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So You Want to Drive in Ecuador? What You Need to Know

It’s a noble idea. Avoid taking taxis and buses and buy your own vehicle. If you had a vehicle back home – why not buy a car here too?

The price of gas is super low (USD$1.48/gallon) and it isn’t that hard to buy a vehicle here. Of course, many expats swear off driving after they arrive. Usually for one of two reasons:

Why Many Expats Don’t Want to Drive in Ecuador

  1. They are tired of car ownership: both maintenance hassles and costs have taken a toll and they want to be free of it.
  2. They see how different the driving is here. And it scares the life out of them.

When we first arrived, in July of 2009, I was convinced that I would never drive here. The style of driving was hard to get used to – and what if I had an accident!

First of all, my lack of Spanish scared me. And we had read that the Ecuadorian law system was based on the Napoleonic Code – which meant (I read) that parties involved could be held by police until guilt was determined (I still don’t know if this is true or not). The thought of handling a foreign law system in a foreign language scared me.

A good Ecuadorian friend of ours, who grew up in Guayaquil and has lived in Manta, Quito, and now in Cuenca told me that he can handle the fast driving on the coast – he just drives slowly and doesn’t have any problems.

He finds Cuenca the worst because many people simply ignore traffic signs and rules. He is scared of driving here, but not in the other places in the country. So while Cuenca might be one of the best places in Latin America to learn Spanish, it could be one of the worst places to learn how to drive.

It’s obvious, but I’m going to state it to avoid offending the less discerning reader: the comments I make, and that I’m quoting aren’t meant to suggest that everyone is a good or a bad driver in a specific area.

The fact is, though, that a general trend can be noted. So much, in fact, that we can anticipate what a driver will do in a given situation.

So Just What is the Driving Like in Ecuador?

If you only drive in the city, you are missing out on a key feature of driving here in Ecuador. Jump on the PanAmerican Highway south to Machala.

As you descend the Andes, you’ll likely see a number of close calls. Defensive driving will keep you safe every time you drive this highway.

Common Close-Calls in Driving

First of all: Who am I to comment on driving in Ecuador? Well, I’ve driven in Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Miami, and Venezuela and have been driving for 18+ years.

I’ve had my Ecuadorian driver’s license for more than a year – and I’ve driven close to 20,000 kilometers in that time. So I’m no expert, but I’ve seen my share of the road.

Close-Call #1: Bus Racing

This seldom happens (although we still see it once in a while) in Cuenca, but when you get out of the city limits the bus fares increase from $0.25 to a few dollars.

It seems that a combination of machismo and potential profits drives the buses (and their drivers) to take inane risks. This includes creating a passing lane where there is a solid double line. On a blind curve.

Ascending the Andes. In the fog.

We’ve seen two buses from competing bus lines speed by numerous waiting passengers as they both attempt to prove who is the better driver.

Close-Call #2: Triple Passing

Creating passing lanes is one thing. This could even be justified in some cases (slow-moving vehicles or other obstacles).

But sometimes the buses and dump trucks like to mix things up and pass three-wide. Three wide?! (See a photo of a created passing lane traveling from the coast into Cuenca. Notice the blind curve to the right, and the solid double line on the road. Remember, this is a highway.)

Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of the triple-wide passing. I think the fear of the situation makes us forget about making a photo memory of it.

Here’s how Three Wide Passing works: There is the original vehicle driving in the single available lane. The second vehicle doesn’t feel it’s traveling fast enough so he pulls out to pass. The third vehicle agrees with the second and decides to pass the original vehicle – and the second one – at the same time.

This happens frequently on the PanAmerican Highway – or as it’s commonly known: Via a Machala. When it happens in front of you, there is first disbelief and then fear. It is the worst when this hurricane of metal is raging towards you.

Of course, not just buses and dump trucks will pass three-wide – it’s just scarier when they do it. Vehicles of every size (even motorcycles and half-ton trucks with a back full of people) will attempt it.

dual-dumptrucks-ecuador-driving

Close-Call #3: Red Lights

So here’s how it goes. You’ll find yourself waiting at a light, with a lot of cars in front of you. The light turns green and the traffic starts moving. Yellow, still moving. Red, still moving.

Sometimes 3 or 4 cars will go through the red light. While the majority of drivers stop at red lights – you have to be aware that some don’t. So even having a green light doesn’t mean you can automatically go.

Want to see what it’s really like? Check out these couple of videos from driving in Cuenca, Ecuador.

The driving is pretty tame in the city. It doesn’t get exciting until you get out on the highways – especially going up/down the Andes.

Is It Really More Dangerous in Ecuador?

I know that I’m opening up a can of worms with this post. And I’m sure there are much worse places as well. This post isn’t meant to identify Cuenca (or Ecuador) as a horrible and unsafe place. But it is good to know about the differences in driving.

UPDATE (March 5, 2013): We’ve been driving for more than two years and have gotten more comfortable with the way of driving here. Knowing the differences is important in adapting and learning how to stay safe.

Ecuador’s New Driving Laws: Safer Driving

Not that long ago I wrote about some of the unique driving techniques in Ecuador. Well, thanks to a set of new laws things have dramatically improved.

