A Travellerspoint blog

June 2017

Getting around Quito by bus

or- Mr Google lets me down!

semi-overcast 66 °F

I have several entries to post, but now that I have completed my days in Quito and am headed to the Galapagos, I thought I would first share the joys and challenges of travelling around Quito by bus. To preface this entry, I have made it a practice to use public transportation (busses/subways/hoofing it instead of taxis, for example) and I have had good success almost everywhere I have been. I had did well in Santiago and Valparaiso Chile as well as Japan, Korea, Greece, France, etc. However, my global sample size is relatively small.

Nonetheless, I can, with some confidence, state that riding the bus in Quito is cray cray! There are a zillion buses, all going as fast or faster than possible to grab fares before the next guy (I only saw male bus drivers, although I did see a single female taxi driver in Quito). The windows are full of destination signs, which should be helpful, right? Not. The one thing the windows almost never feature is an indication of a route number.

So how do I know these buses even have route numbers? Well, as many of you know I am pretty deep into the Android/Google universe, surrendering substantial bits of privacy for the convenience of telling me I am late for my plane or whatever. So as is my usual practice in a new city, I let Mr. Google know where I was and where I wanted to get by bus. Boopity boop and one or more routes were identified by name and number. Small problem. Neither the routes, the route names or the route numbers bore any resembance to the blue behemoths flying by. Worse, if I took Mr. Google's data and in pitiful Spanish (6 weeks of Duolingo is helpful, but it sure ain't fluency) asked any one of a number of individuals to point out where this bus might be, I got nothing. In one early case I had a route to go to the Terminal Carcalen (the main Northern bus terminal in Quito) from the Quicentro, the largest mall in Quito (never fear, you can get your Tiffany fix there). Easy, eh? I asked Mr Google, two people wearing transit system uniforms, at least half a dozen bus drivers, another guy who was offering tourist advice adjacent to my putative bus stop, some guy waiting for a bus, the info guy at the mall and a cop or two and every single one of them had a different take - I was offered all 4 cardinal directions as the answer to my dilemma.

In this case, I ended up using a desperation strategy. Mr Google at least gave an indication of the route. So I hopped first bus that came by pointed in the same general direction, hopped on and monitored my route. When predicted and actual routes began to diverge, I hopped off and looked for another bus going in the desired general direction. And so on. With a liberal addition of shoe leather, I made my first successful cross town trip.

Now, this may seem like kind of a spendy way to get around, but it aint. Buses in Ecuador are ludicrously cheap. I paid as much a $3 US for a two hour ride in a comfy bus going to Otavalo (more later) and as little as 12 cents when I boarded a city bus and the ticket person decided I needed the senior discount from the ruinous regular price of 25 cents.

It got pretty silly at times. On one trip, Mr. Google said to take the route 140 bus from the stop where I was standing. Lo and behold, this stop had a list of buses that stopped there and sure enough there was a Route 140 bus listed! It also had the same route names as Mr. Google said! Mr. Google said one came by every 7 minutes. Mr. Google was full of it - after 45 minutes, I bailed and hailed a taxi.

A brief (brief? Me?) rant about taxis. There are perfectly honest taxi drivers in Quito, there are some who are willing to monkey around with not using the meter, and a very small percentage will kidnap you for your ATM card. Never one to abandon a non-working approach, I turned to tech for taxis. I got an app called Fast Taxi apparently popular in South America. I hooked up my credit card, Uber-like and took a stab. I figured there were less likely to be rogues tied into this system and this may be the case - but I never got it to work. Putatively, you type in your destination and it pops up the location, then you can say that you want the taxi at your current location. Slick, eh? Riiiight. After doing all that, and getting down to the request a ride button, and after hitting it you are informed that you have to enter the numeric street address for both your location and your destination - even if your destination is super famous like the aforementioned mall and was filled in by the app. Ever tried finding a street number in any big city? No. can. do. So I abandoned the app and grabbed some guy who, true to form, set a price and skipped the meter. At least he got me to my destination, so all's well that etc. And yes, the $10 fare was probably twice the meter rate, but on the other hand a $10 fare for a 45 minute taxi ride through a major city does not seem like robbery to my USA eyes.

