If you are a backpacker with a limited budget then travelling by land is by far your best option in South America. Thankfully, not only are most countries on this continent well-served by bus routes but bus companies here tend to offer well above what you might expect on a bus ride.
I'm talking movies, fully reclinable seats, Wi-Fi, snacks and bathrooms. And this is also true of the beautiful country of Ecuador in which I never had a bus journey that did not involve a movie (even at one in the morning when I really did not want one!).
In the majority of cases, catching a bus is simple and tickets can be purchased at bus terminals on the day you intend to travel (so no messing about online required).
As buses in Ecuador are taken regularly by locals and tourists alike they tend to be safe but as with any journey in South America be sure to take your precautions. Do not put your bag underneath your seat or in the overhead storage. Make sure you have it in your direct view at all times.
Also, try to opt for companies that provide you with a ticket when storing your suitcase or backpack below the bus. After that, all you need to do is sit back and relax. Here are further details on taking buses to all of Ecuador's main destinations.
Getting from Peru to Ecuador
The best way to get to Ecuador by land from Peru is by bus and thankfully mainly top-end companies service this route. As the journey is extremely long (we're talking thirty hours from Lima to Guayaquil in Ecuador), I suggest you pay a bit extra for good company and enjoy the comfort they have to offer.
The higher-end companies are still reasonably priced but offer extremely comfortable seats, a blanket and pillow, meals, two bathrooms and a private television screen with movies in Spanish and English.
If you would like to break up this journey, some companies offer a stop in the surf town of Mancora on the Peruvian coast. You can take a twenty-hour bus journey here and spend a few days on the beach before completing the eight hours to Guayaquil.
The border crossing from Peru into Ecuador can be unpredictable so expect anything from two to five hours here. Once you are over the border however it is a five-hour straight shoot to Quito Ecuador's impressive capital.
From Ecuador's Guayaquil to Montañita
You would be silly not to venture out to Ecuador's stunning coastline and the resort town of Montañita offers everything you may require from pretty beaches and surf rentals to paragliding and sand buggies.
Thankfully, buses in Ecuador run every hour midweek from the central bus terminal in Guayaquil (located at the city's airport) and every thirty minutes on the weekend.
Services begin early in the morning and tend to run until about 6 pm in the evening (and even later on weekends). Ticket offices for bus services to Montañita can be found on the top floor of the bus terminal.
When you choose to return to Guayaquil, the main bus office can be easily located in the centre of the town on the main road. Ask for directions at your hotel or hostel and they will easily be able to direct you.
The office displays timetables for the bus route daily so feel free to wander down here prior to your departure day and choose a time to leave. You can even buy your ticket in advance though it is not necessary. The journey from Montañita to Guayaquil and vice versa takes around three to four hours with a few stops to allow locals on and off.
Guayaquil to Cuenca
The next stop on the itinerary from Guayaquil should be the pretty colonial city of Cuenca. Bursting with culture, I recommend spending a few days here perusing local museums and coffee shops.
Thankfully the city is also well served by bus routes in Guayaquil and you can find a myriad of companies servicing this route.
For a decent bus for the five-hour journey don't pay any more than $10 USD. Try to nab a window seat as the views as you cross over tropical mountains is something to enjoy.
Cuenca to Baños de Agua Santa
For many years there was no direct bus from Cuenca to Baños, the thrill-seekers paradise of Ecuador. Here you can bike, hike, bridge-jump, zip-line, paraglide and enjoy a large swing out over the mountains.
Thankfully, Cuenca now offers direct buses to Baños but only three times per day (and this is subject to change). As of April 2018, a bus service leaves Cuenca at 8.45 am and will have you in Baños by the mid-late afternoon.
Ask at a tourist information desk or at the bus terminal for updates on this timetable.
Baños to Quito
The bus terminal in Baños is very central and buses depart for Quito every 30 minutes or so. The trip should only cost you around $5 USD. If you can secure a direct bus I would recommend this as the local bus has very frequent stops and in some cases no bathroom on board.
There is however a thirty-minute break halfway through the journey where you can avail of a quick snack and a well-earned bathroom break (especially as this journey can take eight hours or more).
When you arrive in Quito, the bus terminal is located miles outside of the city centre. Be prepared to take public transport or pay up to $20 USD for a taxi.
Quito into Colombia
So you have had an amazing time in Ecuador and are ready to take the plunge into Colombia. This is quite a long and complicated journey but doable (and is certainly the cheapest option across this unpredictable border).
As there is a number of different stops and potentially long wait times to this journey, I recommend doing this in a group rather than going it solo, even if just for sheer peace of mind.
There can be delays of up to fourteen hours (yes, really) at the border from Ecuador into Colombia which is a worst-case scenario. Most people make it through in a couple of hours (we somehow got a very quiet night and got through in ten minutes). So it is down to the luck of the draw.
However, as I said, the journey is cost-effective but not very efficient. You will have to be across the border and in Cali in around 24 hours (depending on delays at the border) but for less than $30 USD total. Considering flights can cost a minimum of $250 USD, you can see why so many travellers do it.
I would highly recommend aiming to be at the border on a weekday and in the middle of the night. Depart Quito on a bus to Tulcan around 9 pm, this journey takes around five hours. You can easily buy a ticket upon arrival at the bus station and it will cost less than $5 USD.
Upon arrival in Tulcan, take one of the many waiting taxis (at all times of the day) to the border (around $1.50 per person).
Cross the border and pray you are not delayed here for hours. Once in Colombia, take a taxi into the town of Ipiales to the bus terminal. Most taxis here still accept USD and don't cost more than $4 total.
At the terminal, you will have many options for buses even at 3 am in the morning which was the time we arrived. You can take one of the smaller mini-vans for about $12 USD (note that these are not very comfortable and have no bathrooms).
This journey takes around twelve hours so prepare to be exhausted upon arrival in Cali.