Down the road and at the bottom of the valley is Hosteria Cabanas on the left. We didn’t stop, but I noticed the bright-blue swimming-pool water and casitas around it. A resort in the sun, it’s on my short list to visit.
Around the next corner were a few street-side grillers of whole pigs. Carlos explained that first they crisp up the skin, what they call chicharon in Mexico, but here it’s cascarita. They sell the crispy skin –- crunchy, salty, greasy, delicious, like a fast-food fix — to locals and passersby, and the most popular grillers sell out of cascarita in about 24 hours.
They continue cooking the pig and the next day they sell the pork. (Pobrecito Wilbur!) We stopped and got one plate of mote as an appetizer, plus another with cascarita, cerdo (pork), y papas, which fed the five us for $1 apiece.
And the road keeps descending toward the coast, dropping down to 5,200 feet, and the fields of sugarcane started to remind me of Hawaii. Carlos mentioned homemade alcohol, called trago, from the sugarcane and would we like to try some on the way home?
But first we continued down to the bottomlands at the river, via a hairy dirt desvia (detour). A couple months earlier, a massive landslide completely obliterated God knows how much highway. Half a mountain just gave way and buried so much of the main road to Machala that crews are now rerouting the whole highway.
The detour is a rough dusty road down the steep riverbank, full of cars and motorcoaches making these treacherous hairpin turns and the ubiquitous dump trucks creep creep creeping both up and down the mountain.
We got to the river and pulled off to hang by the water, which reminded me of Alaska rivers –- wide and flat, brown with silt, meandering through gravel bars — though with bucolic green fields on the other side.
To cross the river, people pull themselves on a little cart on a cable. The photo tells that tale.
We had lunch at the Marisqueria Puerto Bolivar, in the open air, totally overrun on a Sunday afternoon, service slow even by Ecuadorian standards. We were on Ecuadorian time and would’ve sat there all afternoon. But Carlos helped the waiters and moved things along at our table.
The food, of course, was excellent. They first bring a couple bowls of fried mote, big crunchy corn kernels. Then came a caldo de bola de verde, a special soup with coastal vegetables and spices. We ordered three ceviche de camaron (lime-based, not the tomato broth of the mountains) and a couple of filetes de corvina, all of which came with fries and rice. The cervezas grande were $1.25 and colas 60 cents. The bill, including tax and tip, came to $43, a little less than $9 per person.
And then there we were, at Moliendo Julio Brito, a roadside cane-alcohol hut with a long wooden bar separating the dirt-floor back bar and the drinking area, complete with picnic tables a few yards from the highway and cane-juice extracting machines beside the hut. A lot of the juice is fermented into puro and you can buy it at liquor stores in bottles, highly refined. But out here, baby, it’s savage! Like a homemade version of Everclear, 180 proof or so and the very definition of fire water. Woo!
Some of the cane juice isn’t fermented. They mix it up with the lime and puro and call it mapanagua. It’s still a little raw, but compared to puro, it’s a mellow drink for cocktail hour –- there in front of the hut, mapanagua all around for the locals, day trippers like us, and drivers on the Cuenca-Machala road squealing in and swerving out. And no one asks for any ID, that’s for sure.
On that note — tipsy and happy, well-traveled, fed, and stimulated for the day, out in the wilds of Ecuador with kindred spirits –- we drove back up the mountain for our last few days in Cuenca.
Captions, top: Needless to say, the crisp skin and smoked meat are delicious; middle: Carlos helps a family of four (with a dog hiding under the box) off the cable crossing onto the near riverbank; bottom: Dave receives vertical support from the roadside bar's signpost, while Chela, as usual, provides her patented brand of moral support.