After a month and a half exploring Peru and hugging the northern coastline, it was a strange feeling to be crossing the border into my fifth South American country, Ecuador.
Ecuador comes with a few bonuses, they use American Dollars which makes budgeting super easy, and the country is small and cheap to move around, with public transport between major towns costing as little as a dollar per hour. The Spanish here is slow and relaxed, and other than some minor disputes arising at the Colombian border it is generally considered safe and tourist friendly. A great deal of Ecuadorian tourism stems from the Galápagos Islands, but there are plenty of other attractions including adventure tourism in Baños, numerous volcanoes and vast Amazonian wildlife reserves.
Emily and I had crossed paths again after she tumbled down a mountain in Huaraz and needed to be stitched back together. We decided to join forces and head to picturesque Cuenca, 8 hours north of Mancora. The town of around 300,000 lies in a valley lined with beautiful green mountains and endless farming terraces spanning the hillsides. Our main reasons for visiting were the Cajas National Park, the local museums and historic colonial centre. Our hostel recommendation turned out to be a good one, the brand new Hostal Yakumama offering hammocks for as little as $4.50USD per night.
Wanting to waste as little time as possible, we dumped our bags at the hostel on the morning that we arrived and got organised to head out to the national park, just over an hour away from Cuenca. Taking a local bus (anything heading towards Guayaquil) to the park was the best, most inexpensive option and gave us the opportunity to catch up on some sleep after the overnight bus from Peru. Some brief research online and using guidebooks had led us to choose the Tres Cruces trek, which would lead us over a slightly undulating four hour hike through cloud forest and past seven lagunas, all teeming with local flora and wildlife.
Upon arrival, we were treated to brisk high-altitude winds and low cloud brushing over the nearest laguna. It gave the whole scene a mystic, other worldy feeling – like something straight out of Lord of the Rings. Despite guidebooks stating otherwise, park entrance was free, cue tightwad high five! I’ll let the small gallery below speak for itself in terms of the trail’s beauty.
Hitchiking the hour long trip back into Cuenca wasn’t too much hassle. Feeling like we had accomplished something for the day, we set about the next important thing on the agenda, food. As luck would have it, we found a small Chilean empanada joint with, you guessed it, authentic Chilean empanadas! Emily and I each single handedly demolished two gigantic examples of the finest Chilean cuisine – I think it was the emotion brought on by a hostel showing of Luhrman’s latest movie,The Great Gatsby.
We only needed one more afternoon to enjoy the various sights in Cuenca. The town itself is beautiful, and anyone with more time would find themselves ideally placed to kick back for a while and study Spanish here. I tried my hand at some artistic photos of South American life in Cuenca and failed miserably for the most part. We wandered down to the Museo del Banco Central and spent a good two hours checking out exhibits ranging from Ecuador’s original currency, the Sucre, before they adopted the US Dollar in 2000. Upstairs there were various ethnographic exhibits and the building itself is backed by ancient ruins site of Pumapungo, which, as one Wikitravel user states, you need quite a bit of imagination for.
Before leaving, we were introduced to Ecuadorian cuisine at Mercado 10 de Octubre with a heaped plate of Hornado, whole-cooked pig from gigantic ovens, shredded and served with crackling, maize blanco, ensalada and chilli. As we wandered past the vendors, each of them selling exactly the same thing, they shouted and offered us a taste of their pork in order to entice us to sit down. And sit down we did, to one of the best meals I have had in South America thus far.
Enjoy the last of my creative attempts below and keep an eye out for the next post: Synagogues and Boobies, Montañita to Puerto Lopez, it’s going to be a beauty!