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 choices, 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 having 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 Guayaquil, 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.

An important thing to know – most rental agencies will want to put a $5,000 hold on a major credit card against damages or traffic fines. That amount may be on hold for up to 30 days after you return the vehicle.

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 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 12,000 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!

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  • Larry Hanson says:

    Thanks so much for the blog. I learned a lot.

  • fiona patin says:

    Thanks so much for the information. We plan on moving there in 2 years so any information like this is great

  • Lynn Barry says:

    Did a 2000 km trip in Ecuador in late 2014. Quito, Otovalo, Mindo, Esmeraldes – then down the coast to Salinas and eventually back to Guayaquil. No real issues – other than when the GPS just said “road” – learned not to take them. We were never stopped during the two weeks, which did surprise me. Got lost in the mountains north of Quito, so that was a real adventure. The rental car company (Avis) wanted 5000.00 clear on my credit card. It may have changed since then, but my insurance (Canadian) would not be involved in any way.

    Great article by the way – Cheers

    • Jim Santos says:

      LOL- I had almost forgotten about that! Lot’s of times the GPS just said “Turn on – road”…

      And btw, last time I used Avis in Manta, they also charged $5000 on my AMEX until the car was returned. Another advantage of using Cuenca Car Share.

    • Bruce DaCosta says:


      I am guessing the drive up the coast from Salinas north to Manta would be less mountainous and less adventurous? As I posted in the expat facebook site it finding small towns along the coast that we are looking for. We will fly back to Quito on our from there. What is the best stretch north of Salinas to tours? Would it be better north of Manta instead?

      Your post are awesome,

      • Jim Santos says:

        Hi Bruce. Right now, I’d recommend the stretch between Salinas and SAN Jacinto/SAN Clemente. Bahia and north have earthquake damage still, and almost no tourism as a result. You will still find the Ruta del sol cuts in and out of hills, but nothing like the Andes. Bien viaje!

  • stephen fertig says:

    Just curious when I was visiting last year a policeman said I could drive for 90 days with my passport. Are you sure it is 30 days?

  • Jay Steichmann says:

    Yes, thanks. We are not at the driving ourselves stage yet, but your blog has given me renewed confidence that it should be learned and not feared.

  • Greg martin says:

    Been here for 6.5 years and have driven more than 50,000km with several transito experiences. I was told you have 90 days on US license and If you are not an x race car driver as I am beware as it is crazy most of the time. I am still not used to the absent minded driver here so be careful as many do not look in their mirrors or use turn signals.

    • Jim Santos says:

      Thanks for the comment. I had heard 90 days as well, but the Embassy website says 30. Link is in one of the replies to an earlier comment. It’s true most people drive here like they learned from Mario Cart…

    • B.Bindon says:

      Good day:
      Does anyone know if a 3 wheel Electric car is legal to import by someone moving there with a permanent resident

      • Jim Santos says:

        I would suggest you check with an Ecuadorian importer, as they are up to date on the latest regulations. I can recommend either RSE at or Sandra Baquero at


        • Bruce Bindon says:

          Good day
          Thankyou all for your information.

          Actually, I want to buy a new one and ship it with my personal effects.
          We got a for Sale by owner on monthly payments. Since I am still working, for
          4yrs yet, and I have been told the rules may change there often, we will wait

          Since I put a little down, and have 48 payments to go on the house, we need to
          rent it out for awhile – I guess. Or, get a caretaker….maybe both. But, as I understand
          it as the rules are today – for a car if it’s less than 4yrs. old, and cost less than 20Kusd, it’s allowed.
          The thing is I can buy it now and drive it around Vancouver 4yrs.. But, I will wait .

          .Thanks again.

  • Mario Sabourin says:

    You tell exactlyyears afters years what we feel years after years of driving in Ecuador. We have done 4 trips of 1 month and more in Ecuador since 2007. We always rent a car and we always find suprise at every corner. We ‘ve gone from Cuenca to Guayaquil by the “Cajas” up to manta by the “Ruta Del Sol”from Salinas and we also went to Chuchumbleza passing by Loja and also Gualaqiza. Main point: the roads are now pretty nice (2014) compare to 2007. Reading your post remind me a lots of nice things . Beside that Ecuador is in ours heart and we expect to moved there as soon as possible.

  • Babs DeArmond says:

    Even though I don’t plan on driving in Ecuador, I do love reading about your adventures. You give some great advice, especially about staying alert and packing some extra water. Just in case.

  • Bob says:

    What if you’re here on an extended tourist visa? For the last few years we’ve been staying in Ecuador for 9 months then travelling for 3 months (the required time to be out of the country after the extension has expired) but the snag is, that although we own a car, we are not eligible to get the Ecuadorian license because our visa stay is too short. Well at least we weren’t eligible last year when we attempted to get the license. So far our International driver’s licenses have been fine but we do wonder how long that will last given the fluidity of the laws here. Any thoughts?

    • Jim Santos says:

      Bob, I would suggest contacting your local Ecuadorian Consulate for the latest ruling. The 30 day rule in the article is taken from the Quito office of the US Consulate, but frankly the rules and regulations change so often, it is best if you go directly to the source.

  • Max says:

    You may also want to suggest being familiar with the fine print. My friend rented a car and it was never clear that only 300km were included. About 900km later we had a $100 surcharge! Oops.

  • Eppie Jaramillo says:

    Great information Jim thank you. I am planning my first trip to Ecuador late this year and I too prefer to drive when I travel. one thing I didn’t see in your article was information on lodging. can we expect to see hotels as we traverse the main highways of Ecuador?

    • Jim Santos says:

      Thanks – yes, we have also found can help you find lodging just about anywhere in Ecuador. We often find nice, clean rooms with WiFi and breakfast for about $40/couple.

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