Our march south through Ecuador continued with a stop in the very charming colonial town of Cuenca; Ecuador's 3rd largest city. After another joyful day on a bus we pulled in and grabbed a cab to Alternative Hostel... a more then descent spot, priced right and not too far from the action. We headed out for our customary wander through town to orientate ourselves and grab some food. We are getting good at packing reasonable lunches and snacks for our bus trips, but still...you cant help but be ready for a real meal when you get done with a journey like that.
After several good sounding places were closed (Sunday night), we settled on Wünderbar, an Austrian themed bar/restaurant but who had Ecuadorian Cuisine...it was OK, actually, less then OK. The minestrone soup was white and wasn't minestrone soup at least in the standard definition, and Gina's veggie sandwich left more then a little to be desired. Still it was food, and edible, so we were at least satisfied if not totally stoked. At least the name is fun to say; go ahead try it in your best faux German accent: "Wünderbar"...it rolls off the tongue.
A little after dinner stroll left us excited at exploring the town in the days to come as it is very beautiful and appeared to have its fair share of interesting stuff to see. Our last stop that night was a nice grocery store where we stocked up on food for the next several days...the Wunderbar dinner left us less then confident in the food in Cuenca and we decided we would cook for ourselves for a few days to save ourselves the grief and a few bucks.
In the morning we headed out to a gym we found online and got in a nice long workout. Although we had been doing our fair share of walking over the past few days in Baños, it felt good to get in proper workout.
We made our way home, cleaned up and had lunch and then headed out. We paused and considered going to the museum literally across the street, but decided since the weather was beautiful we would get into town and enjoy some sunshine while we still could. We ventured into the Tourist Information office where we got a map and instructions on how to get to the National Park outside of town which we had decided we would be spending a day at.
We then did the walking tour around town that was laid out in the map from the tourist office. It started in the main plaza where we saw the impressive "new" cathedral, apparently the 2nd largest religious building in Latin America, and the much less impressive "old" cathedral. We also took note of the "hop on, hop off" tourist bus that they had in Cuenca...after our experience in Quito on one of those bad boys, we might just have to check it out!
The walking tour led us through town and down to the beautiful river which we walked along. It really is a picturesque little city. The river walk leads down to the Inca ruins which are right in town and then we headed up the street for home...we walked past the museum across the street for the hostel...they were closing in 5 minutes...oh well tomorrow. We cooked dinner and got into bed early as we had an early wakeup call to get out to the National Park Cajas in the morning.
We were up and at 'em and ran out the door right on time (6:30am) and hailed the first taxi we could find...and instructed the cabie to deliver us to the "south" bus terminal as per the Tourist Information office's explicit instructions. I was a little worried when we acted as if he didnt know what I was talking about, but I showed him the map and he said OK. He dropped us off at what looked like the right place...it was the terminal by the huge market...and so we hopped out. It wasnt for a few minutes that we realized that the termainal was closed, and I dont mean like closed for the night...I mean it was boarded up, looking as if it had been closed for several months.
Now we started to worry...at least we still had a few minutes until the 7:15 am departure. The next few minutes are a frustrating blur of which I will spare you the gorey details, but the long story short is this: we got told several different things by several different people and all of them were wrong; and after running up the block and around the corner and not finding the bus office and then rushing back to the main drag and being told yet another thing by yet another person; we decided to stop listening to people.
We were on our way back to where we started when we saw the bus we needed drive off...we missed it by about 100 feet. To say I was "not happy" is an understatement; I had steam coming out of my ears.
When at last I'd regained composure I decided to give it another try; allegedly you could get a different bus and they would drop you off there. I asked a police man (as I am through asking random people who don't know what the hell they are talking about even if they swear they do) and they told us another spot to wait.
At last a bus towards Guayaquil came by. I waved him down enthusiastically...he slowed momentarily and asked where we were going and when I answered "National Park Cajas" he gave me the patented Latin American finger shake and sped off leaving me in a cloud of exhaust and back again seething with anger. I have no doubt that I would have broken his wagging little finger off he had been close enough. We sat for another 15 minutes before deciding to call it a loss, figuring there was no way in hell we were waiting there on the side of the road for the next direct bus which wasn't for 3 more hours.
We headed back to our hostel and we got back into bed and took a several hour nap. Screw it, too much anxiety for one day already.
It was another warm day when we got up so decided to head out and jog the river: we were determined to salvage the day in spite of the morning's epic National Park Fail. We ended up taking the tourist bus that afternoon and we sat on the top deck with the sun in our faces...and it was good. The tour was about 2 hours including a trip up to a great view point.
While at the viewpoint, we decided it would be nice to share a beer in the sun so we went to the little tienda to procure a beer. We were blatently cut in line by two separate locals...they straight up ignored my polite protests and didn't seem to give a crap about the other locals behind us who protested (less politely) either. It was pretty funny actually...especially once I had my beer in hand!
