Our Driving Experience along the coast of Ecuador - Jan/Feb 2010
by J & L
March 25, 2010
After six days on the road, 1,517 km ( roughly 1,000 miles ) over anything BUT paved roads, we are back in the condo and familiar surroundings. We are so thankful that the AVIS people do NOT have a ramp to inspect the underside of the rental car because, we bottomed-out so many times, we lost count. The fact that the mufflers is still in position is an attest to MAZDA quality.!
The first night in PLAYAS was an experience, the rest of the time ,we spend in PUERTO LOPEZ at the Hosteria Mandala ( www.hosteriamandala.info ) and that was about as close as you can get to Paradise, and still be on this earth. First we thought the lack of TV and/or Radio in the huts was a negative but, laying there listening to the tropical birds singing just outside the windows, was worth it. Our BIGGEST surprise came when we checked out. 5-days, 4-nights, 4 x Breakfast, 3 x Lunch, 4 x Supper, 'several' bottles of wine, "uncounted" beers ( each bottle is 0,6 L ), 12% Tax, 10% service ~ and the TOTAL bill, including an extra $20 tip for the desk-staff and the entire bill came to $330.oo ! ONLY in Ecuador.
After some days of driving, we've figured out how to get directions. You drive 'past' where you THINK you need to turn off until you've gone far enough to be convinced that it WAS the correct way, you then turned around and go back and if, by the time you get to the turn off, it still looks about right ~ you take the turn off. 9-times-out of 10, it works great. We had maps from the Ecuadorian government ~ totally useless. We had maps from Rand-McNally ~ totally useless, we had maps, made by a company in Vancouver that touts itself as having the most accurate maps ~ totally useless. The ONLY way to drive in Ecuador is to be extra vigilant, always scout the road side for any signage that may have been put there by others ~ and ~ PRAY a LOT !
Roads that are marked as major intercity highways are anything but.! Four-Lane roads can suddenly turn into ONE LANE roads without warning. Add to that roads that are on the maps and supposedly go from A-to-B ~ wrong.! After 15 Km of narrow country-side driving, elevated above endless rice-paddy-fields, the road just STOPS ! No detour, no explanation ~ Nothing, NADA ! Asking a local in a tiny village is about as informative as expecting a N.S. fisherman to tell you how to get around Manhattan. The locals walk everywhere, that's all they know. The upper-class take the Donkeys and the really-really rich, well they go by pony. Showing any of them a map ~ they all had the same look on their face: " Oh, look - coloured toilet paper !" ONCE - only once, we made the mistake of asking a policeman. Well, we figure he was drafted into the area from MARS, it was his job to "look-official" and NOT to give directions. We "think" he said something about not bothering him, but can't be sure.
While in the coastal area, we did take a drive along the ocean from Puerto Lopez up to Manta. Most of the beaches are a dream for Surfers. wide open sea, no rocks, just sand. We did see a few surfers and stopped to watch some of them. Seems like they're forever paddling out to sea ~ to catch the PERFECT wave. Looks like a lot of work for a very short ride. what do we know ?!
MANTA turned out to be a city of HUGE contrasts. It's been an important port city since before the INCAs. Recently, so the rumors go, the Chinese have basically bought the port and plan on expanding it drastically. Seems that the Chinese want cheap access to the huge SOYA bean crops from Brazil so, they're expanding the port and - they're building a road straight from Manta into/through the jungle towards Brazil, some 2,000~3,000 km - to the huge Soya plantations. The whole town is abuzz with what's to come.
Driving into Manta is a huge disappointment. Absolute squalor, filth, dirt, stench, run-down buildings, terrible road conditions ( even by Ecuadorian standards ), open sewers ~ wide dogs EVERYWHERE. Just plain - it's not a nice place to be. THEN, when we reached the ocean and hit the BOARDWALK along the ocean - EVERYTHING changes. There is a wide walkway along the ocean, wide four-lane road with great pavement. Street lights, etc. Just like being in Miami. This is where the RICH live. Huge, spectacular Glass high-rise buildings that would fit right into down-town DUBAI.
