A Beginner’s Guide to Riding the Bus in Ecuador

The bus is definitely the most widely used form of public transportation in Ecuador. What’s it like to ride the buses of Ecuador? Fantastic question. Wonder no longer, I have the inside scoop for you.  What follows is an in-depth breakdown of what to expect on a bus ride, from embarkation to disembarkation, including the key characters you’ll encounter along your journey.

Let’s start with getting on the bus. Most bus routes have established bus stops, but know that you can pretty much make any spot on the street your own personal bus stop.  Here, we “hail” buses the same way we hail cabs: raise your hand out in the street, and the bus driver will know to stop.  I use the term “stop” lightly because the buses of Ecuador never truly stop.  You will never get on or off a bus that isn’t still moving.  While we’re on the subject, allow me to introduce you to your first character in the comedy of errors that is your bus ride: The Driver.

The Driver

His main responsibilities include driving the bus and opening the front and back doors. Usually, he is good about doing the latter because there are buttons passengers can press to alert him to open the door.  Sometimes though, passengers just yell “Gracias!” to get his attention, and he eventually opens the door.  The driver is also (apparently) responsible for never truly stopping, for speeding up right before speed bumps and for cutting every turn REALLY close, especially when passing other buses.

At night, most of the buses have unnecessarily flashy colorful lights on the outside and inside (which I assume is controlled by the driver), and on long bus rides, many buses play movies with obnoxiously loud volume (which I also assume is controlled by the driver… who probably just selfishly wants to hear what’s happening).  You will have almost no contact with the driver along your Ecuadorian Bus Journey, but I figured he was worth mentioning in case you had any curiosity about who the man behind the wheel was.

In reality, the driver is merely a figurehead.  The true person running the show is our next character, The Ayudante.

The Ayudante

The driver’s right-hand man.  Responsible for collecting the bus fare (or pasajes) from every passenger (an extremely difficult job if you remember that they have to walk on a moving (and often really crowded) bus with a handful of coins to collect fare and give change.  Of course, the ayudante (the Spanish word for helper) expertly holds two stacks of coins in his palm and folds either a $20 bill or a $10 and keeps it weaved in his fingers.  Ayudantes are usually seen repping their respective buses by wearing polos with the bus name embroidered on them.  Although I’ve been using the pronoun “he”, every now and then you will be pleasantly surprised by a female ayudante (who usually accessorizes her uniform with a jacket and fanny pack).


Other responsibilities of the ayudante include wiping off the fog from the windshield and doors of the bus, yelling to the driver when he should stop/can keep driving and yelling at passengers to get on or off the bus.  Upon waving a bus down, the first person to hop off the bus will be the ayudante who will say the following, repeating phrases in rapid fire Spanish: “Suba! Suba! Suba! Siga no mas!”, which both essentially mean “climb up/get on.”  This is always particularly comical to me because this is partially what makes the Ecuadorian bus experience seem like such a rushed affair.  Of course I’m going to get on the bus! What else did you think I was going to do?? Sit here and ponder whether or not to get on?? Just give me a second, gosh!

It is, of course, worth mentioning that despite the average height of this country being well under 5’6”, the stairs on the buses are HUGE steps, making it quite impossible to “suba” as quickly as the ayudantes order you to.  It is also worth mentioning that the ayudantes are responsible for grabbing toddlers that are trying to get on and off the bus and helping them.  None of the parents seem to mind that a total stranger is grabbing their children and helping them on or off a vehicle that is still moving, so I guess it is a welcomed service.

So you’ve ascended the stairs. You grab onto the handlebars attached to the ceiling while the bus wildly swings left and right.  If you’re unlucky, the bus is packed and you’re crammed against some of the characters I’m about to mention.  If you have things in your hand, you simultaneously juggle them while finding your change to give the ayudante when he or she circles around and asks for it. If you’re lucky, the bus is not too crowded and you’re able to stumble to your seat and more comfortably look for your pasaje in your wallet.  The main question is- where do you sit?

