The 50 kilometer/31 mile road between Baños and Shell was a big part of our lives growing up. My parents and their friends had t-shirts made up saying “I Survived the Shell Road.”
The road was a dirt track, cut into the sides of the mountains overlooking the Pastaza river, an Amazon tributary. The road was bisected multiple times by streams, which meant using the concrete, single lane WWII-era bridges or driving through several inches of water.
In many places, the road wasn’t wide enough for two, so if you met someone coming the opposite way, whomever was smaller was obligated to back up to the nearest wide spot in the road. My dad made it a practice to honk around corners, letting drivers know he was coming and thus avoid a head-on collision. There was a tunnel cut through one spot in the mountain, and the whole thing was pitch black. That was another spot my dad honked all the way through.
The pot-holed road was an instant car-sickness initiator, so my sister and I spent those hours under the influence of Dramamine (or holding our heads over plastic shopping bags).
Frequent landslides would close the road, or if you were unlucky enough to encounter one as you were driving, might push your vehicle over the cliff into the swirling brown waters and rocks below. The landslides would either block passage with building-size mud and rocks, or they’d melt the road away into the Pastaza.
Or your bus driver might be drunk, or sleepy, and miss a crucial turn.
That would land you in the river as well. I remember one night when my dad was called to help search for another expat who simply stepped off the cliff while stretching his legs. The men recovered his body down river.
Those drives to Baños were stress-filled for my parents. I have a clear memory of my dad edging the car forward on the cliff side of the road to get around a landslide and a stopped bus. My mom stood out front, guiding him with hand motions. Her pain-filled expression told me that she was convinced her family could tumble down the side to their deaths at any moment. When we got past the spot and picked her up, she told us that at one moment the tires of our car were just three inches from the edge.
But in truth, the drive could be beautiful as well. The 25-feet of rainfall each year makes the the vegetation lining the road lush and beautiful. In certain seasons, the sides of the mountains are alive with velvety white and purple orchids with stiff folded fan leaves. Several sheer white waterfalls plunge into the Pastaza along the way.
Cue the screeching brakes sound:
All that is different today.
The road is paved. It is smooth, it is wide. There are guardrails, and several tunnels (maybe eight? we lost count) avoid the most treacherous areas. (In the photo above, the old road heads off to the right of the tunnel.) Bridges have been updated, rivers no longer traverse the road. There are official-looking road signs and painted traffic lines. It’s almost a boring drive these days.
The quaint, undiscovered territory feeling may be gone, but the beauty remains.
Most photo credits in this post go to my husband, who was sitting in the front seat.