A couple of weeks ago, in order to give our aching muscles, shattered joints and frazzled nerves a respite from dizzy mountain passes at lung-squeezing altitudes, we spent a few days travelling down the mid coast, sampling the tidy, pretty, yet generally unexceptional beaches of Ecuador
. The first one, Canoa, was something of a sleepy, hippy’s paradise, teeming with shuffling, sandal-wearing, baggy-trousered, dreadlocked, and sun-weathered travelers. We were happy to spend a few days here doing nothing more than shuffling along at the same pace as everyone else, planning nothing more than meals, and laying around waiting for the sun to break through the ever-present clouds (which it did when it damn well liked). After Canoa, we bussed a few hours south to the equally unexceptional, yet charmingly relaxed and dusty town of Puerto Lopez, where we had our first negative (well, kind of) Couchsurfing experience. We were offered a bed here in the home – pretty much a shack on the beach - of an American woman with two children (born in Mexico), a four-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl. The children were amazingly cute, affectionate and funny (if a little attention starved), and the mother herself was certainly not unfriendly, but we felt some real discomfort at the standard of living they "enjoyed," and more specifically the level of hygiene (used
toilet paper left on the floor of the bathroom) and parenting skills we bore witness to (they don’t go to school because she can’t be bothered waking them up that early and making them lunch…etc). As much as we appreciate being given a place to stay (being asked only for a donation of five dollars a night – for water (which wasn’t always working) and electricity) if we had seen this in my own country, I would have cheerfully called social services in a flash
. This was not the only reason we were keen to move on from Puerto Lopez earlier than intended. The town offered little more in the way of interest than pleasant beach walking and some fascinating rock pool exploring. The “room” we were offered by our gracious host Ashley was missing a large chunk of wall up near the ceiling, which made us easy snacks for billions of beach mosquitoes (the worst!), and was directly opposite some kind of ice factory, in place on the beach for the speedy freezing of freshly-caught fish. This factory kicked into life at about one of the freaking clock each morning, sounding like Satan and his troupe of Tuneless Storm Destroyers warming up for the Concert of Reckoning! We slept little and sorely, then made our excuses after two uncomfortable nights, and high-tailed it outta that town like Yosemite Sam with his biscuits burnin’. The third beach town on our coastal tour was the best; Montanita is one of the more popular seaside destinations in Ecuador, and it was easy to see why; great stretches of wide, white beach with enough space to find a peaceful patch to lay and read; waves and surf that dragged and threw swimmers about like rag dolls, choking our childish giggles with fresh salt froth; and bulging with bars, shops and restaurants. We stayed a couple of nights here, sampling our first taste of Ceviche
; delicious, lemon-soaked raw seafood served from carts on the beach, that I can still taste if I lick my lips hard enough; then we figured we’d enjoyed the beach bum’s life long enough and headed back inland to a place we’d heard a lot about called Banos (pronounced 'Banyos’)
In Banos, we had the pleasure of being given a room (with a double bed and private bathroom) by our first Ecuadorean Couchsurfing hosts (we’ve stayed with a Colombian, Germans, Americans, and right now: Canadians). Monica, a university student, and her family have lived their whole lives on a tomato farm near the base of the beautiful volcano Tungurahua. A quick Google will tell you that this volcano has erupted a handful of times in the last few years (most recently about two months ago), and so we were most excited to be living right underneath the “Throat of Fire” as its name translates to in the ancient local tongue. Whilst staying with Monica (who spoke excellent English) and her wonderful family (who spoke not a word of English, but who helped us with a little honing of our Spanish), we were fed like farmers for each meal, did our part by helping with the weekly tomato harvest, and learnt the strangely tricky art of extracting milk directly from a cow’s bosom (squeeze and pull at the same time – it should be so simple, but it’s just not…!?). We were made to feel like part of the family, and for our own part must have been model guests, as they kept asking us to stay longer. On top of all the labour, we did manage to find time to enjoy the town’s namesake (Banos = Bath); the natural hot spring baths which sit beneath a local waterfall and afford the (very) early-morning venturer a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains as day breaks, watery blue sneaks into the cloudless sky, and the sun climbs into position to fiercely fight back the chilly night air. Relaxed much? We felt like angels of pudding, soaking in the choice, steaming Dom Perignon of God’s wine cellar, wrapped in pink fluffy clouds, and smothered in the kisses of fairies. Yes, relaxed much.
