Ecuador is one of the few countries offering the option of independent travel with all the conveniences of an organized tour, serving up the best of both worlds. The “Wanderbus” is a hybrid solution for those of us who prefer flexibility and solitude of solo travel as opposed to feeling like cattle being herded through the masses, following the umbrella-waving tour guide while making all the mandatory carpet and jewelry shop stops. The infrastructure feels like “cheating off someone else’s homework” to visit all the highlights while letting someone else map out bus schedules, connections, and arduous hours of research that can otherwise wear a person down.
The Wanderbus circles the country in a clockwise direction, making all the stops at popular tourist destinations, allowing one to “hop on/hop off.” The bus offers several tour options depending on the route one wants to cover. Travelers of all ages from all countries can hitch a ride from city to city, or purchase the “Wanderpass” which covers the entire circuit. Hop off at your chosen city, stay a few days, and hop back on the next bus as it makes the loop. The pass is good for one year.
With my Galapagos experience now behind me and my Canon G7X now repaired, I hoped to see more of the country. Though I visited Ecuador back in the early 80’s while working for Braniff Airlines, I was only in Quito long enough to straddle the equator with a foot in each hemisphere. With no concrete plans on where I would go or how long I would stay, the Wanderbus seemed like a good option. Having only bought a one way ticket into Ecuador, I had the freedom to wander…..and what better way than the Wanderbus!
My initial impression was that at $197, the Wanderbus was a bit overpriced. That’s a lot of money for a bus ticket in a country where beer can be had for a buck. I could follow the same route and make all the same stops for half the price. But all it took was one local bus to convince me otherwise. Unlike Mexico with their efficient, streamlined first class bus system, buses in Ecuador are like the local “milk run,” stopping frequently to let passengers off, and picking up passengers waiting alongside the road. It matters not that the bus is full. Passengers will either stand in the aisles, or in the case of indigenous women, just sit in the laps of those fortunate enough to have snagged a seat! Wedged in a small seat, elbow to elbow between an aisle packed with swaying bodies, and windows covered with heavy fog, Ecuador’s high altitude winding mountainous roads can quickly turn a crowded local bus into feeling like a claustrophobic submarine ride.
What I would lose in exposure to the local culture by traveling in a bus full of foreign tourists, I would more than gain with the many rest stops along the way to visit local farms, businesses, and markets. Every leg of the trip included at least two stops organized to patronize local businesses. Breakfast at a local dairy farm, a cooking class at a beach-side fishing village, a tour to see Monticristo hats being made, (don’t call them Panama hats!) helped break up the long driving days. Each route was staffed by a young guide, fluent in both English and Spanish, narrating the trip with tips, trivia, and even a supply of snacks along the way.
I appreciated the feeling of added security during my Wanderbus journey. When we would stop at a destination, the driver would either stay on board with the bus, or doors would be locked. Unlike local buses that are constantly having the cargo doors opened, I never felt like my belongings were at risk. Still feeling on edge following the theft back in Quito, it was an added bonus to be able to relax and enjoy the ride without constantly having to keep an eye on my luggage.
Wanderbus is not the perfect solution. The buses only make the circuit every other day, so if one hops off in a certain destination, they will need to commit to two overnights while waiting for the next bus to come along. The buses don’t travel at all on Sunday, so a stop over the weekend could necessitate three nights in that destination. And the buses don’t travel at night, so there are mandatory stops at the end of the day regardless of whether one has plans to visit. Of course, one can always resort to public transportation should the Wanderbus schedule not work out. This was my only option on one leg of my journey. All it took was one local bus ride to convince me that Wanderbus was well worth the wait!