The front is not ideal for a variety of reasons.  If you are claustrophobic, it can seem crowded in the front when people are waiting to get off.  If you are a nervous person, you probably don’t want to see how close the driver always comes to almost hitting other buses. If you are an impatient person, you don’t want to be directly behind the driver’s seat because there is usually a wall there that blocks your view.  Finally, if you are an easily frustrated person, you probably don’t want to read the signs that encourage you to wear your seat belt (because there aren’t any) or the signs that discourage you from getting on or off a moving bus (because you have no choice in this matter).  So the front is out.

The back is also not ideal for a variety of reasons.  To start, it’s treacherous to walk on a moving Ecuadorian bus.  Unless you’re an ayudante, you should try to minimize your time spent walking in the aisle. Next, in the same way the front gets crowded, the back does as well because there’s a back door.  At times, the driver forgets to close the back door so you will often be subjected to the elements (rain and wind). Finally, the back of the bus is the least smooth ride out of all the seating options.

This leaves us to pull a Goldilocks and sit right in the middle. This gives you the vantage point you need, the space you want and the perfect amount of life or death time spent walking in the aisle.

Now you’re sitting in your seat. Different buses have different seat cushions and window decoration combos. (Trust me, you’ll KNOW if your bus is a fancy new one with leather seats, or if it’s been in circulation for a while and needs a tune up.) You pay the ayudante and now have time to people-watch until you have to get up and get off.  Who’s around you?

The Sleeping Old Guy 

Does exactly as his name suggests. No surprise there. Usually is wearing a felt fedora and a sweater vest.  Generally not problematic unless he stops leaning against the window and starts leaning on your shoulder in his sleep.  I mean, who wants to push a sleeping old guy off their shoulder? It just seems cruel.

The Lady with the Huge Sacks Stuff

This lady doesn’t usually sit, because of her huge bags (of vegetables, of blankets, of fruits, of plants).  If she’s an older woman, most people will help her out with carrying her things and offer her their seat. This woman is usually harmless, unless in her huge bags she has other contents, bringing me to our next character…

The Lady with the Live Chickens

Oh yes, she exists. You don’t know what’s in the bags until they move… or make noise…or both.

The Guy with the Adorably Small Animals

One of my favorite frequent flyers.  Bonus points if the guy is cute.  Typically carries tiny puppies, but sometimes these guys also have little kittens.

The Students

These troublemakers come in waves based on the time of day.  If school just let out or is about to start, prepare yourself for an influx of students in matching uniforms popping gum, laughing and listening to music. They’re generally mellower in the morning before school.  But if you’re on the bus in the afternoon, forget it.

The Salesperson

Can be any age and any gender.  Typically gets on the bus from the front entrance and gives a schpeel on what they’re selling and why.  Merchandise ranges from fruit to candy to gum to pencils to highlighters to homemade ice cream. After the schpeel, the salesperson will walk up and down the aisles offering his products to the passengers. At times, the passengers take the products, and when the salesperson returns they either pay him for it or just give it back.

The Entertainer

My personal favorite.  Has a boombox and sings or raps over music.  At times brings a guitar.  After the performance, he walks down the aisle to collect donations from passengers.

Finally, thanks to the ayudante (who yells every single stop as you approach it) you realize your stop is the next one.  If you’re sitting in the aisle seat, it’s easy to get up.  If you’re sitting in the window seat you essentially climb over the person in the aisle seat (because they usually don’t get up for you).  I didn’t specifically profile this person, but I’d call them The Jerk if I were going to make such a profile. The Jerk is the umbrella term for anyone who sits in the aisle seat and won’t simply move into the window seat for you to sit next to them. Conversely, this person does not get up when you need to leave, either.

Anyways, you’re almost there. You climb over The Jerk and stumble into the aisle.  You keep stumbling down the stairs and hop off the bus that’s still moving.  Pro tip: walk off the bus with your right foot so that the bus doesn’t catch it while it’s moving forward.

And there you have it.  You just survived your first trip (and every succeeding trip because they are all the same) on an Ecuadorian bus.  Although this was a painstaking amount of detail, for further explanation, check out this video I’ve spliced together for your viewing pleasure.  

