Here’s the thing: There is no good way to get a driver’s license in Ecuador. That’s because Ecuador has no uniformly applied rules that govern the provision of drivers’ licenses. Like fingerprints, snowflakes and Original Cabbage Patch Kids, every Agencia Nacional de Tránsito (ANT) experience is a little different.
You may have read this blog post by Jessamyn Salinas. In it, she describes how a friend got her permit in just over three hours in a single day. She simply adhered to the requirements and process on the ANT website, and presto. Licencia!
It would be naïve, in the extreme, to accept this story as anything other than the magical fantasy it is. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure it happened. We all know that one person with the golden horseshoe stuffed up her bum. What I’m saying is, it won’t go this way for you.
So put that fanciful notion out of your head, silly gringo. Accept the fact that you’re in for a baffling bureaucratic slog. You won’t be disappointed.
Allow me to illustrate.
Chantal and I might be described, charitably, as fastidious. We planned this thing as if we were about to invade Normandy.
We were already in possession of translated, notarized, and apostilled Ontario driving histories: we had these drawn up for our residency applications. Furthermore, we’re in Ecuador on two-year professional visas, which require university degrees. Conveniently, this also means our cedulas are proof of higher education.
(One must read and write to drive in this country. If your cedula classifies you as básica, then you’ll need apostilled evidence that you at least graduated high school.)
In fact, all we were missing, according to ANT, were blood-type cards from Cruz Roja Ecuatoriana; passing grades on our psicosensométrico tests; color copies of our cedulas, passports, and Canadian drivers’ licenses; and fotos tamaño carnet – 32 x 43 mm passport-style photos to accompany our credentials.
We had no notion of how long these documentary expeditions might take. Ecuadorian bureaucracies are notoriously labyrinthine. So we decided that each would be its own day: one for Red Cross; a second at the Aneta driving school in Manta for the examen psicosensométrico (per Jessamyn’s recommendation); and a third for those colour copies, carnet-sized photos, and ANT. You can get copies and photos, we were told, at vendors alongside the ANT office in Manta, on Avenida 108 just off Via Puerto – Aeropuerto in the north city.
Our strategy was to dazzle with efficiency. Walk in, plunk down our meticulously assembled paperwork, ace the theory exams, and sashay out the door with snazzy new licenses.
Easy peasy. Right?
Day 1: Cruz Roja
Red Cross was a little more than fifteen minutes. We stopped in on our way to grocery shop in Manta. There was nobody there, except for the receptionist and a nurse. Two finger pricks and we were done. Turns out Chantal and I have the same rare blood type. I never knew mine; it was not a subject that ever came up. She has hers engraved on dog tags.
Buoyed by that experience, we committed to psicosensométrico tests at Aneta the following morning. A good night’s sleep, a decent breakfast with coffee, and we’d be ready for whatever this ominous-sounding ordeal might demand.
Sadly for us, and for every other person in Ecuador, that evening President Lenín Moreno announced an end to gas subsidies and the entire country had a Category 5 shit hemorrhage.
Day 17: Aneta
Two weeks and two days later, when we felt it was safe again to travel, we drove to the freshly painted orange, white, and blue Aneta office on the E15 to downtown Manta.
Despite what Jessamyn’s blog may claim, Aneta does not provide psicosensométrico tests to extranjeros who wish to exchange foreign licenses for domestic. Or so the receptionist politely informed us. We must go to the ANT office and have our tests administered there.
This is, of course, a joke. According to Aneta’s own website, any proper psicosensométrico takes fifteen minutes and evaluates vision, hearing, coordination, reaction time, and ability to concentrate. The vendor by the ANT office gave me a three-minute eye exam, twenty bucks. Chantal’s quiz lasted half that time and the fee was identical.
We paid fifty cents apiece for copies of our cedulas and Canadian permits, and another buck for those carnet-sized photos. Which aren’t really photos at all: the guy simply scanned the portraits off our cedulas and cut them down to size with scissors.
Regardless, our documentos were in order and very neatly assembled in a folder tucked under Chantal’s arm.
The ANT office seemed weirdly unoccupied. In we went.
A very serious-looking gentleman at the front desk greeted us immediately in Spanish. Speaking Spanish in return, I informed him that we were there para renovar nuestras licencias Canadienses.
“You speak English?” the gentleman inquired.
“Your Spanish is very good.”
