“Uncontrollable,” is how Santiago López, National Transportation Ministry district director describes the landslides that have closed the Cuenca-Molleturo-Guayaquil highway, 49 kilometers from Cuenca. “We are working in the area full-time with our technicians, geologists and heavy equipment but, so far, we do not have a solution.”
The problem, says López, is that the entire mountainside above the highway, near the community of Molleturo, in unstable, with cracks running deep into the rock. “The slide area goes hundreds of feet above the roadway and we are facing a massive engineering project to stabilize it.”
The transportation ministry says the highway is closed indefinitely due danger of falling rocks, some of them 20 feet in diameter. On Wednesday, when traffic was allowed to pass the affected area in a single lane, rocks crashed into a tourist van and private automobile. “Fortunately, no one was hurt but it has become obvious that it is too dangerous to allow the passage of traffic,” López said.
Foot traffic of local residents is still allowed but the Transit Police said this too may be stopped due to rock-fall. “Many people who live nearby have farms and businesses and families on the other side of the slide and they need to move back and forth,” says transit officer Martin Parra. “They run past the danger zone but we cannot guarantee their safety.”
Beyond the challenges for local residents, the road closure is costing bus and transport companies, not to mention private motorists, time and money. The alternate routes between Cuenca and Guayaquil, through Zhud in northern Cañar Province, and through Machala to the south, add two hours travel time to the trip. Officials from three bus companies that serve the Cuenca-Guayaquil route met with López Friday to get information about how long the highway will remain closed. “He says he doesn’t know,” said Jorge Lasso of Super Taxi Cuenca. “He said the mountain is falling down.”
Transportation ministry engineers are surveying the slide area from the top of the mountain, trying to determine a course of action. “They are looking for a stable area, such a solid rock, but all they are finding is loose rock, sand and gravel. Everything is loose and unstable.”
He adds that the surveys will continue with hopes of finding a solution.