How Ecuador Says Goodbye...
CUENCA, ECUADOR – October 13-17
Steve: Cuenca, Cuenca, Cuenca…oh right! After making all the proper preparations we headed out of Banos with our now defunct laptop in tow (with all due respect to the hostel Maria Princesa, I think they are cursed: 1) the hard drive on our laptop took a nose dive; 2) another traveler who I shall not name had a friendship-ending fight at said hostel; and 3) we met a Kiwi while in Cuenca who had his passport stolen in the dorms at the Princesa Maria. Poor little princess…). As our infinite luck would have it, our bus left 15 minutes late which in effect made us miss our transfer in Riobamba by mere minutes. In all honesty a two-hour wait at the terminal wasn’t that bad but our long-hauls across Ecuador haven’t been the smoothest. We were of course a bit disheartened knowing that we didn’t have the disposal of our communication gadget but hey, people traveled for years without computers or cell phones right? Anyways, we got our connecting bus to Cuenca and made it there without any further complication. I should note that the drive south across the Ecuadorian highlands was absolutely beautiful—idyllic farms pocked the rolling green hills and we weaved our way through mountain roads overlooking craggy valleys that cradled numerous rivers. There are some places where you want to get from point A to point B and there is nothing to see on the way. This was not one of them.
Maria Rosa) and his family. We loaded our bags in the trunk and hopped in the back of his little red Chevy, sharing the back with his 9-year-old son Juan Francisco. As we moved our way through the city we exchanged pleasantries which included an introduction to his wife Diana in the front seat; it took us about fifteen minutes on our little tour to realize that we had a sixth passenger on board. In Diana’s lap was their newest addition to the family, 1-year-old Pedro, who Leah would promptly fall in love with (and become irrationally jealous of his long eyelashes) (Leah: this kid looked liked something out of a Japanese anime cartoon--expressive, over-sized eyes coated in eyelashes that damn near reached the end of his nose. It was unreal). In keeping with Maria Rosa’s incredible skills as a host, Dorian promptly took us on a whirlwind car tour all over the colonial town that is Cuenca (the actual name of the town is Santa Ana de Los Cuatros Rios de Cuenca). It is a friendly and vibrant town, impeccably clean due to the municipality’s investment in trash collection, full of history and culture. In the southeastern corner of the city are the ruins of the Incan city of Tomebamba which sits along the river of the same name; as the city’s full name implies, there are four rivers that weave through different parts of the city creating a watery backdrop to an already impressive highland landscape. Dorian and his family carted us along the various old town sights, pointing out the numerous impressive churches, historical sites and points of interest. Before taking us to their new home they even stopped off so that we could pick up a pizza to make sure we were fat and happy before bed (I should add that Diana even supplemented this with some eggs and rice…we really were fat and happy…que rico!)
The first part of our day entailed walking with Dorian around the central park and visiting some of the historical sites that he has enjoyed during his life in Cuenca as well as some sights that he had yet to see. We first visited the aptly named Catedral Viejo (“old church”), an antique church with sculptures and frescoes dating back to the 16th century. We had a tour guide that blazed through his monologue (even Dorian said “mas despacio” (“slower please!”)) but luckily our Spanish has been improving so we caught most of what he said…just don’t ask me to repeat it all now. The refurbished church/museum was filled with ornate trimmings and intricate touches. One of the most interesting items were the four chapels dedicated and paid for by none other than some of the richest and most influential of Cuenca’s early townsfolk; money and power got you privacy in prayer and eventually prime real estate to eternally rest your bones.
family is posing in a salon for a portrait and on the right hand side is the apparition of a girl poking her head around a door. Supposedly there was no explanation for this image other it being a ghost. It’s really rather creepy (see it here). Before leaving the Catedral Viejo Dorian took us to one of his favorite exhibitions, a 400-hundred-year-old model of the Catedral Nuevo (“new church”) that was built just on the other side of the central park. It shows the intended design of this magnificent structure which was never built to completion. After years of building the marble and brick edifice, it became apparent that the design could not withstand the placement of the two domes on the front; there’s even a crack running through the middle of the façade indicating its inability to bear any more weight. We made a quick visit of the interior of this amazing church (we visited again later as mass was being said during our first attempt) taking in the impressive gold adornments and marble statues. For whatever reason, the Catedral Nuevo has been my favorite and most awe-inspiring church on our trip. Rightfully so, Leah found it almost too sterile, with even the smell of the cleanliness being hospital-like. I’m surprised that I don’t agree with her more given my dislike for the Church’s (any religion for that matter) excesses.