To be fair, there are multiple bus sytems in Quito, includng some quite modern ones in dedicated bus lanes. As Quito is laid out pretty much North-South, using of these tram/bus options can get you pretty close. I am referring to the E3 route, my one gloriously redundant success. I was coming back from Cotapaxi (more later - fabulous!) and was at the Quitumbe terminal. Mr Google said I needed to take the E3 bus. As a quite modern terminal, there was an info office and when I asked there, they said the same thing. I even found a platform labeled E3. And a bus labeled E3 pulled up and it went where I thought it should! Of course, this was my very last bus trip in Quito, so my bus-fu was never tested again.

On the horizon (Quito says 2019, I say 2022) a massive Metro subway system is going in that will run the length of the city. It will be great for those who can afford what will undoubtedly be a fare well north of a quarter. Whether the gleeful chaos aboveground with its cheap fares will survive is a matter of concern to those of limited resources, I am sure.

Oh, did I mention that as far as I can tell, there is neither hide nor hair of anything resembling a bus route map for Quito on line? Sigh.

So, for the possible benefit of future travelers to quito, I present photos of signs I encountered at random that appear to actually be bus route maps. May they serve you well in your own Quito bus adventures!


Posted by tdeits 19:18 Archived in Ecuador Tagged taxi bus route quito schedule easy Comments (1)

The museum of water and a Quito champion

Can you top this?

semi-overcast 77 °F

After several long hours of learning a very few of the ins and outs of the Quito bus system, and a slog up quite a steep hill, I arrived at my first destination, the YAKU Water Museum. I made this choice partly because of my ongoing interest in children's science museums and because I and a number of my good friends have an interest in water as an important topic in the world today.

Quito is built on land which was highly eroded and which is threaded with numerous giant gullies. Here is the view of one directly behind the museum as well as a typical hillside community just adjacent to the gully.


I ran across a very interesting and quite comprehensive discussion of the history of Quito's gullies and urban planning efforts to cope with Quito's unique topography while respecting the environmental sensitivity of the community here (this link causes the download of a good-sized PDF, so be aware - it is in English).

The museum is built from the site of an early water purification facility that served Quito and some of the original equipment is on display. One room has an explanatory video for some of the old filtration tanks which includes English, but the rest of the museum is in Spanish. I did talk to a very friendly guide who had excellent English so it is possible to enjoy the museum with limited Spanish (that's me!). The museum is quite new and has very good exhibits and activities. Here's one of the displays and a picture of their 'water room' for kids to explore.


Here's a couple of other interesting areas. This pool and fountain focus on the role of water in local mythology, including Yaku, a snail god. The next picture is of is a children's village area where kids can see how water affects their everyday lives. Unfortunately it was closed when I arrived, so I was unable to access it.


The museum is perched high in the hills over Quito which makes it a great place to have a look at the entire city. Like Seattle, there are at least three active volcanoes that peek out on the horizon depending on the weather. Here are pictures of each of them they day I visited.


The last image is of Cotapaxi volcano, which I will visit in my next entry! (Sorry, Seattle - Mt. Ranier may be over 14,000 feet tall, but Cotapaxi tops 19,000 feet!)

The museum has a beautiful panoramic window that give you a great view of the entire city - large_water_museum_panorama.jpg

So the museum was a hit with me, and then I had one of my lucky moments on the way out.

At the exit to the museum I saw a doorway with a peculiar object over the door and the sound of power tools coming from inside. I got brave and decided to stick my head in the door. Inside I found a tiny woodworking shop filled with hundreds of miscellaneous objects and a very friendly guy. He had no English at all, but we managed to get a conversation started. He is Jorge Rivadeneira. At age 12 he won a world championship in spinning tops and has been making spinning tops ever since. Now, at age 85, he is a cheerful presence in his cluttered and charming shop. He sells tops out the door of his shop, so of course I bought one. This is one of the great pleasures of travel for me - finding odd and interesting places and congenial people. Here is a picture of his shop (and the sign for the entry to the Yaku Water Museum) and a picture of Jorge who has spun up a top for me and is wearing it on his head! How cool is that?


p.s. I certainly can't hold it against Jorge, but the Ecuadorian for a spinning top is a 'Trompo'.

