As I mentioned in a previous post, getting your Ecuadorian driver’s license is some adventure… But once you have it, you realize driving in the country is the actual adventure! But unless you live in a neighborhood where you can do everything and get everything you need on foot, at some point you’re going to need to use some kind of transportation, whether it is a bus, a cab or a personal car.
So what is it like to drive in Ecuador? What’s the traffic like? Is it dangerous?
Ecuador is a small country, and most of it is rural areas, where there are obviously no worries about traffic. It is an issue, however, in the major cities, such as the capital, Quito, and the port city of Guayaquil. Both cities are very different from one another, and have specific issues.
City traffic in Ecuador
Driving conditions in Quito
Quito is a little less than 500 years old, it is an ancient colonial city, with typical colonial buildings and small, non straight streets. In the older parts of the city, there are many one-way streets, and unhandy crossroads. On the other hand, the more modern part of town has a squared layout. From North to South, from East to West, large avenues pass through the town, enabling to go around it efficiently. But be careful, some constructions, tunnels or bridges, can be quite confusing: meant to speed up traffic, by avoiding intersections, if you take the wrong one it’ll take you to a totally opposite part of town.
In terms of road equipment, the situation is pretty uneven through Quito. While larger intersections are equipped with traffic lights, smaller ones barely have a stop sign, and when there’s a lot of traffic, you get to choose between forcing entry or waiting for a long time. Similarly, the big roundabouts surrounding Quito and enabling access to the city do not operate the same way: some have traffic lights to ease traffic, others are only partially equipped, so that if you’re accessing the roundabout from a street without traffic light, when traffic is heavy, it’ll be hard to engage on the roundabout.
Geography of Quito
Quito is set in the mountains, which obviously influences and limits routes and road construction. Many neighborhoods are built on the mountainside, others in the nearby valleys. These valleys are the suburbs of Quito and are constantly growing, and as a consequence, traffic is also intensifying between Quito and its valleys. There are various expressways, considered highways, to connect them and as they are mountain roads, they are few alternate routes, and traffic gets heavy during rush hour. There is also a risk, especially on rainy days, of landslides, falling rocks or trees, and road accidents are pretty common.
One of the main valleys of Quito is connected to the city namely thanks to a three-way tunnel. To avoid traffic jams, traffic is alternated during rush hours: in the morning, you can only access it from the valley to the city, after office hours on the contrary it only goes from the city to the valley, while during the rest of the day and during nights, traffic can go both ways.
Traffic and restrictions in Quito: from “Pico y Placa” to “Hoy no Circula”
With just over 2 million inhabitants, Quito is a quite small capital city, but the number of vehicles keeps increasing, causing increased problems of traffic and pollution. To try and limit this tendency, in early 2010 the city council decided to implement a system of alternating traffic. It consisted in restricting vehicles’ circulation during rush hours, according to their license plate. Concretely, every private owned car wasn’t allowed into Quito during rush hours one day a week.
Pretty soon, it was established that the impact of this system did not have much impact on levels of traffic and pollution. So as of September, 2019, Quito implemented a new, stricter system called “Hoy no Circula”. From then on, the traffic ban (still according to license plate), was not only during rush hours, but all day long, from 5am to 8pm, once a week. This system has been suspended with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a few months later it was replaced by the “Hoy Circula”, system through which every car is allowed in town 3 days a week only (plus weekends, when everyone is allowed to drive), still depending on your license plate.
Driving conditions in Guayaquil
Although Guayaquil isn’t the head city of Ecuador, it is its economical capital and the largest city of the country, with over 2.6 million inhabitants. Located on the coast, it is also the biggest harbor of Ecuador, the main point of entry for import and export goods. Guayaquil is definitely more modern than Quito, with a pretty square layout, wide avenues with numerous lanes, enabling to cross town without passing through the various neighborhoods.
Among these neighborhoods, some are older, with ancient, colonial styled buildings, with narrow sidewalks border by large trees. Other neighborhoods are definitely modern, business districts with large malls and brand new buildings.
Geography of Guayaquil
A large highway goes alongside Guayaquil, making it easy to bypass. It could lead to believe that it is easy to move along. But Guayaquil is also a city of water, with the larger Guayas river crossing through, and many smaller streams surrounding it. Which means you often need to cross bridges to circulate, especially to access the industrial zones of Duran or the upper class residential neighborhoods of Samborondon. As a consequence, traffic-jams are common towards the bridges crossing the wide river during rush hours.
Traffic and restrictions
Unlike Quito, no driving restrictions have been implemented in Guayaquil so far. Every vehicle can drive freely any day and hour of the week.
Road conditions in Ecuador
Road maintenance in Ecuador
When it comes to quality and condition of the roads, there are really two opposites. On one hand, some larger roads and highways are neat, recently built, easing fast connections between provincial capitals. On the other hands, smaller local roads, some pretty used and damaged, others more recent, but overall lacking maintenance and repair. Usage and bad weather produce potholes, which are not regularly fixed. On some roads, the coating has been removed, indicating upcoming repairs… but it can sometimes last a while before workers actually come and finish the repair. Meanwhile, vehicles need to slow down and zigzag to avoid damaging the tires.
Natural hazard in Ecuador
Earthquakes, heavy rains, hail… many natural phenomenons affect the road conditions. Bad weather is pretty common, in one or another place in Ecuador. In the mountains, it can induce landslide, sometimes sweeping away parts or the road, or even a complete lane. On the coast, bad weather means floods, impassable roads, and damage to the infrastructure.
Before you hit the road, you should always check the weather forecast first, and don’t hesitate in postponing if the predictions are bad.
Ecuadorian driving style
Bad weather and poor road conditions are not sole responsible for the daily reported accidents. These are also linked to Ecuadorians’ “freestyle” driving. Because the reality of driving here is very different from the rules you need to know to pass your driving license’s written exam.
Reality for buses, for example, is that most of them are paid according to the number of passengers they drive. The more passengers, the higher the salary, which motivates them to drive fast and recklessly. Driving behind or next to a bus on a sinuous mountain road is not a pleasant thing. If possible, avoid passing it, as it can dangerously outflank its lane. By the way, if you drive at a reasonable speed, it might be the bus that passes you!
Cabs and Uber drivers are also paid for every ride, encouraging them to drive fast and to sometimes forget about stop signs and traffic lights.
But no matter the type of vehicle, the Ecuadorian driving style can be considered aggressive. Even without priority, they will force passage. Some driving schools offer “defensive driving” courses where one can learn how to react towards other drivers reckless and sometimes dangerous behavior.
When on a highway, don’t be surprised if cars pass by on all sides: right or left, there is no rule, one passes on the side they have space to do so. Also, one wonders why paint lanes, since Ecuadorians don’t seem to know how to respect them, they drive across lanes without caring about it.
In the mountains, be careful that trucks or other slow vehicles can suddenly emerge in front of you as you exit a hairpin bend. Here and there, you can find a widening in the road to help you pass slower vehicles, but it is not often nor regular.
Finally, be aware that there are many old vehicles still on the roads of Ecuador, which represent a risk of breakdown or accidents.
Driving in Ecuador isn’t easy nor comfortable, it takes an experienced and self-controlled driver. If you don’t like forcing passage, you might have to wait a long time and endure some honking. Ignore them, better be safe and honked than sorry!
But don’t let that discourage you from driving across Ecuador, it is a beautiful country, with a great variety of landscapes to admire!