The natural assets that make Ecuador so appealing — its mountains and rain forests — are also what create the country’s biggest transportation challenges. Whether you’re traveling in the air or on land, the weather — including fog, rain and subsequent landslides — has the potential to waylay your plans, so give your schedule some breathing room when getting around Ecuador. Read on for a rundown of your best Ecuador transportation options.
Flying to and Around Ecuador
From the U.S. and Canada there are plenty of flights to Ecuador, though you’ll likely need to transfer domestically or in South America. International travelers fly into either Quito, the capital, or Guayaquil, the country’s largest city. Quito’s new airport opened in February 2013 and has the same name as the old airport, Mariscal Sucre International. Traffic to and from the airport can be a headache, but current expansion projects are addressing the problem.
With the exception of routes to the Galapagos Islands, which lie 600 miles off the coast of mainland Ecuador, internal flights in Ecuador are an inexpensive option for travelers short on time or unwilling to navigate the country’s roads. With that said, delays and even cancellations are not uncommon, so a degree of patience is required. Tame handles most in-country flights; other airlines include LAN Ecuador and Avianca.
Virtually all travelers to the Galapagos arrive by air via mainland Ecuador. These routes depart from Guayaquil, which is the closest city to the islands, a quick 1.5-hour flight. Even if you book a flight from Quito, it will stop in Guayaquil for 30 minutes to pick up additional passengers. There are two small passenger airports in the Galapagos on the islands of Baltra and San Cristobal.
Renting a Car in Ecuador
For many journeys, taking a taxi or hiring a driver makes more sense — both in terms of safety and cost — than renting a car. However, if you plan to go great distances or to more remote locations, you speak decent Spanish and you have a bit of courage, driving yourself can be a good option.
The quality of the roads is improving all the time, but outside the main cities you’ll almost certainly encounter unpaved roads at some point; keep that in mind when choosing your rental car type. Four-wheel drive may be your best bet, particularly during the rainy season of roughly December through April, when landslides and flooding may occur.
Technically only your regular driver’s license is needed, but an international driving permit is recommended to pacify any wary officers during police checks, which are common. To rent a vehicle, you’ll need to be at least 21 and have a credit card. (Drivers under 25 should be prepared to pay an additional surcharge.)
Car burglary can be a problem, so always park your car in a secure garage. Locals often drive aggressively — get used to the beeping — and driving at night is strongly discouraged.
Several of the major rental companies are found in Ecuador, Budget and Hertz among them. Better rates may be found with Latin American company Localiza or local agency Simon Car Rental. It’s possible, and sometimes cheaper, to wait until you arrive to reserve a car; however, most cars have a manual transmission, so if you require an automatic, it’s best to book in advance. Similarly, air conditioning is not standard.
Before leaving the rental lot, confirm that you have unlimited mileage, check what your insurance covers and inspect the car carefully for any dents or other damage. Road signage is generally poor; a GPS or good map is essential.
Ecuador by Train
Just 10 years ago Ecuador’s rail system was in extreme disrepair, but a massive overhaul has brought it back to life. With that said, the network is limited, and its appeal is less about arriving at your destination and more about the experience of getting there.
The primary route is a 282-mile stretch through the Andean Mountains from Quito to Guayaquil. Run by luxurious Tren Crucero, the four-day journey is dotted with snow-capped mountains and remote villages. Overnights are spent at nearby hotels, and stops at local attractions are arranged.
It’s possible to join only part of the route through one of several operators. The most famous of these day trips is the so-called Devil’s Nose, which makes a rapid descent by way of sharp switchbacks down a steep cliff. Until recently, passengers were allowed to ride on the roof of the train, but for safety reasons that practice is no longer allowed.
North of Quito, another worthwhile day trip is Tren de la Libertad, which takes passengers between the two charming towns of Ibarra and Salinas. The journey, famous for its numerous bridges and tunnels, travels through diverse, stunning scenery.
Ecuador by Bus
Ecuador’s extensive bus network is extremely cheap and an excellent option for those with less restrictive time constraints. Standards are as varied as the routes themselves — on longer journeys you may have air conditioning and an onboard toilet. Shorter jaunts are often standing room only, and if you’re traveling to very remote locales, don’t be surprised to find yourself on the roof of a coach or in the bed of a truck. It’s all part of the adventure!
There are numerous companies that provide service, but travelers generally choose by the times, not by the carrier.does provide a helpful star system, signifying the quality of the coaches, and also indicates which buses provide faster express service.
Most cities have bus depots, but be sure to confirm where to board, as some companies have their own separate terminals. In smaller towns ask your hotel where to be picked up. With the exception of intercity luxury buses (autobuses de lujo), impromptu stops will be made for travelers wanting to board anywhere along the route, which can make for considerable slow going. Reservations, though generally not necessary, are a good idea for longer trips. Be sure to arrive early; once a bus is full, it will leave.
Traveling by bus is generally safe, but avoid traveling at night when incidents of crime are most likely to occur. Keep valuables in the seat with you and other luggage in the overhead space. If possible, avoid storing your belongings in the outside compartment.
Ecuador by Taxi
Taxis are a popular way to get around urban areas of Ecuador; they are plentiful and relatively inexpensive. Only use registered taxis, which in most places are yellow with an identification number on the side. Meters are used in Quito; everywhere else you’ll need to agree on a price beforehand. If you’re nervous about being overcharged, ask your hotel what the price should be or have staff call you a reputable cab. Tipping isn’t expected, but rounding up to the nearest dollar is appreciated.
For day trips or even overnight trips, it’s possible to hire a taxi for a reasonable price — keep in mind you’ll also need to purchase the driver’s food and accommodation.
–written by Marsea Nelson