Ecuador by Bus
In Ecuador, if you need to get somewhere, anywhere, chances are it will be by bus. Flooding and landslides during the 1982 El Nino phenomenon severely damaged the train network, and few lines have reopened. Buying a car or purchasing a flight is well beyond the reach of the majority of Ecuadorians, making buses the only real option for getting around. Even for tourists, car rentals are as expensive as high season prices in Europe. The underdeveloped transport infrastructure means the bus acts as a taxi, subway, plane and train all in one.
A bus strike could therefore potentially be a national disaster. Yet following the government’s refusal to increase bus fares by 5 cents, angry Ecuadorian bus drivers announced they were going on a 48-hour strike at the beginning of May. It’s not surprising that when the Ecuadorian government declared a state of emergency on the 5th of May, it wasn’t due to their growing anxiety about the Colombian guerrilla activity north of the border; it was because of the bus crisis.
The bus drivers had threatened to block roads and highways, prompting President Gustavo Noboa to declare the state of emergency in the transport sector. Military personnel and scores of police officers were deployed to defend the main streets and highways entering both Quito and Guayaquil from the bus blockade. Intra-province buses carried on as usual, but a minority of urban transport companies made good their threats. Despite the police and army intervention, Quito’s southern junctions were blocked for four hours, as were parts of Guayaquil.
Buses are as much a part of Ecuadorian life as football, the difference being they are crazy about the latter and profoundly dissatisfied with the former. The strike and price hike infuriated Ecuadorians. Images and sounds of angry commuters complaining about the system inundated the radio, newspapers and TV news programmes during the strike.
“The service is crap, drivers are rude and dangerous, and what will we get in return for the price rise? Absolutely nothing.” declared a Quiteno interviewed on national TV. After experiencing painful hyperinflation prior to Ecuador’s dollarisation in 2000, even the extra five cents was going too far. “Prices have gone up, but wages haven’t,” another added on Radio Otavalo, “We all have to tighten our belts, including the bus drivers.” Wages did increase dramatically for one person that week – President Noboa raised his own salary from $700 to $8000 a month.
It only takes a few days in the country to realise that buses make Ecuadorian life, particularly rural life, happen. Our induction into the peculiar Ecuadorian bus system happened in Otavalo, a small town 96 km north of Quito. The only way to get to the neighbouring town of Natabuela, to our volunteer job, was by bus (20 cents) or taxi ($8). At those prices, the choice had been made for us.
We had both taken a sabbatical from our jobs back in London, recently the mecca of urban transport problems. A veteran of several central London Tube lines, I actually looked forward to riding a bus every day through the Andean scenery – it sure beat riding the Tube with sleepy City workers reading the Metro or the Financial Times.
At the Otavalo station, young men bellowed out the destination in front of every bus, each trying to get us to go wherever they were going. We clambered into a very old and very small, shabby bus. It had just gone past 8 am, and cumbias blared from the local radio station. At 6’2″, my husband barely fit into the seat.
The bus was like a big, communal taxi, stopping where necessary. About 20 feet from the Otavalo station, the bus stopped again to pick up three more people who couldn’t be bothered to walk those extra feet to the station. Then the bus stopped every minute or so, dropping people off and picking them up in small indigenous communities along the busy highway.
A two-man team ran the bus: the driver and his sidekick who collected fares and shepherded people on and off the bus. The fare collector works on commission, and has every incentive to fill the bus to (over) capacity. He routinely dangled from the bus the entire ride, screaming “Ibarra, Ibarra, Ibarra,” as if saying the destination louder would attract more people to the bus. He jumped on and off while scooping up passengers and several times I was convinced we had lost him. Then as if from nowhere, he would jump back on the bus.
From respectable looking mestizo business people to old and toothless indigenous women carrying a chicken on their back, all climbed in looking for a seat. Several young indigenous women, each carrying a baby on their back and a toddler at their feet, made their way onto the bus. The bus constantly jolted, making it a challenge to stay on your two feet while walking down the packed aisle.
Buses are privately owned and several companies compete for the same route, causing frantic races to pick up the most passengers along the journey. Our bus overtook other buses on the two-lane Pan-American Highway, which crosses all of South America, beeping loudly. A friend at the Spanish embassy told us that when driving on this highway, he would ride behind big trucks in order to avert any crashes with belligerent buses, lengthening both his journey time and life expectancy.
A lot of commercial transactions took place thanks to the bus. Indigenous farmers carried sacks of produce to sell in the main market towns. People got on to sell their wares, from ice cream, to fried pork with chips, to sweets and chocolate bars. The chocolate bar vendor gave a speech about how he was earning an honest living rather than mugging you, hence why not buy a chocolate bar from him.
When we got off at our stop in the middle of nowhere, the bus practically didn’t stop to let us off. Lingering any longer would have cost the fare collector 50 cents in ticket fares if overtaken by the competing bus.
The government continues to negotiate with the bus drivers, and services returned to normalcy following the strike. Despite its faults, travelling by bus is a bargain and relatively efficient for those used to London prices and Tube and train problems. Plus it’s probably safer to actually be on the speeding bus than dodging it in a car on the highway. Why take a cab if you can catch a glimpse of Ecuador on the bus? As a popular song in Ecuador says, “Si quiere conocer al pueblo Ecuatoriano, subase a un autobus del servicio urbano.” (If you want to get to know Ecuadorians, just get on an urban bus)