Ecuador Redeems Itself in Our Eyes

Two night buses in a row sounds a bit crazy, and if you’d asked us four months ago we would have said that wasn’t a good plan. However, we suddenly found ourselves on a tight schedule despite having had four months to travel and we needed to make some quick progress. Jess’s sister is meeting us in Colombia on May 8th which means we need to get to Quito in time for our flight to Bogotá on May 6th. Since we have friends in Quito we want to spend some time with them, so we’re shooting to be there by May 3rd, and Quito is three night buses from Chachapoyas which we left on April 28th. In addition, we really wanted to visit Cuenca on our way to Quito so we could see something new in Ecuador. Since Eric really doesn’t like only spending one night in a hostel (moving every day), we needed to be in Cuenca by April 30th. That meant two night buses; one from Chachapoyas to Chiclayo arriving at 5:30am and one that evening from Chiclayo to Cuenca departing at 5:30pm.

We spent the twelve hours we had in Chiclayo with Elias and Antonia from our hostel in Chachapoyas hanging out in coffee shops and restaurants and then running around trying to spend our last soles. They were headed to Guayaquil and then Quito on a similar schedule to us. We had all heard that the border crossing between Peru and Ecuador was pretty sketchy with border guards asking for bribes and the process taking forever; however, our experience was pretty straightforward. Ecuador has undertaken a large border modernization project, and the border crossing was simple and did not involve any requests for money. The bus did get stopped a few times on either side of the border by police wanting to search certain bags, but it mostly seemed to involve the same people over and over again. We were not impacted other than being woken up over and over as the police searched for the owner of a black suitcase. They couldn’t find this person because the suitcase was actually green…

Ecuador held the funny position of being the country in South America each of us had been to the most while simultaneously being the country we liked the least. Eric was there three years ago for a wedding with Jess, and Jess was there eight years before that for spring break. We have personally mostly only had positive experiences in Ecuador (the theft of Jess’s camera, phone and sunglasses on a bus ride three years ago aside). However, we have been told over and over again by people we know who live in Ecuador that it’s a dangerous and scary place and we should be careful at all times. We have heard this warning so many times that we are actually scared to be out and about in Quito despite the fact that we’ve almost certainly been in places that are more dangerous on this trip. As a result, we intentionally left ourselves only a week in Ecuador, prioritizing extra time in other countries that weren’t going to kill us the moment we stepped outside (or maybe they were, we were just blissfully unaware of the dangers).

Sunset in Cuenca

We arrived in Cuenca to find a beautiful city with stunning churches, beautiful architecture, interesting street art, and tons of restaurants and cafes. It was nothing like what we imagined and did not feel the slightest bit scary. We spent our first day exploring the city and visiting the Museum Pumapungo. Museum Pumapungo is free to enter and houses a variety of exhibits about local culture and pre-Columbian history. The museum has multiple permanent exhibits and one temporary exhibit. When we visited, the temporary exhibit was displaying drawings by a local artist who had captured iconic local buildings at various points in time. The drawings were intricate representations of the buildings as they existed then and now. He had also drawn intricate representations of games we all know and love: double dutch jump rope, cats cradle, jacks, hand clap games, spinning tops, etc. Upstairs there is a permanent exhibit displaying Ecuador’s diverse indigenous cultures which highlights each one, the area in which they live, and shows their typical homes, clothing, and way of life. Downstairs there is a permanent exhibit showing the evolution of Ecuador’s money which was very interesting although we would have liked to have seen a bit more on the recent history since Ecuador adopted the U.S. dollar.

The archaeological site at Pumapungo

On our second day we ventured out to Cajas National Park. We caught a bus from the Terminal Terrestre towards Guayaquil for $2 plus the $0.10 terminal fee per person and asked to be dropped off at Cajas. Forty five minutes later we arrived at the visitor center and registered for Ruta 2, a 7km hike that ranges in altitude from 3,928 meters (12,883 feet) to 4,267 meters (13,996 feet). The first kilometer and a half of this hike is along the busy road that runs through Cajas, but eventually we found a trail marker on the right and we were off the road. The trail crosses a sort of mossy swamp before climbing up Cerro San Luis and coming back down the other side. At this elevation there are no trees so there is almost no wind block and it happened to be a pretty rainy day to begin with. From the top of the hill you can see as many as 17 lakes and the view is quite pretty. Seven kilometers was far shorter than our long hike a few days earlier but it was still an ambitious task given the altitude – our highest hike ever!

After completing the hike, we took the bus back towards Cuenca and asked to be dropped off on a corner where we could catch the 100 bus. Our next destination was Piedra de Agua, a spa in Baños de Cuenca. After our two night buses in a row, we decided we had earned a spa day and Eric had read that the spa offered a two-for-one deal on Wednesday evenings. We finally managed to catch the 100 bus but discovered that Cuenca is so advanced its buses only operate with cards which we did not have, and there is no way to pay on board with cash. The bus driver asked the next passenger if she would swipe her card for us and we paid her in cash. When we arrived at the spa we learned they were also running a buy-one-get-one-half-off special on massages so we splurged on two 30-minute massages too. The massages were very relaxing and the spa was a fun experience. It had five stations: Turkish steam room, blue mud pool, red mud pool, contrast pools (hot and cold water) and steam boxes. We spent about three hours in the complex moving from one station to the next. When we were done we got the zippiest taxi ever back to Cuenca ($5), grabbed a quick dinner and went back to the hostel.

