This is a guest post by an American expat living in Cuenca since 2007.
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. In Part 1 of the How to Travel in Ecuador Without a Car series, I covered how to use taxis in Cuenca.
Many expats in Cuenca do not own cars. One thing that makes a car-free life style possible in Cuenca is the extensive city bus system. There are around 475 city buses that crisscross the city from early morning until about 10p.m. If you are like me, I had never used public transportation before moving to Ecuador. Taking the bus is now a part of our daily routine. Knowing a few basic rules of the road will make taking the bus easy and painless for newly arrived expats.
- Bus Stops: Bus stops here are usually, but not always, clearly marked by a white on blue street sign that reads “Parada de Bus”. If you see a group of people standing by the road, chances are that it is a bus stop, even if there is no sign visible. The bus will not stop for you unless you wave or gesture to the driver. Enter the bus as quickly as possible since some drivers have been known to take off while the last passenger is still trying to climb aboard.
- Bus routes: How can one determine which bus to take? There are published bus routes available. A booklet containing the city bus routes can be obtained at the tourist information office called i-tur located just off of the Parque Calderon in down town Cuenca. However, buses often have to make detours due to the constant street work in Cuenca, so the published routes may or may not be 100% accurate. If you are in doubt about which bus to take, ask a neighbor or store keeper. They will be happy to help educate you about which bus to take, provided that they can understand your gringo accented Spanish.
- Cost: It cost .25 cents for a one way bus ride. Normally a rechargeable bus card can be purchased that works with card readers installed on the buses. However, lately the bus cards have not been working due to a problem with the bus card recharging system. For the present, all riders have to pay with quarters. The drivers generally only accept exact change. The card readers are supposed to be working again in a month or so.
- Hang on! Riding the city buses requires a certain amount of agility since they often take off rather abruptly and stop without warning. If you are trying to juggle shopping bags as you enter the bus, you can lose your balance and stumble if you are not anticipating the sudden jerk of the bus as it pulls off from the bus stop. There are hand rails and grab handles on the buses, so it is best to keep your hands free so that you can hang on as the bus lurches from stop to stop.
- Dismount: When you are nearing your desired stop, you will need to approach the back door and signal your desire to stop by pressing a button located near the rear exit. The bus will only stop at designated bus stops, so don´t get upset if the bus does not stop immediately after you press the stop button. Exit the bus as quickly as possible. Bus drivers can be impatient and start rolling even while passengers are trying to exit the bus.
- Passenger etiquette: The first two rows of seating on the buses are usually reserved for the disabled, the elderly or for expectant mothers. If an older person enters a full bus, it is generally expected that younger passengers will give up their seats, although such courtesy is becoming less common.
- Personal safety: Thieves sometimes prey on unsuspecting passengers on crowded buses. Keep your personal belongings in site at all times and do not flash expensive electronic devices or leave backpacks or purses open. If you notice someone staring at you on the bus, don’t be alarmed. They are probably just trying to figure out why a “rich” gringo is riding the bus. I personally choose to avoid riding buses after dark. A taxi is a better alternative after sundown.
Using the public transportation system in Cuenca is a convenient, inexpensive and generally safe alternative for expats who choose to live without a car. At first, taking the bus can be a little intimidating for new expats, but after a while you will be hailing buses like a pro and will learn to appreciate the freedom that comes with not owning a car.