Tips For Driving in Ecuador

Rita and I just returned from an 8-day road trip through part of southern Ecuador (hence the gap in blog posts), and we had a really wonderful time. We saw some of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet, and met interesting people in some great cities and towns. We know several people who have made trips around Ecuador and South America, but our trip was a little unique in that we decided to rent a car and drive ourselves. Most expats tend to either hire drivers, take buses, fly, or some combination of those options.

There is certainly nothing wrong with those options, and I think traveling in Ecuador is something everyone living here should do, regardless of their chosen method. But for our purposes, since I was looking for new places and people to write about, we wanted to be able to go where we wanted to go, and stop where we wanted to stop, all on our own schedules. We also enjoy discovering a new place, rather than have it shown to us.

We have talked to people who would never even consider driving themselves, however. I understand that there are some rather daunting aspects of driving in any foreign country, and frankly, I don’t think we would have tried it just two years ago. This is the fourth time we have rented a car for some sort of trip in Ecuador now, and this last one was an almost 1500 kilometers journey, so I wanted to provide some first-hand information for those of you who may be thinking about hitting the road on your own.

Before You Go

Do you need an Ecuadorian Drivers License? Simple question, but a complicated answer. If you are a tourist, you can drive on your US license for up to 30 days from the entry date on your passport, and I would recommend an International License as well. They are usually not asked for, but some rental companies will provide a discount if you have one. If you are a resident, however, you cannot use an International License. It is popular expat bar lore that residents can drive on their US license for a certain time period. According to the Ecuador Consulate however, and I quote, “Permanent residents of Ecuador need to apply for an Ecuadorian driver license”. Full details on getting your EDL as a foreign resident here. The ANT site also has a sample question bank, and an online practice test.

Rita and I have our EDL’s. Partly because we believe when you live in a different country you should follow their rules! A radical idea, I admit. It also is a very good idea if you are not fluent in Spanish, since the drivers test is Spanish only. This at least gives you the chance to learn a new vocabulary for things you will see while driving. You will learn the various words for road, highway, by-pass, tires, brakes, seat belts, slippery, and so on. Picture signs are pretty universal, but when you see a written sign in the road, you don’t want to waste time and attention trying to figure out what it means.

Finding your way. Take some time before you go to look at some online maps and plan out your trip. But keep in mind that the maps are probably out of date. I would recommend using at least two different GPS or mapping apps or devices. For example, on our trip the Garmin that came with the car wanted us to use a bridge that did not exist. The Maps.Me app is useful, since you can download an entire country’s road system and have it stored offline. That way you can use GPS to locate yourself, and don’t have to worry about whether you can get internet for the map. Waze also works reasonably well in Ecuador.

But be prepared to still get lost, and just roll with it. On our second day, when we reached the pretty little village of Piñas, all three of our GPS devices insisted that our Hotel was somewhere out in space, with no road attached. To be fair, this turned out to be almost true. We finally had to call the Hotel, who sent us a taxi to follow. Our path led up some “roads” which were barely paved, and were at such steep angles that I worried that each bounce might be the one to flip us over backwards. All I could do was keep moving, because if I stopped there was no way I’d be able to start moving upwards again. The “driveway” was over a lip in the road so high, and a drop off so steep, I could not see the road at all when we took the turn. I just had to trust the driver of the taxi (which was a four-wheel drive pickup truck) had not just decided to end it all in a fiery crash.

Where to rent a vehicle? You will find either Avis, Hertz or Budget at the airports in Cuenca, Quito and Manta. There are also strips of private car rental agencies near each airport, but I cannot endorse using them. It is important to know you have a good quality vehicle and insurance. Insurance is especially tricky. If you rent using your Ecuadorian license, it will cost about twice as much because of the insurance. What we have done is rent using our US License, buy third party insurance for about $6 a day (we don’t own cars in the US anymore, so we have no auto insurance), and then we still have our EDL’s to show if we get stopped by Transito.

