Mad Dash to Cuenca

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When we’d booked our flights to the Galapagos, we’d arranged to fly back into Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city. While it sounds like there is a lovely riverfront promenade and some neat historical districts, Guayaquil itself wasn’t really the attraction, just where the flight lands. Mostly, we’d heard great things about Cuenca, which is a good 12 hour bus ride from Quito, but only a mere 3-1/2 from Guayaquil. Theoretically.

When we’d booked them, we’d intended to spend a night in Guayaquil and then head up into the Andes the next day, but having just had a one night stay on San Cristobal, we weren’t really up for another night of just unpacking our bags so that we could pack again. We decided that though it would make for a long day, we’d head straight through to Cuenca.

Since our flight from the Galapagos didn’t leave until 12:45 – no planes spend the night in the islands, so we had to wait for a flight from the mainland to come in – and there was an hour time difference, we weren’t out of the airport in Guayaquil until about 3:45. The Guayaquil bus station is right around the corner from the airport, so we figured we could be on our way quickly. No such luck. The bus station was basically a really big mall, except with a multilevel bus parking garage on either side. You’d think the location of the ticket offices would be obvious, but that would be asking a bit much…you have to walk the entire length of the building on the main floor, and the only signs are pointing you to the departure areas. So we didn’t get on a bus until 4:30.

The ride was great, though. We were able to see a bit of the lowlands, where there is a lot of agriculture. Most identifiable were the many banana plantations, but they grow watermelon and various other fruits there, too. It was sunset as we started API Call Errorclimbing the Andes. A steep climb, as Guayaquil is at sea level, and Cuenca is at 2500m and there’s a pass in the middle that’s even higher. The road was kind of sketchy, as it only seemed to be paved sometimes, snakes around like crazy and guardrails were a rare sight. Our bus driver, happily, was not as crazy as some we’ve heard about, and didn’t push the bus to the limit. There was one area washed out in a mudslide that we had to drive around on a temporary bypass road. It also turns out that the 3.5-4 hours is an optimistic estimate of how long the ride is – it took about 4.5 hours, but we got here safely. It was really remarkable to see, along the mountainous road to Cuenca: houses, the odd cafe, and various assorted other buildings, built right on the precipice – it really looked like if you tried to stumble home drunk one night, and took a couple of wrong steps, you might just topple over the edge. Some of them looked abandoned, so maybe that’s what happened?

Cuenca is quite a API Call Errorlovely API Call Errorcity, but it’s kind of ruined by the cars. It’s only a city of 400,000 people, but the traffic is crazy, and there’s almost nowhere you can get away from it. The pollution is quite tangible – the smell of exhaust lingers everywhere. We’ve seen far fewer buses here than in Quito – which has a similar city layout – so we’ve been theorizing that the traffic disaster is a result of poor public transit. It’s also a little baffling, since you can take taxis everywhere for very little money – $1-$3 for most parts of the city – and I figure that you can take an awful lot of taxi trips for the cost of owning a car.

Acclimatizing to the altitude has been a bit of a challenge. You’d think that being at sea level for a week wouldn’t do that much damage, as we had already spend some time even higher up in Quito. But you’d be wrong. Earlier today, we were actually getting a bit dizzy, but after a nap (and lots of food and water!), that seems to have passed. We’ve done a lot of walking though, and I don’t suppose it helps that we picked the hostel on the 6th floor (7th floor by Canadian reckoning, since ground floors here are not numbered) and the lift is broken.

We’re off again tomorrow, this time aiming for Baños, a popular hotspring town a couple hundred km north of here. We’ll stick around to see a bit of the market in the morning, but should be on the road before noon, since we’re told it’s about 8 hours by bus.

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