I’d heard about a desert in Ecuador, not too far away from Cuenca, called Desierto de Jubones. It was hard to find any information on the place, let alone on how to get there. Travel agencies were of no help, but eventually a bus driver came up with the name “Sumaypamba”, as a reference.
Me and my hiking companion got up early, to catch the 7:20 bus to Santa Isabel. We’d been told that from the market there, we could find transport to Sumaypamba, which supposedly is in the general area of the desert. We managed to find the bus, and after waiting for a while, it set off on the main road, which got quite bad past Santa Isabel. Eventually the bus turned off at Nanú, towards the Jubones River valley; here the landscape had already changed substantially into a rocky, arid semi-desert. We had no idea where to get off, so when then bus stopped near a few houses to let off some people off, we jumped out. We followed a small path leading away from the houses, which turned out to be a dead end. We decided to climb the hill closest to us in order to get a better view of the surroundings and decide on a route. From the top we could see that we’d gotten off in an oasis: a small valley through which a stream ran, allowing people to grow crops (onions are the main one here). It was very green, and even a few palm trees grew scattered around the valley. The surrounding area was composed of barren mountains in different shades of browns and yellows. Some areas were covered by dry, yellow grass, interspersed with low, thick-stemmed shrubs, sprouting almost no leaves, but very bright red flowers. Some species of cacti also grew here. We decided to climb further, in a roughly southwesterly direction, following the flow of the Jubones. At some point we saw a bunch of white specks, that were clearly animals of some sort. We never managed to get closer than a few hundred meters, but zooming in on a photo, they turned out to be donkeys. Probably wild ones.
The climate is quite harsh, with strong winds blowing over the hilltops. As we walked, we could make out different air currents: some were cold, blowing from the higher mountains, and some were warm, blowing in from the coast.
As we climbed higher, the wash-outs got deeper and deeper. The soil is mainly loose dirt or sand, and the limestone outcrops were brittle and would break easily, if one tried to clamber over them. We moved along mountain sides, walking parallel to the crests, which made us encounter more and more of the aforementioned wash-outs (these run perpendicular to the crests), which in turn became more and more difficult to cross. Eventually, we reached a wash-out of gorge proportions. Climbing to the crest wasn’t an option as the mountain was too high, so we considered climbing down into the wash-out and back up the other side. Easier said than done, as the mountainside was quite steep and the ground slippery due to it being formed by mainly loose material. We tried a few spots, but got to the conclusion that it was too dangerous to attempt descending. This proved to be the right decision, as a bit later, while climbing down a small wash-out, I slipped and wasn’t able to stop until I reached the bottom. Luckily it was only a few meters. There was no other way than to turn back the same way we came, which was somewhat unsatisfying. Once we got back all the way to where the bus had dropped us off, the sun had disappeared behind the mountains and we’d obviously missed the last bus back. We had to make it out of the valley, to the main road to catch whatever bus was going back to Cuenca. We started trotting up the dirt road, hoping for a car to come past and give us a lift. A few cars went by, but they were all going in the wrong direction (for us anyway). Eventually a ute stopped and took us back up to the main road, where we placed ourselves on the next bus back to Cuenca.
The Desierto de Jubones is quite an extraordinary place, all the more intriguing because so little information is available. Apart from the landscape, we saw some very interesting wildlife, the donkeys I mentioned before, a number of lizards and geckos which I haven’t been able to identify, a species of Black Widow, and some Stick Grasshoppers; on a different occasion, I saw a small tree (acacia, I think) which was loaded with Wheel Bugs on the hunt. It would be very interesting to find out more about this place: when did it form?, why did it form?, what’s it like in geological terms?, is the fauna and flora endemic? Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any answers to these questions…