Careening Down Through the Cloud Forest
to the Pacific Coast

I will never forget the eight-hour bus ride from high-altitude Quito, the high-altitude capital of Ecuador, to Bahia de Caraquez, down on the Pacific Coast. coast.

We took the crowded “trolebus” (trolley-bus) ride to the station. As usual, security is an issue on the “trolebus” as they are so crowded. I had one hand clinging to the overhead bar, the elbow one my other arm over one bag, and my carry-on size bag wedged between my legs to keep it secure.

This was our second side-trip by bus, and the huge, glass and white gleaming bus station did not seem so intimidating the second time around. After buying some snacks and water, we boarded the luxurious bus. The bus driver was one of those serious-faced men who crack
wicked jokes, judging from the reactions of those whom he interacted with.  The bus was called “La Reina del Camino” (the Queen of the Road) and our driver drove as though he were the king of the road!

High altitude landscape

High altitude landscape

In fact, soon after we turned off of the Avenida de los Volcanes highway, he was pulled over for a speeding ticket (” exceso de velocidad”). He was so angry, he was wildly gesticulating and theatrically imploring the two police officers in their reflective vests, who calmly continued to write the ticket.

 

 

Typical decorated bus

Typical decorated bus

This bus is protected by the Baby Jesus

This bus is protected by the Baby Jesus

There was another employee at front of the bus, in the same white shirt and slick tie as the driver, who was called “El Controlador”. He made sure that the everybody paid, handed out the toilet key to ladies who wanted to use the on-bus toilet (guys were expected to wait until the next station) and handled any other problems that came up. This guy was a tall, dark-skinned muscular man who could have been a bouncer, but unlike the driver, he often broke into an amused grin. Both he and the driver had rather rough personalities, very different than the courteous people whom we had so far encountered in Quito.

Down, down down through the cloud forest

Down, down down through the cloud forest

The scenery was so gorgeous and went through so many changes during the day that we were both entranced, staring out the window under a spell. (Though it was a little hair-raising when the bus went around curves with the precipices far below). At first the landscape was similar to around Latacunga, with intensely green, almost vertical tree-bordered fields, stretching up to the snow-covered volcanic peaks. Then we descended into the cloud forest, so green and dense, with so many varieties of beautiful plants we did not know, growing up the steep valleys up into the low-hanging clouds. We particularly noticed the many vines, and a kind of tall tree with an umbrella-shaped crown of white flowers.

“At least for our return trip on Thursday”, I thought, “We will be on the inside lane, closer to the upward cliff!”

Bus drivers chatting with the station manager at one of the stops

Bus drivers chatting with the station manager at one of the stops

Now and then, few and far between, the driver would stop to let a passenger get on or off. Sometimes vendors would get on the bus, each with their bucket or basket of sweets, potato chips, or soft drinks…I’m sure these vendors got right on the other bus going the other way and rode back and forth between the same stop, every day. I can’t remember whether they paid a fare or not.

During one of the stops I got off to use the spotless bathroom within the station. As is the custom, there was a woman sitting there selling toilet paper, with a little sign saying “15 centavos”. This particular attendant took my dollar coin, and then seemed to ignore me. Only when I said “cambio?” did she give me the change. I think she was hoping I was one of those tourists who didn’t know what a dollar coin was.

These women keep the bathrooms so clean, and the coins are their only pay, I believe. If she’d offered the change I might have waved it aside, but as she didn’t offer it, I sure did ask for it!

At lower elevations we started to see banana trees

At lower elevations we started to see banana trees

They had insisted on taking our bags to put under the bus, which worried Kathy considerably. She had been told by friends to keep her bag with her and to absolutely refuse for anyone to take it. I said that we would just have to get off quickly so that we could make sure no one grabbed our bags. (What did happen was that the “controlador” handed both of us our bags personally as we exited the bus, remembering which bags were ours.)

Bamboo-walled houses, on stilts, with banana trees in the yard and hammocks strung up on the porches

Bamboo-walled houses, on stilts, with banana trees in the yard and hammocks strung up on the porches

 

As we got to the lower elevations, something in the entire atmosphere went through a profound change. I am not exaggerating when I say that if I didn’t know where we were I would have thought we were in Cuba or Haiti. The vegetation was tropical, including plantings of banana trees. The small houses were built high on posts, and they were sided entirely of halved bamboo poles…with front porches (also high off the ground) with hammocks hung from post to post. In the higher elevations, we’d seen people who were mostly of Indigenous heritage, as well as some Mestizo. Here, closer to the coast, the people appeared to have, added to this, some African blood as well.

IMG_4541Compared to the cities we’d seen before, these little coastal towns were shabbier, more cluttered, and more people were hanging out on the streets. Once could hear louder voices of people calling to eachother and joking with each other. Shorts and tight tank tops (and skinny stretch pants) were common on the women.

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In the late afternoon, the bus stopped in front of a restaurant, a little rose-colored bulding with a lot of dusty tables outside under a ramada, pretty well filled with patrons. Judging by the familiarity which the staff greeted the driver and the “controlador”, it seemed to be their usual stopping place. The controlador” announced “hay tiempo para comprar algo de comer” (there was time for us to get something to eat). I went back to ask at the kitchen, back in the corner and bordered by a back and side wall, if I could get coffee. The answer was no, and that kitchen was the messiest restaurant kitchen I had ever seen!

Field of banana trees

Field of banana trees

“A la playa!” (to the beach) shouted the driver, when we all got back on the bus. They turned down the sound track of the movie (the third violent Jean-Claude Van Damme/”The Rock”/Schwarzenegger movie in a row) and turned up the salsa music loud. There were many more stops and more people got on and off. One of these was a very pretty, very large woman who stood by the driver, her ample rear end leaning against the ledge at the front of the bus, facing the rear. She carried on a lively conversation with the driver, which we couldn’t hear, but it was punctuated by loud belly-laughs from her in response to comments from him.

It was so obviously a completely different culture than in the high-altitudes of Ecuador.

 

The bar at the Hostal Cocabongo

The bar at the Hostal Cocabongo

Dusk was falling as we reached the bus station in Bahia de Caraquez. We walked along the beach road, savoring the relaxed small town feeling as we looked for the Hostel Cocabongo. A home-made sign stood before a place which was completely open to the the street, wooden tables and a bar with colorful tiles and a profusion of interesting collectibles.

 

A Swiss woman with long blonde hair and a short India-print dress came out to check us in.

We had clearly checked into “the Gringo Trail”!

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