On our last day in Cuenca we found a coffee shop with an amazing view of the new cathedral and sat there nursing a delicious cappuccino and playing cribbage whiling away the afternoon. When it got dark we went in search of a nice restaurant for dinner. We were still in splurge mode after weeks of good saving, but we had also recently received a late wedding gift from some good friends. We chose El Mercado because of its good reviews. The food was delicious and beautifully presented, but we couldn’t help noticing how bad our service was. And it didn’t seem to be just South America bad because people around us were receiving friendly, expedient service while we were constantly having to ask for things: the dessert menu, to order dessert, to pay, etc. This was particularly annoying since we had a night bus to catch and dinner took close to three hours. We suspect it was that we weren’t dressed up enough even though we were spending plenty of money. Unfortunately, backpacking means you can’t bring nice clothes for that one occasion where you might want to have a nice meal, so we’ll go back to our $3 menus where they don’t seem to care about your clothes.

View of the new Cathedral from our cribbage game

After dinner we grabbed our bags from the hostel and walked to the bus terminal where we caught the bus to Quito. We made a mistake in not asking our friends for a bus company recommendation from Cuenca to Quito. Since we had taken roughly 11 night buses by this point, and almost all without recommendations, we didn’t think it could possibly matter. However, we were wrong! We purchased tickets with Turismo Oriental and promptly encountered the most uncomfortable bus we’ve experienced in the last four months. Not only were the seats incredibly hard and surprisingly lumpy, but there was a movie playing on high volume until 1am. It turns out we should have taken Flota Imbabura, so we’ll know for next time.

Most uncomfortable bus!

We arrived in Quito and took a taxi to visit our friends in Cumbayá. All over the bus terminal are signs warning people to demand the taximeter, so when we got in and gave the address, Jess said “con taximetro por favor” and the driver responded that there is no taximetro to Cumbayá. Of course, this makes no sense since a taximeter doesn’t go to specific locations; it uses wheel rotations and clocks to calculate distance and time and provide a price. However, it was 6am and Jess didn’t feel like arguing, so she asked how much it would cost. The driver said $20 which we thought sounded high, but we didn’t have any other reference points so we agreed. It turns out it should have been more like $12 and we should have taken Uber. And this is why people prefer Uber to taxis. Lesson learned!

We arrived at our friends’ house and were welcomed in with breakfast and a nap. Our friends really like the food (read: street food) in Ecuador and were excited to show it off. Eric thought he had lost 20 pounds on our travels and our friends were confident they could help him find some of them back. We:

  • had ceviche in a typical cevicheria – this is not like Peruvian ceviche because the typical presentation comes in a peanut sauce,
  • visited the Mercado de las Tripas (Tripe Market) in La Vicentina where we tried tripa mishki (seasoned, fried intestines), morocho, empanadas de viento, locro de papa with pigs blood, and mote con chicharron
  • ate pork, crispy pork skin and hash browns at the Mercado Central
  • enjoyed tigrillo (a mixture of plantain, egg, and cheese) and bolon de verde (green plantain dumplings filled with cheese and pork) at our friends’ house. Both were brought from Guayaquil courtesy of our friend’s mother for us to try
  • gorged on biscochos (savory biscuits made with lots of butter) and hot chocolate.
Pork in Mercado Central

After eating so much, we thought it would be a good idea to burn some of the calories, so we went to Parque La Carolina one afternoon. Our friends were trying to determine whether it was already too late in the day (3pm) to safely go to La Carolina but ultimately decided it was fine. When we arrived we found one of the most amazing parks we have ever seen! It’s a large park in the center of Quito and has great facilities. There were people everywhere having picnics, playing games, running around enjoying themselves. As we walked through the park we saw volleyball courts, bike paths, an 800-meter track and a few courts for an old Inca game our friends didn’t know the name of. There were actually people playing this old Inca game, so we watched for a while. Apparently the young people haven’t learned it so all the people on the court were over sixty.

This cool airplane is in Parque La Carolina!

The next day we decided it would be fun to go on an excursion to Cayambe Volcano. There’s a hike you can do there from the first refuge that is supposed to be cool. It was beautifully sunny in Quito when we left but as we were driving out to Cayambe, the skies were getting cloudier. As we wound our way up the narrow mountain roads, the road in front of us was getting worse and worse. Our friends weren’t sure their car could make it up, but they had done it before, so they pressed onwards. At approximately one kilometer from the first refuge, we decided it was probably safest not to continue driving up. We had already scraped the bottom of the car trying to get through some deep tire tracks on a hairpin turn, and if we didn’t make it up to the top we’d be blocking the road for everyone else. We got out of the car bundled up in all of our warmest gear and started the trek to the first refuge. By this point it was raining sideways because of the wind and we were struggling to put one foot in front of the other because of the altitude. The previous record for highest hike at Cajas lasted only four days because we were hiking to the refuge at Cayambe at 4,600 meters (15,100 feet). We made it to the refuge and checked out the inside but then decided it was too cold to hang out there since we were now pretty wet. We tried climbing up to the glacier on the hike we had come to do, but it was so wet and cold and we couldn’t find the path. At some point one of our friends was clambering over rocks looking for the route and we decided that was really more adventure than we wanted in these weather conditions so we called it a day, walked back down to the car, spread plastic over the seats to keep them dry and peeled off layer after layer of wet clothing. Finally, we went in search of the aforementioned biscochos and hot chocolate to warm up.

Cold and wet after returning from aborted Cayambe hike
Large pile of biscochos and string cheese

After one week in Ecuador, the country had redeemed itself again. We absolutely loved Cuenca and we saw some really awesome parts of Quito despite getting a little wet one of the days. We started to see why other travelers rave about Ecuador and why it’s a favorite of so many people. We expect we’ll go back to Ecuador someday and explore more of the rest of the country, but for now there are so many other countries we haven’t been to, Ecuador will have to wait.

Our last view of Ecuador on the way to the airport

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