Riding the bus in Cuenca: It’s a great convenience and a fabulous value so long as you follow some simple rules
By Christopher Lux
Cuenca has an extensive bus system that can get you around town at low cost. Routes run to all corners of the suburbs and exurbs, from Challuabamba to Narancay, from Racar to El Valle, from San Joaquin to Ricaurte, from Sayausí to Capulispamba.
Of course, the convenience depends on whether you get on the bus you need.
Bus routes are not mapped out by the city and the routes change frequently due to construction. Bus drivers are known to by-pass a bus stop full of people if they are running late — or if they simply used that moment in their route to pass a slow vehicle in front of them. In the evenings, buses thin out very quickly. On weekends, buses outside of El Centro are few and far between.
When buses are crowded, chance of theft increases. Women might be touched inappropriately by men standing around them in the packed aisles. At times, unruly drunks make their way up the steps onto the bus. Some buses flood water through ceiling lights vents when it rains, making for a wet trip.
To top it all off, the drivers are often inconsiderate of the passengers. Rarely do they stop long enough for you to get completely on or off the bus. I was on a bus when the driver drove so erratically that passengers actually fell down in the aisle. “You are with people, not animals,” one lady shouted to the driver as she helped up an elderly woman.
All that said, some steps are being taken to improve your ride. Cameras have been added, bus drivers sometimes restrict access to potential passengers who look like they will cause trouble, and the Transito (traffic police) gets involved when there are problems on the bus.
When my family and I first moved to Cuenca, we mostly used taxis. They’re comfortable, seemingly safer, and, at first, affordable. Those $2 and $4 taxi rides started to add up, though, as I took my son to school and went to work. Buying groceries and going out to eat became more expensive as we took taxis into El Centro and to markets. Then, there was the arguing about additional “fees.” Fees to use the trunk, fees to go on the autopista, or whatever else the taxi driver could come up with to get a little more money.
The bus started to look like a good alternative. We figured out the routes — not without getting lost a few times, of course — and purchased bus passes. For 25 cents you can stay on the bus as long as you want. And, if you’re a student or over 65, you pay only 12 cents.
Aware of the dangers and unpleasantness of the bus, I appreciated a cheap ride. For those of you who also want a more affordable alternative to transportation, here are some tips for riding the Cuenca buses.
Give yourself extra time. Whether it’s your first time on the route or you’ve taken it for months, prepare for delays. I took the wrong bus once and ended up in a town outside of Cuenca. I had to wait 45 minutes for the return bus to take me back to town before I could continue to the right destination. Buses also get behind on their schedule due to construction and slow traffic. Add to this the fact that drivers sometimes don’t stop to pick unless a passenger wants to get off.
Avoid crowded buses. Crowded buses are not only uncomfortable, but they are more likely to be unsafe. Thieves love them. They mean that passengers are left standing on the stairs of the entrance or exit because of limited space often hanging on for dear life, oblivious to the approach of pick-pockets. Taking too many passengers is illegal, but some drivers will allow people to keep loading until they see a Transito or until people can no longer hang out the door without falling off. If I see a bus coming that’s packed, I let it pass by and wait for another.
Know the fares and routes. Remember that students and people 65 years or older ride for 12 cents and that children six and under are free. When you choose your bus, make sure you see the number you need before boarding. The route numbers are on signs at the bottom of the windshield. The signs also list the major stops of the route. It’s important to make sure that the bus is going the direction you want to go — the same number is used for both directions. For example, line 15 goes two directions but with different destinations listed for the stops. Other numbers have multiple routes, like the 28 that has two or three routes. Since the city does not offer route maps, a lot of bus riding is trial and error. People waiting at stops can be helpful when you’re learning routes. Everybody who rides buses regularly knows the complexity involved, so there’s a lot of sympathy.
Some expats have been known to spend several days riding all the routes they can with no particular destination in mind. They make notes of where each route takes them and enjoy the ride.
Enter in the front, exit in the rear. When your bus is coming, hold out your hand to signal to the driver you want a ride. The front door is for getting on the bus. There is a scanner where you can swipe your bus pass and a coin machine for you 25 cents (or 12 cents). You’ll need exact change. The bus starts moving as soon as the last person getting on has one foot on the stairs. So hang on. When it’s time to get off, exit in the rear.
Sit or stand near the back door. You must anticipate your stop. One block before your stop, you should press the red button to notify the driver that you want to get off at the upcoming stop. To make this easier, you can sit or stand near the rear door during your trip.
If you have a young child or you’re less physically able, it’s a good idea to be close to the rear door when the bus is coming to your stop so that you can be the first to get off. The buses take off fast after the last person steps down, and sometimes while the passenger is still getting off. So, it’s better not to be the last person getting off.
Pay attention. This not only applies to your surrounding area on the bus, but outside the bus. Know where you are because sometimes the buses do not announce the upcoming stops.
Watch where you step. The bus is the primary mode of transportation for most Cuencanos. That means women selling things at the market might bring the goods onto the bus. It also means that people bring their groceries onboard — which might be live chicks or guinea pigs — onto the bus. It means that the aisles can get crowded.
Wear your backpack in the front. To prevent theft, keep your backpack in front of you, hold your purse tight, and watch your pockets.
Be respectful. Certain people get priority on the bus: people with babies or very young children, people 65 years or older, pregnant women, or handicapped people. If you do not fall into one of these categories and somebody who does gets on the bus, you are required to give up your seat to them.
The buses can be loud and uncomfortable. Sometimes passengers smell very bad and are dirty. But the price can’t be beat. You can make the commute a little easier by preparing yourself. And you might get a chance to enjoy some en-route entertainment from one of the many musicians who come on to play and sing.
These are experiences and tips from one expat bus rider. Please add your own in the comments section below.