There was a wall of rock on one side, a 300-foot cliff down to a dry riverbed on the other. Alicia and I were sandwiched into the back of a pickup truck with our rented bikes, gripping its sides as a car battery and broken glass slid around our feet. Our driver seemed to be chatting with the three other men in the cab while he raced up the Andean mountain road. Our tires literally squealed on the pavement as he drove us, more often than not, into the oncoming lane. It occurred to me, while rounding another blind curve, that going over the cliff was the least of our worries. At that speed, sitting in the back of a pickup, any accident was likely to be fatal. I thought: This may be the scariest ride of my life.
And that was before they pulled out their guns.
I was in Ecuador, leading a small group of college students through a country I’d visited 11 years before. It was a few days before New Year’s when we settled in Baños. Our group of 11 split up to explore the area’s opportunities. When I was a student in the same class, we rented mountain bikes and rode them 60km down to the edge of the Amazon jungle. I suggested trying it again and three students took me up on the offer.
The sales pitch hasn’t changed in over a decade. Rent a bike for $5, ride it downhill to the village of Puyo, then flag down a passing bus or truck to bring you back up into the mountains. The locals have long since adapted to the bicycle traffic and happening upon a tired and sweaty tourist along their route almost certainly means they get to pocket a couple extra dollars for gas money.
On the previous trip, I had biked with a larger group. The ride from Baños to Puyo took all day, and as we progressed, our stamina levels naturally divided us into smaller groups. Toward the end, I found myself pedaling alone through a torrential thunderstorm. The only time I regretted not sticking with a group was when my pedal fell off, forcing me to walk my bike up even the slightest incline. By the time I arrived at Mera, just beyond the 40km mark, I was more than ready to find a ride back.
Strangely enough, Alicia and I found ourselves turning back at the exact same point, all these years later.
We’d started off that morning with our companions, Robert and Ana. At points along the ride, we all parked our bikes and crossed the canyon on a rickety cable car, hiked down to a powerful waterfall called The Devil’s Cauldron, and stopped at a roadside café to sample their freshly-squeezed fruit juice and chocolate-banana empanadas together. But as the day progressed, when Robert and Ana pedaled ahead, Alicia and I decided we’d had enough of the hard plastic bicycle seats. Once again, I found myself turning around in Mera.
The first pickup we waved at, a shiny new Toyota, pulled to the curb. One of the men in the back seat rolled his window down so I could ask the driver if we could catch a ride back to Baños. He didn’t even make eye contact, just gave a flippant wave of his hand. Having been burned on the fare before, I made sure to get clarification.
“¿Gratis?” For free?
“Si, si. ¡Vamos!”
Wow, what luck! “¡Gracis!”
Alicia and I hoisted our bikes into the short bed, crawled into the tiny space left behind, and hung on tight. We both realized that we were in for a wild ride as we began passing every car on the road. Hearing the tires squeal around practically every corner was disconcerting, but I was more worried about what our bikes were doing to the truck’s paint job. The handlebars were resting on the edge of the bed, and I could already see the scratches starting to form as everything was jostled back and forth.
Half an hour later, we were almost back to Baños when we came across some road construction. Our lane of traffic was temporarily closed as a road crew worked on a tunnel. We pulled up behind the last car and waited.
Alicia took a moment to reposition herself while I reached over and tried to adjust the bikes. The metal-on-metal friction had scratched completely through the paint job, leaving behind two jagged, shiny metallic scratches. I cringed and set about trying to secure my hat as a cushion between them; too little, too late.
One of the men in the cab, sharply dressed and appearing to be the eldest, opened the passenger door, got out and stretched. As I returned to my seat, he strolled behind our truck and then on down the line of waiting cars.
As soon as he was out of earshot, Alicia thumped me on the shoulder and whispered, “That man just took out a gun!”
“Before he got out of the car, he took out a pistol and set it on the seat!”
I peered over her shoulder, trying to see through the rear window. One of the men in the back seat was pointing a handgun straight up toward the roof. He appeared to be checking the chamber, and thumbing on (or off!) the safety. My eyes widened.
I turned back to Alicia. “Do you want to get out? I’m sure we can say ‘thank you, we’re close enough to bike back from here,’ and pedal the last few miles ourselves.”
Alicia thought about it. “Do you think we’ll be okay?”
“Oh, sure.” I said, with far more conviction than I felt.
“Okay then. I’m okay with staying,” she said. Not the answer I wanted to hear.
The sharp-dressed man reappeared, smiled to us, and climbed back into the truck. Soon after, our lane of traffic was waved through the construction checkpoint.
Just as the long line of cars finally started moving again, we heard a siren approaching. Alicia and I, situated in the back, were the first to see the ambulance racing up behind us. All the cars that had just pulled out returned to the shoulder to let it pass. Except ours. Just before the ambulance reached us, our pickup lurched in front of it and raced ahead.
With the ambulance right behind us and the wind once again whipping all around, I had to shout to be heard.
“What. the. Hell!” I yelled to Alicia. The only thing I could think of was that our driver must be exploiting the ambulance’s open lane to bypass the long line of cars. It was working. If we thought we were driving recklessly fast before, it was nothing compared to now. The guys up front looked back at us, saw us holding on for dear life, and laughed.
As we raced past hundreds of stationary cars, Alicia and I could only look at each other, shrug, and hang on. While trying to make sense of the crazy situation we were in, I slowly became aware of a new sound.
“Alicia, do you hear… another siren?”
She paused to listen. “Yeah, I do!”
“Where’s it coming from?” I asked.
“I think it’s coming from our truck!”
All at once, everything made sense! The siren, the guns, the careless disregard for the rules of the road. We’d hitched a ride in an unmarked police car!
I was sure that was the answer, but realization brought small comfort. We were still racing down the road, going faster and cornering harder than ever. At least I stopped worrying about the paint being scratched.
Finally, on the outskirts of Baños, the ambulance overtook us and then left us behind. Our driver turned off his siren and returned to a more respectable speed. At the first outdoor market, a small strip of kiosks, they pulled over and parked the pickup. As they exited the cab, they looked back at us with barely concealed smiles.
In Spanish, I said, “That was… different.”
They burst out laughing and came over to meet us.
We shook hands, introduced ourselves, and told them about our time in Ecuador. While they shopped around the kiosks for an endless supply of holiday gifts and snacks, we learned that they were police officers from Guayaquil, who had been in the jungle “on business.”
We talked for maybe 15 minutes before they were ready to go. I couldn’t quite believe these four friendly, curious guys were the same ones that barely looked at us when we flagged them down. Something about us quietly tolerating their insane driving must have broken the ice.
Before we parted, they left us a snack bag full of raw sugar cane with instructions on how to suck the juice from the pulp. We wished them a happy new year, lifted our bikes out of the bed (no one mentioned the scratches!) and said our goodbyes.
Alicia and I still had some pedaling to do before we got back to our hotel, but we didn’t mind one bit.