Its 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?
Why Many Expats Don’t Want to Drive in Ecuador
- They are tired of car ownership: both maintenance hassles and costs have taken a toll and they want to be free of it.
- 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 the 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 drivers 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 its 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 its 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.
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.
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 are important in adapting and learning how to stay safe.