After being diverted to Guayaquil against our will, our only way to Cuenca was to drive there. Well, we weren’t going to drive. We hired a local Guayaquil man to do that for us.
Our driver turned out to be very nice. He was on time. He was polite. He insisted on loading and unloading all our baggage himself. And to the degree he was able to (given his very limited English) he oriented us to landmarks and dispensed pertinent facts about the region as we rode along.
He was very nice, yes. But he was also completely insane. A stark raving lunatic, I would have to say. Because he drove us to Cuenca the way Jeff Gordon would probably drive on the Autobahn.
If he was high on cocaine.
Our driver definitely seemed to be in a rush for most of the 3 hour trip. I don’t know if that was because he had to pee (he did pull over near the end to use nature’s facilities) or because he thought he would be providing good service by getting us to our destination faster (although alive is always preferable too). Maybe he was just hungry and wanted to get back home in time for dinner.
We’ve had a few hair-raising car rides on other vacations. On the way back to Beijing from the Great Wall, our driver decided that three lanes of traffic going 90+ mph were too slow for him. So he pulled onto the express lane (better known as the barely-paved shoulder) and went even faster. At the end of a prior trip to South America, as we headed to the Buenos Aires airport in the darkness before dawn, our taxi driver apparently decided he could just fly us home in his car.
But our Guayaquil chauffeur has raised the bar forever. If drivers on our future trips want to be fondly remembered as truly bat-shit crazy, they’ll have to top this dude.
It started innocently enough. The driver (let’s call him Raoul – we never did get his name) picked us up at the hotel and navigated the local traffic in professional fashion. But once we were out of the city and into more rural districts, the roads narrowed to one lane in each direction and Raoul began demonstrating his affinity for passing other vehicles – even when passing was simply not advisable. Most of his high-speed tactics would have been un poco loco even in clear weather, but a misty rain was falling and the asphalt was slick. Fortunately, Ecuadorian drivers seem a mostly calm and passive lot. They wisely moved aside while Raoul completed one whiplash-inducing maneuver after another, on whichever side of the road suited him at that particular moment. It was as if he believed he was playing a video game in which NO ONE COULD ACTUALLY DIE.
It got more interesting. As we climbed into the mountains surrounding Cuenca, the mist thickened into a dense fog and the visibility dropped to near zero. Yet Raoul continued accelerating through one harrowing hairpin turn after another as if he had radar on the dashboard and knew exactly when a car would be coming in the other direction. Let me be perfectly clear here. Raoul did not have radar on his dashboard. He did not know when cars would be coming. And surprise! They did come. The phrase use evasive maneuvers came to my mind. But that term is usually reserved for military situations. Maybe Raoul was a Captain in a former life (not an Admiral). Or maybe he thought he’d made it to the next level in his imaginary video game. Whatever the case, he was definitely putting all three of our lives in danger. He went on speeding through the uphill twisties and passing cars he could barely see through the fog, while somehow managing to avoid oncoming traffic that he could not see at all – I repeat, could not see at all – through the fog. The phrase I’m going to shit my pants came to mind.
But as we reached the upper peaks of the Cajas National Park at around 12,500 feet, all was well. The skies cleared, the fog lifted and we were graced with dramatic views of the grey and copper-colored mossy cliffs that drop at steep angles down to valley lakes, pine forests and tourist lodges below. The mesmerizing natural beauty even seemed to mellow Raoul. Or maybe it was his no-longer distended bladder. Whatever the reason, his driving became less frenetic and we completed the swift 4,000 foot descent to the city of Cuenca at a more relaxed pace. If you’re doing the math, Cuenca sits about 8,500 feet above sea level, or more than half again higher than the city of Denver.
As for Cuenca itself, we don’t really have much to say. Our visit was preceded by a lot of hype in travel forums, and positive reports we’d received from a couple of friends. The entire historical district is a Unesco World Heritage Site. But we weren’t all that impressed. The place does have some lovely old Spanish colonial-style churches and secular buildings. The interior of the main cathedral is unexpectedly splendid. And we enjoyed a spectacular meal at a trendy but authentic restaurant. But after just a few hours, we sort of ran out of things to do and see in the city.
Maybe it was the constant clouds and intermittent rain (though that’s typical weather in Cuenca). Maybe it was the Mardi Gras mood that had taken over the town, with its obnoxious tradition of revelers splattering passers-by with a sticky mix of flour and water (we eluded them). Or maybe we’re just jaded from having visited so many other similar places all over the world. I’d like to think that’s not the case. We did agree that Cuenca was worth a couple of days. Just not any longer. And thanks to our Guayaquil diversion, we couldn’t stay longer anyway.
But no matter. Even if Cuenca didn’t end up being one of our more memorable travel adventures, getting there sure as hell was.