This is a guest post by an American expat living in Cuenca since 2007.
Many expats here in Cuenca do not own cars and have to rely on public transportation to get around. Car ownership can be complicated and somewhat expensive in Ecuador so, like many other expats, we have had to adapt to a car-less lifestyle.
A Few Tips When Taking Taxis in Cuenca
Taxis are everywhere in Cuenca and it is usually not hard to find one.There are, however, some things to remember about taxis in Cuenca.
First of all, you need to tell the driver where you are going and find out how much he is going to charge you before you enter the car. Most taxi drivers want you to just hop on in and not ask price.
Even if you are not fluent in Spanish, you can quickly learn a few basic phrases that you need to use on a regular basis when dealing with taxi drivers. If a gringo jumps into a taxi without first getting a price he runs the risk of being charged more, especially if you are traveling from the airport or bus terminal.
Some taxi drivers seem to have the mindset that if you are a foreigner then you must be a tourist and everyone knows that gringo tourists are rich and eager to pay more.
For example, the most we have ever paid when taking a taxi from the airport to our house is $5.00. However, one day I went to the airport to pick up a friend who had just arrived and the taxi driver quoted us $5.00, which is a little high.
However, when we arrived at our house the driver wanted $7.00. I told him that I live here and know what taxis charge and that I did not appreciate taxi drivers who try to take advantage of foreigners. He decided to backed down and took the $5.00 and left.
Sometimes we have encountered taxi drivers who act as if they don’t understand the address you have given them and complain that the trip is much longer that they had anticipated and therefore try and squeeze more money out of you than initially quoted. Don’t fall for that trick. Only pay the price you have negotiated.
The law states that taxis are required to use a taximeter to determine fares. While most taxis in Cuenca do have a meter, few drivers use them. I understand that in Quito the taxi drivers do use the meter, but I have only twice encountered a taxi driver in Cuenca who used the meter, and guess what?
The price the meter showed was less than what I normally paid for the trip when I had to negotiate a price. Taxi drivers say that customers prefer to negotiate, but I for one do not like the hassle of price haggling in the middle of the street while cars buzz by blowing the horn.
A Few Bad Apples…
If you randomly grab a taxi off the street you need to be prepared to negotiate and may find less than friendly drivers.
We once hailed a random taxi in front of the grocery store because the taxis we usually use were nowhere to be found. We did not negotiate a price with the driver since we were in a hurry and needed to get home. Once in the car the driver announced that the trip would cost us $4.00, which is a dollar more than we normally pay for that trip.
I kept my mouth shut and did not protest the higher price since we were already in the car and needed to get home. When we got to our house the driver decided he wanted $5.00. I got out of the car, gave him $4.00 and left him at our door screaming for another dollar. I refused to pay more than the quoted price, especially since we were already paying a dollar more than normal and the driver was screaming at me as if I were a dog.
A friend of ours from the States who has lived here for many years even had a taxi driver lock her in the car demanding an extra 50 cents. She did not pay the extra fare and gave the driver a tongue lashing before being set free. Experiences like that are annoying, but that is what occasionally happens when you grab just any taxi that happens to pass by.
There may be some who say that haggling over 50 cents or a dollar is not worth the effort, but it is not necessarily the money that is the issue; it is being taken advantage of or being taken for a fool that really irritates me and many other expats who have lived here for years.
I need to stress that the vast majority of taxi drivers we have encountered here are friendly and many have lived in the States and appreciate the expats who choose to settle here.
It is not fair to put all taxi drivers in the same category. Most are honest, hard working people who treat their customers fairly. As is often the case in any given group, the few bad apples can ruin the reputation of the majority of decent people. Also, taxi drivers have to invest $25,000 to $30,000 to buy a taxi and obtain a license, so they do have a considerable investment to recuperate and have to charge a certain amount of money to make it financially.
I don’t begrudge anyone who is trying to make a living; I just don’t want to be overcharged because I am a foreigner.
If you want to avoid the sometimes belligerent taxi drivers who try to overcharge unsuspecting foreigners, there is an alternative. Instead of hailing just any taxi on the street, you can use a radio dispatched taxi company.
The drivers are generally more courteous and treat their customers better because they know that you are likely to use them again. There are a number of radio taxi companies in Cuenca who will pick you up at your house or just about any other location in town. We use a radio taxi company near our house and most of the drivers know us by name and are courteous and don’t overcharge us.
Even if we are in the center of town far from our house, we can call the radio taxi and they will dispatch a driver to pick us up and take us home. The radio taxi company has registered our phone numbers and address so when we call, they know who we are and where we live and they dispatch a taxi to our house usually within 5 minutes.
When we use the radio dispatched taxis we avoid the price haggling routine and just pay what is normal and the drivers don’t complain or ask for more money since we are repeat customers.
When we buy groceries there are usually taxis lined up outside of the store waiting for customers and those guys are usually also courteous and reliable. Since we have been using the same grocery store for years the taxi drivers at that location also know us and don’t try to take advantage of us either. They even help us unload our groceries and take them to our door.
When Taxis are Scarce
There are times when finding a taxi can be almost impossible and you may find yourself stranded.
We have had that happen a few times and it was frustrating. As a general rule, if it is raining there will be fewer taxis available since everyone wants a taxi to avoid walking in the rain. Also, if there is a major soccer match between popular teams you may find fewer taxis circulating since most all taxi drivers seem to be avid soccer fans and don’t want to miss watching the match. Sometimes the taxi drivers go on strike here to demand certain changes from the government and during those times you will not find any taxis on the street.
It seems that during lunch time there are not as many taxis out since even taxi drivers have to eat and they often choose to go home to have a meal with their family. If you need a taxi late at night you also may find few taxis on the street in Cuenca after 10 p.m.
The Benefits of Not Owning a Car
Before you jump to the conclusion that not owning a car is all negative, it is good to remember that there are definite benefits to the car-free lifestyle. For one, taxis and buses are cheap compared to owning a car.
I once calculated that in our case, the amount of money it would take to buy a new car here would translate into 30 years of taxi use. Also, since we do not own a car we have no insurance, maintenance or registration expenses.
We do not have to worry about being taken to jail if we are driving and are involved in an accident. We avoid being harassed by corrupt cops at roadblocks who are looking for bribes. We never worry about our car being stolen or being given a ticket for illegal parking. Not owning a car gives us a certain mental freedom; with fewer possessions we have fewer worries.
I like to say that we do own a car. Our car is yellow and comes with a driver. We just call our driver whenever we need him to pick us up and give him a 2 or 3 dollar tip every time we use “our” yellow car.
We have found that focusing on the positive aspects to using public transportation has helped to ease the transition from owning multiple vehicles to being completely car-free. At first we really missed our Ford Explorer, Toyota Tundra and Honda Civic, but with time we have gotten over those initial withdrawal symptoms and have adapted to life without a car here in Ecuador.
Taking a taxi in Cuenca is usually a painless experience, but at times it can be a challenge and you need to be prepared for those occasions when taxis are scarce or when you run into the occasional unfriendly taxi driver who wants to take overcharge unsuspecting gringos. Patience and self control are definitely virtues when you have to rely on public transportation.
Buses are another inexpensive and viable transportation option available in Cuenca that will be covered in part 2.