The bus to Macas...most unique ride of my life

Trip Start Jan 23, 2008
Trip End May 23, 2008

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

And here I thought that a travel day would provide no food for journaling.

That was BEFORE we decided to take the bus from Riobamba to Macas. (Cue John Williams type adventurous foreshadowing music here.)

I had explored the Riobamaba to Macas option, as I really wanted to access the Ecuadorian Amazon from the small town of Macas. But everywhere I read suggested access only via the north (Puyo) or the south (Cuenca). Both would add at least a day of travel to our progress toward Peru. I had read suggestions of a possible highway straight across the Andes, but couldnt find any information at all on the internet, and since our guidebook is a couple years old it was not much use. I was forgetting the most valuable source of information - ASK A LOCAL!

So sure enough, they finished the road and sure enough there is a direct bus and sure enough this is common knowledge among the locals. We decided to go for it.

This bus terminal for this route is directly across the street from the animal market. We had already seen some of Riobamba's other bustling Saturday markets in the morning, including the meat market where we watched one particularly robust old lady hacking up a ribcage with a hatchet on a woodblock. But the live animal market was even more....lively. :) In the small area I explored, you could buy chickens, geese, turkeys, rabbits, cuys (guinea pigs for eating), kittens and puppies (NOT for eating). I am sure that deeper in the market they also sold at sheep and goats because we saw these being led around be folks.

The proximity to the bus terminal was handy, as folks could load their purchases right there to head to their homes in the surrounding Andean foothills. I was starting to think that this might be our first experience with live animals on the bus, but then our bus pulled up and dispelled that idea. It was one of the big shiny charter bus-type buses, with a huge TV and DVD player in the front.

We soon learned that even big shiny charter bus-type buses can carry live animals. I watched a crate of cuys going into one of the luggage compartments below, one lady walked on holding a hen, and another hen rode at Bills feet in a bag.

We were the only gringos on the bus (actually the only I had seen since we left the hotel), and about 3/4 of the riders were indigenous Quechua people.

The route wound through breathtaking valleys, with fields reaching to the very tops of the steep slopes above. The road itself was sometimes breathtaking, with tight switchbacks, rough roads, and the ever hair-raising overtaking of slower vehicles despite tight switchbacks and rough roads. Small villages were scattered along the route, and at each a few passengers would jump off and a few jump on. As we made our way up into the Andean highlands, the villages became more scarce and fields gave way to pasture land.

Eventually, we were winding through the high paramo grasslands and entered the Parque National de Sangay. This vast national park claims some of the most inaccessible areas in Ecuador, and contains both Volcan Sangay (one of the world´s most active volcanoes) and Volcan Tungurahua (currently Ecuador's very active volcano). Due to the persistent cloud cover, we saw neither during our journey.

We did see plenty of the gorgeous habitat the earned PN Sangay status as a World Heritage Site. The alpine lakes were especially gorgeous, and I was just itching to get off the bus and check out the plants. It was at one especially pretty alpine lake that we crossed the crest of the Andeas, and started our descent to the east. From here, everything drains to the east via the vast Amazon basin to the Atlantic Ocean.

We also saw some of the negative effects of the new road that also earned the park UNESCO status of ¨National Parks in Peril¨. The damage seemed to affect the eastern slopes more, probably due to the greater rainfall (400 cm annually). There were some truly astounding landslides along the road, and eventually we were stopped ourselves by a landslide ahead. Fortunately, the Army Corps of Engineers were already there working on it. We were told we would have to wait between 2 and 4 hours. It's not like turning the bus around was an option on the narrow precipice of a road anyway.

Waiting wasn't so bad actually. It was nice to stretch legs, and I enjoyed checking out the plants (even though I don't have a plant book, I recognize many as cousins to our own alpine plants). We also witnessed some serious trundling as they cleared the road. One boulder that they shoved off the edge was at least the size of a car.

After I got chilly (we were stopped probably around 5000 m), I returned to the bus and worked on reading Pride and Prejudice in Spanish. This is a captivating activity as the vocabulary and new verb tenses take me some time to work out. (Of course, knowing the English translation nearly verbatim helps.) Still, at this rate it will take me 9 months to finish. So an extra hour or two of downtown is a good thing!

Fortunately, they had things cleared up enough to let us pass after only an hour. As we creeped between the rockfall on one side and the steep gorge on the other,we had an opportunity to ponder why roads are bad for slope stability....

If I though that grinding up the road (I had long since abandoned the term highway) was a little scary, it was nothing compared to going DOWN. Gravity is a fickle friend.

Fortunately, I was distracted by the dramatic change in scenery. The slopes seemed even steeper, the vegetation was truly lush and insanely diverse, and it seemed that there were a lot more streams. We actually got to check out a few of these streams firsthand, as the road required about 6 or 8 stream crossings. Only two were so wide that both axles were wet at the same time, but even they did not daunt our big shiny live-animal-carrying stream-crossing 4x4'ing charter bus type bus. YEHAW!

Not all stream crossings were wet. There were about 4 single lane steel-beam bridges where the streams had formed deep canyons, and it looked like 2 more were under construction. We also passed through an impressive tunnel, also partially under construction. That was actually a hoot as well. First, because they are pouring new concrete in the tunnel, only one lane was available at a time. We learned this when we saw the bus in front of us backing out of the tunnel. This required our bus to back out onto a small one-lane bridge (over the deepest steam canyon we had yet crossed of course). Once the oncoming vehicle had cleared, our driver had to navigate carefully between the pitched walls of the tunnel on one side, and the rebar pointing menacingly at our tires from the new concrete road on the other side. I was impressed.

On the other side of the tunnel, the bus attendant handed out recent newspapers to the workers. It was a reminder of how remote this area still is, even WITH a road across it.

As we descended we saw some additional impacts of the new road. Human habitation and its associated activities. There were a few communities, gravel pits, pockets of deforestation, and scattered agricultural plots. At first it doesn't seem so bad, but when one thinks of this happening along every road in every valley in every country of the Amazon, you can see how the cumulative impacts are dire.

Finally, about 6 1/2 hours after we set out, we arrived in Macas. Given the landslide work and the dozens of people who got on and off the bus along the way, this wasn't too bad. We celebrated our safe arrival with a great Chinese dinner at the Chifa across the street. To top off the historic day, I realized at dinner that I have actually finally grown to like the weak Pilsner beer here. What a day!!!
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