‘Into The Mountains’
Traveling The Panama Canal Part 8
Our cruise through the Panama Canal ended in San Antonio, Chile, on December 22, the first day of summer in this part of the world. We were on our way to visit my husband’s cousin Noel and his wife in Cuenca, Ecuador. After debarkation we boarded a bus to the Santiago International Airport.
We weren’t impressed with our first view of San Antonio. The overhead electrical cables were excessive and very unorganized. In some places, they actually wrapped around the buildings on street corners. Once out of the city, we passed through wine country. The female guide told us how a vineyard owner in Napa Valley, California came to the area and bought many farms to experiment with which grapes grew best. As a result, there are now many wineries in the area. In addition to grapes, oranges, potatoes, cherries and avocados are grown here. An abundance of silver-green eucalyptus trees are found there as well. There were many roadside memorials to people who succumbed to automobile accidents, including one to a child, that consisted of hundreds of teddy bears.
We arrived at the airport before 11 AM knowing we had over a seven hour wait before we would board our plane to Guayaquil, but chose to stay in the airport. After all, we had been on the move since we had left home nearly a month before and we had our trusty iPhones and the use of the airport’s WIFI!
It was at this stop where I had my first uncomfortable South American bathroom experience. Little did I know it would not be my last.
I kept bumping into one of the female hospitality students from the ship, whose class I had sat in on and wrote about on my food page, (Search Hospitality at Sea). The last time we met, we were walking from the airport ladies’ room which shared an entry hall with the men’s room. Much to both of our surprise, we were facing the men’s room urinals as we walked from our restroom toward the hallway. Yikes!
After all of the worry about weight, both my husband and I had a few kilos to spare in our luggage. This could be attributed to all of the things we crammed into our carry-on bags and my computer bag making all three rather heavy.
There were several families traveling with young children on the plane. We were seated in the last row. Fred had the window seat and I sat next to Shady (pronounced Sha Dee), a woman in her mid-twenties, who was on her way home to Guayaquil to visit family for the first time since moving to Israel two and a half years ago before.
The four-hour flight was uneventful. We were offered a choice of a ham, cheese and tomato sandwich or a quinoa and avocado salad. We chose the sandwich which was served with a wedge of soft cheese, a small packet of crackers, a lemon dessert and a beverage. Rather than my usual choice of non-caloric water, I chose peach juice and Fred chose orange juice.
Shady told me about Cuenca and how much she enjoyed visiting there. I had come to realize by now that everyone who has been there speaks highly of the third largest city in Ecuador. At some point, I traded seats with Fred so he could reminisce about Israel with Shady.
One of the two little girls seated directly in front of us, began to cry as our plane descended in Guayaquil. I suspected she was experiencing discomfort in her ears due to the unequal air pressure. I could relate. Not only was it painful for me, but one of my ears remained plugged for the first few days after I got off the plane.
As we entered the airport, we witnessed something we had never seen anywhere throughout our travels. Hundreds of people, four to six deep, were standing shoulder to shoulder on both sides of the cordoned walkway, looking expectantly at us. This continued all of the way to the baggage carousels in the baggage claim area. I had a strong desire to wave both hands in the air as I was walking, pretending I was a celebrity, but the extremely heavy laptop case held me back.
After working our way through the crowded airport, we exited and began to look for the hotel’s shuttle.
It finally appeared about fifteen minutes later and we were driven to our destination, which was a short distance away.
Until now, day 27, our trip had gone very smoothly, but that was about to change. The glitch was minor, but at midnight, after traveling all day, my husband was not up for the news we received.
It seems the hotel had two rooms booked for us. One was supposed to be free with our Wyndham Rewards Points and the other was quite pricey. After a very lengthy, somewhat heated conversation between my spouse and the desk clerk, God intervened by sending a woman who had made her reservation for the wrong day and who had no room. Fred sold the unwanted extra room to her for half-price.
The next morning started off like the day before ended. Our free breakfast was only free for one of us. The other one was seventeen dollars. Not a great welcome to our very brief visit to Guayaquil.
Noel had arranged for a driver from Cuenca, to transport us back to his house. Javier was as prompt and as pleasant as we were told he would be and spoke the English language fluently. We welcomed this, because the extent of my understanding of the Spanish language is limited to “hola” and numbers 1 through 29, but I usually have to start at “uno,” much like a child who is trying to recite the alphabet by singing the Alphabet Song. My husband can say “buenos dias,” which he said all day long, even though it means “good morning,” until he switched to “buenas noches” at some point later in the day. As was inevitable, we soon learned the word “banos,” which means bathroom.
We set off for Cuenca a few minutes after eleven o’clock. It was a sunny, 85-degree day. Javier apologized that his AC needed to be charged, but assured us the temperature would drop in about an hour, as we got into the mountains.