A great rental option if you live near Quito or Cuenca is Cuenca Car Share. They charge a daily rate plus kilometers, and the price includes insurance. The reservation process, pickup and dropoff are all very easy, and you can use PayPal, credit cards or cash to pay.

Oh yes – hope you can drive a stick, because most of the rental cars in Ecuador have manual transmissions.

Before you start driving. Got our car, got our GPS, ready to hit the road, right? Wrong. Save yourself some grief and check the following things along with the usual lights, mirrors, seat adjustment.

  • Make sure the trunk of the car has the Road Safety Kit. This is  standard pack that contains road triangles, flares, and other safety equipment. Also make sure the spare and equipment for changing a flat is in place. These are all required by law, and there’s a good chance you will run into a road stop where the Transito will want to verify this.
  • Make sure you know how to lower the windows. This sounds trivial, but if you are at a road stop police check, or a toll booth, you don’t want to be fumbling around trying to figure it out.
  • Check which side of the car the gas cap is on, as there may be lines at the gas station, and you don’t want to be in the wrong one.
  • Make sure you know where the matricula (registration) is, since you will have to show it at any police stops.
  • I always take a picture of the license plate with my cell phone before leaving. Two reasons: for when you are at a hotel checkin, and they want the tag number, and for when you walk out of a mall and cannot identify which of the 2000 cars on the lot is your rental.

On the Long and Winding

Probably the number one thing we were warned about if we tried to drive anywhere in Ecuador was that we would be stopped by Transito, and that they would expect to be bribed. We were warned to get our license and cedula copied and plasticized, and only give them the copies, so they couldn’t hold us hostage until we bribed them. We have been told to feign ignorance of the Spanish language (not much feigning involved in that, really), and they would get disgusted and send us on our way.

In our experience, only one of those things have been true so far – you probably will get stopped at some point. On the first two days of travel, we were stopped five times. All five times, the transito and police officers were polite and friendly. When they saw I spoke only some Spanish, they spoke slowly and simply so I could understand. I tried twice to show the plasticized copies, both times they returned it and politely asked for “el original, por favor”. Three of those times, they asked my to open the trunk so they could check for safety equipment. Not once was there ever the slightest hint that they wanted me to slip them some dinero, and there were never any delays or attempts to stretch out the stop. Just professionals doing a job.

And after driving through the Andes, up and down from 3000 feet to 9000 feet and back again on switchback roads with steep curves and no curbs at all for pulling over, I appreciate why they make those stops. You would not want to be stuck on the side of a mountain and find that you do not have something to warn drivers of what is around the bend (your vulnerable ass, for instance), and some basic tools.

I also suggest that you make sure you have in the car a few bottles of water and some snacks. You may find yourself on stretches of road with no place to get food or water for quite a long distance. For the same reason, never pass up a good spot to use the bathroom – as I said, many a kilometer does not even have a the suggestion of a curb, so no pulling over for a quick dash into the banana trees. I recommend (unless you are sticking to driving around a city), that as soon as your gas gauge gets to 1/3 full, stop at the next gas station. In the US we are used to gas stations and convenience stores everywhere, but that is NOT the case in Ecuador. We also found one gas station that was out of gas, so best to keep it topped up.

One last piece of advice – stay alert! The countryside is truly beautiful. But if you are driving, you need to remember that the road surface can change without notice. What is a nice, paved road can suddenly become gravel and ditches, or 100 yards of muddy holes. There may be a sharp curve in the mountains with no guard rail, and you find yourself looking out over a valley from 9000 feet. You may find yourselves suddenly driving through the clouds, or into and out of a rain storm. We also found places where recent landslides had covered half of the road, unattended donkeys loaded with sugar cane weaving their way up the street, horses and cows grazing right next to the road, and on two different trips we have had actual cattle drives coming up the street at us. Driving in Ecuador is never boring!

Final Thoughts

In summary, while Ecuador has its own particular peccadillos and issues, we have found that if you take reasonable precautions and preparations, driving yourself around Ecuador is an excellent way to see the country, and really get to know and appreciate what an incredibly diverse country this is, both in the terrain and the people.

Hasta lluego en las autopistas de Ecuador!