After leaving the Galapagos we had a very brief stopover in Guayaquil before taking a bus to Cuenca, about four hours away. Cuenca is a lovely city in the South of Ecuador. It has a very nice climate as it is 2500m above sea level but still close to the equator. The drive here was pretty spectacular, taking us around narrow winding mountain roads just above the clouds.
When we arrived it was midway through the festival Corpus Christi, and the streets were lined with hundreds of little stalls selling all kinds of cakes and sweets. In the evening there were fireworks and performances in the main square, so it was a nice time to be in the city.Rather than sitting around eating cake all day, the bulk of our time was taken up learning Spanish; or at least trying to.
We had four hours of lessons a day over four days, which left us feeling fairly numb afterwards. At one point there was a suggestion that we do eight hours of lessons a day, but I’m very pleased that we decided against it. The title pretty much sums up the extent of our Spanish language knowledge so far. Our main aim was to learn enough Spanish to get us by in South America, but what we’ve learnt in 16 hours is just not enough. I’ve never been very good at learning languages; just test my German if you don’t believe me, but I must say that Spanish is complicated. The good news is that we have over six months remaining to try and improve, so we’ll just have to see how it goes.
Our next stop was Baños via an eventful journey on a night bus. We spent most of the journey awake as the driver didn’t feel the need to slow down when going around corners. It meant that rather than snoozing away the hours, we were left holding on for our lives. We thought the night bus would be a good way to save money, but when we arrived at 4:00am it meant that we needed a room anyway. Thankfully the hostel was kind enough to let us check in very early for no extra cost. Baños is a really pretty little town in central Ecuador surrounded by mountains and waterfalls. Although it’s small, it’s a busy place with plenty of things to see and do. One of the most popular activities and from where the town gets its name, are the thermal baths.
Just after arriving, we bumped into a guy that we had met in Cuenca. He spoke very good Spanish, so it was handy to have him as our translator. We enjoyed a couple of hours in one of the public baths, and it was quite a funny experience. There are three pools of varying temperatures from very hot to tepid, and freezing cold showers fed direct from a waterfall. The water comes out of the mountain at 60°c, and the temperature is adjusted for the different pools by adding water from the waterfall. The water looks quite murky and uninviting, but it’s because it contains various minerals…apparently.
The idea is that you alternate between the showers and the pools. We spent most of our time in the hottest pool, which was so hot it was a struggle to get in to, especially after the showers. After various rotations we started to feel quite weary, as it really takes it out of you. It feels similar to a session in the gym, so we quickly left for a quick beer to let our bodies recover.
Our hostel also had steam baths which Katy decided to try. She did try and persuade me to join in, but thankfully I decided not to. Instead I was available to take photos of her experience. I think she pictured a relaxing time sat in the weird wooden boxes with the steam working its magic. Instead she was hosed down with freezing cold water every ten minutes and then asked to get back into the wooden box. Not really my idea of fun, but it was quite amusing to watch.
The rest of our plans for Baños were ruined by persistent rain. We wanted to rent mountain bikes and cycle 30km (mostly downhill) to see some of the waterfalls, but it didn’t seem as attractive without the sunshine. We did manage to see some of the Euro 2012 games, although I wish he hadn’t bothered.
We went out to watch the England group games in Cuenca which certainly didn’t help our Spanish lessons the following morning. In Baños we watched the game against Italy and I was left with the same feeling that I am always left with when watching England…boredom. It really was a horrendous game to watch, even with the drama of penalties.
Next we decided to move onto to Puyo, a town that was recommended to us by our Spanish teacher. It’s located in Ecuador’s part of the amazon basin called El Oriente, and is a gateway for amazon trips. What he didn’t tell us is that it’s a very ugly town with very little to see and do.
We decided to visit the Omaere Ethnobotanical Park where we were guided around an area of the jungle by Chris, an American biologist. He spoke to us about the various tribes of indigenous people and their relationship with the plants that surround them. It’s one of the only places remaining in the region that produces medicine from the jungle. You can get anything from cold and flu remedies to skin and hair tonics; even contraception. It was a really interesting tour, and a great way to learn a bit more about the local history and traditions.
Next we headed north to Ibarra, not far from the Colombia border. This was another town nestled high in the Andes and eight hours from Puyo. There isn’t a huge amount to do here, but it was a convenient place to stop before heading into Colombia. Nearby is the market town of Otavalo which is surrounded by the volcanic peaks of the peaks of Imbabura, Cotacachi, and Mojanda. The market dates back to pre-Inca times and is the largest crafts market is South America. It is so popular within Ecuador that tourists and locals alike come to visit from all over the country. We only spent one night there on the way to Colombia and after much searching we both came away with our token alpaca jumpers. Katy also treated herself to some matching alpaca socks for those long and cold bus journeys ahead.
After travelling for over nine months now, one of the things we have missed most is cooking. It may sound strange, but eating out every night can get to you. So far most of the places we have stayed in Ecuador have had a communal kitchen, so we have enjoyed making some of our own meals. It’s been good to see Katy back to doing what she does best, and we’ve also managed to find some decent cheap red wine to wash it all down. That’s not to say that the food here is bad. One of the best ways to eat is at lunchtime by sampling an almuerzo. It usually comprises of three courses of soup, a main dish and a desert, and also comes with a fruit juice shake. Half the fun is not asking what is on the menu today, so it’s a bit of a surprise. They are usually very good though, and a bargain at $2.
We have however had a bad almuerzo experience. Katy decided that she liked the look of a restaurant and surprised me by ordering for us. This wasn’t your typical set lunch menu, and she told me afterwards that she had ordered the local speciality ceviche, which she thought was marinated raw fish. We had skipped breakfast that morning so this wasn’t really what I was in the mood for. What came out of the kitchen was worse than I expected. The only way I can describe it is raw mussels and squid (I think) in a cold soup that tasted more like a salad dressing. It was a struggle to eat it, and Katy refused to even try the fish. We were also shocked when the bill came to almost $20.
Another local speciality is Cuy, or Guinea Pig. I have been desperate to try this, but whenever we’ve wanted it we either can’t find it or the restaurants have been closed. It’s normally barbequed or roasted whole and served spatchcocked with beans, rice, potatoes and a sugarcane alcoholic drink. I’m hoping we will be able to try it before we leave Ecuador because I am intrigued to know what it’s like.
Although the food in Ecuador is good, it’s not very healthy. Everything seems to be deep fried or very sweet. I came to South America expecting to see lots of good looking Hispanic women, but most of the younger women seem to be bulging out of their leggings (in more ways than one). It’s almost like being back in East London.
Until the next time…