Advice for the Extranjero in Ecuador: Bus Travel

So, I’ve just had my first vacation during the countrywide feriado break back in November. Since all of Ecuador descended on our beautiful little beach village for their public holiday, we decided to run for the hills. In other words, we took the long journey up into the Sierras to the village of Baños. After traveling about 7 hours in 2 taxis and 3 different buses, I decided it’s high time to write a “How to Take a Bus in Ecuador” blog.

Petty Crime

In the cities, the biggest type of crime problem is petty theft. Quito, the city transit buses are very very crowded, which means people like to lift things out of your purse or backpack. Hold your bags close and keep your eyes open. When that pretty girl is batting her eyelashes at you, yeah she might be into you, or she might be getting your attention while her buddy is grabbing your wallet.

Buses between cities are long, early in the morning or late at night, and depending on the view, sometimes very tedious. All this means people stop paying attention. And when people stop paying attention, things like this happen:

  • The Gringa from England – She was taking the 4am bus from Guayaquil to Montañita in order to party it up after a grueling week teaching English. She had a seat near the back of the bus, and fell asleep. Her purse was on the seat next to her. It was later, after she started awake in Montañita and hopped off, that she realized that her wallet with all her cash and credit cards and her passport were gone.
  • The Extranjera from Hong Kong – She was taking the locally stopping bus from Montanita to Libertad, and she noticed a young boy in the row behind her messing around, crawling under the seats. She didn’t pay any attention. When she got off the bus, she realized that her digital camera was no longer in her purse, which had been on the floor under her seat.
  • This Extranjera from New York – I always keep my money in my bra, and my bag with anything else valuable in my lap. If I know I going to fall asleep, I put it between my legs with any openings facing down. I have been taking buses and falling asleep on them for a year now, and have never been robbed.

The Roof Vortex

If I want to buy a surf board in Montañita, I can throw down $200-$300 for a used fish, OR, I can get the same exact board for $100 from the guy who “found it on the side of the road.” Yeah, it might have a good ding in it from hitting the pavement, and that’ll cost maybe $20 to fix up, but that’s still a great deal. So, if you don’t want your brand new perrita to end up in the Montañita “fell-off-the-roof” market and sold off at a ridiculously low price, watch how drivers handle your board and make sure it’s secure. One of my friends lost everything she had in one go when she let a driver put her backpack on a roof and it disappeared into the vortex. If you have to let them put your stuff on the roof, keep your valuables in a separate bag and keep it on you lap.

Wild Wild West Robberies

This is not based on exaggerations or second-hand stories, this does happen. I can’t tell you with any accuracy what the statistics are, and honestly no one really can, but every once in a while some guys will board a bus, flash some heat, and rob everyone. Kinda like the outlaw gangs that were robbing trains in the States way back in the day I guess. Before I had always heard people talking about it happening to a friend of a friend, so I never really gave the stories too much credence, but now that I’ve heard a story first hand, I can tell you that it does happen. A few months back Chefla’s mother was taking the bus back to Manglaralto from Libertad, when it stopped to pick up some guys on a stretch between towns. They had guns out and went up and down the bus taking cash and cell phones from every passenger. Luckily they weren’t very aggressive. She gave them $30 that she had in her purse, and they didn’t challenge her to produce more. I want to say that it doesn’t really ever happen, and it’s one of those stupid things that jumpy foreigners get worked up about, but unfortunately it does. She didn’t go to the police to report that she had been robbed, and doubts that any of the other passengers did either, so I don’t feel there is any scientific way to know if it was a crazy unusual event, or a real problem. What I can say however is that in my year here, I have only heard of one armed robbery on a bus from a trustworthy first-hand source.

Shopping

People hop on buses to sell you water, soya, candies, jewelry, medication, pretty much anything. If their selling food like corbiches or empanadas or coconut water, just shake your head as he passes if you don’t want any, if you do, try to listen to the price that their shouting out so that you don’t get “gringo taxed.” If they’re selling candy or jewelry, medication, etc., they will go down the aisle, and actually put a handful of their product in your hand. This is not a gift. Let me repeat that, DO NOT eat the candy unless your willing to pay for it. They just hand it to you so that you’ll look at it and be more likely to want it. Later, the guy is going to go back to the front of the bus and give you a speech about how he’s a great guy who deserves your money, or about how his mother’s sick, or about how religious he is, depending on his sales technique. After his speech, he will walk back down the aisle, collecting money or the unwanted candy from you. Another CELTA teacher I know, Glenn, made the mistake of thinking that some nice kid was just handing out candy on the bus. He ate it, and then was surprised and pissed off when the kid came back asking for money. Don’t eat anything someone hands you unless you are planning on paying for it.

Original published December 30, 2011 on tumblr

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