They Call This a Highway!

We had crossed the border into Ecuador with my feeling uneasy about the route I had chosen. I should have researched the Pan American more deeply but having looked at the map I believed that the route I had chosen was the Pan American. However the condition of the road does not comply with any description I have seen of the Pan American Highway.

Bridget has just undertaken the toughest challenge she has faced so far. The road surface no longer exists on much of the route taken, but I have checked my maps and this really is the Pan American Highway. The conditions are as bad as those between Cusco and Nazca when I refused to take her further. In this instance I have little choice short of returning to Peru and trying the other route, but in Australia I established the policy of not going back because it was tough.

The road climbs thousands of feet and then plunges down the other side which is causing Bridget a problem given the poor fuel quality of 89 Octane. The road surface is often non-existent. Potholes are large and deep, and frequent. It reminds me of the journey from Goa to Mangalore but to make it really exciting they have given us landslides.

In the UK, if a few cubic feet of mud slides onto a railway line and causes the 8:15am train from London to Brighton late, it make headline news. Here, when they refer to a landslide they are talking about a large slice of the side of a mountain. There are thousands of cubic feet of mud moving down the side of the mountain either blocking or removing large sections of road. More than once I rounded a bend to find a fork created in the road because of a landslide; one way took you down the old road which will be blocked and the other took you down the new route. There is no sign to suggest which you should take. If this is not enough there are many rocks, and I don’t mean stones, that have rolled down the slopes, and are just waiting for a low clearance vehicle to come along.

If the roads were clear and the mountains more stable this would be excellent sports car driving. Unfortunately it is too dangerous to stop and take any photographs because the chances are that a bus or truck will round the bend and hit Bridget. If only the video camera was working I could have captured some rare footage.

On the rare occasions that I have been able to look away from the road the spectacle is fantastic. Clearly we are in the centre of the Ecuadorian Andes and it is just beautiful, but don’t let it hold your gaze or you will regret it. If a pothole doesn’t break a stub axle then a rock will fracture a shock absorber. The conditions eased after approximately 80 miles and we arrived safely at Catamayo for our first night in Ecuador. I have decided that Bridget deserves a days rest and a little pampering after such a bone shaking day. Her engine temperature was in the red sector more than once, but at least I have now filled her up with what I am told is 95 Octane.

From Catamayo we have a simple drive to Cuenca, only a matter of around 200 miles. The first 25 miles was very good. The road surface was smooth and although we still had to tackle the mountain gradients Bridget seemed fine.

I missed a vital junction at the town of Loja without immediately realising it. I kept seeing and following signs for Cuenca so all was well although the road surface was now deteriorating somewhat. We came to a section that was no more than a farm track but that has not been unusual. However after a couple of miles of this I began to suspect the worse. Unfortunately people kept confirming that we were on the road to Cuenca. Indeed even though it appeared to be a farm track there were still road signs all along it. After we had travelled around 20 miles on this road a few checks with the map confirmed that although we were indeed heading to our destination we were certainly not on the Pan American Highway. To return to Loja and find the correct road or to press on? We pressed on until rounding a corner I saw a bus parked at the side of the road and the driver waving frantically at me to stop. A landslide had totally blocked the road and it was unlikely to reopen today. He told me that there was an alternative road over the mountain that meant I would not have to go all the way back to Loja. He also confirmed that Bridget should be OK.

We found the road only two miles back and although a little doubtful we set off. Two things were immediately evident, first if we met something coming the other way there was no possibility of passing and secondly there was no way we could turn around and go back. We met two senior ladies walking towards us and they confirmed that this road would take us to Cuenca and it was passable, but one of them was trying to tell me that either something was as deep as her thigh or that she needed a hip replacement. I wasn’t at all sure about this anymore but we were committed.

It soon became evident that what the lady was warning me of were those areas you get on mountain tracks where water runs down and across the track causing a quagmire. Some of these were indeed very deep and had steep banks in and out. It was only the extra weight in, and on, Bridget’s boot that enabled us to get through these by giving extra traction. Then there were a couple of sections were erosion had reduced the width of the track to only just a little more than Bridget’s width and there were large fissures where the track was breaking away from the mountain. With a drop I dared not more than glance at, we sped through these chicanes as our weight may have been all that was needed to start more slides.

We eventually met up with a wider smoother track which took us into a small town called Santiago. We stopped whilst I got out to ask a lady for directions. On getting back in and closing the door there was a dull thump. I looked around and the driver’s wing mirror had dropped off. I was embarrassed as she was calling out to everyone to come and see this car. I had a small crowd of people all watching as I tried to refit the mirror with some gaffer tape supplied by one of the residents. We rejoined the Pan American Highway a couple of miles up the road. I keep saying its all experience and today it was certainly that.

Santa Ana de los Ríos de Cuenca, to give it its full title, is a very pleasant city and home to another World Heritage site. The city’s Cathedral de la Inmaculada and Plaza Abdon Calderon were designated a heritage site in the year 2000. The architecture throughout the city centre I found very interesting and they have so many churches they must be very good people. I can confirm they are certainly very friendly, anyway.

We have now arrived in Quayaquil without further serious incident. Bridget roared into town at a steady 70mph and giving the impression there’s plenty more where that came from. Considering the battering she has had through Peru and Ecuador in particular, I am amazed. We have a container ship booked for Monday, so all being equal we should be together in Panama on Friday next week.

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