Am I crazy to want to rent a car for a one week vacation in Ecuador?
January 23, 2014 11:23 AM   Subscribe

We are going for a one week trip to Ecuador in early March. I am a few years away from retirement age and so we are researching Cuenca as a place to retire on what our pitiful pensions will provide. We will fly into Guayaquil and plan to spend three days at a coastal eco-lodge, then three days in Cuenca, and back to Guayaquil. I don't need anyone to convince me of the pros or cons of gringo retirement to Ecuador--that's what the trip is for. I need to know if I am bat-shit crazy to rent a car over taking the astoundingly cheap buses and taxis there.

Other facts that may be important: My Spanish is limited. I can grasp basic concepts and directions, but I will never be mistaken for a fluent--or even moderate--speaker. Also, I have driven in other countries where my grasp of the language was non-existent or the signage or the available directions for point a to point b was poor or entirely unavailable. I have thrived in those situations, I actually enjoy it. I do not enjoy physical danger from hijacking or corruption. I do not plan to drive any distance after dark, and while in Cuenca, the car will probably remain parked.

Any advice will be welcomed.
posted by beelzbubba to Travel & Transportation around Ecuador (18 answers total)
Renting a car would be crazy. Driving is incredibly dangerous and you could easily face multiple opportunities for corruption. You could also face significant delays in case of an accident (i do not believe you face automatic arrest in Ecuador as you do in some countries).

Call for taxis and get hotel recommendations for drivers. But don't drive yourself
posted by limagringo at 11:36 AM on January 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Because you're evaluating the country for future retirement on fixed income, you should be using the same cheap, local transportation that you'll be using when you retire. (I assume you won't be trying to maintain a car when you retire?)
posted by jpeacock at 11:50 AM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Please don't do it. Let's leave aside the danger, the corruption, etc, and just consider the renting aspect. There is a great deal of complexity involved in renting a car, in terms of liability, legality, billing, deposits, gotchas, etc. In America, the rental companies have worked hard to simplify all that and remove much of the uncertainty, to the point where these days it's more like renting a DVD. It wasn't always thus. There used to be gotchas galore, and while the process has been streamlined, you can still glimpse how this industry once was at the rental desk, with all the b.s. come-ons and b.s. warnings and b.s. statemtns of what's in your best interest. As in all highly complex, high-stakes, relatively low-cost businesses, it's not a "nice" business. Here, it's only been mostly tamed.

In a place like Ecuador, NONE of that streamlining has happened. And the gotchas and the liability and the legality and billing and deposits are all in play. And have been honed to an art. And you have no idea what your rights are. And you probably don't speak the langauge perfectly (this sort of stuff is specialized vocabulary; I'm semi-fluent in Spanish but couldn't get through the fine points of this stuff). And you have no idea who to appeal to if things go wrong. And if you did, those appealed-to parties might be corrupt and in cahoots.

Just don't do it. Really. Get a driver. Support the economy. Make friends.
posted by Quisp Lover at 12:05 PM on January 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

Take the buses and taxis for all the reasons limagringo said above.

And I say this after having lived in Ecuador.
posted by eas98 at 12:06 PM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Not trying to get a chat going here, but I think I may need to clarify: limagringo, I'm wondering why you think driving there is incredibly dangerous. First hand experience? jpeacock, I don't plan on maintaining a car after I retire, but I also don't think I'll be travelling with a weeks worth of gear & professional photo equipment either.
posted by beelzbubba at 12:07 PM on January 23, 2014

Lots of relevant information here on the State Department's web site.

I also don't think I'll be travelling with a weeks worth of gear & professional photo equipment either.

Hey, it's just me, and I'm a risk averse guy, but I wouldn't take my iPhone to Ecuador, much less my 5D Mark III.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:37 PM on January 23, 2014

Best answer: First hand experience as a passenger in ecuador for about a six month period and as a driver and passenger in Peru (resident for six years). I cannot stress enough what a bad idea this is. Imagine someone hits you and God forbid someone is hurt. Is your limited Spanish up to talking to cops to sort out liability? Because the other guy will definitely claim it is your fault and there could be criminal liability as well as civil.

You don't like corruption? What about a traffic stop where you better slip the guy a couple of bucks or the cop takes your passport?

