Inca ruins, toquilla hats and hiking

Chicken and guinea pig cooked on sticks
Chicken and guinea pig cooked on sticks

Compared with last week, the last few days have been action packed! On Sunday, Angela, Carmen and I caught the quite decrepit local bus to Gualaceo where, according to our tourist information, handcraft and hat markets are located. The journey took about an hour and it was quite grey and wet when we arrived. We found a fruit and vegetable market but there was no sign of any handicrafts.

We were directed to another bus, which supposedly went to another market and which took us up the hill out of town and along an unsealed road. It all looked highly improbable. However we eventually arrived at the ‘new’ market, which was also fruit and vegetables. Obviously our information was quite wrong!

Vendors at Gualaceo bus station
Vendors at Gualaceo bus station

After having something to eat (me) and drink (the other two), we decided to catch a bus to the next small town of Chordeleg, which is only a few kilometres away and home to silver and gold merchants as well as handicrafts (supposedly). The sun had emerged by the time we arrived and Chordeleg itself is a delightful town perched on a hillside amongst very attractive scenery. The sun surely makes a difference!

It was also thronging with people and it transpired that a parade was about to take place. This included a beauty queen, various horsemen and beautifully dressed ladies. However, whether it was just an Easter Parade or something else, we never found out.

Inca ruins at Ingapirca
Inca ruins at Ingapirca

We had a very slow wander around the town, where we discovered an extremely small market, which primarily contained shoe stalls, and had a look in many of the small jewellery shops. We were accompanied the whole way round by the sound of very loud rock music emanating from the large speakers in the plaza. After making one or two purchases, we caught the bus back to Cuenca after a most enjoyable day.

On Monday, Carmen wasn’t feeling well, so Angela and I went alone to Ingapirca, the site of some Inca ruins. This required a two hour bus trip in each direction through some beautiful mountainous scenery. However, it gradually dawned on me that the bus was climbing and climbing. For some reason, it hadn’t registered in my brain that the Incas built on mountain tops and Ingapirca was likely to be at a high altitude. Panic set in! I took ibuprofen drank what water I had and bought more as soon as we arrived.

Temple of the sun at Ingapirca
Temple of the sun at Ingapirca

We walked around the ruins, which were in a beautiful location. The tour was, unfortunately, in Spanish so we gave up with the guide and strolled around on our own. A couple of hours later, we caught the bus back to Cuenca and I had suffered from altitude not at all. It turned out to be good practice for tomorrow.

On arrival in Cuenca, we walked across the road to the Homero Ortega Hat museum and shop where we were given a tour through the museum (thankfully in English, this time) and shown how the hats are made. This company has been making Panama or, more correctly, toquilla straw, hats for many years and they are still all made by hand.

Woven toquilla straw (Panama) hats waiting to be finished
Woven toquilla straw (Panama) hats waiting to be finished

Angela was intent on buying one so we spent a long time trying them on. The prices ranged from $30 to $2,000 according to how finely woven they were. We eventually decided on one each but my debit card wouldn’t work, which was probably just as well, as there is no way I would have been able to carry it safely in my backpack!

Wedding dress and flowers made from toquilla straw
Wedding dress and flowers made from toquilla straw

We were quite exhausted by all this activity and hadn’t had lunch, so our final stop for the day was at Fabiano’s for an excellent pizza. (Home from home for the Italian Angela!)

Tuesday was hiking day. We all three met in our usual place in a corner of Plaza de Calderon and made our way to the bus terminal where information about buses to Cajas National Park seemed a little elusive.

We eventually found a Guayaquil bus that stopped at Las Cajas but we had to wait and see if there were enough seats as we didn’t have tickets. (Ticket requirements seem to be random and at the discretion of the driver!) Luckily, we were able to get on and it took about an hour to get to the Park. I had loaded up with water and ibuprofen, ever conscious of the altitude, which I knew was going to be nearly 4,000m.

Cajas National Park
Cajas National Park

It was unbelievably cold when we were dropped off and, of the three of us, I was the least prepared for this. However, I did have the most suitable footwear! We decided to follow Ruta 1, which was supposed to be a 2 hour walk. The scenery was magnificent with the clouds hovering over the mountain tops. We made quite slow progress along the track as it was extremely muddy and slippery and Carmen, particularly, had problems as her shoes had no grip. The track was clearly marked to start with and there were meant to be red markings on rocks and signs as we progressed. However, it didn’t take us long to lose the path and we ended up wandering, admiring the view, and wondering whether we should continue or turn back. We returned! We were walking for about 3 hours and, fortunately, I had no effects from the altitude. Maybe ibuprofen is the answer or maybe I have acclimatised.

By the lake in Cajas National Park
By the lake in Cajas National Park

We were lucky in that we arrived back just as a bus was due. It drove straight past! This is typical of the buses as I have noticed on many occasions that the buses haven’t stopped for people at the road side. There seems no rhyme nor reason as to why this should be. It appears to be totally at the whim of the driver. This left us in a predicament as the location was extremely remote, it was now about 4.30pm and there was no knowing when the next bus would be. (It was one of the very few occasions when I hadn’t checked the timetables prior to setting off.) The Park office had already closed, which was interesting in itself as we had signed in but there was no way of signing out so if we had got lost completely, no one would have known. This certainly wouldn’t have happened in safety conscious N.Z.!

There was no alternative but to hitchhike. We decided that with three of us and a can of pepper spray (Carmen), we were fairly safe! Luckily, a tyre delivery man stopped for us and we all squashed in the back seat of his ute whilst he hurtled around the hairpin bends (usually on the wrong side of the road) until we arrived back in Cuenca. He was actually a very nice man and dropped us off in the centre of town.

We were all starving, as well as tired, so it was off to dinner immediately, after which we inspected Carmen’s apartment and then went our separate ways ‘home’.

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