On the Road to Guayaquil

My new friends in Loja, after hearing about my bad luck on the bus, had told me there are private buses that are a little more expensive ($12 instead of $7.50) between the big cities. These buses are much safer because they don’t leave from the terminals, and they don’t stop to pick people up. This sounded like a great idea, and I picked the company Elite Tours.

They weren’t even buses, they were minivans with only two other passengers. “So this is how the rich folk do it” I thought. The only drawback was I had to go to Cuenca first, then catch another minivan to Guayaquil (pronounced why-ah-keel). No problem!

I found another minivan in Cuenca without a hitch, and soon was flying through the mountain roads toward the coast. Leaving Cuenca, you go through Cajas National Park, a surreal looking landscape with crooked, white-barked trees. But as we descended, I saw fog ahead.

This might be a good time to interject my opinion about Ecuadorian drivers, especially bus drivers. They must be paid by the trip, and not by the hour, based on the velocity at which they propel their vehicles down the road. Riding in a vehicle is a sport in and of itself. You look around for something solid to grab onto, and hold on tight. All my bus rides to this point had been on windy, mountainous roads, with significant drop-offs on one side or the other. Occasionally little white crosses on the side of the road flicked by, as our driver accelerated through the turns, creating centrifugal forces (I think, it’s been a long time since Physics class) that throw you from one side of the vehicle to the other. Drivers are apparently blind to double yellow lines as well, using as much of the road as they please.

The next hour was a white-knuckled experience. The low visibility of the fog had no effect on our driver’s behavior, so we weaved and dodged, and jerked back into our lane at sight of oncoming headlights, often with only a couple of seconds to spare before impact.

We finally made it through the fog and out of the mountains, much to my relief, and onto the flatlands of the Ecuadorian coastal region. The adventure, however, was not over.

Our driver said something to me and the other two passengers about regulations, and made a quick U-turn on the highway. A minute later we were pulling into a gas station, where we sat, wondering what was going on. As it turns out, minivans are not licensed to carry passengers from Cuenca to Guayaquil, and our driver had gotten a phone call telling him there was a transit police road check ahead. We sat with the engine running, the driver debating what to do next. He left us in the van, and started talking to people at the gas station. One man nodded his head, and our driver came back.

“Get your bags, the man I just talked to is going to take you past the checkpoint in his pickup,” said our driver. I looked at the other passengers, both residents of Ecuador. They kinda shrugged, and grabbed their bags. “I’ll pick you up at the gas station just beyond the check point,” our driver assured us.

We got in the little red pickup, bags in back, and rode past the checkpoint. The very nice gentleman dropped us off at the first gas station and we waited. As our minivan turned into the gas station, we noticed just behind him a transit police truck. The policeman got out of the truck and went into the gas station, and our driver made signs to us from the gas pumps to stay put.

About 10 minutes later, the policeman still inside, our driver made frantic signals to us to run get in his van. We did, lugging our bags, trying to be inconspicuous. As soon as we got in and shut the doors, another police truck drove into the gas station. It wasn’t transit police, just normal police. My travel companions seemed a bit stressed, the woman next to me sinking down in her seat to avoid detection.

“Tranquilo,” said our driver. He got out of the van, and walked over to the police truck, discussing something with the officers inside. A minute later he beckoned us. “Quickly, bring your bags!” he said in a whispered shout. We all looked at each other, unsure, then as a group decided to obey. We threw our bags in the back of the police truck and got in. He took off quickly, in the direction of Guayaquil. The driver had made some kind of deal with him to carry us beyond any further transit checks. Ten minutes or so later, the policeman stopped on the highway shoulder, and our minivan pulled up behind us.  Once again, we exchanged vehicles, thanking the officers for their help, and we were off at last to Guayaquil.

The driver said he might could have gotten away with it without all the vehicle changes, but that I stood out a bit. “I don’t look Ecuadorian to you?” I asked, feigning surprise. We all laughed. The two locals traveling with me were as surprised at this little excitement as I was. We had been silent on the first part of the trip, but the adrenaline of the police evasion broke the ice. We talked the rest of the way to Guayaquil, and when we finally arrived, I was two friends richer.

I took a couple of photos on the road, and those are in the Guayaquil album, to which I’ll put a link in the next article.

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