Long-time expats remember weaving between pot holes on the highway between Cuenca and Guayaquil and sometimes pulling onto the shoulder to avoid on-coming traffic dodging their own pot holes. Depending on the weather, the trip took five to six hours.
The drive to Loja presented similar conditions and took four or five hours.
Today, the average drive-time to Guayaquil and Loja, on the reconstructed highways, is three hours.
“The improvement in the highways is the biggest change I notice in Ecuador,” says Charlie Grantham, an expat from California who has lived near Cuenca since 2001. “Two weeks ago I visited friends in Puyo, in the jungle, and got there in five hours. Ten years ago, it took me 15.”
Grantham says he appreciates other infrastructure improvements as well, including the growth of police forces and the upgrades to the health care system. Better roads and highways, however, are what affects him most directly. ”I like to explore so I’m on the highways a lot,” he says. “I don’t agree with everything that Rafael Correa is doing, but I give him full credit for understanding that fixing the roads was important for making things better in this country.”
A recent infrastructure survey conducted by an engineering association in Mexico ranks Ecuador second only to Chile for best quality of highways in South America.
Between 2007 and 2014, Ecuador has spent more than $8 billion on highway and road construction, the largest investment, as a portion of national GDP, in road construction in Latin America. Between 2000 and 2007, the country spent about $1.5 billion on highways.
According to Ecuador’s Ministry of Transportation and Public Works, 9,706 kilometers of highways have been added or reconstructed since 2007.
Transportation officials say that the government understood that the difference between a third world country and one that is developing toward higher standards, is its road network. “Look at advanced countries like the U.S. or Germany and you see great highway systems,” says Patricio Rivera, coordinator for the transportation ministry. “Even things like reducing poverty and educating our children are helped by having better roads. People are not wasting as much time getting from one place to another. They’re not stuck by the side of the road as much with flat tires and broken axles.”
Rivera says that new roads also help businesses who can get products to the market or to seaports more quickly. “Tourism also benefits and the word gets around that Ecuador has better highways than other countries in the region,” he says. “There is what you call a trickle down effect that creates more jobs.”
Rivera says that Ecuador now has the second best highway system in Latin America, after Chile. “Ten years ago, we were in the bottom half of countries so this is an impressive improvement,” he says.
Grantham agrees. “I’ve done a lot of driving in Peru, Colombia and Bolivia so I have a pretty good basis for comparison. What’s happened in Ecuador is pretty impressive.”