We were getting our first look at Guayaquil in the daylight. As we approached the main intersections, vendors like we had seen in Lima, were walking between the lanes of traffic waving their goods. This time rather than snacks, it was toys and some of the men were even carrying large hockey goals.
We saw a large cemetery on a hill with raised stacked cement compartments. Javier explained the deceased may be buried in these or underneath the ground in layers, usually no more than three deep.
The rural part of the trip started on a road that was four-lanes wide. We passed through an area where produce stands lined both sides of the roadway. There were men standing on the center line holding oranges and thick slices of pineapple. We pulled off at a stand to purchase a fresh coconut. Javier asked the man to prepare it so it could be eaten in the car. We came away with a medium-sized plastic bag half-full of coconut water with a straw tied into the opening and soft, wet, fleshy slices of coconut contained by the remaining shell. We paid one dollar for the prepared snack.
We drove past banana trees with plastic coverings over the bunches of fruit to keep pesticides from getting on the bananas. When we came to an area where cacao trees grew near the road, our driver stopped so we could get a better look and take a picture. As we continued on our way, Javier pointed out large ant nests that were attached to some trees.
When passing through a small village, we saw a mother driving a motor bike with a toddler of about one year, sitting on the gas tank in front of her. Cows and goats crossed before us with men on horses herding them across the main thoroughfare and onto a side street. We stopped to fill the tank with gasoline which was $1.48 per gallon (not liter). Javier told us the price is always the same at every station and he knew of no self-serve gas stations in all of Ecuador.
The distance from Guayaquil to Cuenca is 124 miles or 200 kilometers. Due to the climb in elevation from 13 feet to 8,400 feet and the twists and turns of driving into the Andes Mountains, the drive should take about three and a half hours, but our driver does it in three. We soon learned that in the mountains in Ecuador, or at least on all of the roads we traveled in the Andes with three different drivers over 16 days, it is normal to pass on curves, drive at accelerated speeds and brake just before going over the edge. As strange as it sounds, I didn’t feel in danger after the first hour of this trip.
Javier was right. The temperature became cooler, as we wound around the mountains, climbing higher and higher. Unfortunately, we could not view the scenery due to the fog and we were told this was not uncommon. The road had narrowed to two lanes before we passed through a police checkpoint at the entrance to El Cajas National Park, where officers watch for toxic materials, to prevent them from passing through the park.
Later, our driver stopped at a produce stand which was on a sharp curve in Pamarendo. As we got out of the Hyundai, we heard screeching sounds and witnessed a car that was traveling much too fast, squealing the entire way around the curve.
We purchased two pineapples, a box of eight or ten mangos, a very large bunch of red bananas, a small bunch of tiny bananas, some ipilahaya fruit, a watermelon and a bag of sugar cane cut into rectangles, which Javier said was a fun, sweet snack. The total cost of our purchase was around ten or twelve dollars.
We came upon an occasional horse tied along the roadside and a few times, saw riders on horseback. We also saw indigenous people walking along the road and a sign warning of a landslide. We passed openings that would have been great photo ops had the fog not been present.
The 2011 Hyundai with 675,000 miles never missed a beat. We learned Javier’s father had a 2009 Hyundai with 900,000 miles. Manual transmissions are necessary with the heavy use and the mountainous terrain. Our driver makes this trip about ten times per month and has never had to have the transmission rebuilt or replaced.
Javier suggested we stop for something to eat at his favorite little restaurant, which was run by a woman whose daughter was covering for her this day. Restaurant may not be the proper word, as it was a room with a few tables connected to a kitchen. The menu was limited to a few items and some beverages. We had humitas, whose main ingredient ground corn, is wrapped in corn husks and steamed in a large pot. We were told there was a small amount of cheese in the mixture, but it was undetectable to my taste buds. It was at this stop we were told Coca Cola tastes better in Ecuador than in the USA, due to the use of sugar rather than corn syrup. I cannot vouch for that, as I rarely drink calories and never have sugary drinks.
At one point, we were 1,400 feet above sea level. We pulled into a driveway that went into the National Park and were told it was a popular area for hikers and where our driver had hiked many times. It is not unusual to see llamas, deer and rabbits, although the closest we came to seeing wildlife was a picture on a sign. There are hundreds of small lakes in the area with very cold water.
The paved mountain road was dirt until ten years ago and no more than a walking/horseback riding trail 50 years ago. Many families in the mountains own a horse to help with labor.
As we were nearing the end of the trip, but still several miles from the destination city, we started seeing small groups of people standing along the side of the road, which we were told were waiting for the bus to come along.
Before the trip was over, we learned Javier had lived in New York City for 18 years, where he installed cable for communications. He said the minimum wage in Ecuador is less than $400 per month, but assured us that it is possible to live on this in Cuenca, as bus rides are 25 cents and the rent for a modest apartment is $100.
Noel and Christine were waiting in front of their building when we arrived.
To be continued.