Next, a couple of adventures out of town.

Posted by tdeits 13:21 Archived in Ecuador Tagged water bus museum top jorge toys quito cotapaxi trompo rivadeneira gullies Comments (1)

Two excursions to the North and South of Quito

Otavalo and Cotapaxi

semi-overcast 51 °F

I really wanted to get a bit out of town as well and see the surrounding countryside so I opted to take two day trips on my own. The first was to Otavalo, a town famous for its central market and handicrafts. Buses to Otavalo leave from the Carcelen Terminal, but of course you have to get there. Pro tip- a bus that says 'Carcelen' in the window will take you the center of the Carcelen district, about a mile (downhill) from the Terminal proper. If you jump off this bus at the right time you can cut that distance in half. There are other, more efficient methods to get there by bus, but sorry, I can't tell you what they are! Once I arrived, I hopped a bus to Otavalo within about 5 minutes - at a cost of $3 for the 90 minute bus ride (very comfortable bus).

The ride itself is pretty interesting. The highway is broad, smooth and relatively new. Given the amount of erosion to which the area is subject, it must have been a monumental project. In this picture you can see a very large hillside covered with sprayed concrete to prevent futher erosion. It may be that the center section has succumbed already, so this will no doubt be an ongoing challenge. It's a scenic and enjoyable trip nonetheless.


Otavalo is a small town that caters to tourists. It sits at the base of the 15,000 foot Ibambura volcano (resting for about 14,000 years but considered capable of eruption).


Ibambura is revered by the local indigenous peoples, the Otavalenos, who are also responsible for the handicrafts, principally woven and knitted materials often incorporating alpaca and cashmere wool. The streets and sidwalks are nicely decorated and there are plenty of restaurants and hotels. Here's a street scene in the center of town as well as a picture of a utility access cover. Readers of my earlier blog entries, like Japan at your feet will know I am on the lookout for interesting examples wherever I go. This one features an Otavaleno child.


Frankly, however, the big central market was a bit of a disappointment. It's colorful and fun to walk through, but the great majority of items are available in, say, the market in Quito. I did pick up some actual handwoven small textiles with an interesting design. Negotiation is expected, and I got the price down about a third, which is as I understand it, par for the course. Not something I'm experienced at or even all that comfortable with, given the initial economic disparity, but it's customary, I guess.


Was it worth the effort to go to Otavalo? I"m about 50/50 on that.

My next excursion was considerably more entertaining.

Cotapaxi is one of the volcanoes to be seen from Quito - see my earlier post. You can join a tour from Quito or from town near Cotapaxi, but I decided to wing it. Buses to Cotapaxi leave from the Quitumbe bus station, which serves destinations to the south of Quito. I admit I did wimp out and take a taxi across town this time. It cost $10 for about a 45 minute taxi ride, so seemed to be a prudent choice.

Again, lots of buses, again about 3 bucks for the 2 hour ride. Here's another small pro tip for regional buses. Regional buses go all over Ecuador and beyond and they are an astonishingly inexpensive way to get around. One tip is that if you would prefer a bus that doesn't make a lot of intermediate stops (meaning anytime anyone wants to get off anywhere), don't ask for a 'direct' bus- ask for an 'Executivo;' they are slightly more expensive and usually slightly more comfortable (one I took showed a movie) but will get you there a little bit quicker.

Anyway, I was dropped off at 'Cotapaxi.' It turns out what that means is you are dropped off at a freeway overpass in the middle of nowhere.



Fortunately, I am likely not the first tourist to choose this path, as just up the hill was a line of pickups and guides. The first guy in line offered to take me on a tour of Cotapaxi for $40, and I said OK. He was a certified guide who has been doing this for 15 years and he and I got on quite well. Suffice it to say that we spent over 4 hours exploring the area, stopping for pictures whenever and wherever, and ultimately reaching as high as you can go without trying to summit.

