The good, the bad and the Ecuadorian bus system
09/03/2014 - 09/23/2014
For the most part, the busing system in Ecuador is wonderful. The buses are cheap, very well maintained, clean and run smoothly. Please note the caveat “for the most part”. Now, note it again! Night buses and the buses used for long trips have restrooms on board, and the inside of the main cabin reminds me more of a plane than a bus. The seats recline, there are foot-rests, curtains, televisions and the bus ceiling looks like that of a Boeing 747 with lights and air knobs. You really feel like you are travelling in style!
Another reason to love the Ecuadorean buses is the onboard entertainment, and there is a lot of it. You will see “entertainment” listed in both the good and bad section. First, the good. Sitting in the stations or at various stops on the way to your destination, you will be offered just about anything you can think of to purchase. Empanadas, ice cream, Jello, crackers, apples, papaya, oranges, etc. People jump on board between stoplights and bus stops to peddle their wares. Sometimes there are live performances. My favorite occurred from Quito to Otavalo, when two teenagers, male and female, boarded the bus with a guitar, harmonica and acoustic eggs. They began to sing some songs in Spanish, concluded with The Beatles “All You Need is Love”, then departed with a few more dollars than they began with. I’ll talk about the televisions mentioned above in the “bad” section…
Finally, the buses are very easy to maneuver, even for someone that doesn’t speak the language. The terminals for long trips all have ticket windows and various companies to choose from. All you have to do is tell them where you want to go, and if there is a bus that arrives sooner, they will direct you to another company’s window. They have storage areas below the bus, and on occasion luggage is ticketed to prevent someone from leaving with your bag (although everyone knows to never put your purse above your seat once onboard. This is an open invitation to pickpockets, so keep it securely in your lap.) Seats are assigned and numbered on longer bus rides, mostly. On shorter rides, you can simply board and sit anywhere. There will then be an attendant that walks through collecting your money at this time. This method makes much more sense than the American method of paying at each stop, since the buses keep moving while people fumble for change. In fact, this method works so well that the Ecuadorian buses are notorious for arriving at their destinations much earlier that promised.
With all that being said, the buses can also be a living hell on wheels.
This is where I am going to get on my soap box and whine.
Ok, so the buses prefer to sell however many tickets they can to make as much as possible, which makes sense. BUT, this could mean you are standing in an aisle for 8 hours, smooshed against a window by a family taking up the one seat next to you, or gasping for air that doesn’t reak with a hot smell you try not to identify. It also could mean that it will stop for every single person along the way that would like a ride in that general direction.
Buses are easy to figure out from the bus terminal, but try to look up or figure out your next moves ahead of time and no one knows anything. I have tried to look things up on google, but most websites that pop up are personal accounts (such as mine) from hell night bus rides from 2011. Not particularly helpful. It seems as if there are no accurate bus schedules or any sort of information accessible online. I tried asking my hostel and then the fancy hotel across from my hostel for help, and both directed me to the bus terminal. Unless there is a direct bus to the final destination, it is impossible to plan how long it will take you or what buses you can take ahead of time.
Entertainment. This has been a common topic among backpackers comparing horror stories. Like I mentioned, the long bus rides have entertainment. The first time I saw a movie start on a bus full of little kids, I assumed I would be watching something like Pixar or Disney. Instead, a movie full of war, blood and rape commenced. I was in shock! Families just watched with their little babies and children watching too! This is very common on the buses. So far I have seen a movie with Christian Bale from Vietnam, a movie with Mark Wahlberg training in boot camp, and have heard from others about movies featuring graphic rape scenes that make them cringe. I really don’t understand this one….
My account of the night bus from Quito to Lago Agrio:
It all started out fine. I went to the large bus station (that resembled an airport) in Quito and bought my ticket for the night bus. It was supposed to be an 8 hour ride, so I planned on sleeping my way to the Amazon Rainforest. I caught the 10:00pm bus, put my bag below and sat in my assigned seat ready to sleep until my 6:00am arrival.
Ha! Joke was on me. The bus stopped every hour or so, letting people cram into the isles where there were no seats. Men, kids, women with babies, didn’t matter. As if being elbowed in the head every two seconds wasn’t enough, the guy next to me kept talking on his phone and singing love songs, in between making kissing sounds and what I am almost positive was phone sexing. Between turns, precariously driving over bridges I did not want to see during the daylight, and only using the lines for the lanes as rough guidelines, this bus was giving me a heart attack. Around 1am when I finally started to fall asleep, a horrific stench wafted into my nostrils. Try as I might, I could not shake the smell. Apparently, either could the staff. One of the bus assistants came back and started pounding on the bathroom door, which happened to be directly behind my seat. Heated Spanish started erupting from his mouth, including a few expletives I recognized from high school. “MERDE!!” and the man swung the bathroom door open. A poor woman walked out, head down, and proceeded to her seat. The attendant kept yelling and made his way to the front of the bus. The bus then pulled over and he stormed to the back armed with cleaner, a mop and angry glares. The driver left the bus and emptied the bathroom out onto the street. The attendant poured copious amounts of cleaner all over the bathroom and pointedly shoved open each window in the back of the bus. Cold air, a horrific stench drowned in cleaner and lots of stomping down the aisle from the attendant, and we were off again. In a few more stops, a policeman boarded and video recorded each of our faces onboard (I am assuming it was done to identify our bodies if the bus careened off the bridge I tried not to look at earlier). An hour or so later and we reached a section of road that was blocked by a large truck and police cars. Here an officer boarded and told all the men to get off the bus. I watched with the other 3 women aboard as the men were searched and the baggage compartment was rifled through. Once again the men boarded and we were off.
Remember when I said that Ecuadorean buses usually arrived early? Well this “8 hour ride” only took 6 hours. After talking with others, it seems that “8 hours” is what tourists are told so they think they can sleep onboard, when in fact everyone I talked to arrives in 6 hours. Usually this would be fine, but it meant that I arrived in Lago Agrio, a dirty, empty town run by Colombian guerrilla warfare (according to Lonely Planet) at the pitch dark hour of 4am. I took a sketchy cab ride from the bus stop down the wet streets to the hotel, which was closed and locked up. Luckily, another family of Australian and French heritage also sat there waiting (their “night” bus dropped them off at 3am). Together, we all sat on the streets, tired and anticipating the Amazonian monkeys, and vowing to never take the Lago Agrio night bus again.