Written on the bus from Chugchilán to Cuenca:
To my left, farm land stretches, a multi-green patchwork bisected by paths that run to the hills. Neither the half complete cement houses nor munching cows are much closer to the earth than the soft morning clouds. A few miles back, in Riobamba, a vendor boarded the bus with still-warm pan de banana (not too sweet). We bought half a loaf, I pulled out my laptop and crossed my legs to write.
On our last morning in Quito, we said goodbye to Howard and Wendy at the bus stop down the hill from the apartment we had joyfully shared for a week. Four became two, and a traffic-filled hour later, we arrived at Terminal Terrestre Quitumbe – the intra-regional bus station on the south side of the city. We purchased tickets to Latacunga, a few hours further south, and found the last two open seats in the back of a departing bus.
We pulled into Latacunga around mid-day. The unremarkable station buzzed with travelers, and helpfully provided us with an ATM and a slice of pizza covered in tiny pieces of canned pineapple (a former childhood favorite of mine). We quickly found onward tickets to our final destination, Chugchilán, and I washed down the nostalgic slice with a dentist’s rinse cup of some impossibly sweet carbonated drink as we boarded our third bus of the day, and headed west into the mountains.
Rolling out of Latacunga, the bus paused at least a dozen times to let passengers on and off – school children, wrinkled elders, a few accompanied puppies, and indigenous women dressed in velour skirts and layered shawls, some with babies strapped to their backs, and most with adorned fedora hats.
About an hour into the ride, the bus got stuck in the middle of a lively small town market which had overflowed into the street where the bus usually passes. It was a Sunday, and it was Carnaval. In celebration, most people were dripping wet or armed with water or soap spray cans, at the ready to soak the nearest dry passerby. Several passengers (adults and children alike) boarded the bus drenched, and/or with their spray cans at the ready to soak an innocent passerby out the window. The whole town seemed to be giggling.
The bus conducted an impressively lengthy reversal out of the market traffic jam, and we were back on our way. We chugged further up into the Andes, with fewer towns and stops, and more scenery to keep us occupied.
We followed increasingly vertiginous cliff-side roads around hair pin turns up, up, and up into the beautiful highlands. Drew tracked our progress on Google Maps, both of us eager to have the three-bus-ride day behind us and settle into our new home in Chugchilán.
One of the strange marvels of travel in 2019 is the ability to know – with the help of smart phones and offline maps – where you are, and where you are going, with impressive real-time accuracy, no matter how in the middle-of-nowhere you might feel, or in fact, be.
As we approached the final intersection of our journey, our stomachs dropped as the bus turned not towards, but away, from Chugchilán. With this turn, the bus also left the paved road, and a heavy mist descended. We began ascending further into the páramo (high tropical alpine ecosystem) and all that appeared to lie ahead (both on the map and as confirmed by our eyeballs) was a vague dirt path-road and a wall of eery fog.
And then it started to rain.
We talked to the bus driver – twice – who each time assured us we were still heading in the right direction. Recognizing (though we had our serious doubts) that we had no better option, we sat and watched the rain and the mud as we splattered ever higher through it. About fifteen minutes later, at what felt like the top and end of the world, we pulled into the minuscule village of Guasumbini Alto, where most of the rest of the bus emptied out.
Now nearly alone save the driver and some bad bus music, we then made two lefts. To our great joy, the blue dot on Google Maps triumphantly reversed course, and it appeared we had begun retracing our steps. About 20 minutes later, gingerly making our way down the muddy mountain, we were back on the paved road. Five minutes after that, we were disembarking a few steps from our hostel for the next three nights.
It almost always works out.
We spent three lovely days in the sleepy town of Chugchilán, hiking the spectacular Quilotoa trail (more to come on that) and soaking in Andean mountain life. Chugchilán has a small population of people, and a competitively sized population of chickens, pigs, and sheep. Save some construction, one cowboy themed bar, and a woman who grills meats on the side of the road in the afternoon, there wasn’t much activity to speak of.
In spite of its incredibly laid back vibe, politicians were vying heavily for votes in this town. Election season – in full swing across Ecuador – brought the concrete facades on the main road to life with painted campaign slogans and instructions on how to cast a ballot. Everywhere we went, candidate posters and paintings promised clean water, jobs, infrastructure development (with transparency), and promotion of tourism. I was glad to see quite a number of women running for office, and one of my favorite campaigns was from Fernanda Naranjo, who took advantage of her name for a memorable roadside ad:
In addition to our hike to Quilotoa, we communed with the town’s pig population on one afternoon, spent some time getting to know some fellow travelers at the hostel, and shared an amusing meal with the local policemen who were glued to a WWE wrestling match. It was a peaceful, beautiful few days, and a privilege to peek into life in this part of rural Ecuador.