The principal bus routes out of Cuenca seem fairly indistinguishable to me—an endless array of metal signboards advertising the same kinds of variety goods stores, car repair and barber shops, mixed in between houses that look intermittently finished or ramshackle, with exposed brick, concrete cladding in various states of repair, metal grills, little garden plots, and uneven steps where yappy dogs keep a look out for passers-by. The jumbled, untidy settlements along the roads contrast with the stately, grand mountainous backdrop of the Andes.
Cuenca’s retired American denizens comprise some intrepid hikers and bikers who have not only mastered the bus routes, but have also explored the little roads that peel off the main routes. These usually unpaved, unremarkable turnoffs lead into the surrounding Andes mountains, climbing steeply into a verdant and dramatic landscape. The explorers have carved out walking routes into the countryside on these little roads, and in doing so have become the kind of Cuencano locals you should seek guidance from if you seek to understand the local terrain and surrounding mountains. Their explorations have paved the way for larger groups who gather for weekend hiking excursions.
The little mountain walking paths are not formal trails—they traverse private land holdings (haciendas owned by affluent Ecuadorian families) or little villages, whose residents are now used to seeing groups of ‘gringos’ trudging through in their colorful hiking gear. The excursion I joined this weekend was one of these routes. Its starting point is an unassuming bus stop on route 201 out of the city’s western bus terminus. No visible landmark sets apart this bus stop on the road, other than a house portico on a side pull off, where two barbeques had been set up, one with a turning spit for chicken and cuy (guinea pig is a regional delicacy) and the other for an entire whole pig, head and all.
Seeing animals stretched out and roasted in their full form made my heart lurch–there’s an obvious violence to it. Seeing pork chops in a freezer or in the butcher’s counter is simply not as much of an affront, although essentially the same thing. Most people in Ecuador seem inured to seeing animals in a state of obviously violent killing, with head still intact; it’s commonplace. This is seen simply as food. Like in many places in the world, animals are not viewed as fellow living beings with sentience and the capacity to feel pain and empathy. Species-ism is the unselfconscious norm. You might be the odd one out if you pay too much mind to treating animals as self-aware life-forms, not too different from yourself.
Leaving this nameless house-grill-restaurant behind us, our group hiked up hill past little houses along the road. Their small vegetable fields are cordoned out of impossibly steep slopes, while old Chevrolet- and Tata-brand utility trucks are parked on the roadside. The local residents were working outside, and inevitably their dogs let us know they were around, running at us and barking to indicate they were on guard. I’m always glad to be around others who know how to handle dogs, because they scare me.
After some distance, we left the houses behind and climbed into pastures in the rolling mountainsides. Clouds hung low over the peaks all around. Very occasionally, a truck passed us on the narrow unpaved track, its passengers politely waving and perhaps somewhat amused at these recreational walkers. Although the surroundings are green, tall trees were sparse. The indigenous forests were clear cut at some time past, and not replanted, rather converted into pastures and sloping open stretches. The only trees we saw were Australian eucalyptus trees whose smell hung around the air mixed with pungency of fresh cow droppings.
The roads in the mountains simply lead to settlements or are connectors that local people have developed out of need over time. We came to an informal gate made of barbed wire strung around flimsy fence poles that demarcated obviously private land holdings. The practice I was told, is to go through the gates, and leave them as we found it, shut or open.
Around a bend, we came to a modest bungalow residence belonging to agricultural workers, with traditional curved, red roof-tiles. Large squash and greens were growing in their flourishing vegetable garden. A little puppy ran around, clothes were hung out to dry (although the frequently fluctuating moisture conditions would make drying the washing a frustrating endeavor—intermittent rain seemed to be the norm here) and a woman with a baby on her hip came out to see what the puppy was fussing about. We waved, and continued on, climbing high on the path that was littered with cow droppings. Two calves in the path scuttled off upslope as we approached.
We passed a horse that was tethered by a stream, weighed down with the heavy wood and metal saddle, piled with metal milk cans. Seemingly, he was simply left there for a while. The suffering of animals makes my heart bleed a little. We said a few words to him and left.
The verdant mountain views got better with every gain in elevation. We saw cows out on the hillsides, at once bucolic and dramatic, because this landscape seemed immense and sheer, not exactly the rolling soft hills. The Andes are a young mountain range, with pitched slopes that seem to reach into the sky, and dramatic folds along the range. Yet the green makes them seem softer.
A U-shaped valley lay below us leading the eye down the range. In the distance and over some folds and hills, you could see the crowded jumble of Cuenca’s buildings and red roofs.
After a decent climb, we turned back, still shooing away the aggressive dogs near every house and driveway. It was raining fairly heavily now and the mud trails had turned into a slick sliding expressway when we arrived back at the nondescript bus stop.
As a hike hurrah, we piled into the little nameless roadside house-restaurant. The roasted pig (chancha) looked either delicious or galling depending on your perspective. Their fixed price meal consisted of hunks of chancha served with large kernel-corn (mote) scrambled with eggs and with fried potato pancakes (llapingacho).
If you wanted to go vegetarian, you were served half an avocado instead of the pork. An alternative for some in the hiking group was roast chicken, which is a heaping serving of half an entire, plump chicken bird. Most couldn’t finish their meal. Alongside, on the table you were served “aji”, a kind of chilli sauce made up fresh ground chillies/vinegar/onion. Everyone who ate the chancha called it juicy and savored their meal. The rain poured outside, the beers (cervezas) were cold, and it was a thoroughly Ecuadorian finale.