After our stroll through the downtown, the three of us met up with Diana, Francisco (Juan Fran as he’s called, great nickname) and Pedro and made our way outside of Cuenca to the municipality of Ricaurte for our rendezvous with the family. As I implied earlier, Leah and I were just a tad nervous at the prospect of meeting so many people with our improving but at times lacking Spanish. It turns out—as it usually does—that there was nothing to be nervous about. There were about 30 people there in total, most eating and the others serving. We were quickly ushered through the courtyard to seats where we were served a hot dish of mushroom steak, chicken with gravy, rice, mote (a starchy corn that is eaten with many Ecuadorian meals), and fresh-squeezed mandarin juice. Needless to say I was immediately impressed…I like these people.
Hostal El Capitolio (Leah: giant private room with beautiful wooden floors and numerous windows looking onto the street for $16/night), we set about figuring how to get there since it came highly recommended in our guidebook as well. It made sense to go the next day so we set off to explore old town Cuenca for the day. We made it to several museums, including the Museo de Arte Moderno—a free museum housing, you guessed it, fine examples of modern Ecuadorian art—and the Museo de Artes Populares. The latter housed rotating exhibits of artisan crafts from all over Latin America, basically including all of South and Central America, Mexico, the U.S. and Spain. This museum, again free, had some striking costumes and handiwork that left our jaws on the floor. Some we wanted to take home, others scared us out of our pants, but overall we were left impressed at the sheer talent of these artisans. Steve also mailed his election ballot back home from Cuenca, which of course we documented.
: tour guide Esteban video commentary here). Twisting branches with colors reminiscent of manzanitas made for scenery taken straight out of Lord of the Rings.
At one end of the trail we came upon a pack of llamas who have been newly reintroduced to the park. Leah couldn’t help but be entranced with the baby llama (she of course wants one now) that was still trying to get used to running around on his four legs. We thought we had seen the last of them but while sitting down to a scenic lunch by a lake we turned around to find one of the llamas walking up the path past us; soon enough the other llamas reappeared but instead they started walking right at us, the biggest one leading the way. Things were tense for a moment and we thought there was going to be a showdown—the lead llama pretty much stared us down for 15 seconds, being only ten feet away from us. It turns out we were just in some of their grazing land and they were just making sure we weren’t a threat. They walked right by us and everyone went about their lunch. (Leah: I should also mention here that we may have found piles of dried llama poo and in being the mature adults that we are, engaged in a bit of a war. I chucked a few pellets at Steve’s back while he was watching the lake, and in return he pelted me with an entire handful when I wasn’t looking. Those boogers stung and may have brought tears to my eyes, so we eventually had to call a “poo truce” before things got worse. Like I said, we are nothing if not mature).
Our final day in Cuenca ended up being rather wet as the rain continued on through the evening. With several hours still to spare prior to leaving for the bus terminal we decided that we would find an internet café to send out a couple of long overdue e-mails when we came across a man slouched motionless on the ground at a bus stop. A good Samaritan was trying to figure out if he was even alive and I was essentially convinced that he was dead. We propped him up and realized that he was still breathing ever so slightly so the Samaritan called up to a local resident to summons an ambulance. I helped carry the (dying?) man across the street so as to get him out of the rain where a crowd then began to gather around him. Leah and I helped flag down the ambulance who promptly checked the man, loaded him into the back of their jeep and took off. And so ended our visit to Ecuador…