Lost In Translation

Mishaps in Communication

No trip to a foreign country is complete without its fair share of language blunders and miscommunications.  If you’re an MPI Program Director living in Ecuador for an extended period of time, there is even more time to adequately embarrass yourself.  Although we have all taken Spanish classes in school, the Spanish language has still managed to confuse, tongue-twist and humiliate us in ways we just had to share.

We have swallowed our pride to form this list of false cognates (Spanish words that sound/look like English words but have different meanings) that we have either used ourselves or felt the need to warn other English speakers about. The list is organized in categories of increasing embarrassment, so if you’re going to pay attention to any particular section, it should probably be the last one!

Food Faux Pas:

·      Atún: This means tuna. Don’t forget it.

·      Aceituna: This means olives. No clue who made that decision!

·      Sano:  This means healthy. So don’t get worried when it sounds like people are talking about the mental health of vegetables (sane).

·      Limón: Lime. Lemons don’t really exist in Ecuador, which I guess makes this a bit easier.  However, I have heard a lemon referred to as a lima before, which makes my head spin.

·      Sopa: This means soup.  Soap is jabón. This will prevent you from asking your hotel for Campbell’s to clean yourself off in the shower.

You’ve Just Gotta Laugh at These:

·      Bombero: Fireman. The good guys. Don’t panic when you hear this word. Okay, maybe you should panic a little…and probably evacuate your house… but for fire reasons, not for explosives.

·      Codo:  Elbow. You’ll never get the Wi-Fi code if you use this word to ask for it.

·      Bizarro: Brave or valiant.

·      Bizarre: Strange or weird.  Get these straight when trying to explain to your friends about a cute guy you recently met.

·      Constipado: Congested. Relax - the people around you aren’t trying to open up to you about their personal digestive issues; they just have colds.

·      Carpeta: Folder. Usually only a problem if you are a teacher, an employee in a paper store or a person trying to redecorate your home.

·      Vaso: Glass. You’ll be disappointed at the size of the vase they give you for your flowers if this is what you ask for.

·      Librería: Bookstore. (Library is biblioteca). Usually only problematic if you had been expecting to check out a book for free and get to the counter and are asked to pay.

·      Soportar: To tolerate. If someone says this about their opinions of your ideas, just know that it doesn’t mean they’re passionately jumping on the bandwagon.

Now That’s Just Cruel:

·      Billón: A trillion.

·      Mil: A thousand. Don’t even get me started about these.

·      Colegio: High School.

·      Bachillerato: High School Diploma. Yup, I’m sure there are many people in this country who think I am less educated than I actually am.

·      Estrechar: To reduce; narrow.

·      Estirar: To stretch. Told ya these were cruel.

These May Cause Some Problems:

·      Condescender: To consent to; to comply.  You should probably start taking notes now.

·      Delito: Crime. Not as delightful as we’d expected.

·      Fabrica: Factory.  If you go into a store asking for some of this, you may get way more than you had asked for…

·      Éxito: Success. In case of an emergency, although yes, you’d probably want success, I think what you’re really looking for is the salida.

·      Caliente: Hot… as in attractive. If it’s a hot day, say tengo calor. You’ll sound way more humble.

·      Discusión: Argument. I may suggest making flash cards at this point.

·      Grosería: Vulgarity; bad word. Don’t ask for this. It won’t make you many friends.  Ask instead for la tienda or el mercado.

You REALLY Don’t Want to Mess These Up:

·      Introducir: To insert. If you want to introduce your male friend to a girl, use presentar. This will keep you from getting slapped.

·      Embarazada: Pregnant. You’ll be way more embarrassed if you mess this up than you were at whatever caused you to use the false cognate in the first place.

·      Molestar: To annoy; to bother. Don’t call the police if you hear two young kids using this word. He probably just pulled her hair or took her toy.

·      Nudo: Knot.  Imagine the possibilities of messing this one up…

·      Excitado: Sexually aroused.  If you’re just excited to see your friends or family or to start your new job, use emocionado. This will save you a lot of strange looks.

