It takes the better part of a day to cross the mountains from the sweltering heat of Guayaquil to the cool, damp air of Cuenca in a shuttle bus. In the fashion of a true Guayaquileño, the driver of our van goes slow when he should go fast, fast when he should go slow, and occasionally steers with his knee while he texts on a vintage Blackberry. The blind curves of the winding road are seen as an opportunity to challenge slower traffic as well as the fortitude of his human cargo. Maybe he suspects that I find his driving skills to be less than professional, because I see him looking at me in the rear view mirror with disdain. Perhaps it is some motive that I cannot divine, but whatever has drawn his ire, I try to deflect it, hoping that he will concentrate more closely on the road ahead. The view from the window is enchanting, as we cross through various climate zones and the culture of the coast, with it’s striving hustle, gives way to the mountain peoples measured calm. As I fight the nausea and the urge to expel this morning’s modest breakfast, I keep being drawn into vistas that pass, as elusive as butterflies. From the dense forests of the foothills, to the foggy peaks of the Andes, I want to shout at the driver to stop and indulge my desire to walk this land at a pace it’s grandeur demands. The hillsides, thick with foliage, and lakes that mirror the sky above, inspire vivid daydreaming of wild adventures and exploration.
Having spent much of my life in Central Arkansas, with it’s low hills and meandering waterways, I am always awed by geologically volatile places. The Andes are young, and like youth everywhere, they tend to be loud and audacious. Every so often, one of the volcanoes that run down the rugged spine of the Ecuadorean high country spews red hot magma into the atmosphere and the old gods of the earth demand their tribute. In return they allow us to see the inner workings of a planet that is daily taken for granted as we look ever inward and the small miracles that are offered to us go unobserved. I wonder if the other passengers in the van think of this country in the way that I do, or if it is just the space that separates two places; a daily or weekly commute to be endured. With a glance at faces lit by tiny screens, I know the answer, but I deny it the light of day so as not to spoil my fantasies. Fortunately my wife, who is accompanying me, has not seen enough of the mountains to be immune to their charms, even though this is her native country.
By early afternoon, we make it to the suburbs of Cuenca, with it’s new constructions and curious abstract architecture. Even the homicidal driver has not dampened my mood although he has very nearly killed several children and hunchbacked elderly women. As the streets narrow towards the center of town, he seems to speed up and pedestrians, accustomed to the mania, move at the precise moment necessary to avoid being casualties. When we arrive at the terminal, our chauffeur is the first to exit as if fleeing the scene of a crime. We extract our gear and stretch compacted limbs as a cold, hard rain begins to fall. By the time we hail a taxi, to make the final leg of our journey, we are soaked to the bone.
We drop our backpacks off at the hotel, a converted colonial residence with rooms that open onto the courtyard, and hit the cobblestone. One of the first things that you will notice about Cuenca is the abundance of bakeries, each and every one beckoning you to stop and have a bite to eat, and wash it down with the ubiquitous Nescafe. We gave in to our cravings and grabbed a croissant as we began our tour of the city, heading over to the flower market in front of the San Marino Cathedral. Naturally, it is a good place to take a few pictures and marvel at the variety of colorful blooms on display. To our surprise, there was a street fair to showcase the skill of the local pâtissier’s that rivaled the palette of the floral vendors. We indulged ourselves, yet again, and set out to see as much of Cuenca as we could, all the while keeping in mind we had only 48 hours to pack it in.