Monday, December 17, 2012

Something I Hadn't Anticipated

My last post presented what was hopefully some helpful information about navigating the Cajas mountains. And I mentioned that our own upcoming trip wasn't happening at the ideal time.

The good news is none of the factors about the phase of the moon or time of the year adversely affected our journey. But we were still an hour late arriving in Guayaquil.

Flat tire? Engine trouble? Avalanche?

Nope. The police.

As best I can understand, none of the van services are properly licensed for what they do. Why? Faithful readers know by now you don't ask that question in Ecuador because the answer doesn't really matter, but I'm guessing either a) they can't get the correct license or b) it's too expensive.

So they're licensed as tour companies although no actual "tour" occurs. Periodically the bus companies from whom business is being siphoned complain loudly enough that the police temporarily "crack down" and hassle the offenders. We learned they are sometimes stopping the vans en route and making the passengers get out, forcing the van companies to find alternate transportation like taxis to complete the trip.

Not exactly the desired scenario when you've got an international flight awaiting.

We had planned to leave Cuenca at 7 AM and arrive in Guayaquil around 10, allowing plenty of time for our 1 PM departure. After learning at the last minute of these police shenanigans we switched to 6 AM "just to be sure." Plus we figured the police might not be diligent enough to be out hassling illegal vans so early.

Since we rarely arise when it's still dark the 4 AM alarm was in fact alarming, but we got to the van service's office on time and boarded a totally full vehicle. The driver instructed if we got pulled over we were to say we were going to Guayaquil for a city tour.

As we hoped the drive through the Cajas was uneventful and we figured we were in the clear. Nope. Our driver got a call from his counterpart coming from the opposite direction that the cops had a roadblock set up ahead.

Immediately we were off on a side road through the countryside. The guy sitting next to me got on his phone, pulled up some app that plotted our course, and became the navigator. Cynthia and I were having a great time enjoying our impromptu "country tour." We had plenty of time and were fascinated to be in a portion of what I like to call the "real Ecuador" that we knew we'd never see again.

Somehow we eluded the cops and emerged on a highway that took us into Guayaquil from a different direction than usual. This too was a revelation. I knew there was a lot of money in this city, but the vans from Cuenca drive through miles of slums to get to the airport. You thus get the erroneous impression Guayaquil is a huge dump that you want no part of.

I still want no part of it as far as a permanent residence because it's quite hot and humid, and traffic there is LA-like horrible. But we drove past gorgeously landscaped gated neighborhood after neighborhood with huge attractive homes. Beautiful malls. The Guayaquil Tennis Club. Tony Roma's, Goodyear, Chili's.

Who knew?

Although an hour "late," we arrived at the airport when we had originally planned and checked in. Being 6'3", exit row is a blessing for me that rarely occurs in the States (plus the SOB's charge extra for the privilege of sitting there). Since Latin Americans are small they could care less about extra legroom and I always score.

Such was the case on our nonstop LAN flight, perhaps the best flight we've ever taken. We had a ton of room in our 2-seat area next to the window plus the plane wasn't full at all, so I was able to stretch out on the empty 3-seat row next to us for a couple of naps.

For airplane food our lunch was quite tasty and complimentary wine was liberally poured. The flight attendants were pleasant and there was a wide choice of entertainment options on individual screens. The 6 1/2 hours, pardon the pun, flew by and we felt refreshed when we landed in JFK that evening.

We're now in Hoboken with our daughter and enjoying our newest granddaughter for several more days before moving on to our son's home in North Carolina until the end of the year.

Sure hope the police have found someone else to hassle by the time we return to Ecuador.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Tips for Traveling through the Cajas

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.