Ecuador – My Accidental Day Crossing the Andes

crossing the andes

Michael Cobb

Several years ago my daughter Emily and I had an accidental day at the bottom of the world when we arrived a day early in Ushia to pick up a cruise in route from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Valparaiso, Chile. We certainly made the best of it checking in the HMS Beagle Hotel named after the ship Charles Darwin made famous passing through the similarly named Beagle Channel. What a great day it was.

Today was another accidental day of fun and exploration in Ecuador. My flight from Cuenca to Quito had been cancelled. What to do? A couple options immediately sprang to mind. Can I hire a cab to take me to Quito? Yes, but after a quick check with a cabbie indicating a 6-8 hour drive that wont put me there in time, I needed a plan B. How about driving to Guayaquil and flying from there to Quito?

Cuenca to Guayaquil. 110 miles. Might just work to get me to Quito by 1:30 for my 3:00pm to Panama. Bags in hand I race to the curb, jump in a cab driven by Byron, and off we go to drive across the Andes to make that flight today to Quito.

With nothing else to do but enjoy the ride, I sit up front in the cab and we depart Cuenca at altitude 8200 feet to climb over the high pass at 13,579 feet above sea level and from there descend to the coastal plain and the port city of Guayaquil.

Cuenca is an incredible highland city, ringed by mountains on the Amazon side of the continental divide. It hosts 500,000 citizens and an average temp of 70 in the day and 50 at night. I took this picture from the Mirador de Turi, a great location to get a real feel for the whole city at a glance. While there I stayed at the Hotel Victoria, a wonderful place along Calle Largo, a popular street with numerous restaurants and clubs. The hotel backs to river and with the window open, a soft roar was all the white noise needed for 3 peaceful nights sleep.

You may have heard of Cuenca. It has become hugely popular with North American expats recently. The number has grown from approximately 400 in 2009, to over 5000 expats today. Even at that ratio, it’s still only 1% of the population so the charm and flair are 99% Ecuadorian.

The city itself is a UNESCO world heritage site and it’s easy to see why when you walk the streets and along the river parks. The old city is a masterpiece of Spanish Colonial architecture and the cathedral is the largest in Latin America by volume. My time there was busy meeting friends David Morill at Cuenca Real Estate and Ashley Rogers with Ecuador at Your Service, both US expats living in Cuenca for years now. They know all the great restaurants and we sampled a bunch for fine dining at very affordable prices.

On the fast and cheap side, we enjoyed a roadside stop in el Valle for roasted chicken, rice, potatoes, beans, and mote (mo-tay), a large corn kernel made into something like hominy. Five of us ate lunch for less than $20. And by the way, they only have spoons. No forks or knives. Fascinating.

Dinner for 3 at Villa Rosa in the old town, including wine, 3 appetizers, (escargot and yellow fin tuna tartar) fine grass fed steaks, sides, and after dinner drinks was $133 including taxes and tip. The restaurant is owned by the son of an influential family in Cuenca and the ambiance was NYC chic. Not what you might expect walking into a 250 year old colonial mansion but very cool and a nice change from the expected.

But back to story of the drive to Guayaquil. We left Cuenca along a winding 2-lane road switching back and forth up the mountain toward the pass. Along the way the climate grew colder and the trees grew fewer. We passed sport fishing lodges where you can fly fish for trout and eat the fresh catch. Ultimately we passed through the gates of the National Park, el Cajas, and entered an alpine meadow with low brush and wide-open glass lands dotted with beautiful lakes.

The steep canyons and narrow valleys held rushing rivers and spectacular waterfalls. We even spotted some llamas along the road living in their natural habitat above the tree line enjoying a tasty meal of grass, shrubs, and lichens.

The ride down the other side was even more spectacular. The entire 13,000 foot drop is only 41km long. It’s a pretty steep drive down the whole way, except for one climb around a geologic fault (more on that later).

Check out the chart above of the ride over the Andes with distances in kilometers and altitude in meters provided. Cuenca is on the left at 0km and 2500 meters. Guayaquil is on the right at 171.42km and at seal level. In fact it is so steep that Byron’s brakes were seriously smoking when he stopped to take a leak along side the road. If you are not used to that, welcome to Latin America where the world is every taxi cab driver’s bathroom.

Once clearing the top of the mountain we were still 10,000 feet above the low clouds on the coastal plain. As we wound down the mountain, we passed women carrying babies in backpacks, wearing top hats, with long black braids flowing behind. We dropped lower and entered the cloudbank and the flora changed to that of the cloud forest that we see in Nicaragua at our favorite mountain resort, Selva Negra.

At one point there was a bright red sign (in Spanish) that said” Danger. Slow Down Immediately. Geological Fault Ahead. ”

Now I’ve seen a lot of road signs in my day, but that one struck me as odd, and if we hadn’t been burning up Byron’s brakes I’d have asked him to turn around so I could get a picture of it. As it turns out, the road immediately changed from concrete to asphalt and for about 300 meters, it was all bumpy and you could see it was repaired frequently. Imagine that. A place where the road is always moving along a major fault line and has to be repaired all the time. When you drive roads on the ring of fire, I guess you have to expect the unexpected.

Byron’s Latin beat from his memory stick into the radio was keeping him humming and me tapping my feet. Sandra Mora and Tito Nievez’s Senora Ley were great tunes for the ride over the continental divide and down into the coastal plain. It’s interesting that one of the songs he really liked was “Lady Law.” More on that later.

Once down the mountain, we entered the lush tropical lowlands with cacao plantations, sugar cane and rice fields, and bananas. Check out the ripe cacao pods and the blue bags on the banana trees to keep the insects off.

Eventually I made it to Guayaquil after a brief stop to check in with Ecuador’s finest.   Apparently Byron’s muffler had a hole in it and he had to pay a $10 fine to proceed onward.    Lady Law up close and personal as the song says.

After arriving in Guayaquil, I found out that I still could not make an earlier flight and would have to stay over night. I checked into the Sheraton Hotel across from the Mall del Sol where I plugged in and worked all afternoon. That evening, I enjoyed, Lucy, a first run movie in English and then ate sushi at the Noe Sushi Bar across from the hotel.

Great day and great experience. There are a lot of reasons Ecuador is on the acquisition list forECI Development. My serendipitous day there just reaffirmed them for me. If you’d like to stay updated about ECI’s plans there, drop me a note and we’ll keep you posted. Until then, thanks for reading and all the best.