We hope you have enjoyed reading some of our most embarrassing misuses of language here in Ecuador...you may want to study up if you plan to visit!






If a Picture is Worth a Thousand Words, then a Video is Worth a Million!

As Ecuador Program Directors, we work Tuesdays through Saturdays in our community center in Rumiloma.  We maintain a library where people of all ages can check out books in English and Spanish, students can study and do homework and children can play games and make art.  We also run a Teen Center where children and teens can hang out and play foosball, video games and any of our other board games and puzzles.  In addition to English classes, we offer weekly classes in art, science, zumba, yoga and cooking/nutrition.

Although we work in Rumiloma, we live together in “the Manna House” in Sangolqui.  We take care of our loving guard dog, Lola, alternate cooking and grocery shopping roles and eat dinner together every night, like a family.  On our weekends off, we travel around Ecuador, go out in Quito, prep for the upcoming week’s programs or just relax at home and watch movies on our projector!

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video must be worth way more.  This short video is a quick glance into our daily adventures as Program Directors. From mornings at summer camp, to afternoons in English class, to evenings at the library, to the bus rides, to the weekend trips, and to all the fun in the Manna House.  



You Know You’re In Ecuador When…

At about two months into our time in Ecuador, we’ve finally hit the sweet spot between being fresh arrivals and being more experienced residents. While we are by no means experts yet, we have certainly been able to discover many of this country’s secrets, surprises and differences from the United States. 
With input and many chuckles from the other Program Directors, I’ve compiled a list of signs to help confirm that you are in Ecuador (in case your plane ticket wasn’t evidence enough).  I hope it allows our friends and family back home to better understand Ecuadorian life and laugh with us at some of the funnier daily occurrences we encounter.

1.     Milk is sold in bags.  Seems trendy, until you try pouring it into your cereal.

2.     You can’t find any shoes larger than a women’s size 7.  ‘Tis the land of dainty feet.

3.     You never really need a watch because there are so many daily indicators of the time.  See the following list:

  • Roosters begin crowing at 3:00 AM (and usually continue on throughout the afternoon).
  • The gas truck comes around at 7:15 AM sharp (see number 7 for further details).
  • The Cotopaxi safety tones go off throughout town at 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM (Cotopaxi is an active volcano).
  • It gets dark at exactly 6:30 PM every evening.
  • Even if you wanted to wear a watch, the country runs on Ecuadorian time (which according to my precise mathematical calculations means add 7 to 11 minutes to any proposed starting time).

4.    The standard paper size is 8.3x11.7.  Maybe you think this is trivial, but you don’t realize how accustomed you are to 8.5x11 until you don’t have it anymore!

5.     Hole punchers only have 2 holes.  See number 4 for rationale as to why this is noteworthy.

6.     You can rarely pay with a $20 bill.  Stores would almost rather you don’t pay when faced with giving $18 in change.

7.     Natural gas for kitchen stoves is sold on a truck that circulates the neighborhoods every morning at 7:15 AM sharp, playing a loud recording on endless repeat that literally translates to “the gas, the gas, the blue tanks of gas, the gas, to be delivered, the gas, the blue tanks of gas.” I wish I were kidding about this one.

8.     You can buy upwards of $20 worth of fresh fruits and vegetables for under $8. This is by far one of our favorite parts of Ecuador.  Who said eating healthy couldn’t be affordable??

9.     Your face can (and will) be shoved in a cake on your birthday.  I celebrated my 21st here on the day after I arrived.  I can attest to this one!

10.    Every restaurant has some derivative of the word “chicken” in its name. Super Pollo, Texas Chicken, The Chicken House, Pollo Campeón (champion)… I’ve seen them all.  And if you were curious, KFC is very popular here too.  Almost all the locations managed to get the name right, but one location in Quito believes the K stands for “Kennedy” instead of Kentucky, and spent a lot of money on its large signage.

11.    Everyone is terrified of the sun.  My host mom puts sunscreen on her kids for long car rides in case they fall asleep too close to the window.

