The day trip that disintegrated into HELL!!
Innocently enough, Kathleen and I headed out for a day drive to Loja, a town of about 185,000 south of Cuenca about 2 hours. Or, so we thought it would be 2 hours. Ya see, there's virtually nothing in EC you could call a 'freeway'. The vast majority of roads are 2-lane, though there are a few divided 4-lane roads where you can actually go 65 mph. But, travelling around here, you have to consider going up and down mountains and lots of curves, slow trucks, slides, and sections of road disrepair or being repaired. So, 120 miles is not 2 hours...it's more like 3.5 hours.
Add to that, my guest takes an un-godly amount of time to get ready. Me....give me 15 minutes and I'll shave, shower, dress and be ready to head out the door. But, I digress....though it does play a factor in our day. Female readers of my blog....please don't beat me, beat me, then beat me for bleeding!!!! ;-)
Leaving at 1pm, we headed out on a super nice drive through the mountains...a different path then one normally taken to go over the Cajas on the way to Guayaquil. So, it was different scenery for me as well. We travelled through topography and landscape I swear looked like Wyoming, then into another that reminded me of Aspen, Colorado. When we arrived in Loja, we came down out of the hills with Loja laying in a valley and creeping up and over various small hills. The approach to Loja was being repaired, so we had to travel on gravel road for a few miles.
Loja is a very pretty town, with narrow downtown streets lined with nicely preserved colonial facades and lots of trendy stores. It looked like a hip college-town, which it does actually have one perched high atop a hill overlooking the town. I had heard the local cathedral was not to be missed, so we drove and drove trying to find it. Normally, you can easily spot it sticking out of the skyline but because we were in such narrow streets, it was hard to find. We finally found it but had to limit ourselves to simply a drive-by as we were running out of time. By now, it was approaching 5pm which meant I only less than 2 hours of daylight driving left and I didn't want to drive back in the dark...especially the same route we had just taken a few hours before to come to Loja in the first place. How boring!!
So, my logical mind opted to take another route back. A bit longer, but since it would be (theoretically) mostly in the lowlands, it should be easy driving. Ummm...not so. Don't always trust what the maps say...or seem to say.
We (actually IIIIIIIII) drove through endless curves and moutainous terrain. Kathleen watched the map and took note of towns we went through to see how much 'progress' we were making. 'Progress' is in ticky marks because 'progress' we were NOT making much of. Signs along the way were rare, and there were cases when you reached a fork in the road and there was no indication of which one to take. We kept laughing at the idea we were probably going in circles and would end up back in Loja to live out the rest of our lives and die in Loja.
1st major test of the drive:
We went through a small town and the road suddenly became very rough, gravel, potholes, etc where they were obviously doing road work. But, we felt like we were headed down some obscure road to nowhere...not on a major highway. We asked someone if it was the way to Machala and they said 'yes'. Ok...so we plowed forward. Then, we came upon a long string of cars and trucks parked along the roadside and we slowly passed them, as each of the drivers stared us down. What the hell? We stopped and asked one of the parked drivers what was going on? I was able to detect from his spanish response that the line was waiting to be escorted through the pass as it was only one-way due to construction....and they had already been waiting 20 minutes. UGH!!! So, we backed up and joined the rear of the line.
While waiting in line, local residents were hawking various snacks from car window to car window. Kathleen noticed one little girl selling bottled water. But, she was quite the entrepreneur!! She had EMPTY water bottles and was dipping them in a nearby small running creek to fill them up!! ICK!!!
Finally, a long line of cars and trucks came down out of the hills, so we knew we were about to get moving. When the gate was opened for our line to go up, you would've thought you were in the middle of a vehicle stampede!!! Good gawd....everyone was racing to get ahead of one another in line. A bucking bronco of dust and gravel, 4-wheel drives, and big trucks, and little cars all vying to gain some ground. And, for what? It's not like anyone would be able to get ahead of the lead car, right? IDIOTS!!!
For several miles, we were relegated to a single line going over a pass...sometimes on new concrete, sometimes just rocky road. The other lane that was newly concreted was closed using an impressive array of high technology. They placed branches on top of the surface of the road and lined the edge with rocks....mind you...this is for MILES!!!
Ok, so we got past that and were on our way to the flat lowlands and we were back on paved road, albeit a lot of patches and most of the time, lacking any painted lines.
