We have temporarily landed here in Loja, Ecuador, five hours south of Cuenca. Arriving here in one piece is certainly a miracle, as the bus ride was definitely the most frightening one to date.The driver was very evidently agitated from the moment he stepped on the bus, and this attitude played out in his driving…jerking around stopped cars, yelling out his window, and speeding up for red lights.The clincher was at hour one when he decided it was a good time to pass another car…right as another bus was passing by in the other lane --- we spent the remaining 4 hours, without sideview mirror, a significantly damaged driver´s side window, and with an even more pissed off driver!
Now we are killing time before our next bus ride, this one 8 hours, to Piura, Peru departing at the lovely hour of 11pm.We are hoping for a happy driver and maybe even a little shut eye - although we will settle for the former!We spent the last six days in Cuenca, regrouping and preparing for our final days in Ecuador.The city is immaculate and the river running through the city is surprisingly free of litter, host to clear water and a nice respite from the crowds in the city.Cuenca is, thus far, the most cosmopolitan city we have been to.
The downtown area is filled with more shoe/clothing stores than one would know what to do with.From our taxi driver, we unfortunately learned that a majority of the money here lies with Europeans and Americans.Although we did not see many while we were here, it was depressing to find out that the locals are not the recipients of the wealth of the city.
The highlight of our time in Cuenca, Ecuador was definitely our three-day, two-night backpacking trip to Cajas National Park, known for its 254 lakes.Despite the poor map and lack of direction from the rangers, we managed to find an amazing hike on our own.The diversity of vegetation during our hike was incredible and we finally had a chance to hike through some cloudforest where we could actually see the flora and fauna!Our campsite the first night was straight out of a dream…right on a river, water cascading over rocks, with a backdrop of peaks all around us!
This perfect spot led us to procrastinate a little too much the next morning - we didn´t get packed up and moving until noon - which wouldn´t have been a big deal if we didn´t get the bright idea that we should bypass the camping area listed on the map and start into the next day´s hike.About 3pm we found ourselves climbing under and over fallen trees, navigating through low-lying branches, and hopping from rock to rock to avoid huge mud pits.At about 4, we finally cleared this jungle region, finding ourselves nowhere close to a good spot to stop.For the next hour we ascended and then descended through some pretty steep and treacherous paths, looking for somewhere with water and level ground.By 4:30 it was starting to rain and we still had not found a place to land.
Luckily, at one point Aaron had sighted a plateau with a small water hole at the summit.With the rain starting to increase in intensity, we scrambled up the steep side of this hill he had spotted earlier, needing the grasses to pull ourselves up, just in time to set up camp before the rain really started to pound!Our luck from the night before had certainly run out…we ended up sleeping (or not..) on a slope with rocks,tufts of grass, etc. and whatever other rough items were under our hurried site selection!
We were up and out pretty early the next morning, for obvious reasons.The rain was still going as we packed up and continued on the challenging downhill climb.More slippery, muddy, rocky, and steep descents were finally rewarded with a break in the rain and incredible views as we emerged in the open grassy valley, along the river, again surrounded by the same peaks that had daunted us earlier.
Nearing the end of the hike, we sighted what looked like a posh multi-story, brick resort in the distance.As we approached the ¨resort,¨ we quickly came to realize that what we had happened upon was more like a set of a horror film…abandoned hacienda, broken down gates, caved in rooftops, missing walls, and so quiet…yet strangely seeming recently vacated due to evidence of some more recent changes such as a newly refurbished bathroom, newer bricks in the surrounding wall and roof tiles stacked up and waiting to be used.. and then there were the sheep grazing in the field just across the way… you could tell that in its heyday it was gorgeous.
As a stroke of luck, we met a local driver/tour guide at the exit to the park who kindly offered to drive us all the way back to Cuenca because he needed to get transmission fluid for his van!We definitely jumped at the chance to skip having to hail a bus on the side of the Guayaquil-Cuenca highway and cut our return commute by at least an hour!Then there was the chicken head in a baggie, held by a young boy on one of the local busses back into downtown…no idea what he had in store for that???