Then as you proceed along the ocean, the high-rise buildings give way to the spectacular gated communities. One more elaborate than the next. This is where the Gringo's ( North-Americans & Europeans and rich Ecuadorians) live. How they can live there, knowing that less than a couple of Kilometers away is the worst squalors we have EVER seen, that's beyond us. Actually, when we drove through SALINAS, it was a similar picture.
The country side is truly breathtakingly beautiful. The endless, empty beaches are amazing, the weather is fantastic ( if you can see past the constant 100% humidity), the food is wonderful ~ but the roads ~ they defy description. Let's just say "interesting".! Where else in the world can you drive along a well trodden path and suddenly be confronted by a 6 ft x 4 ft x bottomless POTHOLE ? Where else can you drive up a mountain road, come around a tight corner only to be confronted by a NON-EXISTING road ? That happens quite a lot, where the mountainside gave way and a land-slide took most of the road. Only in Ecuador, do you see trucks continue WITHOUT even hitting the brakes and shoot for the little bit of road still there, with NO REGARD to the 500 ft drop-off. Only in Ecuador.! Where else in the world can you be crawling up a steep hill, barely in 2nd gear, only to be confronted by a BUS hurdling down from the other side -with a SERIOUS death wish.? Only in Ecuador.
For our return trip from Puerto Lopez to Cuenca, Louise, my trusty navigator studied ALL the maps the night before and "had it all figured out !" In order to give Guayaquil a miss because of its heavy, unregulated traffic, Louise found a way to get around the city. So we went on what turned out, a 50 Km detour through mini-villages and rice-paddies. BAD IDEA. One of the roads, that Louise was convinced would lead right to where we wanted to go, ended .....IN A RIVER. ! First we thought, oh ~ that's just because they must have had rain and so, WE DECIDED TO CROSS. However, when the water from the river started splashing up on the hood, we knew we were in trouble.! Luckily - the engine did NOT quit and I was able to gun it up the other side, only to be confronted by an even bigger and wider river. Just as I was telling Louise "How bad can it get?", we saw a truck coming the other way and it went in up to the cab-doors. That's when we knew - it was time to cut our losses, turn around, aim for the smaller river again and head back the long trek through the rice-paddies. Our second trip through the river was ALMOST our demise. The engine started to sputter but, luckily - we had enough momentum to make it to the other side. We did however get our windshield cleaned. That was probably the most scary part of the trip ................nah.................going up the mountain with no road, and Louise screaming: "There's no road on my side !" That was more scary.
Another problem when you go up to almost 5,000 meters is, most of the time, you are ABOVE the clouds or in them. That means heavy fog, and drizzle rain and a drastic drop in temperature. We went from A/C at full tilt to Heater and back to A/C all in the space of 45 minutes.
The problem with doing detours that go no where is, it slows you down. So, we had to travel the last two hours either in dusk or in darkness. There is no such thing as street marking, street lights but, there are LOTS of @#%&ing idiots who travel with their lights on High-Beam. That's scary, especially when you're coming down a mountain, you don't know where the road it, the oncoming traffic and the people behind you all try to blind you and - this all happens at 90 Km/H ! After a while you just say: "Go local, do as they do !" I must say, and Louise will agree, I am now an EXPERT at overtaking around blind corners, not breaking for when the road is missing ~ just plain " Kill or be Killed ~ take no prisoners !"
Some of the "roads" we travelled, would have tested even a Hummer-Jeep. But, our trusted Mazda stood the test.! The fact that we returned it to AVIS - COMPLETELY caked in mud - didn't phase them one bit, seem that's the way they usually come back !?!
In closing, I can honestly say that I am no longer scared of HELL, because - it just can't be any worse than driving in Ecuador. We have stared the devil squarely in the face ~ and survived !
One last note of interest - in Ecuador, REGULAR gas sells for $0.37/Liter ~ SUPER sells for $0.55/Liter and DIESEL goes for $ 0.26/Liter. And still, almost all the cars are little shoe-boxes. Our MAZDA - Allegro/323 was one of the bigger cars on the road.!
J & L