Tuesday, May 14, 2013

TRICKY DRIVING IN ECUADOR!



DRIVING ECUADOR’S ANDES
THE GOOD, THE SCARY AND THE ASTONISHING



Consider Ecuador’s location – a small country perched for the main part high up in the Andes, blessed with impossibly high mountains; studded with volcanoes, prone to occasional earthquakes – yet home to a population of 14 million people all at some time wishing and needing to make road contact each with the other in cities and towns and hamlets perched precariously throughout the country’s 283 square kilometre landscape. 


All in all a sea level tourist’s nightmare of high altitude...of jigsaw roads and goat tracks twisting up and down and over a patchwork of undulating mountains, some following narrow canyons and rushing rivers, others soaring up and over, somehow avoiding all that mother nature can’t help shoving in the way.  An experience not to be missed.






 I love Ecuador with an undeniable passion.  Given the chance I would gladly exchange my carefree Aussie lifestyle for the colour, vivacity and beauty of Ecuador’s glorious Andes.  BUT, while without a doubt the majority of these high altitude highways are testimony to the amazing skill and ingenuity of the country’s road builders, there are some connecting ribbons of road no doubt still in the infancy of their creation that require a blindfold to traverse. 

Join me as I touch pictorially on the good, the scary but mainly the astonishing and beautiful sights encountered on this my latest visit.

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QUITO THE CAPITAL

I didn’t start this Ecuadoran journey in Quito but it is the furthermost north I reached, and it was by far the highest altitude I encountered.




So far as roads go I’m on safe ground here, a major highway, the great Pan American, destination the country’s capital Quito, altitude 9,350 feet above sea level and situated in a river basin on the slopes of the active volcano Pichincha.



Sandwiched into a narrow valley between steep peaks and slopes, and entered here through a tunnel cut into a mountain, Quito’s high rise suburbs and narrow streets are in themselves a tourist delight.




Visiting tourists are often disappointed but lucky me, clouds lifted just in time to reveal the snow covered cone of the volcano Cotopaxi.



Above: Modern Quito with its fringe of high-rise gravity defying apartments …and the old town part of the city, below, where I happily wandered staying a few nights in a comfortable hotel on the left marked by the unfurled flags.
 



Home to an excess of 2 million people, the city nevertheless never appeared to be overcrowded…except for the night time rush to get home when roads became clogged.
 




The sheer clustering of buildings and apartments on steep mind boggling slopes begged the question… ‘Who would choose to be a postman in Quito?’

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CHEAP DRIVING IN ECUADOR

Traversing the highways and byways of Cuenca's Andes is an even greater treat for Aussies considering the huge difference in petrol prices…. Divide these prices at an Ecuador petrol station by four and then compare with our current home price of close to $2.00 a litre.  It’s no wonder we detoured down every promising side street and track, racking up miles and kilometres of 'wow' factor scenery and surprising sights.





With countryside like this at every turn you can understand the urge to explore and discover hidden gems.


A pit stop on the way to Quito - traditional dress in the town of Ambato.




An avenue of familiar Australian gum trees framing a hidden mansion La Cienega…the eucalyptus trees were introduced in the late 1800’s but are now considered inhospitable to native plants and labelled an invasive species.


Further along on the drive to Banos this view of waterfalls cascading into a rushing, twisting river…
 



…and a small cemetery peacefully buried in wild flowers.




Further east and south verging on Ecuador’s Amazonia donkeys without apparent supervision or guidance delivered their loads of sugar cane safely to a destination somewhere along a distant road.



Climbing back to the high Andes on the road to Vilcabamba in Loja Province a beautifully landscaped plaza.




Vilcabamba reached, the view from a friends home high in the hills…and below Mandango, a towering presence overlooking the valley.




Later back in Azuay Province I found all the fun of the fair at the regional centre of Sigsig.
  
And watching the proceedings a matriarch in Sigsig, perhaps the last in her family to wear the traditional garb and the distinctive Panama hat.


Two cute cats at play in a shade cloth…
 




While at Paute's Sunday market someone’s mouth, but not mine, was salivating at the sight of slowly roasting guinea pig.


And a family’s Sunday outing to a trout farm where even if you didn’t catch your dinner with rod and reel you could buy a beauty for next to nothing.
 



                               As I did, fresh trout delivered to our door…

 
And finally,  a tight squeeze on a narrow suspension bridge crossing the Pastaza River near Banos...a decidedly weird experience...driving where surely only pedestrians were meant to go.


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ROADS BOTH ASTONISHING AND SCARY
On my first visit to Ecuador I depended on local buses for transport; but on this latest trip a 4WD vehicle opened up the incredible network of roads both major and secondary that link remote towns and tiny hamlets across the country.

It also made me realise what a nervous Nellie I was when it came to viewing damaged roads coupled with flimsy yellow tape warning of recent slippage on sharp and blind bends.


 
Driving on long established roads like this one not all that far from Cuenca proved that nature could still bare her teeth without warning.  The resulting rock and dirt slip caused a long delay.  I vowed in future to carry emergency rations on board.

A few weeks later a 'short cut' home from the southern province of Loja took us on this highway in progress.  Actually we missed the sign warning motorists they drove this route at their own risk. I mean we saw a bus and several cars ahead of us, how risky could it really be?

Very!


On this section the unfinished road didn’t look too bad, rough at the edges but we took it slowly.
 



Then very quickly we were in rain clouds with little vision and nowhere to pull over…with blind corners and my heart in my mouth I still can’t believe we witnessed no accidents on any of these roads in the making.



Then a few days later on yet another road from the town of Loja to Zamora, this one a popular and well used road where we were halted for almost an hour as emergency crews cleared the mud strewn road ahead.








Heavy rain and a sudden massive slip of rock and dirt.  Emergency crews were quickly on the scene… before too long we were given the all clear to proceed…slowly.   But just look at the massive rock we passed, imagine that landing on your roof.

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But I’ve left the most astonishing sight of all to the end… 



 This originally well constructed section of a busy major road left hanging in mid air…





And driving over the same section...

I imagine the remaining yellow double line provided an interesting dilemma for oncoming traffic.

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The few gut wrenching pangs I’ve felt on some of Ecuador’s high mountain roads are only the reactions of a spoilt Australian unfamiliar with high altitude peaks and sheer mountain drops. Locals give them barely a second thought.

The scary roads I’ve shown make up only a microcosm of Ecuador’s amazing road system.   There are literally hundreds more, not all of them in the least nerve wracking… roads, highways, some no more than mountain tracks, but all playing an important role in the country’s everyday life.




These amazing feats of engineering skill, like the zig zag route above, carry the nation’s children to school, transport farm produce to market, ensure remote farmers keep in touch with hospitals and local government.   They are the country’s life blood, replacing the old indigenous walking trails of centuries past and bringing the modern world into focus.  

But more importantly, for me they contribute greatly to my love of Ecuador and this compulsion of mine to return again and again and again.

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Robyn Mortimer 2013