Ecuador driving laws

Ecuador’s New Driving Laws

Earlier this week there was an article in the Cuenca paper that gives some new statistics for accidents since the new laws went into effect on July 23, 2012.

Under the headline: Speed Controls Prevent Accidents (Control de velocidad previene accidentes) the article quotes stats from the National Traffic Director, Juan Ruales. He says that traffic accidents caused by speeding have reduced 50% and a reduction of 10% of accidents for other causes.

It was noted by expats in Quito, Guayaquil, and here in Cuenca that the style of driving changed overnight when the laws went into effect.

The article notes that since July 23 (just 7 weeks) there have been 366 drivers arrested and 11,000 have been ticketed for driving over the speed limit.

The first morning that the laws went into effect, there were a number of people arrested in Azuay province. The first person ticketed (Spanish paper) in Azuay was going 108 km/h in a 90 km/h zone. He was fined $87 and lost 6 points off his license.

Ecuador police enforce driving laws

Details of Ecuador’s New Traffic Laws

These laws are not light. The fines are heavy and at a certain point, the driver could be sent to prison.

The allowable speed limits depend on the type of vehicle and the type of road. The limits haven’t changed – they just are being enforced now.

There are three categories:

  1. Within the speed limit: Obviously, this is okay and nothing happens. Well, you might get honked at or cut off by other drivers – but the police won’t ticket or arrest you.
  2. Moderate Range: a fine of $87.60 (30% of basic monthly salary, currently $292), loss of 6 points off the license
  3. Out of Moderate Range: fine of $292 (a basic monthly salary), loss of 10 points off the license and 3 days in prison. The driver is arrested on the spot and taken to prison. No trial.
speed-limits-ecuador-july-2012

New Driving Laws, Effective July 23, 2012

As you can see in the above graphic, the tolerance level is less in urban areas.

For example, if a car drives 60 km/h in an urban area (with a limit of 50 km/h) the driver is considered as driving out of moderate range and will be fined $292 and go to jail for 3 days.

Have you noticed a change in driving in Ecuador? Have these laws changed how you drive?  

Chart images copyright El Tiempo Newspaper, Cuenca Ecuador. Learn about Cuenca’s Newspapers.


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Bruce

Tuesday 26th of October 2021

I have been to Ecuador and rented a Motorcycle twice once in 2016 and then 2019 and there is a difference in the driving for sure.

I actually found the drivers polite and easy to drive in the traffic in Quito although you have to be use to heavy traffic.

Out of the cities the riding was great and really enjoyable with the mountains, speed bumps and twists in the roads it was easy to stay with in limits, not like the USA or Canada where posted speeds and driving speeds are quite different with the average driver going 20 t0 30 over near any large city.

Kevin

Wednesday 13th of October 2021

Here's a good reason to drive: the taxi drivers in Quito will often take you half-way to your destination, then order that you get out of their car! This happened to my girlfriend twice - they abandoned her in the middle of nowhere. She won't get into a taxi in any country anymore - complete loss of trust.

Better to get a car and drive yourself.

Bryan Haines

Thursday 14th of October 2021

I agree that driving is great - it can be safer and more convenient.

But I feel like there is more to your story. What caused them to ask her to get out of the car? I've never heard of this before. Have you heard of this happening to others?

Chey

Tuesday 5th of January 2021

:) I drove a moped in Barcelona in 2012. The Irish person I paid to help me settle in said it was safe. I should have known better, as the streets were no longer lined with parked mopeds as they had been years earlier when I visited. I paid for the moped for 6 months rental. I parked it after surviving a month. Thanks for all the info. I think I will stick to 'radio' taxis, as you mentioned in another article. The longer one survives the more likely one can learn to adapt. :) Cheers!

Bruce Bindon

Friday 12th of October 2018

Good day. As a new resident in Puerto Lopez, I wonder if I can get License Plates for a Moto Taxi? Also, do I have to get the Residence Visa to get it registered? Thanks.

Alick Inglis

Sunday 13th of September 2020

Wise warning. I have owned both a scooter and a small car here for 8 years. I had driven pretty much everywhere in the world so I am not unfamiliar with risky driving places. I have never had an accident here. But I can confirm that Ecuador, and more so Cuenca has the worst drivers I have ever encountered. Not only they unaware of basic driving rules, but they are super unskilled in driving mechanics, and the most rude & reckless sorts...the latter being very odd as they are basically, very nice people. I put it down to a culture that never had a driving culture. Common affordability of vehicles was sudden, beginning only around 2008. Driving permits were granted on a basis of bribes and cheating rather than any driver's education or honest testing. Like US politics where you can have any post, no matter how complex and vital, with enough of a campaign contribution. Only the numbers change. ;) Expect left hand turns from the right lanes at traffic lights, or people backing out of their driveways and using 2-3 lanes of a busy thoroughfare, to turn the flow into the traffic on THEIR side. The natives ALL agree that using indicators is wrong as that tells other drivers what you are intending of doing, and other drivers will drive in a way to prevent you! The Police and Transitos will do nothing to enforce the most blatant breaking of basic laws. Very bizarre. The only vehicle legislation enforced rigorously, is parking violations.

Pierre Christen

Saturday 5th of May 2018

Hi, how long would you say it might take to drive from the Colombian border (Ipiales) to Perú, via Quito all inside the mountains and plateau?