I visited South American in 2019. Of all the places I have seen during my trip, the 2019 riots in Ecuador were the most dramatic. My month in Ecuador was both scary and exciting, and I will never forget the experience of seeing riots in Ecuador.
I entered Ecuador by walking across the land border with Colombia. I had stayed overnight in the Columbian border town of Ipiales just a few kilometres from the Border.
I have never seen a border town I liked and Ipiales did not change my mind. It is a dreary town, but it does have one must-see place to visit. Most people who pass here take some time to see the Las Lajas Sanctuary church.
The next morning I took a short taxi drive to the border. When I arrived at the border, I got my first view of the Venezuelan refugee crisis. Ecuador had closed its border to these refugees.
There were hundreds of refugees waiting at the border in camps provided by the red cross. The refugees were mostly young adults with children.
The crossing itself was easy. Ten minutes getting processed out of Colombia and the same entering Ecuador.
As I was crossing a small pedestrian bridge into Ecuador, an official called me. He said Ecuador had no taxis or buses. I had heard this scam before I thought as he said he knew a friend that could drive me to where I needed to go. I said no thank you and walked on.
During my travels, I had come across the no bus or taxis scam before. If you go away with the new driver you would most likely be taken on a long expensive journey you did not want to do. I was too wise now to be caught by this scam.
Once I got my passport stamped for entry to Ecuador I made my way to get a bus to the nearest town. From here I would get another bus further into Ecuador. No more border towns for me.
Where is the bus stop I asked a local? There are no buses or taxis today Senor he replied. It was not a scam. There was a regional strike. How far is the next town I asked? 7km Senor. How can I get there? Walk Senor.
During my stays in hostels in Colombia, I received a lot of the same advice about Ecuador. Beware of your belongings. Some people I had met had stuff stolen on buses. Others were pickpocketed.
I was determined not to meet the same faith. I would be very careful. What I did not expect my entry to Ecuador would be a 7km walk from the border to the nearest town.
Even more, unsettling was the walk was via roadblocks and burning tyres. My mood did not get better as I entered Tulcan and seeing the police station under siege by strikers.
I made my way into the centre of Tulcan. It was getting dark. I was relieved I had made it. Everything I owned I was carrying. I found a hostel with an available room.
I hoped I would be staying one night. Tulcan on my walk-in did not change my impressions of border towns.
What a difference the hostel in Tulcan was compared to the hostels in Colombia. No wifi in the rooms. No cooking area and as Tulcan was high up the evenings and nights were cold.
I mixed with my fellow travellers. The strike was a regional strike. The strikers had blocked all roads in the province of Tulcan. The President had stopped fuel subscribes as part of an agreement with the I.M.F. Nobody could get in or out of Tulcan Province.
I did not know it then, but that day began a week stuck in depressing Tulcan. I loved my trip to South America, but Tulcan is a place I never want to see again.
During the week strikers marched day and night on the streets in non-violent protests. Only a bare minimum of shops and restaurants were allowed to open. The police stayed in the barracks.
One day I was in a shop, and people came in with clubs. They ordered the shop to close immediately. One guy looked at me. I said I was a tourist and wanted water. He said, ok. I also grabbed a big bar of chocolate when I had the chance.
During the week, some people in the hosel tried to get out of Tulcan. Some succeeded and others did not. Some were robbed as they walked the roads. Two German guys had paid two motorcyclists to drive them outside Tulcan. Strikers chased them with knives at a roadblock.
I was happy with my strategy of sitting it out. I tried everything to find a bar but only could find an AA meeting. I even thought about going to a meeting to try to find out where the beer was.
By the end of the week, I had two Chinese lady companions as a company. I have a little bit of Spanish, and every day I asked strikers when they thought the protest would be over. One day a guy said maybe this evening.
I looked out the hostel window later that evening. I saw police walking on the street. Feck it’s over, I thought. It was. Shops were open. Tulcan did not look any better with everything open. I told my new Chinese friends, and we made plans to leave Tulcan on the first bus in the morning.
The next morning I made my way to the local bus station with my Chinese friends. They were heading for the Capital Quito, and I was going to nearby Otavalo.
During the trip, I had a feeling we were near Otavalo. I spoke to the driver. He said he would let me know when we were there. He forgot. When I asked him again, we had passed Otavalo by 20km. He half-heartedly suggested he would drive back. I looked at the passengers, and I thought I would have preferred to take on the strikers.
I decided Quito was my destiny. I was a bit surprised when the driver asked me to pay extra for the trip to Quito. He backed off when I reminded him I had now lost the two nights I paid for accommodation in Otavalo.
On arrival in Quito, I shared a taxi with the Chinese ladies. They bartered down the price of the taxi so much that for the first time I felt sorry for a taxi driver. The suggested we meet for a meal that night. I declined. I had a date. A date with beer.
Later that night I made my way to the pub. As I was walking I came across a small protest. I was a little surprised. I thought the protests were over.
The next day I decided to explore the city centre. From noon I began to see shops closing the shutters. I thought that was not a good sign. Ten minutes later I walking right straight into my first riots in Ecuador.
That day riots broke out all over central Quito. Speaking to some local people they told me it was not just the fuel subsidies. They now wanted the President out.
One thing I noticed about South America is if people don’t like the job the President is doing they don’t wait for the next election to vote them out.
