To leave Guayaquil you must first pass through the heavy traffic around the bus terminal, the lane switchers on the bridge, then the series of traffic lights in Durán that always makes me grateful to be getting out of the city.
It takes 1 hour to get to the start of the ascent, following a good highway east then south towards Naranjal and Machala. There is a toll booth craftily placed 20 metres before the turning to Cuenca, just after passing a drab little hole called Puerto Inca where the Rio Cañar comes down to the sea. Whatever construction has occurred in this settlement since the Incas has clearly been for the worse, although there is one simple but clean restaurant on the right just before the Petrocommercial gas station on the left.
After you turn, the mountains loom up ahead and the road heads directly towards them, passing cocoa and banana plantations and clusters of teak and bamboo . I always feel a sense of excitement and anticipation which reminds me of watching the Tour de France when they head for the first stage in the Alps or Pyrenees. The road passes a few houses and a turning down to some thermal baths and starts to incline. There is a wooden gatehouse which serves as an outlying control post for the national park. The climb has begun.
In the foothills of the Andes there is usually thick cloud which makes visibility almost zero and driving very difficult. At least (most of) this part of the road has now been resurfaced with concrete. It was previously badly rutted which added to the difficulty level. Once, on the way to play rugby in Cuenca we were forced to turn back at this stage because of news of a landslide further up the road. Hopefully the improved drainage works will prevent a complete road blockage from now on.
Plodding tentatively on, respite should come as you emerge through the low cloud into a vast room of light with a deep blue ceiling. The skies are clearest in the mornings, when you can gaze back down at a sea of cloud hanging over the coast and the Pacific Ocean and feel that you are aboard a plane. There is nowhere to stop safely until you pass a little café which has a great view from the toilet but unfortunately has been constructed closer to the road so you could be anywhere while you are eating. Nothing else is particularly appealing about the place. A little further up is another café (Mirador de los Andes) which has a wall of glass allowing the diner a fantastic view across green fields which drop away dramatically.
Continuing upwards, the climb is steady and most of the road is in good condition. This road is rarely busy but the driver must still beware falling (or fallen) rock from the mountain sides. You will pass a turning for Molleturo, a small hill town which looks quite scenic from a distance. Then the road snakes up though a narrow gap into another, higher valley which leads to Miguir, where a polylepis forest follows the river. These trees with their cinnamon-coloured bark bent and twisted by the wind grow above the normal tree-line. This is the páramo and there is now less vegetation – only light-green grasses and mosses and foreboding dark rock faces which oversee your arrival at Cajas National Park.
Motorists used to have to dash through the park in 30 minutes to avoid having to pay the entry fees. As of February 2012 they have been waived so you can slow down and enjoy the wonderful views. There are not that many places to pull off the road – look carefully for the car parks at the highest point on the road (Tres Cruces), the central lodge above Laguna Toreadora and on one of the bends where the road switches back several times.
The road winds downhill to a religious sanctuary and the park exit gate. From there, it curves right and descends gradually into a V shaped valley. There is a turn-off to the right just after a bridge where the valley floor flattens slightly. A rough track leads to Hostería and Restaurant Dos Chorreras, a great place for lunch. From here there are views back up the hill to where two waterfalls spill out of their lake and you can also visit a recreated village. However it gets very chilly here when the sun is not out.
From Dos Chorreras it is a fairly simple 20 – 30 minute drive downhill into Cuenca, passing another entrance to the national park, an ever-growing line of roadside houses and long, narrow eucalyptus trees which guide you into the city suburbs.