Our final three days in Ecuador are spent in Cuenca, the country’s third-largest city, that sits in the mountains in the south. We hop-skip-and-jump it from Salinas to Cuenca – three buses do the trick: from Salinas to Santa Elena; then another bus to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city and its main port, where there’s just enough time for a quick bite of lunch at the Guayquil bus station before making the connection to Cuenca.
As we travel east from the coast, it looks dry, like it did around Quito – no doubt it’s because it’s winter. As we leave Guayaquil, the flat land gives way to the foothills – we twist and turn up and around mountains through a spectacular piece of the Andes that is now known as Parque National Cajas,
which looks to have days full of incredible hiking in there. Luck would have it that I was sitting on the wrong side of the bus for photo ops; these two don’t even come close to doing the park justice. The land gradually turns to verdant green, the cows are out on the hillsides munching the grass. By now we’re on the eastern edge of the park and coming in to the outskirts of Cuenca. Out here on the western edge of town it’s looking very suburban, with American overtones, but that soon gives way to a large working-class neighborhood that cuts across the top of the city, with plenty of hustle and bustle, taking us to the terminal terrestre (bus station) on the northeast side of the city.
Our friend Rich, who is also from New Hampshire, now living in Loja, south of Cuenca, has timed his bus ride with ours, and as our bus pulls into its slot at the station, there’s Rich on the sidewalk pulling his suitcase and carrying his guitar case. It seems his bus has just arrived, hours late, due to its hitting a cow, which you just know is not a good thing and takes a long time to fix. But we’re all here now, and it’s just a matter of sorting things out with Rich’s friend Dom, who’s got an empty apartment we can stay at while we’re in town. Sweet!
It turns out we’re a day early for our sweet deal, so tonight we get a cab driver to take us to the hostel area in the city center, and after a couple of wrong turns, we find Alvano’s Hostal, with room at the inn. Rich is hoping to get a couple of gigs playing guitar while he’s in Cuenca, and tonight he serenades us with a couple of good-night tunes. The Internet isn’t working (a temporary problem, we’re told), and that makes it easy to call it an early night.
The morning beckons with a grand breakfast, all for $2.50: huevas, a large glass of juice, toasted cheese sandwich, and cafe con leche, which I am learning to savor. Only one coffee at breakfast now; I was overdoing it when I first got here; and now that I’m back in the mountains, I should cut back. Only one cup at breakfast allows for the possibility of another cup later in the day and still staying on this side of overcaffeinated.
We stuff all our luggage in a storage area at the hostel and head out on foot to do some exploring. We’re looking for a bank in the worst way. We’re down to our last dollars and Cuenca is our last hope to get some cash in our pockets. Between Celeste and me, we’ve got one credit card and one debit card. The credit card has turned out to be next to useless – the only place that accepted the card was the hotel in Salinas; everywhere else took only cash. By the time we left Bahia, we were getting close to broke, but we had enough to get us to Salinas, where Celeste could get some cash from any ATM. But wouldn’t you know? There wasn’t a bank in Salinas with any cash! We weren’t the only ones; no one was getting any.
So we’ve been working on a shoestring for a couple of days, hoping that our situation is going to change any minute now that we’ve hit the big city. We find a Banco del Pichincha on Mariscal Sucre and its ATM is working just fine. Banco del Pichincha – the yellow bank, as it’s known colloquially – is the largest private bank in Ecuador, and among the foreigners we’ve talked to here in Ecuador, this is the best one to do business with. It certainly comes through for us today. Time for some sightseeing.
And just as we turn the corner to head up to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, who do we run into but our friend Marcelo from Bahia – he’s here in town with his brother, Claudio, and his mom – doing the same thing we’re doing – sightseeing in this architectural wonder of a city. The center of Cuenca, which covers a broad area north of the Tomebamba River, is a UNESCO World Heritage Trust site, and deservedly so for its wealth of historical buildings. Although Cuenca has been settled since before the Inca, it’s the Spanish colonial architecture that the city is known for. The cathedral is just the most obvious piece of splendor. And across the street, in Parque Calderon, there are plenty of benches to sit on and enjoy that second cafe con leche of the day or a dish of ice cream.
Take the 153 steps up the winding staircase in one of the cathedral towers, and the panoramic views of the city take your breath away.We wander along the streets, making our way toward the river, and at every corner there is something new to see …
One of the streets brought us out to Calle Bajada del Padron, a winding street that took us down to the Tomebamba River. We take our shoes off and wander through the grass along the river’s edge, taking pictures, enjoying the sunshine, another perfect day.
