The main way of getting around Ecuador or anywhere else in South America is by coach. The quality of coaches is nowhere near that of Peru, where you will find pretty luxurious ones with fully reclining seats and be provided with your own blanket, cushion, drinks and meals. And they don’t quite look as impressive as those in Bolivia, where you can find some pretty pimped out looking buses. In Ecuador, it’s a little different, but it definitely makes for a more interesting journey.
Planning your coach journey & buying tickets.
When arriving at the bus station, called the Terminal Terrestre, it’s all a bit overwhelming and the experience can be quite stressful. They are always very busy places with people waiting around with their huge bags, sacks of rice and corn, sometimes a rug, mattress or fridge, maybe some livestock, or whatever else needs transporting. Never underestimate how much luggage or how many people/chickens they can fit on the bus. We may feel that our backpacks are pretty ordinary compared to their luggage, but we’ll always stick out like a sore thumb in a bus station.
Online coach information:
So the best advice I can give you, to make yourself look and feel a bit less anxious and vulnerable, is know where you want to go, have an idea of how to get there and which bus companies can get you there. The best website that I have found that gives you journey schedules, costs and bus operators is www.andestransit.com for Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. It’s a great website for seeing how frequently buses go and which companies to go with. We’ve found the times to be mostly accurate, but I would suggest that you never fully rely on them. This isn’t necessarily a criticism of the site, but more a general issue with the reliability of the bus companies and more often, the condition of the roads. Landslides are common, but in my experience, very quickly dealt with, so the traffic usually gets moving within an hour or two.
One genuine problem, however, with Andestransit.com is when it tries to work out a journey that isn’t direct and has to include connections. At times, it has worked out that a journey could take a couple of days, rather than a few hours. For example, it said that our journey from Montañita to Cuenca would take 33 hours. We got a bus from Montañita to Guayaquil, which took about 3 hours, and got on another bus straight away from Guayaquil to Cuenca, which took 5.5 hours. There are buses leaving Guayaquil regularly throughout the day, so there was no time spent waiting around. So, when using Andestransit.com, I’d recommend breaking up the route and searching one leg of the journey at a time.
Buying tickets at the bus station:
So you know where you’re going, what route to take and which companies can take you there. In the terminal terrestre, you need to look for the signs either indicating the destination or the company. This may seem obvious, but it’s not always easy to find. For example, the bus station in Guayaquil is massive (it’s also a huge shopping centre) and pretty hectic. Here, when you go in the entrance from where your taxi will have dropped you off, stay on the ground floor, walk straight ahead and the tickets area is the middle on your left hand side. If you get lost, there is an information desk where you can ask for help. That’s what we did. They are usually very helpful, unlike most of the ticket sales people we’ve come across. For some reason, the ticket sales people always seem pretty grumpy. And then you go and give them a nice big $20 note, which they have to try and find change for. That really ruins their day.
We’ve found coach tickets to be super cheap here in South America, but even more so in Ecuador. To cross the country, a 500km journey from Quito to Guayaquil taking 10 hours, will cost you just $9. The other day, we found out why this was the case and coach travel was so cheap. Basically, here, fuel is about the same price as water. We stopped off for petrol with our friend who asked the man to fill up with just $3. She said that it costs her about $10 to fill up a full tank. Compare this to about $70 in the UK (or at least, that was the cost when I last looked), and you can see why road travel is so cheap here.
So, when you’ve got your ticket, make sure you go to the right platform, or anden. Ask the happy person at the ticket desk to make sure you’re going to the right place. It should also have the numero de anden on the ticket. To get to the platform, you often have to go through some kind of turnstile. In Guayaquil, this is simply a case of scanning the barcode on your ticket. In other places, such as Loja, you will have to pay 5 or 10 cents to get through. You can get change for this at the information desk in the bus station.
Very rarely is your ticket checked before you get on the bus. They’ll put your bags underneath in the hold and sometimes issue you with a raffle ticket or sticker to identify your bag, and then you get on the bus. About half an hour into the journey, they’ll come round and check your tickets, so do make sure you check you’ve got the right bus before you get on!
Safety on coaches
We’ve been fortunate enough to not have had any real problems on public transport in South America (touch wood). That said, safety and security is a concern, so it’s best to exercise some caution.
Many people travel on overnight buses in South America. Last time we came here and travelled to Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, we didn’t think twice about not travelling throughout the night. For us, it meant we could sleep, so the journey went quicker and we saved on hostel expenses. As I mentioned before, the coaches in Peru were first class, so we had no trouble getting a good night’s sleep.
Here, in Ecuador, however, we have been a bit more cautious. I don’t know if it’s because there have been more safety warnings about it or what, but we have avoided travelling at night. I think our Footprints guidebook mentions travelling concerns a few times and actually, doesn’t seem to cast a very positive light on Ecuador in general. The UK Gov foreign travel advice also issues a warning about public transport in Ecuador. However, we know people who have had no problem travelling at night, so it’s completely up to you. Make sure you go with a reliable company and you feel safe on board. You’ll probably find that most drivers go a little bit faster than you’re used to and they like to overtake around bends. In England, coaches do not overtake anyone; they are the ones to be overtaken. Another issue in Ecuador, is the lack of seatbelts. We’ve been on some pretty uneasy journeys that have lifted us right out of our seats after speeding over a pothole. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do to avoid this.
On many journeys, the buses will pick up and drop people off along the way. Some companies don’t allow this and will drive straight to your destination without stopping. Many travelers prefer this and feel safer, particularly when travelling at night. This was the case with the more expensive coaches in Peru, however, here in Ecuador, most of the buses make stops along the way. For us, this hasn’t been a problem at all, and actually, it’s a good opportunity to learn a bit more about the country and its people. It means more money for the bus companies and also, it helps people who live in remote areas get to the towns and cities. Often, the buses let people on to sell their products and also, to beg for money. Many people will present a speech, very politely said, about how they came to be here and how they need help to support their families. Personally, I find it heart-breaking to listen to and cannot help but buy something or give them some money. Whether their stories are true or not, they wouldn’t be there if they were rich.
And of course, you should also make sure you and your belongings are safe. Make sure you keep all your valuables in your hand luggage on your lap. Don’t put your things above or under your seat. Don’t flash your valuables about or start getting your laptop out. I always keep my passport and money on me, in my pocket, money belt or more often, in my bra.
As I mentioned above, when putting your luggage in the bottom compartment of the coach, you will sometimes be issued with a numbered ticket to make sure only you can collect your bag. In practice, no one has ever asked for our ticket when giving us our bags back. They simply want to get the bags off the coach as quick as possible. And to be honest, only gringos are going to have big backpacks, so you’re pretty safe that your bag won’t be given to the wrong person. And if my bag did get handed to the wrong person, all they’re going to find is a few toiletries and my dirty smelly clothes anyway. Lucky them.