We started our six hour trek on a Friday afternoon. There is one small road from Quito out to the beaches. It winds its way through the jungle, in the process, carrying you from 9000 feet to sea level. The drive, like much else in Ecuador, is as dangerous as it is beautiful. For hours I sat on the edge of my seat, as we raced around corners on the two lane mountain road, in pitch black.
Sal had started this trip off with his usual reticence. He had a lunch to attend the following day. He had heard how dangerous the night time drive to the beach was. As we ate lunch in a cheap little café in Quito’s tourist district, Mariscal, he listened quietly as Christian and I talked off-handedly about how fun this particular weekend at the beach was supposed to be, and what a shame it was that we were going to miss it. This was Ecuador’s Independence Day weekend, a celebration of Ecuador’s independence won after defeating Spanish royalist forces in 1822.
On this weekend, over a million Ecuadorians would travel to the coast to celebrate the victories of their ancestors. The result is a raucous 3 day party on the beaches for “la gente”. Christian (an Ecuadorian himself) and I were intent on joining them. So we talked to each other about the experiences we were missing out on. How this was a once in a year opportunity. There would be women everywhere. The booze was cheap. The food was delicious, and fiestas would blast into the night along all the bars, set literally in the sands of the beach. Sal dismissed us, rolling his eyes, and reminding us of his more “adult” responsibilities. Sal actually has a real job here, in Quito. Christian runs a hostel/bar in Mariscal, which is a nice mixture of work and play. I am what I like to describe as “enthusiastically unemployed”, on an indefinite vacation following my escape from military life.
So Christian and I gave up our efforts to convince Sal to do what was best for him. We wasted the hours of the day away, walking the streets of Marizcal, having some drinks, eating some hot dogs covered in potato chips (a local delicacy), and buying pirated 2 dollar DVD’s. Time passed, and we had simply resigned ourselves to a quiet night in Quito, among the small group of people who had actually decided not to make for the coast. And then Sal, who had spoken only the occasional word in the last few hours, stood up and made an announcement.
“Alright guys, pack your bags for 3 days. We need to get going if we are still going to make the beach in time to enjoy it. I’ll drive, you guys get gas. Deal?”
I stood, stunned and stupefied. A small moment passed. “Yeah, deal!”
“Ok”, he continued, “let me call this lady, cancel lunch, make up some excuse and get rolling.”
Two hours later Christian and I were screaming as Sal’s SUV veered around sharp mountain turns.
“No, don’t go! You don’t have the space!”
We found ourselves in the middle of a deadly game of chicken in the dark jungle between Quito and Atecames. Sal had started this drive off with apprehension, having heard the tales of wild drivers on this twisting, narrow road. It didn’t take long before he had become infected with the wild lust that seemed to grip all the Ecuadorian drivers.
“Move over you fuck!” Sal screamed out his window, “I will end your miserable god damned life, move over!”
Christian and I exchanged knowing glances. We were both thinking the same thing: what the hell had we gotten ourselves in to?
This game of “chicken” I speak of is quite simple. The road to the beach is only two lanes wide, and winds through the mountains, covered on all sides by thick vegetation. The road typically doesn’t straighten out for more than a hundred meters before the next curve. It is impossible to see anything coming around the next curve. But the cars are all going different speeds, and the Ecuadorians are not a people known for their patience, or their caution. Cars veer into the opposing lanes of traffic to pass each other. The idea is to try and make it around the car in front of you before a car, or bus, or eighteen wheeler comes flying around the curve to meet you. This was frightening enough, but the real danger laid in the drivers coming the opposite way. We had no way of knowing, as we took one of these curves, that a crazed driver wouldn’t be on a collision course with us in our lane.
At first we were frightened at the boldness of the Ecuadorians on these roads, as they passed each other on curves, at high speed, with no way of knowing what would be coming around the other side. Only an hour in to the drive Sal was giving them a run for their money. Christian and I served as a sort of judging panel, advising Sal through our adrenaline fueled screams as to what his decision should be. The final call of course, was his.