12.    You see your fair share of animals, some with more pleasant fates than others:

  • You almost always pass a field of grazing cows or horses on your way somewhere.
  • There are adorable puppies walking around on every street.
  • Hornado, or a full roast pig on a large platter, is a delicacy in Ecuador and is often displayed in restaurant windows…leaving very little to the imagination (and even less innocence for a vegetarian like myself).
  • Guinea pigs (cuy) are also served up on platters or skewers here.  And no, these aren’t the tiny guys you took home for the weekend from your first grade classroom; these guys are big.  We’re talking major leagues here.

13.    Mothers have extremely creative ways of carrying children. Most children are tied in a cloth wrap to their mom’s backs, so that they are completely covered from the sun. To better appreciate the knot tying skills of Ecuadorian mothers who ride the buses, see number #14 for an explanation on the “safety” of the public transportation systems.

14.    You will never get on or off a bus that isn’t still moving.  It’s remains a mystery to me as to why a country that’s so relaxed has such a rushed bus system, but it doesn’t seem to bother anyone else. Now I welcome the opportunity to hone my moving-vehicle-embarkation/disembarkation skills. It makes me feel like James Bond.

15.    All taxi drivers swerve to the sides of speed bumps to “avoid” them. I think this is an attempt at making the ride smoother, but in reality, half a car going over a speed bump is way bumpier than the full car going over a speed bump…

16.    Every corner store sells practically the same goods.  And quite a variety of those goods, may I add: everything from ice cream bars to empanadas to boxed wine.  Basically a one-stop-shop for your next party.

17.    The national pride is overwhelming.  Rightfully so. Ecuador is ever developing, naturally beautiful and so culturally and historically rich that there is a ton to be proud of.  Even small setbacks such as the fact none of Ecuador’s soccer teams have won in quite some time and its national beer (Pilsener) leaves little to be desired by the taste buds, aren’t enough to stop Ecuadorians from proudly rocking their jerseys and drinking Pilsener on game days… and every other day, really!

18.    Everything is a diminutive. One of our favorite phrases is: “Un favorcito, dame un vasito de aguito?” which literally translates to: a small/cute favor, can you give me a small/cute glass of small/cute water?

19.    The natural views of the mountains and Cotopaxi are stunning.  It’s like seeing Russia from your window, but better. 

20.    You always feel at home.  Everyone in Ecuador is so warm and willing to help; since arriving, we’ve never felt anything but supported and welcomed.  I can certainly say that our transition into life in Ecuador was so seamless because of the positivity of everyone around us, and we couldn’t be more grateful to be accepted so kindly into our community.

Want to experience Ecuador for yourself?

Gender Inequality in Ecuador: An Interview with Sociologist Sheyla Ibarra Dávila

Gender inequality is a very serious issue in Ecuador today that affects women of all socioeconomic backgrounds, including those who live in the communities Manna Project International (MPI) serves. At MPI Ecuador, we are very fortunate to have developed a strong relationship with Sheyla Ibarra Dávila, a resident of Sangolqui and also a sociologist who has closely studied the culture of machismo, gender violence, and the state of women's rights in Ecuador. Although Sheyla is busy pursuing her Master's degree in sociology and completing her thesis on International Development Cooperation in Ecuador, she always makes time to share her knowledge with Program Directors and help them to better understand the gender inequalities that exist in Ecuador. The following is an interview Sheyla that highlights some of her research and opinions on the subject. 

An Interview with Sheyla Ibarra Dávila

What interests you about sociology? 

I’ve always loved the social sciences and being able to work with people.  I’m a very curious person and ask questions almost everywhere I go.  Sociology is the perfect field for someone who wants to constantly be investigating, researching and learning.

Why is women’s studies your favorite subject of study?

Women’s Studies is incredible to me because women are involved in all aspects of life, but are not valued for it.  Although the patriarchal, nuclear family is valued very highly in Ecuadorian society, women are the sturdy, yet voiceless, backbone of every family.  Women are intelligent, nurturing, loving and strong individuals and should be recognized and appreciated way more than they are today.  I’m very interested in the cultural roots in the devaluing of such important members of our society.



Can you define machismo for those who are unfamiliar with the term?

