So lets start with The Basics: Getting Around Ecuador.
Ecuador Basics Tip #1: If you are thinking of driving a car in Ecuador: Just. Don’t. Do. It.
Why? Well, it’s not because my poor husband nearly had a nervous breakdown trying to drive here. It’s because the drivers here in Ecuador are insane.
We rented a tiny blue Chevy Spark from Budget Rent A Car in Quito. We had reserved a much bigger car because we had so much luggage including a surfboard inside a golf bag. But that tiny car was the only one they had left in the lot. It was our first lesson in being totally flexible and just making things work in Ecuador.
Before we left the office, everyone from the entire Budget Rent A Car Office came out into the parking lot to watch the entertainment as we crammed our 200 pounds of luggage, a guitar, a piano keyboard and a surfboard into every available space in that tiny tiny car. When we actually got everything in, the entire staff cheered and gave us a bar of Ecuadorian chocolate to celebrate.
We were given two maps and extremely well marked sets of directions. We were also told, “It’s really easy. You must first go north out of the city of Quito and then turn west toward the coast. Then it’s a straight shot from there. You’ll be just fine if you follow these maps.” That sounded easy enough to us and we actualy felt quite optimistic. So, we wedged ourselves into our trusty blue Chevy Spark, waved to all the staff and the security guards who were still in the parking lot and took off. We had no idea what a nightmare just getting out of Quito would become.
Within a few blocks, the roads twisted and turned and split off in all directions every half mile or so. It began to rain harder and harder and this made it very difficult to see that there were huge pot holes all over in the city roads. There were also cars and buses and motorcycles and moto taxis, people crossing and vendors standing right in the middle of everything selling tangerines and coke and yucca chips and also pushing carts. And animals. Lots of different animals. It was complete chaos.
There is a uniquely Ecuadorian driving phenomenon here that I should point out. We termed it, ” The Virtual Third Lane.” On the roads, at least to us, there always appeared to be TWO lanes. But then, as if by magic, another third “virtual lane” seems to appear to every Ecuadorian driver on the road. This “Virtual Third Lane” is in the middle – between and overlapping – both of the other two lanes on the roads and highways.
This means that Ecuadorian drivers come straight at you in the opposite direction in their very own personal “Virtual Third Lane.” Cars also suddenly appear right beside you on your left in that “Virtual Third Lane” driving straight for the other oncoming driver. It’s kind of like a game of “Chicken.” At the very last, possible, infinitesimal, split fraction of a second, the oncoming or passing driver manages somehow to squeeze their car back in on their own side. Or the driver passes you from behind with just barely enough teeny tiny space to squeeze in ahead in front of your car and also behind the car in front of you.
Oh and periodically, they will pass you on the right side too with no notice.. We often wondered if anyone was required to do driver training here. Amidst all the constant mayhem, we also wondered if there were any driving laws in Ecuador at all. (Point of Fact: There are driving laws in Ecuador and people do take driver training but it didn’t seem like it to us at the time.)
So imagine that these passing vehicles on your right and left are not only cars, but also multitude of buses, trucks and motorcycles. No. I’m not kidding. For us, it was Ecuadorian Driving Baptism By Fire. Every Person For Themselves. The Wild West on the road.
On top of suddenly being forced to learn this new Ecuadorian driving technique and what seemed like entirely different driving laws, we couldn’t find a single sign to anywhere that the Budget agents had marked on our trusty maps. Very quickly we became very confused.
Huge signs appeared now and then, which give us some idea that a turn to some where was coming up at some time in the future. But we realized far too late each time that the signs had been placed, if they were placed at all, about a mile or more up the road before where the actual turn was. By the time we came to the actual turn we were supposed to take, it was never marked again with another sign or arrow and as we were unfamiliar with the roads or names of the towns, we would drive right on by it.
After 3 hours of driving, we found ourselves coming through a tunnel and around a really large turn. Suddenly we were staring at the front side of the huge “El Panacillo” statue, the only Virgin Mary Angel depicted with the wings of an Angel. She sits high on a hill, visible in all directions from Quito, much like that huge statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I looked up at her and then I turned to my husband. In complete disbelief and denial I said, “Does that mean what I think it means?” Yes it did. After 3 long hours of driving, we had somehow done a complete 180 and never left the city of Quito at all! Oh Joy. Oh Rapture.
