Ecuador, February 26: Cuenca to Macas
Our second day on the road was a long one. After a quick morning walk around town, we set out from Cuenca early, knowing we had a big drive ahead of us. The goal was to get to Macas by evening, not because there was anything spectacular to be seen there, but because it offered a good midway point between Cuenca and Baños, our destination for the following day. On the map the drive from Cuenca, a mountain town perched in the Andes, down to Macas, one of the more accessible rain forest towns in the Southern Orient section of the country, didn’t look too taxing. We failed to factor in the narrow, windy, pot-hole filled Andean mountain roads, however, which kept our speed at a minimum.
The state of the roads was only part of our problem. Also to blame was the fact that we went well out of our way trying to locate Ingapirca, the site of the Inca empire’s only remaining sun temple. Having apparently missed some key signage (not difficult to do on the sparsely marked Ecuadorian roads), we spent two hours driving down tiny back roads that took us farther and farther away from anything resembling civilization. I was convinced that we were lost, a sentiment which I shared repeatedly with Carlos and Chris, who were alternating turns behind the wheel. How could a tourist attraction like this be so far off the beaten path? At one point we passed a pick-up truck full of locals whose confused expressions said it loud and clear: “tourists don’t come this way.” We were so far out into the country that even stopping to ask for directions proved difficult, as the few people we ran into didn’t speak Spanish as their primary language. Eventually we did find the ruins, although it was evident that we had taken the scenic route, to put it nicely.
The ruins were interesting but not overly impressive. After walking around for a bit we decided to grab some lunch and get back on the road. All of the restaurants in the tiny town looked a bit questionable, so instead of risking it we bought jam, cheese and rolls and had a makeshift in-car picnic. Munching on sandwiches in the parked car, we contemplated our next move. Originally we had hoped to get to Macas on the early side, as it was Sunday night and we had no accommodations lined up. As we made our way through the winding mountain roads of the Andes, however, we quickly came to the realization that we would not be arriving early at all. We debated stopping elsewhere, but in the end we decided to stay on track with the trip plan and forge ahead. The bright side of this was that the drive was spectacular. The views from the car were absolutely gorgeous – completely green, jungle-covered mountains as far as the eye could see. The mountains formed into majestic peaks and plunged into the valley below, where a huge river ran through. We were immersed in jungle.
Stretching our legs in the Andes
Occasionally we came upon tiny pockets of civilization — small clusters of dilapidated shacks and a handful of people milling around. There was also a good number of pigs and dogs, some of which were stupid enough to run toward our moving car, causing me to scream and Chris to slam on the brakes on at least two occasions. We wondered how people could live in these places, so extremely far removed from civilization. Where did their food come from? Our best guess was that they grew it themselves or relied on shipments from the closest town. However they managed, it was evident that these people had next to nothing and little opportunity to improve their situations. The extreme poverty offered a stark contrast to its gorgeous jungle backdrop; stunning natural beauty marred by man-made misery.
We arrived in Macas around 8:00pm, which wasn’t bad considering the road we’d traveled. Any fears about finding a hostel were unfounded – it was a piece of cake. The first one we rolled into was new and clean, and a three-bed room with a private bath was available for $30 total. Done. After getting settled, we went out in search of food. Restaurants proved difficult to find, at least in this section of Macas, and the pickings were slim at 9:00pm on a Sunday. Eventually we found a hole-in-the-wall that served us chicken, rice and beer, and after that we headed back to the room with some wine and snacks, where we played cards and laughed until it was time to sleep.