Machismo is the exercise of power of man over women.  It can manifest in physical violence but also in attitude and psychological aggressions.  In Ecuador, 53% of women experience this psychological abuse from men, 33% experience physical abuse from men, and 22% experience sexual abuse. 

What is life like for the typical Ecuadorian woman?

As I mentioned, Ecuadorian society values the patriarchal, nuclear family with delineated gender roles.  In most families, women are not allowed to work and completely depend on their husbands financially.  Most men dictate what women can and cannot do, which tends to include the expectation that women should stay at home, tend to the housework and raise children. Even young women who receive an education usually leave their studies or jobs after marriage.  Furthermore, because home roles are not taken seriously, women who have outside jobs are given no extra help from their spouses in taking care of house duties.

Can you speak about gender violence in Ecuador?

Gender violence is a difficult subject because it is exacerbated by Ecuadorian cultural norms.  For example, 90% of Ecuadorian women who experience violence do not want to take action against their perpetrator because family problems are considered private matters. Some women are worried about what others will think if they come out with accusations against their partners, and others fear more abuse if they speak up.  [Most] Ecuadorian women are not taught to have dreams or be independent and because of this, are extremely unlikely to stand on their own in abusive situations.  It has been proven that there is a higher risk of violence for married women and that 45-60 years is the age category experiencing the most abuse because that is the age that women are considered to be most “useless” to society. The racial breakdown of women experiencing gender violence is also interesting: 59% of mestizo women, 76% of afro-Ecuadorian women and 77% of indigenous women experience some form of gender violence.

Has there been legislation passed to combat these problems?

Before the 1970s, women [in Ecuador] had almost no rights as individuals.  The 1970s and 1980s were filled with equal rights activism work, and in 1994 a law was enacted that allowed women to take legal action against abusive men.  In 2008, women were finally given equal civil, political, social and economic rights as men, including the rights to decide freely on their sexual and reproductive health decisions.  While huge amounts of money were put towards social programs to support the legislation, the fundamental problem of machismo is ultural problem.  Legislation can only do so much to break social limitations.

Do you feel the effects of machismo in the field of sociology?

Absolutely. It’s difficult enough that many people do not take sociology seriously because it is somewhat of an abstract science, and Ecuadorians like concrete concepts.  But on top of that, being a female in the field poses its own set of challenges.  Most female sociologists are encouraged to study “softer” subjects such as women, children and the elderly, rather than subjects like the environment or politics, which are typically male-dominated fields.  Women don’t have problems learning in the classroom, but when they finally leave the classroom to conduct investigations in communities, it is very common for people to not respect them or to prefer to talk to a male sociologist. For this reason, 99% of female sociologists do not practice applied sociology.

What do you feel are the solutions to the issues of machismo and gender violence?

That’s a great question.  First, I think it’s important to note that machismo is a widespread problem in Ecuador and doesn’t just exist in one region.  Gender violence occurs at about the same rate in large cities as it does in rural areas.  Secondly, machismo also exists at all stages of life: early on in schools, in family life and in the work place.  While we need to work with men young and old to change opinions and attitudes, we also need to convey to women that actions as large as physical violence and as small as catcalling cannot be naturalized.  Neither those actions, nor any in between, should be tolerated by women.

Sangolqui community member and sociologist, Sheyla

Sangolqui community member and sociologist, Sheyla

While the legislation of 2008 is a step in the right direction, machismo is truly a cultural problem.  I think we are all waiting for the younger generation to make a difference.  More and more young Ecuadorian women are receiving higher education and hold more progressive values than their family members. Seventy percent of uneducated women experience abuse, but this statistic drops to 50% among educated women. Although a 50% rate of abuse is still alarmingly high, it shows a trend of decreased abuse with education and instills hope for an even lower rate in the future. Finally, in today’s day and age, no country lives in its own bubble.  As Ecuador becomes more and more globalized, it will be inspired by the progressive ideas of women who are fighting against violence and machismo all over the world.  As stories and experiences are shared, women can be influenced to encourage major perspective changes to society and mold their reality into a safer and more equal one for all people.

Thank you, Sheyla!