Cuenca was the next stop for us, which is 10 hours south of Quito down the Andes in Azuay province. It sits pretty high still, at about 2530m and is a UNESCO world heritage site due to its well preserved colonial architecture, handsome plazas, pre Colombian ruins and endless supply of churches. To get there, we took the worst night bus ride ever courtesy of Panamericana, leaving at 10pm from Quito’s new town. We knew it was a bad omen when, at midnight, we all got booted off the bus at the side of an anonymous stretch of the highway and were told to wait for another bus…for no reason. Then, when we got on, the remaining eight hours were sleepless and uncomfortable due to the driver tazzing it down the Andes at breakneck speeds. Hard to stay in your chair, let alone sleep.
We stayed in Cuenca for a whole week. This was not the plan but there were a combination of things that kept us there. Firstly, we both felt unwell. Ollie more than I, but we ended up spending a couple of days in bed. I reckon this was our bodies still adjusting to the altitude, nothing life threatening. The rest of the days we were waiting out the unpredictable weather, so we could go hiking in the Cajas National park. We have since learned that the weather in Ecuador, in the Andes at least, is incredibly unpredictable and if you want to do anything active or with a view, you must get up early with fingers crossed. Anyway, we managed to lose a week there…
After getting a feel for the city by wandering around we decided to pop down the bank for a day out. Not just any bank of course, this one has a free museum attached to it named creatively the ‘Museo del Banco Central’. It houses a few exhibitions, one of which was a jumbled history of the Cañari people and their amalgamation with the Incas when they arrived. It also houses a selection of paintings and sculptures from Ecuadorean artists as well as a whole floor dedicated to the history of Ecuadorean money. (No mention about the fact that the US Dollar is now the main currency.) The museum leads out to the Inca ruins of Pumapungo, “the door of the puma” in Quichuan. They are not as impressive as the ruins we have seen before due to the fact that the Spanish dismantled most of it to use the stone to build Cuenca during colonisation but nevertheless, walking around the hillside gives you some great views. There is also a little menagerie with a selection of fun birds in some peaceful gardens at the bottom.
A few days later we took two buses to the town of El Tambo about 3 hours away to visit the ruins of Ingapirca, Ecuador’s main Inca ruins site which sits at 3200m up in the clouds. A free guide helped bring the place to life for us, and explained that the site is a mix of both Inca and Cañari architecture. The guide did not mention that the Cañari fiercely resisted the Incas for many years and would have you believe they simply came together peacefully. While the site of Ingapirca is a great example of the ‘respect’ the two cultures had for each other as shown in the architecture, with the Cañari temple of the moon on one side and the Inca temple of the sun on the other, nothing is mentioned about how the Incas slaughtered the majority of the male Cañari population on conquest, or how the Cañari allied themselves with the Spanish to defeat the Incas. Truth or not, it’s a pretty special little place to wander around.
I’m going to talk about hats now. This is the place for hat lovers. More accurately, the Panama hat. Even more accurately, the Montecristi hat. Everyone knows what one is, but in case you don’t here’s a photo of me wearing one a few years back on our Honeymoon in Italy. The word you’re looking for is dashing!
And just for fun, here is what I am currently looking like. The boy band curtains were beer induced…
These hats became known as Panama hats because the Spanish shipped them back from Panama, but were actually made in Cuenca. Posh hat shops are everywhere. Gringos walking around wearing all kinds of expensive and fun hats is just part of the rich texture that makes up this wealthy little city. But the hat fun doesn’t stop there! The local women all wear these hats along with the rest of their traditional dress and braided hair. It is a strange sight first of all, but it is so common, that after about an hour you stop double taking. Hats are obviously very important to the people of the Andes as we noticed the further out we went. The favorite seems to be a kind of dark green felt Trilby type hat worn as part of standard dress along with a poncho. Then there are the Cañari people who favor a sort of thin brimmed stiff white bowler hat. I do wonder if these hat fashions were adopted after the Spanish conquest or if by some great coincidence the ‘Trilby style hat’ was created independently in both the Americas and Europe. All very fun, but enough talk about hats.
Another visit down the bank, but this time to their auditorium for a night of free music courtesy of the Cuenca Symphonic Orchestra. I of course have no clothes suitable for an evening of culture such as this, but Ollie gladly puts on a fine dress and marches me down there. On the way she gets squirted by an eager passenger of a passing car with some kind of foam, as they were obviously too impatient to wait for Carnival to start. Regardless it was pleasant change of pace and enjoyable night out.
Carnival time! Everything shuts down from Friday to Wednesday because it’s like a massive bank holiday. People go mental. Adults and children alike have a burning desire to cover each other in as much flour, water or foam as possible. Walking the streets is dangerous, as an attack can come from anywhere. Luckily, due to much evasive action, and turning around to go back the way we came, we didn’t ‘get it’ much. Never in a million years would it be socially acceptable to pelt a passing motorist in the face with a water bomb through an open window or pelt a stranger with flour and water from a moving truck or balcony. All of these things would result in a swift call to the police back in Blightly…but not here.