“Canada is such a lovely country. I visited British Columbia once, many years ago. When you come up from Mexico, as I did, and arrive through the United States, it’s amazing how the landscape changes once you cross the border. Mexico and the United States are filthy. Canada is so clean. Such a clean and beautiful place.”
“Unfortunately, I must inform you that our computer systems are not functioning, and we are unable to accommodate you today. Please, return tomorrow and all will be well.”
Day 18: ANT
We arrived at opening with a grim determination to see this thing through, no matter what. The English-speaking guy at the front desk ushered us into the lobby, helped to fill out our examination requests, and invited us to take seats while he carried our requests to ANT officials at their various modulos. We were there for about two hours before one called my name: “Hamez Anthony!” He had to say it twice before I realized he meant me.
I entered his modulo and explained, in Spanish, that my name is pronounced James and Anthony is my middle name, not my last. He looked at me with an expression that said, very plainly, I don’t give a crap.
He took my cedula, tapped at his keyboard for a few minutes, and snapped a digital photo of me against the blank backdrop of his cubicle wall. This was perplexing. Chantal and I had paid for carnet-sized images the previous morning. What were they for? I supposed all would be revealed, eventually. I never did find out.
Chantal had her turn, and we were both officially processed. For something. Nobody told us what, so we returned to our seats in the lobby. Front Desk Guy noticed after about 20 minutes and shouted across the room: “What are you still doing here? You have to go to the bank!” Like this was self-evident.
He explained the process, as if to a learning-impaired child:
Drive to the closest Banco Pacifico. Mention to the teller that you want to pay your canje de licencia, whatever that is. She uses your cedula to find the ANT invoice on her computer. You pay $142. She hands you an official receipt. You return to ANT, ace the theory exam, and sashay out the door with a snazzy new license.
I asked, specifically, if we needed to bring along an official document of some sort and Front Desk Guy looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. “Of course not. It’s in the system. Give the bank your cedula and all will be well.”
That is exactly what he told me. It is exactly what did not happen.
Banco Pacifico did not have us in its computer and besides we were without our proper ordenes de pagar: official ANT invoices, print copies – precisely the things we were told we did not need to bring. No se preocupe: we could generate those off the ANT website at a cyber café down the hall.
Except the girl at the cyber café was unable to help because we were not in the ANT database. We drove back to ANT to confront buddy with the pissy facial expressions. He sulkily processed our ordenes de pagar while muttering under his breath what were clearly obscenities related to stupid gringos.
Back to the bank, which now accepted our payments and issued those much-sought-after receipts. Back to ANT, where we waited another hour for new admitting officials to approve our paperwork and prepare our exam room workstations.
I went first, while Chantal stepped into a modulo to have her own papers stamped, stapled, and stuffed.
My test took about three minutes and consisted of twenty stupefyingly easy questions about blue traffic signs: Discoteca, Escalada, Paseo en caballo, Comida rápida. Suffice to say, I received a perfect score. My examiner told me to wait in the lobby while he printed my driver’s license.
I wandered happily out of the exam room to discover Chantal in a full, four-alarm fury. Her official, who was in a toxic mood that afternoon, refused to review her paperwork. When she insisted, he told her that she was missing a notarized translation of her Canadian driver’s license so piss off. And, just to be an extra-large penis, he informed my admitting official that my paperwork was also inadmissible. So, no license for you too!
It was past four in the afternoon on a Friday, and I was starting to lose my sense of humour.
Chantal called Adriana, our lawyer at EcuaAssist, who agreed to see us immediately and with profuse apologies for our travails. These of course were not her fault, but she still felt responsible as an Ecuatoriana.
We drove downtown, where EcuaAssist keeps its offices. Adriana let us in and asked when we needed our translations. I said now.
She laughed and laughed.
Day 22: ANT
Bless her. Adriana had our notarized documents waiting Tuesday morning, forty bucks for the pair. We brought them to ANT, where they were accepted without fanfare. Chantal passed her driver’s test. We were thrilled.
That’s when Front Desk Guy hit us with the bad news.
ANT Manta cannot issue a five-year renewable license when the bearer has a two-year non-renewable visa. The license must be processed instead in Portoviejo, capital city of Manabí Province. Only Portoviejo has the power – nay, the magisterial privilege – to change renewal dates on Ecuadorian drivers’ licenses.
Come back Friday. Maybe next Tuesday. But probably Friday.
Day 25: ANT
Chantal’s license was ready. Mine was not.
I spent the rest of the day seething.
How does this story end? I have no idea. Let’s both check back next week and see.