Cuenca Ecuador – The waiting game and rodents on spits

We had a plan for Cuenca Ecuador, a colonial town becoming popular with retirees from North America and Europe. We would get the second round of tent parts shipped there while we checked out the city for a week or so. We grabbed a room at Hostal AlterNative, a sparkling clean and well-run hostel about 15 minute walk from the center. George immediately stuck a pin in the hostel’s world map, the first Bulgarian to visit. A day later he met the second Bulgarian to visit. George gets a special kind of excited when he meets another Bulgarian, so he quickly flew up to our room smiling ear to ear to share the news.

A week of waiting quickly turned into two as our parts got held up by customs and FedEx employee laziness.  Waiting for anything can quickly put a bitter taste in your mouth, but we kept things in perspective and explored Cuenca and the surrounding area.

Cajas is a wonderful national park just 45 minutes outside of Cuenca. Hikers are greeted with hundreds of lakes and lagoons (most have lake trout), llamas, and stunning views. The weather was pretty shit temperamental when we were there, but the chilling rain didn’t detract from the scenery. We drove through a blue-skyed Cajas again on the way out of Cuenca. That’s highlands weather for you.

Thankfully, we had some company (Aaron and Linda) in Cuenca to drown our waiting blues in drinks and visit the Sunday markets and hot springs in the surround villages. The first order of business was for the guys to try the cuy (roasted guinea pig). A whole cuy will set you back about $10 – $12 USD, luxury eating in Ecuador. The verdict? Apparently it tastes like chicken ­čÖé

Our parts finally cleared customs and we made a run for the border, excited to be heading into Peru.

Isla de la Plata – poor man’s Galapagos

Oh Galapagos, should we or shouldn’t we? In the end taking into consideration time, money and Vida, George and I decided to save Galapagos for a standalone trip when we are again employed. As a consolation prize, we heard about a day trip from Puerto┬áL├│pez┬áto Isla de la Plata (silver island) in Machalilla National Park that would set us back $40 USD per person plus a few dollars for the park entrance. Thank the cheap gas in Ecuador for keeping the prices down.


On the way to the island we spotted a handful of humpback whales. I felt a little guilty as our boats and a few others combed the water for the whales, but our first sighting had me as giddy as a school girl. They are remarkable animals.

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The tour then took us to the island which is chock-full of birds including the blue-footed bobbies. When we first laid eyes on the bird, I wondered if we had somehow fallen into Toontown. Our entire group was transfixed watching them act out their mating rituals including a foot to foot dance number performed by the males. After the bobby sightings, we hiked past hundreds of frigatebirds. Also found on the island are red-footed bobbies, albatrosses, pelicans and other seabirds. Since the Waved Albatross found there is critically endangered the hike near their nesting area is closed, so we were unable to get a glimpse of the elusive bird.

Five turtles turned up around our boat as we were getting ready to leave the island. A fitting farewell to a wonderful few hours spent appreciating the island wildlife.

We wrapped up the day with some snorkeling. No one in the group lasted longer than 30 minutes in the water because of the cool weather. The snorkeling was pretty decent though. If you take the tour which I highly recommend, definitely take layers. It’s pretty chilly on the crossing from the mainland to the island. We went with┬áMachalilla Tours┬áwhich worked out well for us.

Rappelling over waterfalls in Ba├▒os Ecuador

Ba├▒os in Ecuador’s central highlands┬áis named after the hydrothermal springs of mineral water located around the city. Why did we decide to head there? Nothing more than it sounded cool. There are plenty of waterfalls, hiking, paddling and canyoneering to be had not to mention the thermal baths and cheap massages.

We set up camp a little outside of Baños proper along ruta de las cascadas (the waterfall route) at Hostel Pequeño Paraiso. The hostel surroundings are lush and I admittedly geeked out a little on their industrial stove taking every opportunity to cook us up some tasty meals.

We had a poke around town on our first day. The town is situated beside the Pastaza River valley which means plenty of bridges and dramatic views down and along the river.

Touring around town, it became immediately clear that we would not be leaving Baños without some waterfall rappelling. The canyoneering signs around town were baiting George and he took the bait. We choose a half day option which had us rappelling down 4 waterfalls, the biggest of which was a 40 meter drop.

High above the city sits La Casa Del Arbol with a view of Tungurahua Volcano. Because of cloud cover, it’s rare that you can actually see the volcano. I took a ride on the less than stable tree house swing and then G and I headed up the tree for the views. That was definitely the right order to do things. After seeing the swaying branch the swing was suspended from, there was no way I was getting back on it.

We went to collect Vida after the swinging and immediately realized there was a problem. The engine would stall when it was idling. I had a hundred questions for George, but he had his concerned about the car face on, so I decided to keep my mouth shut. He then passed on a little gem to me – apparently the breaks don’t work on the truck when the engine cuts out? We were just about to descend 845 meters into town. George made the call to go ahead without calling for help. The plan to keep the brakes working was to continually rev the engine so it didn’t stall. As I white knuckled our door handle, George finessed the the gas and brakes while rolling down the hill in neutral.

The truck has been running fine since the minor scare, but we are loading up a friend coming to visit with spare parts.

Driving the Quilotoa Loop: surprise encounters and a heart pounder hike

My anxiety had been growing for several weeks every time I got in the truck with George. We have an ever expanding laundry list of to-dos on the truck which we were not coping with very well. The laundry list was manifesting as an angry Bulgarian driver.

Many backpackers hike between the towns on the Quilotoa loop. Since we have Vida, we opted to head straight to the mid point. The drive to Chugchilán on the loop started well with a chance encounter of a local celebration just outside of Latacunga. We were quickly offered a shot of the local liquor by some friendly face-painted gentleman. I squelched my usual internal warning alarm and embraced local custom by drinking out of the communal cup.

After enjoying the festivities for a little while, we got on our way. As the road degraded, so did George’s mood. He heard a new noise that could be the transmission. His tone implied – why had you brought us down this shitty road Teresa? I asked him to stop yelling at me. George replies that he is not yelling at me, just yelling. Hmm, right then.

Lucky for me, Hostal Cloud Forest where we were staying provided two meals a day. With some pork and beer for dinner and a good nights sleep, the laundry list of fix-it items once again seemed attainable and our transmission had not blown up. We enjoyed the beautiful views and lush setting of the hostal the next day before heading to Quilotoa crater lake.

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It is my personally opinion that hikes that end with the harder part, in this case hiking out of the crater, are no good. I’ll admit that my favorite part of hiking is the feeling I get when I start walking back down. The lake draws you in quickly though. You’ve committed before you realize how f$%king dusty it is, how annoying donkeys running on a trail can be, and how heart pounding the climb back up will be.

Ok, I’m beging dramatic. It’s a quick 30 minute walk down (~400 meters). Thankfully, the sand is actually kind on your knees and the donkeys are only a minor annoyance. The lake is stunning, you have a snack, and then you climb back out in about 1 hour 15 minutes.

After reaching the top, G was drawn in by the aroma of grilled meat. We swung by a local food stand where G ordered papas con pollo (potatoes with chicken). The potatoes come first in the Andes. We not only got a bowl of good food but some good conversation with a local family.