But there was a silver lining, as my husband so optimistically pointed out, to finding ourselves located unexpectedly at the beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary. We finally knew, for sure, that we were heading south. “oh. yay.” I said grumpily. While my husband seemed delighted and relieved to know which way we were finally going, I personally felt like slapping him for his sudden cheerfulness and then bursted into tears myself as it was starting to get dark and I was getting hungry.
We had a long way to go to get to The Coast that first night of driving. We agreed to crumple up our Budget Rent A Car maps and continue south until we found the main highway, in the other direction, leading to The Coast. We stopped several times along the way to ask actual human beings for directions. Fortunately, my Spanish was good enough to understand what they said. And finally, lo and behold, we were on the correct road. But the best was yet to come.
Instead of heading north out of Quito and crossing west over the flat lands to the coast as in the original plan, this new southern route led us up and over the Cotopaxi volcano at 15,000 feet and then down through the mountains and the jungle right in the middle of a monsoon rain storm. We were stunned at the amount of rain that came hammering down on our windshield. All that rain made it not only difficult to see but also made the highway very slippery, especially on the curves. But that didn’t seem to bother anyone else out there driving on the highway. It didn’t slow them down either.
Cars and motorcycles of all sizes and shapes, trucks full of deliveries and buses full of people were passing us in the quintessential Ecuadorian “Virtual Third Lane” Style – on the right and left and also on blind curves, in both directions with no notice. Some vehicles had no lights. I actually covered my face at three points, screaming “OH MY GOD!” as I thought we were going to DIE in a head on collision.
The cars and trucks and buses and motorcycles passed and they passed and they passed – in both directions – as we all together next plunged down through this hairpin turn stretch of highway and into heavy clouds at 7,000 feet. No one could see a damn thing with all the heavy clouds but then even more heavy torrential rain began slamming into everyones windshields and unfortunately someone on the construction side had missed the memo on the warning signs.
There are no signs or even an arrow when you are about to hit a patch of OLD road long the newly built or under construction super highway. These patches of old road are several inches LOWER than the sections of the newer highway. Periodically, we hit an old patch of road in the complete dark. (Did I forget to mention there are no street lamps? And no light on the road other than the oncoming cars?) Our entire car was suddenly air born at 60 MPH as we flew down into the lower six inches of road, rattled through the older dirt patch section kicking up water and mud in the pouring rain and then slammed up and out of that bad patch of road as we hit the new highway again and tried our best not to hydroplane?! Think: Heart Attack.
And then once we finally did get to The Coast Road which parallels the Pacific Ocean, we learned the hard way what the word “DESVIO” meant: DETOUR. Lots of bridges are being built (or in some cases rebuilt) over large river beds and other deep gaps in the road and we nearly went over into a few in the dark. Eventually, we figured out that “Desvio” meant that we needed to actually follow the only signs that were placed – and named correctly – with an arrow pointing either right or left – in the direction around the edge of the sudden precipitous drop where the bridge will eventually be located.
Another highlight of our road trip at different points, was seeing male drivers peeing on their front truck wheels. Apparently, truck brakes heat up so hot on such a long steep grades, (15, 000 feet to sea level in less than 100 miles) drivers must stop to let them cool or risk burning their brakes completely out. Peeing does the trick for them.
We eventually got into our wonderful Mocondo Lodge hotel in Canoa at just after midnight after over 11 hours of driving with only our chocolate bar for food and 2 very short stops to pee ourselves – one of which was by the side of the road!
Ecuador Basics Tip #2 : Always carry your own toilet paper as there is usually none in the roadside bathrooms or at the gas stations or the parks or or in the malls or in any other public facilities.
So in short: We choose never to drive here in Ecuador again. Both bus and taxi drivers are well seasoned in driving the “Virtual Third Lane” and we are more than happy to let them have at it so we can sit back and relax.
The buses cost $1.00 per hour of your ride and taxi meters start at $.35 and go up $.05 per minute. Buses, Taxis, very inexpensive Airplane flights and boat rides can easily get you anywhere you will ever want to go in Ecuador. So if you are thinking of driving in Ecuador: Just. Don’t. Do. It.
Coming up next: The Basics: Eating in Ecuador
PS: Would you like more ACCURATE, AUTHENTIC and UP TO DATE INFORMATION about ECUADOR?
WORDS TO THRIVE BY FOR WORLD TRAVELERS: FOOTPRINTS IN ECUADOR by Mary Anne Dorward
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