A scratched out road sign next to the Balbanera church near the Laguna de Colta points to Guayaquil, although the turn-off from the Panamericana is unpaved and looks like it would only lead you to the next village. Have faith – 100m further on you cross onto a thick layer of concrete which has been newly laid to hopefully withstand the stresses of the wet season and Ecuadorian trucks. The concrete is being the entire length of this route. As of August 2010 it was about 90% complete. Although the driving experience is vastly improved (especially on the section between Pallatanga and Bucay which usd to be horrific) you still need to look out for the odd break in the concrete.
The road initially climbs uphill in a series of switchbacks, giving you an ever more spectacular view of the lake. Unfortunately there is no convenient viewpoint or place to park. You best chance to stop is at the “Colta Monjas Alto” sign. From here you can walk a little way back down the road. Once that view disappears the landscape is lonely páramo (moorland). There are a few communities and a bit of agriculture, little vegetation but an isolated, windswept beauty. Again, there aren’t any convenient places to stop and admire the magnificent view although if you stop other vehicles should see you from some distance away. In holiday periods kids and even adults hold chains across the road and ask for more money or food. This form of highway robbery seems to be tolerated by the authorities. Fortunately they don’t seem to ask for much and they do it in a good natured way, sometimes dressing as clowns and threatening to douse you with water.
After looping over the páramo, the road descends steeply all the way to Bucay. In the upper reaches of the valley you pass a few shacks, paths leading up to isolated communities and one school in the Juan Velasco community. Low cloud comes into sight, wisping uphill. Almost immediately the vegetation becomes more varied. One December I descended in near zero-visibility from Juan Velasco to Pallatanga. On other days the views are spectacular.
Crossing the river on a short bridge you arrive at an old part of road which climbs up the south slope while the river drops away amazingly quickly – you are suddenly way above the valley floor again. There is more vegetation but it seems that trees and shrubs are being constantly burned and cleared. The valley starts to open up below and you can see an endless stretch of hills in front of you – it looks as if you will never reach the lowlands. The road winds and descends all the way down to Pallatanga. Outside of holidays there are surprisingly few cars on the road but watch out for the Patria bus drivers who are particularly aggressive.
At Pallatanga the land levels out giving the driver the false hope that the descent has ended. The main road was ripped up to lay new drains but the concrete has finally been laid through town. The vegetation is tropical but the air is cool and there are a few nice hosterías where you can stay and enjoy Pallatanga.
I once endured a horrendous drive from Pallatanga to Bucay. Lured into a false sense of optimism that I had returned permanently to paved road, I soon passed over the debris of a landslide and the surface never improved for the next 40 pot-holed, bumpy, power steering fan belt destroying kilometres. The only positive was that I got to meet some friendly mechanics in Chillanes, just off the main road to the right after the P & S gas station (where you can wash your car for free).