Us and the traveling circus to Cuenca

We planned to stay four days in Baños, taking in the scenery and enjoying the wealth of activities the Andes town had to offer, but Alicia was hit with a bout of food poisoning. Bed-ridden and unable to move, meant recovery was the top priority. So instead we stayed eight days until we both felt comfortable that a seven hour bus journey to Cuenca would be possible. Economy was our only travel option* which meant overcrowding, a lack of space and sights, smells and sounds that would not normally be attributed with seeing one of the greatest mountain ranges in the world.

However getting on the first bus we were mistaken. Boarding, a sweet floral smell tickled our nostrils, every seat was backed with soft ivy green leather, enough space for ample leg room, TVs every four rows and a half-full bus meant a pleasant journey ahead. And it was, until we arrived at our transfer point, in the middle of nowhere, next to a busy roundabout. A mad dash ensued, grabbing our bags we ran the couple of hundred metres to make our departing connection. It was there our initial expectations were manifested.

Neighbouring our assigned seats was a hysterical child throttling a chair whilst the grandmother sat idly by, encouraging him with defeatist sighs. It was not long after we sat down and stared Satan’s offspring in the eye did the mum arrive to silence the kid by having him suck at her teat. With the boy temporarily subdued, the second wave of minions began to board with parents in tow. Within minutes, the mini-army of children had taken control of the bus and transformed it into a traveling playground. Scrimping on tickets at the cost of safety had the kids strewn across the aisles whilst their parents sat in comfort. As the bus filled, the walkway became an obstacle course.

When the bus began to buckle and burst with people we set off towards Cuenca. The conductor was quick to put on some entertainment which came in the form of a dubbed Richard Gere film. Momentarily, the children that littered the walkway were fixated on the silver-haired actor, but before long turned to their parents and passengers for stimulation. Stimulation for them was a mixture of singing and dancing, using people as a climbing frame, jumping up, down and around in circles, crawling under chairs, crawling over chairs and competitive screaming tournaments. The passengers, like our neighbouring grandmother, were equally submissive to the carnival. And so we sat with music blaring from our earphones watching the chaos unfold with the beauty of the Andes as a backdrop.

We watched as a steam train chugged defiantly up a mountain ridge, farmers sat for lunch whilst their herds grazed, colours changed with the altitude from green to a golden red, valleys far below made people looked like insects. All in the presence of the humbly intimidating Andes.

Several hours later we arrived in Cuenca, we hailed and haggled with a taxi driver who drove us in silence to our hostel.

© John Brownlie 2012

* Baños’ bus station has about ten different companies covering Ecuador. At the time of writing only three offered travel to Cuenca all with one change. Expect to pay around $10 for the seven hour trip (including transfer). All offer basic facilities with no toilet, if you have to go, tell the driver who will pull over for you to do your business. Snacks are available from the street vendors who get on at every town selling everything from crisps to ice-cream. Stay away from the chicken though!


Baños and beyond (with bikes)

Having only seen the spectacular landscapes that the Andes had to offer from a car window, we decided on hiring a couple of bikes for the day to take a leisurely ride along the world’s longest mountain range.

Trying half a dozen agencies we finally found a competitive one offering day bike rental with helmet and map for just $5. The map detailed the popular route from Baños to Puyo (42kms) which passed by several waterfalls, zip line stations, bridge jumping points and the astounding Andes. The route was exactly what we were hoping for, a nice pace over five or six hours surrounded by nature and at the end point; taxi buses to ferry people all the way back. Eagerly we set off.

Here are some of the highlights.

© John Brownlie 2012