Back in town, we went back into the Tourist Office again. I saw the guy from yesterday who had given us the shoddy information...luckily I had cooled off since the morning's episode. He was busy helping another group anyway (probably giving them bunk directions to the National Park) and so we were helped by another woman, who apologized for the confusion and the fact that we were told to go to a bus terminal that no longer exists. She advised us of another much simpler way to get out there..boy, it would have saved us a hell of a lot of frustration had the other guy just told us that to start with!! Still, we thanked her...the new way didn't even require us to get up and leave at such an early hour because there were frequent departures all through the morning. We headed home, for some dinner and resolved to give the National Park another try in the morning. On our way home we passed the museum again...eh...maybe tomorrow we said.
We did make it to National Park Cajas the next morning, and without any drama...except for one small incident when the lady who ran the fruit stall in the bus station changed the price of the apple and orange when I took money out to pay. I asked her the price which she said "$0.30 each" and then when went to pay she said it was "$0.70 for both"...I asked her what happened to $0.30 each and she just looked at me and said "$0.70"...I couldn't help but laugh a little...I certainly wasnt going to get into an altercation with a chubby little Ecuadorian lady about $0.10...so I just coughed it up, shrugged it off as "Gringo Tax" and then remarked to Gina that I have been getting the Gringo treatment the last few days in Cuenca. Between this and the people blatently cutting me in the line the other day...maybe it's time to trim the beard; they're beginning to mistake me for one of those dirt bag travelers...
It was about a hour in the bus chugging up hill before they pulled over on the side of the highway and told us to get out.
Getting off we immediately were glad we had brought all of our warm clothes...it was freezing up there...the elevation at the Ranger Station is over 3,500 meters (11,500ft).We walked down the driveway and registered with the rangers and then set off on the hike that they recommended. It looked steep on the map, and although they said the trail was well marked; it wasn't.
We wandered up the path then ended up walking along the highway for a few hundred meters before finding a sign pointing non-descriptly into the bush. We followed the green markers that pointed the way until they abruptly ended...A little back tracking and we couldn't find our way...so just trudged downwards towards the lake we could see in the distance. That's one good think about being so high up...it may be hard to breath, but at least there are no trees, so it's pretty easy to see where you are going.
We got down to the lake and walked around to the other side where we found the end of the green trail. We decided to head up it in the opposite direction and head back to where we'd started.
Great idea, but it was slow and tough going. We slogged up the steep trail which basically climbed right up the side of the huge mountain in front of us. At one point it was literally 4th class hiking, meaning mandatory use of hands as we climbed up a particularly steep section. The whole time we were having to stop to catch our breath as the air thinned even more as we continued up until finally we got to the summit ridge and were able to more or less walk again to the actual top...we hadn't exactly realized what we were getting into, but yeah...we summited the highest peak in that area of the park: the top? A lung busting 4,264 meters or 13,989ft above sea level.
The effort was well worth it (by that I mean both the strenuous hike and the frustration in trying to get there the day before); we sat covered from the biting wind and soaked in the warm sun while eating our $0.35 apple (that should have been $0.30) and granola bar lunch and took in the amazing views.
It's a landscape unlike any we've seen...it looks barren from the top, but as you hike you can see that there is life up even if it is hunkered down barely surviving in the harsh environment.
After some photos and a little rest we headed down. We followed the path down the way we were supposed to have come up. There were a few equally sketchy parts on this route too, but we made it down OK. At the bottom of the steepest stretch we came upon a group of Aussies who were gasping for air on their way up. "Is it much farther?" they managed to eek out between deep breaths.
"Oh, yeah...it gets worse before it gets better", we answered. And we wished them luck and continued down. We could still see them struggling up the steepest parts when we arrived at the bottom and picked up the trail again where we'd lost it originally earlier that morning. We retraced our steps down to the lake and back around to the Ranger Hut...I went in to give them their map back and ask about getting a bus back to town. They pointed out the window to a bus coming down the hill and yelled for us to run out and catch it. So we did...it was only a few hundred yards of slight up hill, but we were totally gassed by the time we had run, arms waiving up the hill to the road. Luckily the bus had seen us and had stopped.
The ride home was maybe the bumpiest of any bus ride we've yet been on, but it didn't bother me much as I closed my eyes and passed out...the bouncing literally had my teeth chattering in my head and neck bouncing violently back and forth...and still I slept.
We were back at the hostel at a very reasonable hour...plenty of time to hit that museum before it shut. We decided we'd do it after we showered and rested...but, then we hit the corner store and got a couple of celebratory beers and sat in the sun on the balcony where we could see the museum. As I cracked the second beer, I looked at G and said "we're not going to the museum, are we?...".
"Nope," she answered looking up from her book.
"Thank God," we laughed.
We made dinner that night and packed our bags so we'd be ready for our 7:15am bus down to Peru the next morning. We left the hostel at 6:45am and hopped into a cab, and with one final look at the museum...we were gone...who knows if we'll ever make it back to Cuenca, EC...it's a great little town, so I'd like to think so...but I'm sure as hell not coming back for the museum.
If you ever make it there, let me know how it is...