ask locals what the standard fares are to various destinations. Always agree the price with the driver beforehand, and don't be afraid to haggle.
Boat travel can make a pleasant change to buses, though your exposure to the elements means that you can get either very cold and wet if it rains or, conversely, badly sunburnt if it doesn't (river or sea breezes create a deceptive cool - you may not realize you are being burnt till it is too late). Unless you are 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, you might have to take a boat between Cojimíes and Muisne (or Daule), and many people still opt for the ride through the mangroves between San Lorenzo and La Tola rather than taking the new coastal road via Borbón. A chartered boat ( flete ) is always much more expensive than going on a public one, though you can reduce costs by gathering a group as the fare is fixed for the journey regardless of the number of passengers. Travel around the Galápagos Islands is almost exclusively by boat; refer to that section for details.
Cycling can offer unrivalled closeness to the land and its people, though rental outlets are thin on the ground and aren't usually equipped with bikes suitable for extended rides. For proper cycle touring, you are best off bringing your own bike from home; airlines usually don't have a problem transporting them if packed in bike boxes with the pedals removed. you are unlikely to want to stay solely on the busy, surfaced, though often pot-holed roads, and a mountain bike is almost certainly better than a conventional touring bike. A range of low gear ratios (many models now have 27 gears) will make the long highland climbs more tolerable when loaded up. Bicycle repair shops ( talleres de bicicletas ) are far more widespread than bike shops, but will only have parts for rudimentary repairs - bring a comprehensive tool kit and a selection of essential spares. When planning your route, don't forget that at altitude you won't be able to cover anywhere near the distances per day that you do at home: reckon on about half.
Source: TravelNow Destination Guides
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