The hillsides are covered with alpine flowers of all descriptions, and there is a peculiar gray granular material covering the higher ground that might be some kind of pumice derivative, but I have not been able to identify it. You can see some in one of the pictures below.



The road winds ever higher. It gets so steep that towards the top we picked up 6 more people just to get enough weight in the truck to continue uphill (their car had reached its limit). Here's a look back down at part of the road.


There are some spectacular erosional features, and we also got our first look at the Jose F. Rivas refuge, which in this shot kind of looks like Shangri-La, but is in fact the starting point for summiters.


We ground our way up, parked and hiked a short distance further up the hill where I got a closer look at the refuge and at my altimeter, which showed a personal record - 15,279 feet,, almost 1000 feet higher than Mount Rainier!


Of course, the star of the show is Cotapaxi itself at a staggering 19,347 feet in height, and after teasing us all day by staying in the clouds, the summit peeked out for a few minutes. Awesome!


We wandered down the hill, taking more photos and stopping at an alpine lake.


The lake was pretty, but I was most intrigued by this little bird who spent considerable time working on this hole until, finally, he unearthed a tasty grub (by his feet in the second shot).


And no trip is complete without a picture of a cow, in this case a Cotapaxi native. As I took the shot, it amused my guide to grab his red hankercheif for a few ole's!


My guide finally dropped me off at the same nondescript overpass and within 10 minutes a bus came by to whisk me back to Quito. Let's hear it for extemporaneity!!

So - two very interesting and fulfilling days. If I had to choose one to repeat, it would be Cotapaxi hands down!

Posted by tdeits 15:09 Archived in Ecuador Tagged flowers volcano bus market otavalo ecuador cotapaxi executivo quitumbe alttude Comments (0)

On to the Galapagos!

Santa Cruz Island

semi-overcast 77 °F

After a great time in Quito, I hopped a plane to the Galapagos. Pro tip number one. You have to pay a $20 cash fee before you board a flight to the Galapagos at a booth in one corner of the Quito airport. Also, my ticket agent insisted that I have a lock for my bag before she would check me in. I was able to find one at the gift shop in the airport for about $!0. I have no idea whether this is an airline requirement or what; of course, in the US you can lock your bag but only with a TSA approved lock; that is, one they can unlock. In Ecuador, apparently any lock is OK.

My flight had a stopover in Guayaquil. Pro tip number two!. I thought the flight attendants announced that you could get off the plane while waiting in Guayaquil. I was wrong! I wandered off and because the only passage that would allow me back on was blocked, I had to leave the secured area of the airport. One nice thing was that I got to view this beautiful wall of orchids and plants in the airport:


It took some charm and patience, but I was able to talk my way back through security and reboard. Whew!

We landed at the Galapagos airport on Baltra Island, the main airport in the islands. I was excited to be in the Galapagos, as I am a great admirer of Charles Darwin and of course it is a legendary 'bucket list' place for many, myself included. What I was not prepared for was my emotional reaction. As we left the plane via a set of stairs, we proceeded down a breezeway. Looking up and to my left I saw two birds; Darwin finches. One was relatively light-colored with a slender bill, the other was darker with a heavier bill.

I was very moved by the mere sight of these two birds. Of course, they were the first wildlife I saw, but more than that, their differences in coloration and beak size perfectly illustrated the traits that led Darwin to intensively examine the birds of the Galapagos. Years of study later, he realized that while he thought he was studying a wide variety of birds; robins, meadowlarks, etc. he determined that they were all evolved finches! These observations formed a significant part of the foundation of his thinking on evolution and natural selection. This is one of those rare scientific insights that is immediately apparent to the non-specialist, and at the same time one that profoundly influenced science. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised at my reaction.

Back to pro tips. You need to be ready to pay $100 cash per person to enter the Galapagos at the airport, so be prepared; there is an ATM available, but I wouldn't count on that myself. The airport itself has been recently rebuilt using many energy and resource conservation principles. The airport improvements are part of a multi-decade program to restore the environment and the wildlife of the Galapagos, funded at least in part by this fee. I understand that about half the fee goes to island parks and restoration, about 25% to the towns of Galapagos, and the remainder to a variety of Ecuadorian organizations like the Navy.

