On the last Sunday of our month in Cuenca, Shirlee and I joined Dave and Chela for an impromptu tour southwest of Cuenca on the road down to Machala and the coast. Our tourguide and driver was Carlos Lara, a young Cuencano who learned his English in the U.K. and has a distinct British accent, which was lovely to listen to the whole day.
Heading southwest on the road to Machala and Loja, you fairly quickly pass out of the city and into ranchland with cattle grazing on rich green grass and the Andes towering over everything.
You pass a couple of lacteos tiendas, such as Lacteos Compero, which sell local dairy products. Vermont it ain’t, but you can buy a cup of fresh yogurt for 50 cents and a gallon for $2.50, along with queso fresca, the soft cheese that’s the only local stuff available (hard cheeses are available in the supermarkets at imported prices).
From the ranchland, the road climbs a bit until, a little past the small settlement of Potete, on the left is a small dirt road up to a monument commemorating the 1829 Battle of Girón, where the 4,000 soldiers of Gran Colombia (consisting of Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador) defeated the 3,000 soldiers of Peru, which coveted the Cuenca area.
You walk up 50 or so steps to four oblisks that rise from the top of the monument. Thanks to the altimeter that Dave handed me, I noted that we were at 8,900 feet at the obelisks, the highest point on this trip, with a grand and glorious view of the valley that we were headed down. From the summit, it’s down down down the same valley all the way to the coast at Machala, roughly 60 miles west.
Right here is also the Continental Divide, where the rivers start to run west; till this point, they all run east (the direction the Tomebamba flows through downtown Cuenca).
From the monument, the road drops quickly and you’re at around 6,800 feet when you enter the town of Girón, situated in a gorgeous valley with towering peaks to the east. Look up to see a magnificent waterfall, a several-hour day hike from town.
At 6,800 feet, Girón is 1,600 feet lower than Cuenca, thus it’s a bit warmer, and drier; though it’s only 12 miles away, it receives 30% less precipitation.
Girón has a nice indoor market, big and clean market, with plenty of bananas, papayas, mangos, passion fruit, and other foods from the coast. The church is distinctly modern and there’s not much colonial architecture, but the Casa de los Tratados (House of Treaties) Museo Histórico Militar is the focal point of the town.
It’s located in an old home just off the main square. Run by the army, it commemorates the Battle of 1829. The walls are lined with portraits of the heroes of the battle and war; a number of the weapons are on display, such as long muskets with wicked-looking rapiers and bayonets, and short pistols, with a display of lead bullets. Army boots, military flags, a major diorama of the battle site, and a map from 1829 showing graphically how big Ecuador was at that time, round out the displays on the ground floor.
Upstairs are more portraits, the table and chairs where Peru and Ecuador signed the first of a number of treaties, blue and red uniforms, more flags, and more guns; outside is a verandah with a nice view onto the gardens and a timeline along the wall in several languages. Admission is $1 and well worth it for the local-history lesson.
From Giron, the road continues descending till you enter the Jubones desert, full of acacia shrubs and yucca. This valley extends all the way to the Pacific; the upper part of it, surrounding the bustling town of Santa Isabel, is called Yunguilla, and farther down is the Jubones Desert, which I’ll cover in Part 2 of Day Trip.
Captions, top: the valley that runs from the Continental Divide all the way to the Pacific; middle: part of the monument to the Battle of Girón; bottom: the entrance to the Museo Histórico Militar in Girón