We came upon another slow driver. A rickety old station wagon with no backdoor, full of blankets and boxes, held in by a precarious tangle of bungee cords.
Sal leaned to the side, peering anxiously around. I knew he wanted to pass.
“I can’t see where the next curve is, it’s too fucking dark” I cautioned him.
On this drive I served as the voice of reason. Or, as the others would tell the story, “the grandma”. My heart had dropped into my stomach the moment I saw my first Ecuadorian driver veer past another in the opposing lane of traffic, oblivious to the possibility that something might be barreling around the curve at him.
Sal bounced nervously in his chair, gripping the wheel “yeah, yeah, I know” he muttered.
We rounded a curve, and came upon a straightaway. We looked ahead, didn’t see any oncoming traffic.
“Ok, go!” Christian yelled.
I followed “yeah, take it!!”
Sal dropped the SUV into overdrive, the engine roared, and we raced past the station wagon, veering back into our lane right before the next curve. We stared, steely-eyed, at the road ahead. This was one of our safer passes—the best you could ask for on this drive.
We rounded a few more curves and approached a bus. Many Ecuadorians get around the country by taking buses that cost only a few dollars apiece. As these bus drivers race through the mountains, the passengers sleep in these crowded sardine cans, apparently unconcerned with the many brushes with death they will experience.
This particular bus was only mildly aggressive– driving fast, but only passing when it was truly safe.
“We should stay behind this bus” I advised, “He’s keeping good pace, and if someone comes shooting around corner in our lane, he will take the crash”. In high stakes situations, It won’t take long before anyone will find themselves wagering their lives against those of others.
Sal kept looking ahead, peering around the side of the bus. I knew he wouldn’t listen to me. I knew because I had pitched this same idea for the last six buses we had come upon. Yet Sal had roared past each one. I was perfectly content adding an hour to our drive time in order guarantee our safety.
But I’ve known Sal for awhile, and I knew what he was thinking: you assholes prodded me all day long to take this road trip. Now we will do it on my terms.
“Bah!” Christian blurted out, “I don’t want to stay behind this thing for three more hours.”
I had been outvoted, Sal would make the pass shortly.
The engine roared again, and Sal swerved into the oncoming lane—no traffic. Good. We had a good 100 meters clear before the next turn. But the bus driver must have felt slighted by our attempt to pass. When we had almost reached the halfway point on the bus he picked up to match our speed. A curious course of action, considering that any possible collision would surely take him out with us.
“You dick!!” Christian screamed, “He’s not letting us pass!”
“Drop behind!” I yelled.
“Beat this fucker!” Christian broke in.
Sal jammed the pedal into the floor and the SUV lurched forward. We sped alongside the bus, a pair of screaming titans taking up the full road as we raced towards the turn.
I opened my mouth, ready to tell Sal to step on it harder, when a pair of head lights drifted around the corner, and lit our faces.
“Car! Drop back!” I yelled.
“Go!” Christian screamed.
Sal raced ahead of the bus, slipping in front of it just feet before the oncoming car passed us, horn blaring.
We all sat back in our seats, and looked at each other– hearts racing, adrenaline surging, with our hands gripping our door handles like vices. And then we broke into roaring laughter.
“Holy shit we almost died!”
“I can’t believe it, oh my God, that bus almost got us killed.”
“Ok, ok, let’s chill out for a bit, that was a big dice roll.”
We all agreed, as our laughter died into chuckles. We would play it safe now. No more high speed passes. No more jostling for position on the constricted road. Just nice, tranquil travel.
But it was too late for such conservative talk. We had already tasted the sweet nectar of mortal danger. We had three more hours of mountain driving to go, and we were all addicted to the thrill of this high stakes contest.
Our chuckles and comments eventually died into silence, and our relief quickly turned to boredom. After fifteen minutes of staying in our lane, behind another driver, watching the Ecuadorians race past us, we reached a silent consensus. We leaned forward in our seats, peering around the sedan in front of us. We would have to pass him and two other cars all at the same time—they were too close to each other to squeeze in.
“Pass?” I asked.
“Yes!” they responded in instant unison.