Seriously check the country out but do not complicate your life with a rental car at this stage. It is unnecessary and introduces a significant degree of risk.
posted by limagringo at 12:39 PM on January 23, 2014

Get real familiar with the country before you decide to do this, and do not take all that gear with you on your first trip. People get robbed all the time for cameras there. Go with something a little less conspicuous.

I wouldn't be THAT concerned with state department warnings, because they're able to make anything sound like a hellacious war zone, but you do need to be cautious when travelling around Latin America.
posted by empath at 12:51 PM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've been to Ecuador over a dozen times, most recently in October, and I can't imagine driving around there. I usually have a hotel or travel company driver take me around (I'm there for business) and even as a passenger it's white knuckle driving. A two-lane road (one lane in each direction) often will have three cars sharing those two lanes. Honking for no apparent reason. They flash their brights because there's a cow in the road. To warn you of a dead body up ahead. Because it's fun. There's lots of mountainous roads with blind curves. Ecuador is going through a huge uptick in building new roads everywhere you go, so what were bad roads before are now bad roads UNDER CONSTRUCTION, with kids and people and dogs meandering here and there. One minute you're on a nice road, and the next minute it's a bumpy gravelly pile of dirt with mountains of sand towering over you and tractors barreling through cones and a drop off of a thousand feet to your right if you're in a canyon. And no guardrail. And let's never mind the difference between OESTE and ESTE.

I'd travel if you can by bus or taxi, and maybe rent a car for a day to test your jangled nerves of steel.
posted by HeyAllie at 12:52 PM on January 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I did a school program in Ecuador and bussed around no problem. We took taxis all over the place too. The taxi drivers will try to upcharge you because you are gringos, so try to ask in advance what the price will be and make sure they stick to it. In my experience a lot of things were negotiable-- so if you think you are being overcharged, try to talk them down.

It might be smart to get a basic idea of how much a taxi ride form Airport A to Bus Station B will cost, so you have a reference point before flagging a taxi. I'm sure you could bring this question to the Ecuador Expat Forum and they would have more suggestions and accurate information for you.

I would not feel comfortable driving in Ecuador with limited Spanish and limited experience with the people and culture of Ecuador.

And just in case you haven't been perusing expat blogs by North Americans who have made the move to Ecuador, check out this one.

Try the aji hot sauce and have some cuy if you're feeling adventurous :)
posted by stompadour at 12:55 PM on January 23, 2014

Response by poster: The verdict is in. Yes, I would be batshitinsane to try to rent & drive. As much as I like adventure, it sounds like the the danger far outweighs the rewards. Thanks. More advice of a general nature is welcome in MeMail (or here I suppose, too, but it would be off topic).
posted by beelzbubba at 1:01 PM on January 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

All other excellent points raised aside: I'm not sure where you're from, but Cuenca has an elevation of 8,400ft, which is almost 2x the elevation of Denver, for example. If you have never been at elevations like that, and/or if you're not a quick acclimator, do not risk driving yourself around, because the soroche can hit you hard and fast and it really sucks.
posted by elizardbits at 1:20 PM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

TBH I think you might want to set aside some extra time in case of altitude sickness, because it can last a week or more if you're unlucky. It would suck to go all that way and not get to see or do anything during your three allotted days in Cuenca.
posted by elizardbits at 1:23 PM on January 23, 2014

Hey, it's just me, and I'm a risk averse guy, but I wouldn't take my iPhone to Ecuador, much less my 5D Mark III.

I guess this all depends on where you are staying. I was in Ecuador for a few weeks this past May and I brought my Kindle, iPhone, hiking gear, etc. and was totally fine. I stayed in Quito with an Ecuadorian family and took public transit and was not so much as leered at. I am female.

Another member of our group was mugged at knifepoint and had her iPhone stolen as she was waiting for someone on the side of the road at 5:30 in the morning. A third member was the victim of an attempted purse slashing on the bus, because she brought her expensive Coach purse to the poorest part of town after we told her to lock it up in the school office.

I think if you do not plan to put your possessions in dangerous situations, and you trust the hotel etc. where you are staying, then you should bring all your gear and enjoy.

I still wouldn't drive though.
posted by chainsofreedom at 1:51 PM on January 23, 2014

I learned to drive as a 14-year-old kid in Ecuador. I'm fairly fluent. I am not terribly afraid to drive in developing countries.

Holy crap, don't drive there.

