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By Mary Anne Lonze
In Ecuador, Most travelers hop on the 40-minute commuter jet from Quito to the coastal city of Manta, but we chose the more adventurous 7-hour overland route. Through the Andes mountains. In a taxi. After all, why come this far and take the easy way out?
As the crowded city streets dissolved into open road, mountains peeked through the open edge of the steep man-made ravine. Distant mountains, grayed out with aerial perspective, wore a froth of pale, translucent clouds.

The higher we traveled, the more a misty fog condensed into rain clouds crawling through the foliage. Waterfalls began to cascade down the sheer rock face of the mountains. Mile after mile of uninhabited cloud forest unfolded.

What lay ahead was the spectacular panorama of trees and vegetation clutching the sides of sheer, vertical cliffs. The road became single lane in both directions, occasionally widening to allow for passing of slower traffic.

Everywhere "Ahora" signs warned of landslides. Rocks of all sizes were strewn across the road. Routes narrowed as entire lanes suddenly disappeared over the precipice, leaving only telltale crumbled edges. Few guardrails were to be seen.

Cars passed buses passed trucks passed cars in a kind of vertical challenge hopscotch. Switchback turns concealed all vehicles except those visible only a few yards ahead.

Every so often, I glanced at the speedometer. The driver was doing between 80 and 100 kph. Yet other cars, intra-city buses and trucks sped by our little car.

Here and there, the road surface had eroded to a consistency of corrugated cobblestone. The driver arm-wrestled the steering wheel as we slalomed our way across the bumps and potholes. There were few road markings or signs. Guardrails, where they occurred, abruptly ended, leaving unprotected, sheer fall-offs and rock slides. Every few miles, a lonely homemade cross marked a spot where a fellow traveler never completed his or her intended journey.

After a few hours of digging my nails into the taxi’s armrest, we reached the summit of the ridge and began our descent. With each turn, as the Sierra Andes receded in the rearview mirror, the air became warmer. Denser. Easier to breathe. Or had I been holding my breath?

Soon we were passing through small hamlets. Banana trees and palms replaced the deciduous trees of the higher-altitude landscape. As we passed through the farmland, we saw cacao beans spread on the side of the road, drying in the sun. The carcass of a freshly slaughtered pig hung from a pole that was propping up the front corner of the tin roof of a wooden mountain shack.

A tropical landscape began to emerge. At first, solitary thatched-roof huts appeared, perched on stilts. Then they began to dot the countryside, each with its open-air eaves and a single window covered by a shutter.

On and on we drove through the countryside, uncovering strange and wonderful sights as we went. Rounding a sharp hairpin turn we found a carving of the menacing face of El Diablo chiseled into a 20-foot-high slab of rock by an anonymous sculptor, miles from any town.

Hours later, we passed a truck bed full of joyful young men celebrating their soccer victory. They hoisted a small trophy, chanting their victory song. A large joy in a small town.

Approaching Montecristi, the town where the real Panama hats are made, we saw little shops lining the streets. Street vendors approached the car selling fruits and cookies.

At long last, we arrived in Manta and caught a glimpse of a cruise ship pulling out from its berth as it continued the journey southward along the coast. It was just after 6:30 pm. The sun had set over the Pacific horizon and it was nightfall.

A most exhilarating road trip. Our reward? Sights, sounds and smells we never would have experienced from an altitude of 30,000 feet.

If you go:

You can hire a private taxi through the concierge service at any hotel in the capital city. The fare for 2 passengers from Quito to the Howard Johnson Hotel in Manta was a total of $100. Prices are negotiable.

Another option is to ride one of the Panamericana Buses. The Panamericana bus station is located in Quito at: Colón and Reina Victoria Aves. The cost of the ticket for the bus is $9.

The Howard Johnson hotel in Manta is built into the side of a cliff overlooking the Pacific, with spectacular views of the city and beach. Guests enjoy a complimentary hot breakfast buffet, wifi, gym, tennis court and pool. Ask for a room with a balcony facing the ocean.

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