During the 2 ½ years I’ve lived in Cuenca I’ve traveled back and forth to Guayaquil through the Cajas mountains numerous times. Early trips terrified me. It seemed that the drivers were much too reckless and going way too fast. Now I’ve come to realize that these guys drive this road every day and know every inch of the 3 hour journey.
I’m on my way to meet my new granddaughter in New Jersey, and this time I allow myself to truly relax and enjoy the magnificent topography. At every time of day the mountains show a different personality as the sunlight reveals unnoticed nuances of shade and texture.
Today it is early morning and the sky is bright blue with a smattering of clouds. The depth—the contrast—the vividness—are impossible to describe. Every direction I look there is a stunning canvas begging to be painted.
Weaving through the peaks are irregular stands of trees that are obviously there on purpose. Part of an unusual ecological agreement, the Finnish government actually pays Ecuadorian landowners to plant these trees to increase oxygen on the planet. Their orderly unnaturalness somehow adds visual interest to the landscape.
In what seems like the middle of nowhere I periodically see indigenous folks walking along the side of the highway. Where are they going? How long will it take to get there? What can life be like so high up among these mountains and so far apart from each other?
It is the end of the dry season and we have gotten much-needed rain in the past few weeks. The closest mountains are once again impossibly green, while distant peaks are a deep blue. Ahead is the Sea of Clouds, a blue valley seemingly always covered by a thick, fluffy white blanket.
Thankfully we stop halfway through for a bathroom break (it was an early start with a lot of coffee). Once on the way again I immediately fall asleep.
I briefly awake to see that we are descending the western part of the Cajas. Although I’ve never been to either place the flora here reminds me of Viet Nam or Cambodia. The lush foliage, banana trees, and misty fog are always a welcome sight because they signal the end of the back and forth, up and down part of the trip. The rest of the way the road instantly becomes flat and straight.
I doze off again, my slumber interrupted only by the speed bumps we traverse in several towns along the way. All of these places look identical to me—chickens and pigs being grilled on spits—fruit stands and little stores—open-air joints serving food to customers sitting on white plastic chairs.
Coast people look different. Of course because it’s hotter they often dress in T shirts, shorts, and flip flops, but it’s easy to see these folks have descended from different bloodlines than those in the highlands. They are on the whole fatter and to me generally not as attractive.
Highlanders call coast people “monos,” or monkeys. This is because speech is much faster here, like chattering to the ears of mountain inhabitants. Also they consider people who live on the coast to be lazy and “clever” (translation: not to be trusted).
Past the string of small towns the final leg to Guayaquil is an excellent 4-lane divided highway than spreads to 10 lanes on the outskirts of the city. During Rafael Correa’s years as President all of the major roads in Ecuador have been greatly improved and many new ones built.
Here as throughout Ecuador stand empty homes in various stages of construction. Invariably this means a relative is in the US or Spain working. When money is sent home more work is done until it runs out, then everything stops until more funds arrive.
Coming over the first bridge Guayaquil’s skyline appears on the left. For a city of 3 million+ it is quite uninspiring except for one twisted high rise tower on the water's edge. To the right McDonald’s golden arches declare we have arrived in a metropolis much larger than little Cuenca.
For some reason Guayaquil is much better landscaped than Cuenca. Our parks and common areas, while well-maintained, are haphazardly planted with no design. Another obvious difference is the presence of old school window AC units (Cuenca has no heating or air conditioning because of the temperate climate).
Almost exactly three hours from the time of departure our van arrives at the Guayaquil airport. Time to go meet Miss Eloise!