Carnival time was a wet affair with heavy rain on both days, so the streets were not as buzzing as it would have been in Rio, but it was a great excuse for us to try the Andean delicacy of Cuy, or guinea pig to you. Nan, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry. I didn’t picture my fluffy childhood friends whilst eating it as when cooked they resemble nothing of their former selves. Served with corn and potatoes in some kind of sauce, Ollie came up with the best description of taste. “It tastes like a muscly rabbit”
When we weren’t eating guinea pig we were either eating at an excellent cheapie called Moliendo, which serves up Colombian fare at a good price, or we were buying our food from of the huge markets in town. Amazing places with almost anything you want on offer, including my particular favorite, ready peeled onions.
I must admit that we were not as enthused about Ecuador on most days here. This was mainly the fact that the weather kept us in Cuenca for too long and we stopped in enjoying it. If anyone wants to go hiking in the Cajas, and not pay big money for a guide, here is a great website with details on trails called The Free Air. May I also suggest that you get some maps from the IGM offices in Quito (open Mon-Fri only) before you come as the tourist office in Cuenca only had one that we had to photograph. A combination of circumstances out of our control (noisy Americans) also meant we stayed in three separate hostels. The third one being our recommendation of choice, Hostel Hogar Cuencana.
The day came when we managed to get out of the city. We headed for the town of (San Pedro de) Alausí in the Chimborazo province. At 2340m, Alausí sits above the Río Chanchán gorge and presided over by a giant statue of San Pedro. The main reason for coming here of course is to take the Nariz del Diablo train ride to Sibambe and back. The bus from Cuenca to Alausí took four hours, going the same way we went to Ingapirca through Cañar province. This is one of the most spectacular drives you can take for scenery. The Andean landscape is quite literally and figuratively breathtaking the whole way. Dropped at the side of the Panamericana 4 hours later we wandered the 1km downhill into the town, straight into the last day of carnival festivities. After finding reasonable lodgings for $20 a night at San Pedro Hostel, we ventured out and finally tried the roast pig and potatoes we have seen so often so far in Ecuador. While we ate at the side of the road, the entire town was out covered in paint and drenched in water from the day’s festivities. Survival instinct kicked in again and we retreated to our hotel without getting soaked.
Up at 7am, we booked our tickets ($25 each) for the 8 o’clock ride on the Trans Andean section of rail that slips down one side of the mountain nicknamed the Devil’s Nose by construction workers. The ingenious three-way switchback system means that instead of having to circle round the mountain, it zig-zags three times and descends down to the town of Sibambe below and onward to Guayaquil. The rail system was constructed after years of planning between 1899 and 1908, and after claiming the lives of 2500 workers (a mixture of indigenous people and slaves purchased from the Caribbean) if was complete and earned its name; the Devil’s Nose or Nariz del Diablo.
The ride is not like is used to reportedly be. It seems since the death of two Japanese tourists in 2007 (who were riding on the roof), they have made it much safer and much more tourist friendly. Although not a thrill-seeking ride anymore, it is by far one of the most beautiful train journeys you will ever take. The ride takes you down the valley to the now deserted town of Sibambe (due to rains and landslides caused by El Niño), while you and all the other gringos take about 100 pictures of the surrounding scenery. It’s all very pleasant, and when you get to the bottom, you can take a photo with a cowboy or a llama, or both. Then there is a bit of a cringey dance performance by the staff dressed in traditional clothing, followed by a trip up to a small ex-church now serving as museum of sorts. After a free coffee, you’re going back up the switchback the other way, this time just to enjoy the views. All the pageantry aside, it really is a must do.
The section of the railway onwards to Riobamba has recently been refurbished, as part of a project to restart train journeys throughout the country. The stretch of road from Riobamba to Alausí runs almost parallel at times to the track, and I would imagine that this would be an incredible ride for anyone who has the opportunity. The bus journey was spectacular enough!
Whiling away the time in Cuenca, we admitted to each other that we are missing Mexico and Central America. Spending four months there, we became quite attached, and even though the countries themselves are quite different, there was still a ‘rhythm’ that ran through daily life, which we think we had a grip on, enough at least to get by as gringos. Ecuador, is our first stop south of the Darien and it seems to be a much easier and more accessible for the traveler. We miss the unpredictable nature of an El Salvadoran bus journey, and the diversity of food on offer at the side of any street in Mexico along with the brightly dressed Mayan space cowboys who wield machetes everywhere they go in Guatemala. We also miss the 30 degree heat of Nicaragua! There is just a different feel to life here. It seems much more relaxed, and yes, safer. I guess this is why it is more popular with the backpacker gap year kids. The more we move though, the more we see the beauty of this country and now look forward to our next stops. We just wish the weather would sort itself out a bit!
A big one this time, so if you’ve got this far, thanks for reading. Check out the full galleries for both for more snaps.