Our current position on your globe is the third biggest city in Ecuador (a mere few hours north of the border with Peru), lower in altitude than any mountain location we’ve been so far, and so milder in climate (yet as rainy as a British summer these last few days), with eye-grabbing Europeanish colonial-esque buildings, snuggly sandwiching the endless cobbled streets of a town famed for not much more than its charming architecture, yet deserving of every praise it surely ever received. We have been staying in the apartment of a Canadian couple, who have truly shown us what the spirit of Couchsurfing is all about (we’ve been offered so many places to stay for free so far that you may begin to think of us as a couple of scrounging scallies – I’ll allow it). So kind are our hosts Ruth and A.G. that they offered us their home while they have gone hiking around the local mountains for a few days. The only thing they asked in return was that we take good care of their two beautiful dogs while they’re away; a task we feel more than equal to as all we needed to do right now is make plans for Peru, catch up on this blog, and enjoy the cleanest kitchen we’ve seen in a long time. A raging river outside their front door runs through the town and past a collection of Incan ruins (which actually equate to little more than a set of short stone walls sunk into a hillside, but which are interestingly evocative of old-timey moon-worshippings and mythical Pagan-like doings nonetheless), and we’re about ten minutes walk from the town’s central square and the single most vibrantly and spiritually alive cathedral I’ve ever been in
. We really are a million miles away from the (sadly?) secular society I know. We strolled around the beautiful arches of the ‘New Cathedral’ (which began being constructed in 1885 – just to give you an idea of how old the ‘old’ cathedrals are) and must have been witness to some kind of religious celebration, as the walls were echoing with the revered, excited whispers of a full church of worshippers, scuttling around the shining golden iconography, polished pews and glimmering stone columns of Romanesque architecture, while the man J.C. hung unselfconsciously in his accustomed place at the head of it all. The air was buzzing like I’ve never experienced before in the other mostly draughty and dusty churches I’ve seen in my life. It was all quite exciting. The pace of Cuenca lies perfectly balanced on the line between the bustle of a big city and the heel-dragging shuffle of a hilltop hamlet. Nobody’s rushing yet nobody’s dawdling. The people here are so friendly that when we go into a shop and ask for something they don’t have, they’ll cheerfully direct us a few streets over to a shop where we can find exactly what we need. We are most smitten with this place, and feel that moving on will come too soon, and at the same time not soon enough in order for us to avoid finding excuses to never leave.
This week in Cuenca has been punctuated with two trips
. One was a couple of nights sleeping in and hiking around the nearby mountain range of El Cajas, that Ruth and A.G. are currently visiting. This national park is an easy hour bus ride from here, and is a rugged and wild terrain of grassy moors, craggy rocks and an interlacing network of lakes, with a weather system fluctuating freely between foggy, windy, sunny and wet. We were lucky enough to experience mostly dry and sunny conditions for our day-long hikes, and also to have brought along enough clothes, blankets and sleeping bags to keep us snug through the cold nights huddled together on our creaky refuge beds. Mornings saw us rubbing life into our legs and setting off with maps (provided free – and about as useful as you would expect a free map to be) and our compass (thank you magnetic poles), to orientate our way around well trodden tracks. Apart from the odd llama (masters of the suspicious glare) and a spattering of other hikers, the landscape was mostly large and empty and refreshingly desolate.
The other trip we took while in Cuenca was a day trip, traveling by bus between three local villages of Gualaceo, Chordeleg and Sigsig, famous in all the guide books we read, but for what exactly we couldn’t figure out. We took a short walk through each of the towns and were certainly pleased that we did, as, while none was extremely impressive on its own, together they made a quaint and beautiful trip away from the city
. The last couple of days alone in this apartment with Stella and Buddy (the dogs, did you guess?) for company have allowed us to plan our trip around Peru. Leaving Ecuador is going to be tough. It welcomed us with open arms. I think we will always have a hope to return, but the chances don’t seem high. We’re grateful to this beautiful country, all the people who have hosted us, helped us, or even just wished us a buenos dias
along the way. There’s one thing we probably won’t miss: Set lunches here are pretty much exactly the same from the top to the bottom of the country. Naturally when you’re paying the cheapest price to eat, you accept whatever comes, but still… Whatever Peru has to offer, please please have something else on the menu other than chicken and rice. No sign yet of the Snickers sponsorship. Until Peru: Hasta luego
As time slips through our fingers like sand and our course through Ecuador comes to a close (we board a bus to Peru early tomorrow morning), we nostalgically reflect on what this country has offered us. We've been here for exactly seven weeks, and to be honest we could happily stay a lot longer, but all things must draw to an end, most especially the great ones. The last couple of weeks here have featured beaches, busses and hot spring baths, volcano views, a plethora of churches, rugged and windy mountain hikes and our first (and only) actual taste of living an authentic Ecuadorian lifestyle, high on a hillside farm.