When we ventured earlier to Puyo and Macas, we did so because we wanted to get off the beaten path or “gringo trail” and into an area we knew few tourists usually see. It wasn’t until later though that we realized just how far off we had gotten. Leaving Macas was another early morning trek to the station to catch the first filthy, bathrooom-less bus out of town for the eight-hour journey to Cuenca. We didn’t even have time for breakfast although our inn keeper was kind enough to pack our morning meal into a little plastic bag so we could eat it during the ride. It wasn’t until later in the day that we discovered the bag contained not only the breakfast that was included in our room rate, but also a couple of sandwiches and some fruit and snacks for a lunch. I’ve often relied on the kindness of strangers throughout my travels, and this simple act of generosity would leave us very thankful and fed as the long day progressed.
The ride began in the semi-jungle lowlands characteristic of the Macas surroundings. This was the home of the Shuar, a group of indigenous indians who have lived in the area since time immemorial. They inhabited what appeared to be one- or two-room wooden shacks that are perched on stilts a couple of feet above the ground, and they usually had a cow and a few chickens roaming about their yard. The entire area was quite sparsely populated, although the bus still stopped often to pick up additional passengers. That actually turned out to be one of the hallmarks of bus travel in Ecuador. People basically just stand on the side of the road and flag down any passing bus that’s headed in the direction they’re headed. They might ride along for two miles or two hundred. Either way, whether there’s sitting room or not, the bus always stops for them, and it leads to a LOT of stop and go traveling.
A couple of hours into the ride the bus stopped in some no-name hamlet so the driver could eat. He literally pulled up to a restaurant, parked the bus, went inside, and sat down and had lunch. All of the passengers got off the bus too, stretching their legs, using the bathroom in the restaurant, and keeping a keen eye out for the dining driver to finish. Twenty minutes or so later he was sated, everyone boarded the bus again, and off we went. Upon leaving this little town though I quickly noticed a change in the atmosphere. The driver closed the door between the entrance to the bus and the sitting area and put a movie on the ancient TV set mounted to the bulkhead above the first row of seats (we were treated to a “White Fang” and “White Fang 2” double feature, in Spanish of course, for the next few hours). It soon became evident why this had occurred and why the driver had chosen to eat when he did. As soon as we got out of town we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, so far into nowhere, in fact, that for the next three or four hours there would be no more people getting on or off the bus simply because there weren’t any people around to do so. We passed neither town nor farm nor person for miles on end. Pavement came and went in bone jarring fits, rivers were forded through the water because the bridges in place could not bear the load, massive boulders lying in the road were dodged just in the nick of time, and the scenery…the scenery was spectacular. We circumnavigated the tops of endless green valleys roofed by the threatening underbellies of gray clouds. Up and around and over passes we went, each time to find a similar scene waiting on the other side. Waterfalls crashed down from heights unseen. Unknown plants and trees whizzed by out the window. And all the while we were slowly climbing back up into the Andes, constantly gaining altitude to reach our next destination, the old city of Cuenca.