Travelling by bus in Ecuador

Ok, so we’ve already ridden a few buses in the other countries that have been part of this trip (and we will always love the pimped-out school buses of Panama), but in Ecuador it was our main mode of transport – both within cities and between them.  Except for our five-day stint in the rainforest, it seemed like we were always on a bus.  Below are a few things we learned as part of the journeys. . .

Don’t trust the blogs

Firstly, we are conscious of the irony that we’re writing this on a blog, however seriously don’t rely on them.  No matter how recent they are – things change, or things are different on different days of the week.  What worked for one traveller a month ago, might not work for you.  Or at least don’t trust them on specifics.  We woke up early for one bus thinking it was a 7:15am departure, thanks to a blog from a few weeks ago.  It was leaving at 8:45am.  Another blog named the wrong bus station in Quito (fortunately, we realised before heading that way).

Blogs are useful in understanding how others got around, but for any specifics, best to get local information – definitely so if it’s for a bus that only runs once or twice a day. . .

“Time doesn’t matter here”

On our first bus journey – trying to get from Quito to Otavalo, we ran for the bus after purchasing the ticket, thinking it was going to leave in only a few minutes.  We arrived at the Otavalo bus parking spot with people still queuing to get on board.  As we waited to board, a local woman noticed Jen’s ticket and in flawless English, the following conversation occurred:

W: “This isn’t your bus.”

J: “This goes to Otavalo, no?”

W: “Yes, but this is the 036 bus.  You have a ticket for the 040 bus (pointing to the number on the ticket).  That will be next.”

J: (confused as our bus’s departure time is momentarily) “Ok, what time is this bus”

W: “Time doesn’t matter here.  Your bus will be next.”

And the woman was right, time was simply a suggestion when it came to Ecuadorean buses.  However, when stating this, it should be noted that they weren’t always late.  Sometimes they left late and sometimes they left early.  Pretty much if they were full, they left.  If they weren’t full, let’s wait a little bit more rather than leave on time. . .

The timings probably don’t matter so much if taking a common bus (like Quito to Otavalo), however if a less frequent bus (like Banos to Cuenca), it’s best to show up early, just in case they decide to leave early. . .

There’s always room for Jell-O

Remember that commercial?  If not – why do you have to make me feel so old?!

Seriously though, for Ecuadorean buses, when you think it’s full, it’s not.  The bus will leave when most of the seats are full, however along the journey, the bus will continue to stop and pick up people along the side of the road.  There’s always standing room, right?

For some of the longer journeys this sounds harsh, however many of the locals use the bus network to get from local village to local village – when they need to get off, they simply walk to the front and tell the driver.  Similar to being picked up on the side of the road, they hop off on the side of the road – often with the bus still rolling along. . .

When Jen was left with standing room as the only option, the conductor kindly gave her his comfy seat. . .

Hurry up and wait!

For every single bus we took, we were rushed on board and told we would be leaving momentarily, only to sit on board for several minutes more (maybe a half an hour?) as they waited for more passengers.

The hurry up attitude was also prevalent when the buses would pick up people along the side of the road, with passengers often jumping on board with the bus still slowly rolling along.  The only ones that were immune from this rushing attitude were the elderly or the disabled (appropriately).

All about the views


Best. Part. Of. The. Journey!  The buses we took were along windy, mountainous roads, which the driver often took way too fast (easily making you dizzy).  Yet. the sights along the way were often stunning – even when the weather was poor.

To get the best views, we always recommend sitting on the right.  Thus, the view won’t be interrupted by opposite traffic.   However, if you are looking for the most spectacular views to a specific site (for instance one of the many volcanoes), look up which side is best to sit on (this is something you can trust the blogs on).

 Get on yer bike!

 In Banos, we rented bikes to cycle the Ruta de las Cascadas (route of the waterfalls).  We were assured for the return journey that you could just hope on any of the buses heading back and stow the bike in the luggage hold.  This is true if you stop your cycle trip at one of the key tourist stops (like Pailon del Diablo).

However, like the bad asses that we are, we continued past all the key tourist stops, until we got tired (in San Francisco to be exact).  We rocked up on the side of the road and waited for one of the many buses that past to pick us up.  We were going to do it like the locals – not so much. . .

Even though buses came by and even though they slowed when we first flagged them down, once they saw the bikes, they continued on with the conductor simply hanging out the door and shaking his hand as if to say “sort of”.  This hand gesture occurred every time and we’re still not sure what it means.  It was clear that, while they’d pick us up, none had any intention of stopping to pick up bikes.  We ended up having to ride further along to the larger town of Rio Negro in order to take a taxi back.

So, if you’re travelling with bikes and want to take a bus, go to one of the recommended normal stops.

 Final tips

 A few final things we learned while navigating Ecuadorean buses:

  • Similar to in Colombia, there will be vendors that come on board – useful for water, less useful when they wake you up to pitch their wares. . .
  • If you can sleep/read on a bus going through winding, mountainous roads (at speed), bless you! You are one of the chosen ones!  If you can’t, download some podcasts or an audio book to pass the time.
  • Don’t drink too much water – the bathroom breaks are few and far between.

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