Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador and the old part of town, where I stayed, was quite pretty - it is known for its colonial style buildings.
It was a long bus journey from Baños to Cuenca on my birthday but we livened it up with some music and beer. Along the way we stopped to see some guinea pigs grilling on a barbeque - it was a bit strange - they were bigger than I expected, more like small pigs than the little furry creatures we have at home.
When we arrived in Cuenca I got changed for my birthday dinner - we started out with some wine and crisps at the hotel and then went to a restaurant that had balloons, streamers, confetti and a cake for me Afterwards we went to the fancy Cafe Eucalyptus for a drink and then a few of us carried on to a club where we partied until late to a mixture of English and Spanish music and I danced with the gorgeous club-owner Adrian, until the police showed up and busted the place for drugs and everyone had to leave!
After a couple of hours sleep we were up again and off to the Cajas National Park for a long walk through the hills, around the lakes. We saw lots of pretty flowers and the unusual 'paperback trees' but no animals, though we did see a llama by the roadside later.
On the way back to town we stopped at a local restaurant to try the grilled guinea pig - I didn't like the taste. I ordered some grilled chicken as a back-up and it was equally unappetising so perhaps it was the cook rather than the meat.
In the afternoon Diego took us on a tour of the old part of the city to see the pretty main square, the impressive cathedral and some churches. We went to the flower market (flowers are big business in Ecuador - along with oil, bananas and shrimp, they are one of the main exports to the US); Diego bought each of the girls a rose - they're only US$0.10 here! We also went to the big food market to see and sample some of the more unusual local fruit and vegetables.
We finished up at one of the five Panama hat factories in town - authentic Panama hats (think 'the man from Del Monte') are actually not made in Panama but in Ecuador, mainly in Cuenca. We saw how the hats are made - the palm leaves are grown on the coast, harvested, boiled and sent to Cuenca for processing where women weave them into hats in their own homes and then bring them to the factory for finishing. We had fun trying and buying lots of different hats.
In the evening we had a pizza dinner then back to the hotel for drinks (the pretty Hostal Colonial with a friendly owner) before heading back to the same club as the night before where we danced until the wee hours.