Getting around in a city is one of the first things to figure out as a new expat. In Cuenca, Ecuador an excellent and affordable option is to take the bus.
As with most things in expatriating, a little know- how goes along way in making the transition from what you expect from public transit back home, to the new and novel experience of riding the bus in another country. I ride the bus to work every day and usually one day out of my weekend features a bus trip to some exotic place around town, like a friend’s house for dinner or Coral for plant pots, so I feel pretty confident discussing bus riding in Cuenca.
Oh, sure, there are the basic details of “how much does it cost” and “how do I know where the bus stop is” which I of course will cover, yet it’s important to know what’s considered appropriate behavior on the bus – the cultural nuances of riding the bus.
The Bus Stop
I live on the north side of town and work on the west side. It takes me about 5-7 minutes of easy walking to get to the bus stop where I pick up the bus for work. All bus trips start at the neighborhood bus stops, which are marked by blue and white signs with buses printed on them. Occasionally you will see black and gray signs with buses printed on them; don’t be fooled – these signs just indicate a bus travels on that road. Unless death is imminent for a passenger, most bus drivers will not stop anywhere except the official bus stops with the blue and white signs. There are one or two places around town where they may break that rule, and yet you have to ride the bus to know where you might get lucky with an off-stop.
Bus Tip#1: Don’t try to catch the bus anywhere but an official bus stop – it’s not gonna happen
There have been plenty of times when I’m the only person waiting at the stop and just as many times when the stop is crowded with a dozen people waiting. It’s okay to make casual conversation with people at the bus stop, and I’ve had some nice “stop chats”; however, don’t be surprised if nobody is really talkative because
- it’s early in the morning/late in the day and people are tired,
- everybody is preoccupied with work or family just like you, and
- no one wants to launch into a full-blown cultural exchange –they just want to get from point A to B.
Buses in Cuenca are blue or red. There’s really no difference between blue and red buses; the only thing I’ve noticed is that sometimes the red buses are a bit newer or can carry a few more passengers. Each bus displays a sign card in the front window with its route number and the name of the area and/or streets it serves. For example, I often ride the #100 bus to work, which is one of the buses that goes to Baños on the southwest side of town, so the sign on the front says “#100 Baños,” plus the names of several other stops on the way. Whenever a bus reaches its final destination, the driver changes the sign in the front window to reflect the return route, which is usually the same route in reverse just with different descriptions – the #100 turns into “#100 Ricaurte” on the way back into town from Baños.
So you’ve identified the bus by its sign as it comes up to the stop and you’re ready to go. Be prepared for the rush of Ecuadorians to get on board – the nice little lady standing next to you at the stop can turn into an NFL linebacker in the blink of an eye! I’m still not sure what all the rush is about – sometimes it’s to grab a seat when the bus is crowded, and yet I believe it has more to do with the very real possibility of the bus driver taking off while you’re stepping on the bus.
That happens, by the way. A lot. Bus drivers can be super-nice and polite and will still take off as soon as your back foot lifts off the pavement. It’s a good idea to have at least one hand free so you can hold on to the step railing while scooching your backside away from the closing door. Don’t worry about paying your fare right away – just get on the bus safely and quickly. Many Ecuadorians stagger up the steps and find a place to lean or hang on and then pay their fares when their feet are steady, even sometimes sitting down for a stop or two and then paying.
By the way, all of these points may be moot because there’s always the possibility that the bus driver will blow you off at the stop and not pick you up at all. This has happened to me, and anybody else who rides the bus, plenty of times. According to bus regulations, drivers are not supposed to skip picking you up. If the approaching bus is packed to the gills, the driver may not stop, and I’ve also experienced nearly-empty buses zooming by. My personal record is being blown off by three buses in a row – the only consolation was that it was the same group of passengers waiting the whole time, so we shared some nice cultural moments commiserating about buses and drivers.
Bus Tip #2: Get on the bus as quickly and as safely as you can. You have to be alive to pay the fare!
Bus Tip #3: At some point, a bus driver will blow you off. Accept it and wait for the next bus or get a taxi if you’re in a hurry.
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Paying The Bus Fare
So you’re now safely on the bus and it’s time to pay your fare. As of this writing, bus fares are still just 25 cents per person, half-price if you’re over 65. There are two ways you can pay – coins or a card. The Integrated Transport System (SIT) of Cuenca and the bus drivers are pushing for more riders to use the cards because they’re cheap, easy to use and recharge, and can be personalized with a photo so , in case your card is stolen, it can be tracked and/or replaced. Sometimes the coin and card machines are on the same side of the steps when you get on the bus, and sometimes they’re split, with one on each side.
I love my bus card. It makes riding the bus so much easier and, if you’re so inclined, there are some pretty fancy key fob bus cards out there so you can channel your inner fashion hound. The card is ridiculously cheap ($1.75) and is available at any store that offers SIT recargas, which is the term for adding money to your bus card. You can visit the SIT website for a list of where to buy/recharge your card – if you want a personalized card with your photo on it, you need to go to one of the SIT offices or the bus terminals. My card is the size of a standard credit card, and I keep it in a small leather sleeve in my backpack. When I get on the bus, I just swipe my card and the machine gives me an instant reading on how much money is left on my card and thanks me with a cheery, robotic “gracias.” When the card is empty, I just stop at a store and buy some more rides. Spend $10 and you can ride for a month!
