Cobblestones and bras

Trip Start May 05, 2009
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Trip End Sep 03, 2009


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Flag of Ecuador  ,
Monday, May 18, 2009

The journey from Puerto Lopez to Cuenca took me through the city of Guayaquil, and its massive bus terminal/mini-metropolis.  Guayaquil invested a lot in building the most enormous land transport monstrosity structure in all of Ecuador (and maybe the universe).  Attached to the terminal is a multi-story shopping mall complete with a food court (including Pizza Hut!) on par with the monuments of consumer gluttony found in every American city.  Surprisingly, it was not too difficult to find my connection to Cuenca.

Between Guayaquil and Cuenca lies Cajas national park, a beautiful mountainous region dotted with a couple hundred small lakes.  As we wound through the mountains, the scene changed from dense green forest to wide open rolling grasslands to sprawling country farms.  Rocky streams flowed through the valleys with little houses built alongside.

On my trip, I've heard Cuenca described as "beautiful" several times.  It does have its charms: well-preserved colonial architecture, housing modern stores and restaurants, cobble stone streets, and friendly residents.  A tranquil river splits the older city (colonial era) from the newer city (modern commerce era).  I particularly enjoyed walking along the path beside the river, a bit removed from the noisy traffic not far away.  There are several nicely maintained plazas, and of course tons of churches.  So far I think the colonial towns of South America have even Texas beat in churches per capita.  As an aside, I have found the following disconcerting message stickered onto numerous buses: "Only god knows my destiny".  Now, in a different context, this would be fine.  But as we're careening through the mountains around narrow dirt roads at break-neck speeds with no guard rails and little visibility, I would prefer to have my life in the hands of a bus driver who believes in controlling his own fate.

Along Calle Larga, near my $5/night hostal, was a little cafe owned by a gentleman who recently returned to Ecuador after spending most of his life in New York.  It's a nice reprieve from having to speak Spanish whenever I run into people that speak English.  Every opportunity I get, I try to get information that is hard for me to communicate in Spanish.  In particular, I think the phrases in my dictionary/phrasebook seem a little demanding (give me this, tell me that), and I want to ask for things politely.  People that have been to the U.S. and returned to their home countries always offer a unique perspective and have interesting stories too.  Also near my hostal was a middle-eastern hookah bar restaurant type place that made fantastic shawarmas.  A hookah is a bong-looking device from which tobacco products are smoked, and a shawarma is a made from lamb or chicken slow roasted on a rotating metal rod, carved in small bits, and wrapped in a flat bread (like a pita).  I have probably already mentioned this, but just about every bit of food I've had  so far has been wonderful.  The slight Ecuadorian twist on the shawarma was the aji sauce.  Aji is a spicy sauce that varies from place to place but I think usually has a combination of onions, peppers and maybe tomatoes.

A couple hours outside Cuenca is a tiny town called Ingapirca.  Its highlight is the Incan ruin that lies a short distance above.  I stayed for a couple days and explored the site, which has what is believed to be a solar observatory as its main feature.  But for me the real highlight was the pair of llamas that are tied down with fairly long leashes on the premises.  At first I thought they were free roaming llamas that chose these ruins as their home... but it took me but a few moments to realize that they had ropes around their necks and were obviously imported to add to the atmosphere.  There were no other llamas anywhere... I don't think I saw a single llama in all of Ecuador except these two!  I couldn't help but laugh as I was totally suckered in by the obvious "tourist plant".  If you are unsatisfied by the BRAS in the subtitle, see the pic of the Incan warrior with the bra spray-painted on.

So that's it for Ecuador, next move is on to Peru.
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