The last couple of days in Cuenca were quite relaxed and included one day of retail therapy and one of going to the Pumapungo museum and then having a last wander around the city. The museum houses collections relating to the various regional cultures of Ecuador and included several well preserved shrunken heads. The ruins of the ancient city of the Incas and Kanaris, the local tribe with whom the Incas collaborated, are located outside it.
On the way to the museum, I investigated streets I hadn’t been along previously and chanced upon a local market, where there were many basket stalls, as well as ones selling an assortment of household items. I sat for a while and watched as the many individual vendors, carrying their wares, passed through the plaza trying to sell their goods.
After visiting the museum, I had the best lunch I had had so far and was joined at my table by an Ecuadorian dentist, who was attending a course in Cuenca. He had seen me entering the restaurant and decided I was a good opportunity to practise his English, so followed me in!
That evening I joined Carmen for a concert of choral music at Teatro Sucre. The choir comprised various ex pats (not just American) and it was probably their first concert. They were in time with the music most of the time! Afterwards, we adjourned to a bar for a wine or two.
When I returned home, Pilar and her friend, Suli, were still up and, at Pilar’s insistence, we ended up drinking ready mixed pina colada, so it was quite late before actually got to bed. Suli visits once a month to give massages to Cuencans and Pilar makes the appointments and translates for the non Spanish speaking Americans. We had had one or two girls’ nights together as I was the only guest. Suli had also insisted on colouring both my and Pilar’s hair as well so it has been rather like living in a shared flat again. I was assured, when I said goodbye, that I now had two sisters in Ecuador!
Friday was departure day and I met Carmen downstairs at 7am to go to the bus station for an early bus to Loja, five hours away in the south. The journey took us through magnificent mountain scenery and up and over some extremely high passes. The bus was supposedly executive although didn’t quite conform to my idea of executive! However, it was comfortable enough and we arrived in Loja earlier than anticipated. Luckily, we connected immediately with a bus to Vilcabamba and the short drive (relatively speaking) meant we reached our destination at about 2pm.
The countryside is beautiful with lush green mountains all around. We checked into the Hosteria Izcayluma, and relaxed. The place has an area dedicated for yoga and at 4pm there was a session with Tibetan bowls that we decided to attend. The experience was well worth it as we lay on the floor and listened to the vibrations from the sound of the bowls being played and the birds in the trees in the background. It was most restful and I could have lain there much longer. Unfortunately, the man playing the bowls could only speak Spanish so I missed a lot of the informative chat about it afterwards.
The day finished with dinner in the restaurant with Angela, who had already been here for a couple of days, and Carmen, followed by a very early night, as I was quite tired after my late night/early morning.
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!
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.
Crowds in the plaza at Chordeleg
Local girls at the parade in Chordeleg
Horseman in the parade at Chordeleg
Looking out to the plaza from the church in Chordeleg
Street in Chordeleg
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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’.
Today, my new Polish friend had invited me to go to an orphanage to help make fanesca, which is a traditional type of soup only made at Easter in Cuenca. A group of ex pat Americans had started to teach the children how to cook and also had other ideas in which they could help the students, who had either been abandoned by their parents or removed from their homes as a result of violence of one sort or another. These Americans were all from a particular church and had been helping at another orphanage until recently.
There were approximately 20 children of varying ages from about 10 upwards. We were led by one of the Ecuadorian church members, who makes fanesca each year and was able to demonstrate how to do it. The list of ingredients seemed to be endless and included a number of different types of beans, salted fish, garlic, lard and butter (in vast quantities). We were making enough soup for 80 people so there was much chopping of pumpkin and onions, shelling of broad beans and stripping white corn from the cob. I was very surprised at how well some of the students handled the very sharp knives, although I did have to stop one or two of them waving them around in the air and running them along their hands!
At the end, we all sat down and tasted the soup, which was served with cheese empanadas, also made by the students, a slice of cheese and parsley. And very delicious it was too! By the time we had finished, I was in need of a coffee so, having said goodbye to my Polish friend and the Americans, I wandered down to my latest favourite cafe and had one before returning to my room for a bit of rest and recuperation.
I had arranged to meet Carmen, the American lady I met at the workshop the other day, at the Jazz Club at 7.30pm so I didn’t have much time to relax before I was off again. She was late so I chatted to a Canadian chap whilst I was waiting and enjoyed a glass of wine. The venue, a restaurant, was surprisingly empty. I had expected it to be full. The music group consisted of a saxophonist, a keyboard player, a double bass player and a percussionist. They were joined for some sets by an excellent singer and, in between sets, an extremely talented guitarist entertained us. He played an unusual instrument that looked like an electric acoustic guitar but was much thinner and not like any I had seen before.
Between Carmen, myself and the Canadian, we had an excess of red wine and a very enjoyable evening and it was very late, for me, by the time I staggered back to the apartment.