Any combination of coins is just fine for the coin machine. Of course, you really want 25 cents because, if all you have is a dollar coin or a 50-cent piece, you have to stand or sit up front and ask for change. That’s right – the bus driver doesn’t handle money and you’re responsible for getting change if you need it. Let’s say all you have is a 50-cent piece and there’s only one of you, so you need 25 cents back. You wait at the front and when the next group of riders gets on the bus, you ask for 25 cents in Spanish, which is basically saying the number 25 – “Veinte y cinco”? (pronounced Bayne-tay ee seen-koh). You stand or sit up front until you get your change. So, yes, that means if all you have is a dollar coin and it’s only you riding, you have to hit up three future riders for 75 cents. On the up side, if it’s you and a friend riding together, just get on the bus, show the driver your 50-cent coin and say “Dos,” which is Spanish for the number two.
Bus Tip #4: Get a bus card – your bus rides will be much more enjoyable without the hassle of finding change
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Being On The Bus
Your backside is intact, your fare is paid and now you need to find a seat. Cuenca buses have, depending on the style of the bus, different setups and capacities for seated and standing riders. A bus may hold as few as 60 passengers or as many as 90, there may be several seats set aside for pregnant women or elderly passengers or just a few, and aisles may be wide enough to let people pass comfortably or so tight you have to lean forward over the seats and other riders to let people by. Ecuadorians, for the most part, are helpful and respectful to others, so it is common to see men and women give up their seats to an elderly person or a woman with two small children. Even though there are seats designated for people with special circumstances or disabilities, don’t count on the bus driver enforcing any of these rules or riders leaving any open seats. The buses are dependable and well-used, which means they’re often busy, so if you have a chance to take a seat, do it because you will actually help move along the internal traffic on the bus.
On the Cuenca buses, you enter through the front door and leave out the back door. In general, as soon as you get on the bus, start moving to the rear. It doesn’t matter if you are going to ride sitting down or standing up, just start moving to the back. If the bus is crowded, keep moving towards the rear a little at a time — you want to be at the back so you can get off the bus more easily and quickly. Don’t worry about knocking people around with your backpack or stepping on toes – just do the best you can and realize Ecuadorians are doing the same. Also, if you are tall, consider grabbing the overhead bars for extra balance as you make your way down the aisle or using them when you come to a standstill. There are usually plenty of them available because, at least in Cuenca, most Ecuadorians are shorter in height and need to use the lower bars or seats for support.
If the bus is empty, by all means sit up front — just know that you will, at some point, have to make your way down the aisle to the back doors. Sometimes a bus driver will allow an elderly person or a pregnant woman to exit the bus via the front door — and you hear that person thank the driver on the way out — but it’s not the norm so plan on leaving from the back. Also, if the bus is crowded, expect to hear the bus driver say “Siga, por favor,” which is shorthand-speak for “move it along because we need to make room for more people to get on the bus.”
The seats are usually two-passengers-wide, one by the window and one by the aisle. Depending on the style of bus, some of the seat legroom may be less or more. If you’re seated on the aisle and the window seat next to you is empty, it’s common to move over to the window seat if the bus is crowded to make it easier for another person to sit down. If the bus isn’t busy, then feel free to sit on the aisle with no worries about other passengers. If someone still wants to sit with you, either stand up or swing your legs sideways into the aisle and let them settle into the window seat.
A lot of people nap on the bus or listen to music to pass the time. There are all types of riders, including students in their formal uniforms, professional men and women, indigenous folks on their way to and from the market, and lots of women with babies. Occasionally, there are people selling items on the bus (technically illegal but still done a lot) so you may get to hear a pitch about the world’s best spot-remover, ink pen or music collection. Every now and then, you may have to navigate around large baskets and bags or a display of brooms or balloons, especially on mercado day.
Bus Tip#5: Get to the back of the bus right away or at least keep moving towards the back so you can exit the bus with minimal hassle. Look out for objects in the aisle.
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Exiting The Bus
You’re on the bus headed for your destination. How do you know where your stop is and when do you make your way to the exit doors?
Cuenca buses have electronic crawl screens at the front of the bus that tell you what the actual stop is and what the following stop is. These signs are usually in bright red letters and are accompanied by an electronic female voice that speaks the name of the actual stop and also tells you the name of the next stop – you can see and hear the parada or bus stop. Bus drivers often have a sign posted that says, roughly translated, “please anticipate your stop and ring the bell once.” So, if you know your stop is coming, start moving to the back of the bus about one stop ahead of time.
Bus drivers may turn off the electronic female voice or turn the volume down, so you may only be able to see the crawl screen. I’ve been on buses where neither one is working, and this explains why Ecuadorians keep looking out a door or window to make sure they don’t miss their stop. When all else fails, especially if you’re on the bus for the first time, ask one of your fellow riders if the upcoming stop is the one you want. I usually look for students or professional men and women if I need to ask, because there’s a better chance they ride the bus every day. You can also double-check with the driver before you board. Another great resource for checking out the bus routes is Cuenca Bus Sherpa who provides for a small fee a printed book of all the bus routes in town.
When it’s time to leave the bus, simply get up and head to the back doors. If it’s crowded, saying a simple “Permiso” or “Perdóname” (“Excuse me”) will usually help part the masses. Press one of the red buttons mounted on the bus railings — they are usually located at the height of your head and around the doors, although some of the newer buses have them at other locations, too. Press the red button one time and brace yourself for the stop. Also be prepared for a rapid takeoff by the bus when you exit the bus – the drivers aren’t keen on waiting for you coming or going.
Bus Tip #6: Learn the name of your stop from the crawl screen and anticipate your stop. Press the red button once to signal the driver
Bus Tip #7: Step lively to get off the bus!
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With all this information you should be ready for your first adventure getting around Cuenca using the local bus system. I encourage you to ride the Cuenca buses – they’re a great way to see the city and get to know some locals at the same time. And who doesn’t love a moment of connection with someone else, even if it’s found by tripping over a market basket?