2nd major test of the drive:
We got to Machala and found our cutoff (after a few mistakes) for Cuenca. It was a nice road, smooth, and divided so we sailed swiftly toward them thar hills. We knew we'd be doing some climbing since we were in the flats and Cuenca is at 8,000 ft.
Oh, I forgot to mention, EC LOVES speed bumps!!! Every freaking little town, hamlet, village, or row of 3 houses, you will find a series of speed bumps. In my past EC driving experiences, they have been marked well to warn you ahead of time. Not so on this trip. These speed bumps range from a paved mound that you can go over in 2nd gear and be rather smooth, or a paved mound with a high center that you close your eyes and hope your exhaust system will remain with you, or a dirt/rock mound that can be in any condition...from mild to wild. Some of them you can see because they are painted with stripes, while others the stripes are completely worn off and you 'see' the bumps...ohhhhh....about 1.5 seconds before you slam into them at 35-40 mph. Well, I did that more times than the number of my fingers. So, consider this little aspect of driving while you imagine our little 'day trip'.
Oh, you should already realize this, but just in case....we were welllll past of no return at this point. There was no way in hell we were going to turn around. Keep going forward. I anticipated we might be home around midnight.
Our next trial was a detour. I have come to experience in EC, that detours are not well marked nor do they do a thorough job of guiding your through the COMPLETE detour and out the other side. Usually, there's a detour sign at the beginning....and you/re left to figure out the rest.
The same size as a yellow diamond-shaped sign for Yield...was our detour sign...in Spanish saying 'DESVIO'. But, hand scribbled on the sign was 'Cuenca' with an arrow pointing thataway. We had been following a large truck up to that point, and he turned off and went up this steep, dirt, single-lane road. Kathleen and I thought 'surely, that is not the road to Cuenca'. He must have some other purpose that he's going that way. After all, there was only this little DESVIO sign on the shoulder of the road and the road was not closed off. Many times, I've seen signs informing you of something that is no longer there...ie' they just haven't taken the sign down. So, maybe the detour is no longer in effect.
So, we kept going...all alone, no other cars....along the main highway. It did seem odd, though, that there were so many rocks and small boulders scattered around the road, that I had to dodge. And, there was a slide, or two. And, no other cars were coming from the other direction. Hmmmm.... Whoops. After a couple miles of this, we saw our answer. A huge mound of dirt formed a barrier across the road, effectively closing it. But...why wasn't the road closed off back where the detour sign was? We could see that others had driven over this 3-4ft mound of dirt.....should we? NAW....that would be ridiculous.
So, we turned around and drove back to the detour sign, dodging all the aforementioned rocks and boulders. We turned up the detour road. YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING!!!! My Dad (RIP) was a logger and this road was worse than any logging road I ever drove on of his!!! This was a single lane of dirt, rock, bumps, potholes, and deep ruts!!! THIS is the way to Cuenca? This is what little cars like mine, big trucks, and busses are supposed to traverse? Reminder...it's dark and there's no lights, and we're alone on this road. In first gear, we creep along constantly questioning if this is for real, alternating with laughter at how preposterous this was. What if someone comes from the other way...how the heck are we going to pass? It was not a short detour. It went on and on (like this story). We finally came upon a truck who had broken down and a couple people were working on it. We rolled down the window and asked 'is THIS the way to Cuenca?'. What an absurd question and we thought we were going to experience an Ecuadorian rolling on the ground laughing as these two American idiots are driving on a 'logging' road trying to find Cuenca!!! But, no, that wasn't the case. He responded, 'yes', and I asked how much further...he said '15 more minutes'. OMG!!!
Well, I'm sure you guessed by now that we finally got to the end of that detour and back out onto 'normal' pavement and raced ourselves home, arriving about 2am.
The next day, I did some Google searching and found a recent newspaper article about that very road. A YEAR ago, there was a 700 ft slide that took out the road. A YEAR AGO!!! They were building a new road at a lower elevation but in the meantime punched out a FOUR MILE detour that many people had been complaining about due to it's poor condition. Many vehicles were breaking down, tires getting punctured, damage to busses front-end suspensions, etc. GEEZ, I guess we were lucky to get out of there in one piece!!!
Ok, here's some pictures of Loja....from our 13-hour drive....me driving....she riding. ;-) Yep, 4 pictures...that's all we had time for!