Cuenca, Ecuador, was a city that I had heard much about, but never made it around to on my first time through Ecuador, mostly due to the fact that I fell in love with Montañita and ended up spending all my time there! So on my second time through the country, I made sure this city was a priority. Hailed as the most beautiful colonial city in the country, it’s easy to understand why. The cobble stone streets, the old baroque buildings and stunning churches; the city has the feeling it’s been trapped in time. You can detect a Parisian influence here as well with some of the charming architecture. Wire moulded flower pots hold vibrant red flowers spilling over them, as the pots cling to the sides of buildings on narrow streets. The strong smell of aromatic Ecuadorian coffee fills the streets, and vendors hawk their snacks on street corners.
I had planned to take these next three days here to merely wander the streets and get some serious work done on my blog. After having my computer stolen, I was months behind on my posts and needed to really hole myself up and get caught up. I wandered the pretty streets to get a feel for this charming city, and then headed back to the hostel to get to work on the blog. A nice Danish fellow invited me out to join him for dinner that night, but I politely declined as I was immersed with my writing. The next morning I went down for breakfast, and ended up striking up conversation with the two guys at the table next to me. Their friend joined them, and soon I found myself engaging in a long conversation about Montañita, their next destination. I scolded myself for being so friendly – my purpose here was to hole up, talk to no one, and write furiously. No socializing allowed! Of course, this is awfully difficult for me. Later that day, the three of them invited me out to the hot springs in the evening. I couldn’t decline and off we went. It was quite the posh place, and the $12 price tag was steep, by Ecuadorian standards, but the place was of 5 star calibre. We enjoyed the mildly warm water, only wishing it was hotter. But the eucalyptus sauna and piping hot showers made up for the lukewarm thermal waters and we savoured the heat in the otherwise cool mountain town.
We made plans the next morning to head out to Parque Nacional Cajas and do some hiking. Cuenca is already at a fairly high altitude, but we cruised even higher to about 4000 meters, our ears plugging up the whole bus ride to the top. We lucked out and had spectacular weather; crisp cool air, no wind and bright sunshine the whole day. We chose an easy route about 7km, or around 3 hours. Paul had just recently got over a terrible bout of altitude sickness, and neither Kristi nor I were feeling up to a gruelling hike. Although Chris was up for anything, he tagged along with us slow pokes. The hike was simply stunning. Ecuador never ceases to amaze me with its ever versatile landscapes.
The place felt like we had it to ourselves as we hardly passed any other hikers; it was just us and nature at her finest. We hiked up the hillsides, around lakes, through strange, red, twisted, enchanted forests, down valleys, alongside riverbeds and eventually reached the end of our beautiful hike only to be greeted by a group of grazing llamas – the perfect end to a perfect day. Luckily the great weather had held out for us and we chatted along side the road, snacking, waiting for our bus. We met up with a fellow hiker we saw at the start, Josu from Chile, while waiting. Two buses bolted past us, claiming they we were full.
After well over and hour of waiting we began to get a little worried and decided hitch hiking might be our best bet, though with five of us, it might be tricky. Soon enough a pick up truck pulled up and was kind enough to offer us all a ride, including a local girl who was also waiting for a bus. The only rule was no one could ride in the truck bed, as he didn’t want to get pulled over. So Kristi and I crammed into the front single seat, and I did my best to keep my butt out of the way of the gear shift, while the four of the rest crammed tightly into the back. It was a good hour drive back, and while Josu and our driver spoke to each other in slow Spanish, I was surprised and excited at how much I was understanding, and even chipped in now and then! Josu, hailing from Chile, had to speak slow and clear, as Chilean Spanish is quite different than Ecuadorian, so he had to sort of relearn his Spanish in order to be able to be understood, which only worked to my benefit! We thanked our driver profusely and he refused payment, which I insisted on, and so stuffed it into his glove box so he couldn’t refuse. Once again, I was astonished at the kindness of strangers I meet along the way.
Our team headed back to get changed into summer dresses and shorts (horrah for warm weather!) and to explore the town while looking for a spot to grab a late lunch. I encouraged everyone to try to local delicacies I had learned about in Loja – humitas and quimbolitos, and everyone loved them. We bid goodbye to Josu, wishing him well along his travels and after some more exploring of the city, went for a last dinner together, as my three amigos were taking off in the morning for my favourite place, Montañita, with loads of tips in mind from me!
Once again, I failed to be anti social and get work done on my blog, but I don’t have a moments regret. I adore people, and it’s just impossible to be antisocial while travelling! You have to try so hard to not meet people. You have to throw head phones in, never make eye contact with anyone and give one word responses if anyone talks to you, or the next thing you know, your off enjoying eucalyptus saunas and hiking mountains together! I had a blast with my three American friends, and got to discover much more of Cuenca than I would have alone, had I simply holed up and worked on my blog.
On my last day, my dear friend Karolo came through from Montañita and I got to experience even more of the city, from a more local perspective as he had family who lived here. We took the open top tour bus and saw all the sights, heading up to the church on the hilltop that overlooked the entire city. We walked the streets, as he showed me sights that brought back childhood memories for him, ending our day on a hunt for a small waffle shack I had heard about tucked away in some botanical gardens. It took a while of wandering, but we eventually found it, and I squealed with delight! The man who ran it was a seasoned traveller and chef from Belgium, so I knew the waffles would be good, but they exceeded even my expectations, and I am a serious waffle lover! We ended up sitting there for over an hour, talking passionately about food, and in particular waffles with this lovely Belgian waffle aficionado and it warmed my heart to see him doing what makes him most happy in the world- making damn good waffles. The place is called Waffles de Belgica and it’s worth the trip to find this place, both for the tasty waffles and the excellent conversation.
I was so blessed to get to meet three new friends and then to be reunited with an old friend, to end my time here on this marvellous continent. It was with a heavy heart, and an anxious and excited mind that I packed my backpack one last time on the soils of South America. At 1am, I began my long journey of crossing the Atlantic ocean for my first time, to begin the next leg of my journey – Europe! I bid a sad goodbye to Karolo, and hopped on my last South American bus (thank god!).
Adios South America, you’ve taught me so much, shown me so much, shared with me so much – I feel like I’ve only had a taste of your wonders, and know that some day, I will be back, and surely it will feel just like coming home.
Until then, Ciao