Sunday, December 9, 2012

Tips for Traveling through the Cajas

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Many of us Cuenca residents have traveled through the Cajas mountains to and from Guayaquil, home to one of the two international airports in Ecuador. This 3 hour van ride (cost $12 per person) can offer spectacular views on a clear day that help you appreciate what a crazy-gorgeous country we live in.

But weather in the Cajas is highly unpredictable, and sometimes you get stuck in rain plus fog so thick you (and more importantly the driver) can barely see past the front of the vehicle. Rain or shine large rocks fall from the mountains onto the road, causing unexpected swerving when they suddenly appear right in the van's path. Also rain or shine your driver often seems intent on maintaining the same schedule, barreling into and blindly passing slower vehicles on the many sharp curves along the route.

We have made this journey so many times that we've gone from outright fear to the understanding that these guys drive this road every single day and really do know what they're doing. Still, many folks who have endured one harrowing ride vow to never repeat the experience, opting instead to take a $150 round trip flight between Cuenca and Guayaquil.

I've recently learned some valuable tips about the best and safest times to go through the Cajas from Juan Munoz, a lifelong Cuenca resident, good friend, and guide with TerraDiversa. I'd like to pass on to you the info he shared.

Time of the year

The period from December through May is known as the "rainy season" in Ecuador. This is somewhat of a misnomer since there are rarely extended periods of rain or drought, so the dry season of June through November really means "less wet." Still, Juan says that from now until June you are much more likely to encounter inclement weather going through the mountains.

Time of the month

We are all aware the phases of the moon affect tides (witness the damage from tide surge in New Jersey when the recent hurricane hit that area during a full moon). Who knew the moon also impacts the cloud cover in the Cajas? Juan advised me that during the period from a half moon to full moon the skies in the mountains are much more likely to be clear.

So the absolute best time to go through the Cajas is during the dry season when the moon is half full to full, and worst is in the wet season from a new moon to half full.

None of this information is foolproof, of course. But I can verify from a recent trip the validity of Juan's advice. In early July Cynthia and I were returning to Cuenca from Guayaquil on the very last van that leaves at 7 PM, and quite frankly we dreaded what was ahead. It's bad enough running into fog during the day. At night you're looking at the possibility of three hours of white-knuckle terror.

To our delight during the entire ride the sky was crystal clear with, yes, a full moon beaming down from above. The views of the mountains were absolutely magical.

We're heading back to the States this Thursday. I just checked the calendar. There's a new moon that night, and it's the beginning of the rainy season. Oof.

At least we'll be on the 7 AM van instead the 7 PM one. Fingers crossed.