Verde. Those of you who know of my bent to capture toilet doors in faraway places, here’s another set. Encantador, Republica Sur!
We wander back and head up the steps to the city. I’ve managed to whine a little too loudly about the lack of bookstores to be found – I haven’t seen once since I arrived in Ecuador. Rich knows just the antidote and takes us to Caroline’s, a used bookstore in the heart of the old city, catering mostly to the English among us. I am famished for a book to read and pick up “Crazy in Alabama” by Mark Childress. Good – now I have something for the plane.
Rich heads off to find his friend Dom, while we three head back up to the cathedral and into the little cafe cum ice cream shop, and we all go for the ice cream and wander over to the park bench, absolutely delighted with everything about Cuenca.
We get ourselves installed in Dom’s apartment, which is right in the heart of the city (Cuenca has a big heart!), and soon we’re off to La Parola, a bar on Calle Largo that sits at
the top of the steps leading down to the Tomebamba River. It’s Friday night, and the opening act is The Musical Nomads, who sing easy listening songs from the 60s and 70s. They do a very credible version of “Moondance,” such that I have to get up and dance … to the moon, Alice. We left before the headliners came on – they were doing their soundcheck when we arrived, and I would have needed my earplugs to stay for a whole set. Instead, we took a leisurely 12-block stroll back to the apartment. It’s a lovely city to walk in, set off in a grid. What I notice is how different some of the streets are at night than they are in the day. In the daytime, doors and windows are open, beckoning you to look in and step inside the shops, everything so colorful and inviting. Then at night, doors and windows closed, it’s like a turtle curled up inside its shell, nothing to see.
Dom’s place is a three-bedroom apartment and has a couch in the living room, so we all get a room of our room – such a luxury in this otherwise-hostel vacation. And laundry – we can hang our clothes to dry out the front door, like everyone else does. Morning breaks with fresh fruit smoothies and coffee, and then Celeste and I are off to the mercado to see what we can find in terms of fresh produce and fish for dinner. We wandered into an appliance store, expecting to see exorbitant prices, but were pleasantly surprised at how reasonable some of the stuff was. They’re probably even cheaper outside the city too.
After an hour or so of wandering around the streets, poking our noses into this shop and that, it finally dawned on us that we had no idea where we were or where the mercado was. So we headed over to the ice cream shop at the cathedral (you can’t miss the cathedral) and contemplated our next move over a couple of bowls.
Somehow we figured out how to get to the mercado. Among the stalls out front, we found a pretty ceramic tray made in nearby Chordelag that we thought would be perfect for Viviana’s mom and dad. Then we headed indoors to the fresh market – three floors – one floor for meat, one for produce, and the top floor serving up made-to-order meals. It is a gourmand’s delight. We loaded up with all kinds of fruit and vegetables and some fresh trout and headed back to the apartment to fix it all up for dinner. And it was superb (and extraordinarily inexpensive), but nothing could beat what we had the night before … Rich had bought a chirimoya at the market, treating us to a new experience. The chirimoya is absolutely out of this world, sweet and succulent, every bite is heaven, every mouthful like nectar. Bar none, the chirimoya wins the Best Fruit Ever award. And to think, it grows in the Andes! The fruit in South America have such lovely names: taxo, naranjilla, tomato de arbol, maracuya, ubilla, tamarillo (another favorite), grenadilla, and of course mango and papaya. A fruit lover’s paradise, indeed!
After a fine dinner, we caught a cab to La Parola – the night before, they’d invited Rich to play tonight, opening for a bolero band. Saturday night, like Friday night, Calle Larga is brimming with life – the area’s bars and restaurants are full, people watching and listening – English, Spanish, German, French, Australian – people from all over, come to Cuenca for a good time. It’s an extraordinary city. Rich is called up to perform – a little John Lennon, CSNY, Neil Young and Janis Joplin: a nice little set, with Rich on guitar and harmonica.
On our last day, again we wandered down to Calle Larga, this time for brunch on the patio at Coffee Tree before heading down to the river for one last stroll along the water, enjoying the scenery of painted walls, flowers and charming buildings. We stop in for drinks at a little bistro and lounge called INCA, and enjoy our last afternoon in the Ecuador sun. Arriba! Abajo! Al centro! A dentro!
Adios de Ecuador!