Flying in the Andes

Actually, It’s Anything But Tame

I have flown over the Andes on several airlines: LAN, Avianca, Star Peru, Copa, and TAME. Because we don’t often think about South America, we don’t realize that the Andes are every bit as high, in general, as the Himalayas. I say “in general” because our method of measuring altitude is in flux, largely because the ocean level is in flux due to global warming. If we measure a mountain’s altitude from a point at the center of the earth, the highest mountain on the planet is Chimborazo in Ecuador. That is due primarily to a bulge in the earth around the equator which in effect elevates mountains atop that bulge.

In the past, I used to be disturbed by air turbulence. Now, with all the vacations in South America, I see turbulence as a sign that I am nearing my destination. Virtually all flights from Los Angeles to Lima, Quito, Santiago, or Buenos Aires involve a diagonal path over a chunk of the Andes. This usually takes place in the middle of the night, so I don’t get a chance to see the snowcapped peaks over which we are flying.

That plane in the picture was the plane I flew from Cuenca in the south of Ecuador to Quito. My brother had left a week or so earlier (also on a TAME prop plane), so we had returned the rental car to the Cuenca office of the rental company. I explored a bit on my own, taking a bus to Alausi to take a fascinating train ride; and I also visited a whole lot of museums in Cuenca. There are a zillion museums in Latin America, and most of them are fun even when there are no signs in English.

For my next trip to South America, I hope to fly to Bolivia and return via Buenos Aires. There’s a lot to see in between, even if I have to take a connecting flight part of the way.

 

Walking Straight Up a Hill

Indigenous Couple in Alausi

Elderly Indigenous Couple in Alausi

I’m not going to call them Indians because they feel insulted by the term: They are the indigenous peoples of the Andean highlands. I almost never saw them unless they were carrying babies or various other loads on their backs, sometimes obviously heavy.

The day I left Alausi, I waited at La Estación on the Pan-American Highway for two and a half hours for a bus to Cuenca. (See yesterday’s post.) At one point, a native woman who looked to be in her fifties or sixties greeted me, crossed the Pan-American Highway, and proceeded to walk straight up the hill on the other side. She was wearing cheap slipper-like shoes. There did not look to be much of a trail, and I saw her for upwards of thirty minutes while she ascended and began to harvest some tall grasses, which she put in her pack.

The Hill Across the Highway

The Hill Across the Highway

I waited for her to come back down, but by then, my bus to Cuenca had arrived. I think it was Thomas Hobbes who said that man’s life was “nasty, brutish, and short”—and this was a woman, and not a young one at that!

The native peoples of the Andes fill me with awe.

Dealing with Uncertainty

La Estación Near Alausi

La Estación Near Alausi

If you are unable to deal with uncertainty when traveling in other countries, it is possible that South America is not for you. One of my main destinations this trip was the Nariz Del Diablo railroad journey between Alausi and Sibambe. When I went to the bus terminal in Cuenca, I could not find a bus company that would sell me a ticket to Alausi; so I ponied up a few extra dollars for a ticket to Riobamba from the Patria bus company.

Alas, my Spanish is not good enough to understand what the ticket-sellers were trying to tell me. So I showed up the next morning and boarded my Patria bus, after telling the conductor I wanted to be let off on the Pan-American Highway near Alausi, which was a few kilometers away. I was met with another torrent of Spanish which I did not understand. (In this situation, it never helps to be flustered: I just played stupid and found my seat.)

Five hours later, the bus pulled up for a lunch stop at La Estación (shown above), from which Alausi was visible in the valley below. Not only could I get off there, but the conductor called a cab for me, for which I thanked him. I suspect what everyone was trying to tell me was that the bus did not actually go into the town, but I knew that to begin with.

My Bus Back to Cuenca

My Bus Back to Cuenca

Getting back was even more complicated. I took a cab from my hostería back to La Estación, where I waited two and a half hours for a bus back to Cuenca. I was going under the mistaken assumption that all buses stopped there. Apparently, they didn’t. (You can see my two blue bags in the first photo above.)

Just when I gave up hope, I walked to the edge of the highway prepared to flag down any bus. No sooner did I do that than—from a side street a couple hundred feet ahead of me—a second class bus from Alausi’s own line pulled onto the highway and stopped for me. I saw the Cuenca sign in the window and boarded.

We drove like a bat out of hell and covered the distance to Cuenca’s Terminal Terrestre in an hour less than the Patria bus took. The driver hit speed bumps and rumble strips at high speed, and my head bounced off the ceiling a couple of times. But I made it to Cuenca in good time and was happy.