And so we passed those three cars, and countless others as we tore our way through the mountains. The night was dark, but the bits and pieces of jungle lit up by our headlights were breath-taking. Huge palm leaves, and vines, and tall grass, all drenched in rich, vibrant shades of green. When we weren’t screaming, racing past cars, we would stare and marvel at the illuminated sections of jungle before us. In these parts of Ecuador one always has a sense of being surrounded by something more permanent, and more beautiful than yourself—the trees seem to stare down at you, whispering in your ear, reminding you: you are just another little animal in this place, and when you are snuffed out like the smallest rabbit, we will persist without you, unconcerned.
As the hours passed we soon became accustomed to the regular high speed pass, and even the occasional insane driver, who would fly past us with no headlights. This happened on multiple occasions, and soon the things that had made us tense with fear were now making us howl with laughter. But just when I thought we may have been completely gripped by the madness, another man put us in our place, reminding us of our amateur status. And our mortality. I’ll never know this man’s name, but he drove an eighteen wheeler, dragging a huge gas tank as his cargo. He came upon us as we rounded another curve, by this time beginning our descent out of the mountains.
“What the fuck is this guy doing?” Sal said, peering into his mirror.
“Oh shit, this guy is nuts!” Christian piped in, with an unusual nervousness in voice.
I turned around just in time to see the gas tanker fly by our car with a booming rumble. He was passing us on a sharp curve, in the oncoming lane. He flew ahead of us and swerved back into his lane. We could hear horns blaring ahead, as little Kia squeezed past the tanker, having barely avoided being squashed.
We gazed ahead.
“I never saw his brake lights come on once,” Sal murmured.
“Let’s just let this crazy guy go,” I said after a brief pause.
But Sal kept pace, about 200 meters behind him. I didn’t argue. We were all driven by a grim curiosity to see just what this man would do. He didn’t disappoint. On the next straightaway the gas tanker swerved into the oncoming lane to pass another set of cars. As we did, a bus came around a turn. We watched their lights move towards each other from behind.
“Oh no” Christian said with a deadening thud.
We all saw it. The tanker wasn’t slowing down. He was speeding up, moving towards a bus full of people.
For a moment nobody in the car spoke, as we watched the disaster unfold in front of our eyes. I had figured that eventually we were going to see a crash on this six hour drive, and this was going to be it.
“He’s going to hit that guy” Sal broke in.
He was right, they were about to collide head on. There was nowhere for either of the behemoths to go, and they were going too fast to stop.
“That tanker is full of gas!” I screamed with realization.
“Brake, brake!” Sal slammed on the brakes, but we all knew that 200 meters was too close if that gas tank exploded. We braced for a crash, and maybe more. I readied myself to duck my head below the dashboard as the distance between the vehicles closed.
The two sets of lights converged.
And then… nothing. The bus disappeared from view, and then rumbled past the back of the of the gas tanker. The bus driver had managed to slip past the tanker by going into the grass, only inches from metal and gas monstrosity.
I released the air I’d been holding in my lungs.
“Hey, let’s let him go this time”, I said.
“Ok, good idea”, Sal replied.
An hour later we reached our destination—a small coastal town known as Atecames. We drove slowly through a maze of run-down buildings, and small store fronts along narrow gravel roads. We were hopelessly lost in a labyrinth of farmacias, liquor stores, and cheap hostels. It must have been Christian who decided to open his window for fresh air. This benign action proved a good fortune. The sounds of distant music and crowds instantly permeated our vehicle. Sal turned the radio off, and began following the noise. As we made one turn after another the sounds of fiesta grew, and our anticipation swelled.
We made a right, and in an instant we emerged onto main road, and found our car sitting in a massive sea of flesh. The road running alongside the beach was packed elbow to elbow with Ecuadorians who came to the weekend celebration, most of them already healthily intoxicated. After six hours of deadly driving through the pitch black jungle, we had arrived at one of Ecuador’s fabled beach fiestas. Our night was just beginning.
Christian cracked open the last bottle of rum in the backseat.
“Let’s go boys!”