It's been more than 15 years, and my memory is pretty iffy, but a few anecdotes:

Story 1: We rented a Trooper and went up Pichincha. The sketch-ass brakes went out on our way back down, and we COASTED DOWN A VOLCANO AT TOP SPEED. Nope.

Story 2: With his purchased Trooper, my father opened his door in Quito, on a completely deserted, one-lane street. Nobody was coming, as far as he could see. Suddenly, a speed demon came ripping up the street, with no headlights on, and TORE HIS DOOR COMPLETELY OFF, NEARLY ALONG WITH HIS HAND.

Story 3: Car got broken into, and they somehow stole the steering wheel, even with The Club on it. I remember MY MOTHER driving it home with a screwdriver.

Story 4: One of my first times driving, it was a quick trip in my own little town, and I was pulled over. They held for 200 bucks (or the equivalent in Sucres, at the time), which I didn't have. My neighbor found me, and went and told my parents. I was an American teenager. Oh my god.

Anyway. Most everyone there has drivers. Along with a housekeeper, a gardener, and maybe a nanny. It's utterly normal.

Please just get one.
posted by ulfberht at 3:05 PM on January 23, 2014 [8 favorites]

First hand experience renting a (battered) Nissan sentra from the Guayaquil airport and driving up to the beaches, etc.

Holy hell. Don't.
posted by slateyness at 10:20 PM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm going to be of a slightly different opinion than folks here

I've been to about 14 Latin American countries - taken public transit and intercity buses in all of them. Have rented and driven in Ecuador, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico and Panama, sometimes for a day or two, some for a week.

I'm a little confused at the reactions from most of the commentors here, which seem to center in on HOLY CRAP IT'S SO DANGEROUS. These are all countries with reasonably well-established roads and highways, especially between the major cities of which I speak. Is the road quality up to US levels of infraustrcutre? is the signage as good? no - but it's not terrible either.

When I was in Ecuador in 2008 I rented for a week from Quito, then drove to Salinas, then to Cuenca, then to Guayaquil. I didn't find it particulary harrowing in general, except for a few things:

1) Mountain roads - there is a substantial difference in elevation - like 8,000 feet between a coastal Guayaquil and mountainous Cuenca. Much like driving in the Rockies, if you aren't used to doing this, you really need to be comfortable. It was helpful for me to be driving stick and engine braking instead of burning your brakes (and overheating them to the point where they fail - which is a big problem)

2) Most rural driving was fine. Driving in the cities, if you're not familiar with big city driving in somewhere like NYC, can be a little nervewracking. I found it fine in most places except Guayaquil, which was sprawling, hugely congested, and a little nervewracking

I've never had problems with any police in any of these countries (as long as you are polite). I did get into one light accident once in the Dominican Republic (and that took a while to sort out - to get a police report and then it took several months for my credit card to reimburse me for the dmaage). I did have to talk my way out of a ticket once.

So my thought on this is probably this - taxis and a chaffeur are going to be cheap. Really cheap. It might be worth it the first time you are there to not put the additional stress of driving when ypu're unfamiliar with the country and you don't speak the language at all. I don't think it's the undoable or frightening experience that half the people seem to think it is, and some of the opinions of people here smacks of a, fear of the other. So it's certainly something to keep in mind in the future.
posted by waylaid at 8:26 AM on January 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Well, we're back from Ecuador and with mixed feelings about not having rented a car there, at least for the trip up the coast. The roads were great, the people were wonderful. Our smartphones and our Canon 5D were just fine. The 5D had a bit of a problem with the humidity, but recovered nicely. The intercity buses were FANTASTIC! Can't say enough about them.

But we hired a driver to get us up the coast, adn seeing as it was Carnaval weekend, that cost us $100, which was the discuenta rate off of the $120 gouge everyone was asking for b/c of the holiday and everyone else in Guayaquil wanting to get up the coast. Plus the "world surfing championships" in Montanita meant the Patchouli Patrol was out in full force.

Honestly, I've driven in worse situations (driving the wrong way on an unmarked Senso Unico in Pisa, Italy comes to mind) and even with my limited Spanish, we'd have been just fine.

We talked to other Ecuadorian natives, mostly from Guayaquil who were on the coast in Santa Elena and they gently scoffed at our American provinciality.

Next time we go to Manglaralto (because we will be going back) I will be renting a car. Chevy Sparks were all over the place.
posted by beelzbubba at 2:15 PM on April 4, 2014

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