Speaking of money, I will repeat from an earlier post. You will have a lot of trouble making purchases in Ecuador and the Galapagos unless you have LOTS of small bills with you. Finding someone who will take a cash machine $20 or even a $10 is a real challenge and credit cards are rarely accepted. I would recommend a couple hundred dollars in singles for a reasonable length stay. ATM's are abundant on Santa Cruz, by the way.

More practicalities. You get your luggage after a pretty entertaining time where you watch a sniffer dog climbing all over everyone's bags. The dog found something from our plane; that bag got hustled off. You then board a quite crowded bus for a 10 minute ride to a channel separating Baltra Island from the main island of Santa Cruz. The airport is probably on this island at least in part because during WWII the US and Ecuadorians build an air base on the island. Unfortunately, the development of the base led to the extinction on the island of a unique iguana species. Luckily, a reserve colony existed and is being used to repopulate the island, which is being restored to its natural state to the extent possible. As you travel on the bus, you will see the foundations of many buildings that were part of the air base.


The airport bus takes you to a dock where you board a passenger ferry for a 10 minute ride across the channel from Baltra Island to Santa Cruz (you will need one of your dollars right here). There is usually a bus and several taxis waiting to take you onward. If your destination is the main town of Puerto Ayora, the bus will get you there for about $3. The taxi costs about $25 - as usual, ask first. Both get you there at about the same time, so take your choice.

Puerto Ayora is the main town on the south end of the island, about a 45 minute bus ride from the airport/channel. It's a small town but does have plenty of amenities, including a supermarket and many hotels, apartments and hostels. This is the main 'tourist street' along the water and one of its attractions, a small fish market with multispecies attendance.


I had an AirBNB booking for a small apartment ($65/day). Good hotels run about $100, and hostels are in the $15-$20 range. My place was several blocks from the waterfront which was no problem, and was clean and comfortable. All agree that drinking tap water anywhere in the Galapagos is inadvisable. I continued my modestly reckless policy of avoiding using tap water to drink/brush my teeth, but still eating salads and accepting ice cubes in my occasional adult beverage. I survived with no ill effects, but YMMV!

There are dozens of shops selling day tours and longer excursions. I frequently saw signs out front offering 'last minute' trips of up to 8 days, often leaving the next day. I did not shop these tours, but it does suggest that if you want to take a chance you could find a room for the night in Puerto Ayora and spend the next day shopping for a bargain tour if that is your preference. I'm guessing it would be a good plan to research whether tours tend to leave on particular days (I saw several leaving on a Friday) and get there one day ahead?

My interest was in day snorkeling trips, so I carefully selected one of the tour agencies by the process of wandering past a bunch of them until I got bored. Actually, I picked mine because their walls were covered with pictures signed by happy and satisfied clients and it had 'Evolution' in the name. It was called Galapagos Evolution Dreams . (Their web page is completely content-free, but I have linked to it in case additional info is forthcoming). I went in and said 'sign me up for 3 tours over the next 5 days' and they made recommendations and did so. As it happens, all of the tours were very good and took me to a variety of sites around the Islands. The full day tours typically start between 7:30 and 9:00 in the morning and return by 3:00 or 4:00. Each tour has two or three snorkeling opportunities and one other stroll or something. The guides are all certified (I saw about 100 guides in training one day) and I thought they all worked hard to make the trips enjoyable. Water and a lunch are provided (ask if unsure) and they usually provide snorkel, mask, fins and a wetsuit at no extra charge. I brought my own gear as I have a prescription mask. You could snorkel without a spring-weight wetsuit, but the water is perhaps just a bit too cool for full comfort without it.

So, with my plans in place, I hit the supermarket for some breakfast goodies and got ready to get a look at the wild side of the Galapagos. Wet and wild critters here I come!

Posted by tdeits 13:17 Archived in Ecuador Tagged hotels tours santa cruz puerto snorkeling lodging guides galapagos airbnb baltra ayora Comments (0)

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