To really see an area, one must travel around. Because Two Who Trek are not strangers to travel, we used several methods to explore the city. Here’s a short look at some of our options.
Walking is the best way of getting around Cuenca, especially in the historic center of the city. With a good pair of shoes for support and plenty of time, one can get around rather quickly. Two Who Trek found that during peak times, we could walk through the city center faster than taking a bus or a taxi.
Cuenca features a river walk on either side of the Rio Tomebamba, next to the old city. These paths are great for a stroll, or a peaceful spot to relax.
However, there are some downsides to walking in Cuenca. Many sidewalks are very narrow, allowing only two people side by side. For some reason, Cuencanos like to walk in groups, and they don’t like to yield the sidewalk to oncoming pedestrians. Additionally, during the day, the streets are often filled with vehicular traffic, making it dangerous to step off the curb to avoid groups of people.
Because Cuenca is a city of over 500,000 people, some treks are just too far for walking. To meet the need, the city has an extensive system of bus lines. The large blue buses run all over the city. What is the fee to ride a city bus? The fee is a bargain-basement price of 25¢. (It is interesting to note that although Ecuador uses US paper currency, they use US and Ecuadorian coinage.)
The city has agreements with six different bus companies as to who can run on which routes. There are over thirty routes covering the city and immediate surrounding areas. Buses are individually owned by the drivers, who in turn contract with the bus companies.
Routes are clearly marked on a sign in the front window. The signs show the route number as well as the key destinations along that route.
To board a bus, enter by the door closest to the front and drop your money into the fare box. If you don’t have exact change, the driver or his associate will make change for you, but this action slows down the usual quick departure. Riders exit through the rear door, located about 2/3 of the way back on the bus’s right side.
The buses are generally in good condition. Most were built by Mercedes Benz or Volkswagen. However, they are all propelled by some of the most noxious diesel engines ever assembled. It is very common for a bus to drive away from a stop, leaving a huge cloud of black smoke in its wake. Ecuador hasn’t yet embraced clean diesel requirements!
Intercity buses can be of any color other than blue. Most seem to be some combination of yellow, white, or green. To board an intercity bus, one usually takes a city bus (one that has “terminal” listed on the front window sign) to the Terminal Terrestre, the main bus terminal located about a mile east of downtown.
Hundreds of buses leave the Terminal Terrestre daily, headed to destinations all over Ecuador. Travel here is also reasonably priced. The three-hour trip to Guayaquil costs $8. Heading to Quito? Allow 10 to 12 hours and bring along a $10 bill to cover the fare.
To board an intercity bus, walk through the Terminal Terrestre. You will pass some gift shops and not-too-inviting snack shops. Drivers will be inside the terminal, encouraging you to take their bus – after all, a full bus means more revenue for them. However, their bus may not be the next to leave and their destination may not meet your preference.
To get to the intercity busses, you must deposit 10¢ into a turnstile to exit the building. Outside, there is a walkway under a canopy with buses parked at the walkway’s edge. Long distance buses (such as to Quito) will be to your right; more local, shorter distance buses will be to your left. The buses that are leaving next are always parked under the canopy. When one bus is full and leaves, another bus heading to the same destination then moves into that parking spot.
Walking down the row of busses, look at the top of the windshield for the bus’s destination. When you find the bus heading to where you want to go, simply climb aboard, pay the fare and find a seat.
Two Who Trek and their teacher/guides took the intercity bus to Gualaceo, to visit an artisan weaver’s place of business. The journey took about an hour due to frequent stops and cost a whopping 60¢. Adding on the standard city bus fare of 25¢ and the 10¢ transfer fare, the entire trip cost less than $1 per person!
Entertainment Aboard Buses:
On both the city and intercity buses, vendors board the bus, selling everything from chocolate bars at 3 for $1, to an organic panacea of uncertain origin for curing most physical maladies. The vendors give passengers a sample of their wares. They walk through the bus aisle and give their speech full of hyperbole about the product. If you choose not to buy, politely and firmly return the merchandise when the vendor ends the presentation. At the next stop, the vendor will generally hop off the bus and a new vendor will board, repeating the process.
Taxis offer yet another transportation alternative. Thirty taxi companies serve the Cuenca area. Like buses, taxis are owned by the drivers. The government has established rates for the various distances covered; a tariff sheet may be available for review.
Taxis vary from almost new to several years old. Most are clean inside and relatively new; Two Who Trek only found one that smelled of urine. Paper tree air fresheners hanging from the rear view mirror are a frequent decoration.
Taxis were our preferred method of mechanized travel (walking, of course, was the number one choice). Because Two Who Trek really aren’t morning people and it’s an uphill walk to school, we usually took a taxi in the morning, insuring a timely class arrival by 8:30. Instead of the 40 minute walk, the ride took about 10 – 15 minutes.
Knowing that the rates are established by the city and apparently were $2 from our apartment to downtown, Joe liked to play the game known as “gringotaxi”. To play this game, simply hand a $5 bill to the driver when you reach your destination and see what change you get back. Sometimes the driver charged just $1.50. These drivers got a $1 tip. Sometimes the driver charged $3. Guess what tip these drivers got?
In general, the drivers were prompt, fair, and polite. They worked to make sure we arrived at our destination quickly and safely.
Taxis are plentiful, too. To hail one, just thrust out your hand at waist level, and the next available one will stop. But don’t be surprised if empty cabs pass you in the rain – many of these are radio dispatched to callers who don’t want to stand outside waiting for a taxicab.