At 10,000 feet, the air is perceptively thin in the Ecuadorean capital of Quito. Travelers puff and gasp the first few days of their visit. Stone steps and sidewalks seem steeper; footsteps tread slower.
This ancient, beautiful city is home to over 2 million residents. It fills the valley at the foot of 15,710 foot high Rucu Pichincha with thousands of single-story simple homes that creep halfway up its green slopes. At the city center is the international airport, laid out on a dried-up lakebed.
It was the rainy season in Quito, a city whose temperatures vary only a dozen or so degrees year round, maintaining a feeling of perpetual springtime. But as delightful as Quito was, my lungs longed for the warm, sea level coast, with cool Pacific breezes. I needed sun.
I discovered that most travelers hop the 40-minute commuter jet from Quito to the coastal city of Manta, but I chose a more adventurous 7-hour overland route, through the Andes "“ in a taxi. After all, why come this far and take the easy way out?
The journey began with the driver navigating the drizzly, twisting streets of Quito, filled with Sunday morning churchgoers. As the crowded city dissolved into open road, mountains peeked through the open edge of the steep man-made ravine. Distant mountains, grayed out with aerial perspective, wore a froth of pale, translucent clouds.
The taxi continued to climb higher into the Sierra Andes. The higher we traveled, the more a misty fog coagulated into rain clouds crawling through the foliage. Waterfalls began to cascade the sheer rock face of the mountains. Mile after mile of uninhabited cloud forest unfolded.
What lay ahead was the spectacular panorama of trees and vegetation clutching the sides of sheer, vertical cliffs. The road became single lane in both directions, occasionally widening to allow for passing of slower traffic. As the road ascended the peaks, the air became ever thinner, wetter, colder.
Everywhere “Ahora” signs warned of landslides. Rocks of all sizes were strewn across the road. The road narrowed as entire lanes suddenly disappeared over the precipice, leaving only telltale crumbled edges. Few guardrails were to be seen. A yellow line marked 2-way traffic lanes, but it did little to deter drivers from passing in no-passing zones, around blind curves, where thick mist shrouded traffic in either direction.
Cars passed buses, which passed trucks, which passed cars in a kind of vertical challenge hopscotch. Switchback turns concealed all vehicles except those visible only a few yards ahead.
Every so often, I glanced at the speedometer. The driver was doing between 80 and 100 kph. Yet, other cars, intra-city buses and trucks sped by our little car.
All along the route, groups of men in hard hats and day-glo vests were building the road one shovelful at a time. Others manned the bright orange dump trucks and backhoes that were clawing a new road out of the massive granite mountainsides.
Here and there, the road surface had eroded to a consistency of corrugated cobblestone. The driver arm-wrestled the steering wheel as we slalomed across the bumps and potholes. There were few road markings or signs. Guardrails, where they occurred, abruptly ended leaving unprotected sheer fall-offs and rock slides. Every few miles, a lonely homemade cross marked the spot where a fellow traveler never completed his or her intended journey.
After a few hours of digging my nails into the taxi's armrest, we reached the summit of the ridge and began the descent. With each turn, as the Sierra Andes receded in the rearview mirror, the air became warmer, denser. Easier to breathe. Or had I been holding my breath?
Soon the taxi was passing through small hamlets. Banana trees and palms replaced the deciduous trees of the higher altitude landscape. Passing through the farmland, I saw cacao beans spread on the side of the road, drying in the sun. The carcass of a freshly slaughtered pig hung from a pole that was propping up the front corner of the tin roof of a wooden mountain shack.
A tropical landscape began to emerge. At first, solitary thatched-roof huts appeared, perched on stilts. Then they began to dot the countryside, each with its open-air eaves and a single window covered by a shutter. A Vietnamese mountain family would have felt perfectly at home in such a hut.
On and on my driver and I pushed through the countryside, uncovering strange and wonderful sights as we went. Rounding a sharp hairpin turn we found a carving of the menacing face of El Diablo chiseled into a 20-foot high slab of rock by an anonymous sculptor, miles from any town.
Slowing to enter another small town, the path was blocked by townspeople attending the open-air funeral of some prominent neighbor. They spilled out into the street, entirely filling the traffic lane, forcing us to drive into oncoming traffic to continue our adventure.
Hours later, my driver passed a truck bed full of joyful young men celebrating their soccer victory. They hoisted a small trophy, chanting their victory song. A large joy in a small town.
Near dusk, I saw clusters of riders on burros and horseback gathering at a local hacienda to spend a Sunday evening together. The taxi then approached Montecristi, the town where the real Panama hats and other crafts are fashioned. There, street vendors approached the car to sell fruit (the ubiquitous banana) and cookies.
At long last, I arrived in Manta and caught a glimpse of a cruise ship pulling out from its berth as it continued the journey southward along the coast. It was just after 6:30 pm. The sun had set over the Pacific horizon and it was nightfall.
A most exhilarating road trip. My reward? Sights, sounds and smells I never would have experienced from an altitude of 30,000 feet.
Mary Anne is a retired nurse who traded in her stethoscope for a digital camera and a keyboard. Anywhere you go, you’ll find that people are the same, yet with a local flavor that keeps things interesting. Language is no barrier – a smile and a handshake are good currency everywhere. Visit her website at www.travelonz.com.