Over the next two weeks, I saw some of the most violent clashes I have ever witnessed. Roads all over the country were now blockaded. No one could move outside the towns and cities. Riots in Ecuador are not a new thing.
One of the main reasons the protests became more intense was the involvement of the Indigenous people of Ecuador. In Ecuador, they have a history of bringing down Presidents and are very organised.
They wanted the fuel subsidies cuts reversed 100%. Then one day the Indigenous people of Ecuador came from all over the country and marched on Quito.
Once the indigenous people joined the battle, the riots moved up another few levels. My hostel was on Plaza San Domingo. The day indigenous people marched on the city they gathered on the square. Around 8 pm the police and protesters clashed here.
The hostel went on total lockdown. All doors and windows were shut. No one was allowed in or our. I did manage to get to an unoccupied room looking out at the square. At times it was almost hand to hand fighting. I had never seen anything like the riots in Ecuador before.
A member of staff came across me and closed the window and ordered me out of the room. All night we could all hear the battle outside. The smell of smoke bombs seeped through the doors.
Around 3 am, the streets went silent. I had booked an early flight to Cuenca in Southern Ecuador. I went to the front desk and said it hardly would be possible to get a taxi to the airport. She called and said it might be possible.
After more than six hours fighting the protesters were resting. The riots in Ecuador took a break. The taxi drive trough the square with burning tyers and stones used as missiles was surreal.
The airport was like a whole other world. People were going about their business as usual. I boarded the plane for the short flight to Cuenca. I felt a little guilty about leaving Quito.
Seeing how people protested in Ecuador had frightened and excited me. By now the Government had introduced a curfew. Not being able to leave the hostel after 7 pm was the main reason I left Quito.
On arrival at my hostel, the manager said the first thing I needed to do was buy food. It was running out in the city.
At check-in, the manager said 5 pm was normally check-in time. I said I had never heard of a check-in time of 5 pm. He asked, was I an expert. I said I had done his job many times during my years of working in hotels.
He then asked if I could smell shit and to check my shoes. I was sure he was accusing me of talking shit. I then asked to pay with a card. It had said on the website that it was possible. He said the card machine was down. I then said I think I could smell shit now and asked him to check his shoes.
We had our moments during my stay, but we bonded as riots hit Cuenca. He was not the worse of people. Dealing with people was not his expertise.
The first few days in Cuenca were calm. I can understand why so many North Americans and Europeans make this small city their home. The town has many high-end cafes and restaurants. The climate is also good.
There were no spontaneous riots. One day a national day of protest was called, and Cuenca joined the battle. During the morning of the protest, I walked around the town.
There was a weird atmosphere. I saw police doing something like the New Zealand rugby haka as they prepared for the day’s events. This was riots in Ecuador.
Later that day, I went out to see the days events. I had decided to stay back from the main protest. I had got too near in Quito. Twice I was within seconds of been mugged.
The first time I felt someone looking at me. When I looked around, I saw three teenage guys coming towards me. I could see it in their eyes. I managed to run to a very nearby shop that was open.
The second time protesters had come out of nowhere to block police. I along with others, ran down a road. I found myself in a rough-looking area. A guy came up and whispered in my ear. You are being watched. I advise you to leave now. I did.
I picked a spot where students were protesting. It was all very calm and organised. They were not involved in the riot a few streets away. The sang and banged drums.
When police launch a smoke bomb they give a few seconds warning with a screeching siren. I had heard it many times in Quito. I was now hearing it again. We all knew what this meant, and we began to run. I was learning about riots in Ecuador.
The first canister landed behind me. The second one in front. Running from a smoke bomb is bad. Running into one is worse. I struggled to breathe.
I could see people at the end of the street running from another direction. My biggest fear was I running into more smoke canisters. If I was, I knew I would be in trouble.
Thankfully the street was clear of smoke, and I grabbed a wall to recover. Two young girls came to my assistance. They put water on my eyes and gave me a salt tablet. After many thank you’s, I left the protest.
The next day Cuenca calmed down. A curfew was in place at nights. A few Brazilian guys that were staying at the hostel said they had joined a WhatsApp group where tourists were sharing experiences. I joined also.
There is a great untold story about the riots in Ecuador in 2019. The story about tourists trapped in the country and how social media played an important part in helping people to leave the country.
One day I saw on the WhatsApp group there might be a guy in the town driving people to go through the mountains to Peru. He gave a contact at a local hostel. I made contact. Yes, it was possible. Sixty dollars each for four people.
A French guy. His Peruvian partner. A Dutch guy and I decided now were the time to get out of Ecuador. We planned to go that night.
Our driver arrived after darkness descended, and we made our way out of Cuenca. It was not long before we hit the first roadblock. We went another route and came across the second roadblock. He said he knew one more way. Soon we hit roadblock number three.
The driver pleaded with protesters to let us go. They were leaving trucks with food that were allowed to move. One guy said no.
Seconds later, another guy turned up and left two trucks to pass. The driver saw his opportunity and drove in between the trucks. It worked. We were on our way.
The eight-hour drive up and down a dirt track in a mountain was surreal. Hundreds of trucks created a duststorm so bad we could not open the windows. At 4 am ,we arrived at the border with Peru.
The border was empty, and it only took a few minutes to cross. We had escaped Ecuador. The next day the President backed down and reinstated the fuel subsidy. The protesters had won. I will never forget the riots in Ecuador.
Some video of the Quito riots.
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