So, arriving at the Cuenca bus terminal at 4:45am only gave me one sensible option for getting to my hostel – via taxi for $2. I had partly booked my stay with AlterNative hostel because their reception was open 24/7 but I hadn’t expected them to very kindly let me go straight to my room at 5am to sleep when I technically hadn’t booked that night. Delighted, I passed out for about 3 hours before sorting my shit out and heading to the nearby clinic (literally round the corner) to try to get my wound cleaned. It had become somewhat familiar and easy in the Baños hospital as they knew me and lead me straight through, whereas here I had to try to explain before thrusting my paperwork under their nose. A nurse quickly took me through to a bed where I stripped off and had her clean my wound. She managed to communicate that the wound wasn’t infected, it was looking good and I didn’t need to carry on my antibiotics. Excited, I asked her if that meant I could drink alcohol now. No. I decided that, considering I couldn’t have wine either way, I may as well finish the course, but it was promising to hear that I didn’t need to.
I spent the majority of the day wandering the streets of the old town, stumbling across the numerous museums to find most were closed because it was a Sunday, although I did manage to get into Arte Moderno (sorry, Cuenca, but not all that in my eyes) and CIDAP, which I am sure would have been interesting were I able to read Spanish well. I spent a bit of time wandering around 10 de Agosto – the classic Mercado for lunching – but, not being that hungry and not being able to eat the most appealing things on offer (hornado and cuy) I didn’t pick anything up from here. As well as wander around the plazas, the artisanal markets and Iglesias, I also sent a postcard to my nan and a book I had finished to my Stepdad – the latter cost me a whopping $14, I may as well have ordered a new one from Amazon!
The highlight of my Old Town exploration took place when I popped into The Cafetal of Loja, recommended by Lonely Planet for their coffees and tamales. In truth the tamales was pretty dry and nothing compared to the one I had in Colombia, and the coffee was nice but not spectacular, however as I was sat in the courtyard just taking some time out, I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation being had between four 70-80 year old American men whom were putting the world to rights over a cup of coffee. They were openly (and quite loudly) discussing war, family, love and the meaning of life, and I found myself agreeing and disagreeing, smiling and inadvertently laughing as they threw around different opinions and challenged one another. The one facing me said something to the others about wondering whether I could speak English, because if I could I must be getting an earful. After admitting that, yes, I could speak and understand English rather well, they invited me into their conversation, asking my opinion on such matters as well as showing an interest in where I was from, what I was doing in Ecuador and my own life situation. It was a wonderful conversation and chatting to locals or fellow travellers is one of my favourite things about travelling in general.
After picking up a strawberry and yogurt smoothie for $1 at the Mercado at the other side of town – 9 de Octubre – I slowly made my way back to the hostel, arriving at around 4pm to find Orla (my saviour from Baños) checking in at reception. After hanging around chatting for a couple of hours and deliberating over food we eventually decided to walk to Fabiano’s for a takeaway of lasagne and meatball Stromboli to share, possibly being one of the best food (ok, life) decisions ever made. I usually eat on local food while travelling, and I’m generally not a massive fan of Italian food, but this lasagne was full of meat, juicy tomato sauce and copious pieces of ricotta cheese, plus the bread used for the Stromboli (rolled up pizza) was a garlic infused bread, the fillings generous and the side salsa delicious. Chowing down on this hearty food whilst curling up on the sofa in the common area to watch Her (a dystopian film with Joaquin Phoenix) it was just what I needed comfort-wise after the week I’d had.
We woke up early the following day to have a quick breakfast (toast and banana) at our hostel before getting a taxi to the bus terminal ($2) so we could catch the 8:30am bus to Cajas National Park (also $2). I felt the effects of the altitude just by being on the bus – plus an old man basically sitting on my leg (yes, the injured one) didn’t help – so we split an altitude sickness tablet when we arrived. You have to sign in when you get to the entrance and study the map before you start your walk – there are no paper maps, no other maps on the trail and we’d been told it is quite easy to get lost as it’s not particularly well signposted.
I think there are approximately 3 main routes, although you can just circle the lake for a couple of hours if you wish, and there is the option to camp overnight in the park, but we decided to just do Route 1; we had been advised it could take 3-4 hours and, neither of us fancying pushing ourselves too hard physically, this seemed ideal. So, after getting the information we needed (and an American girl rudely interrupting my conversation with the Ecuadorian on the desk to “help me” speak Spanish to then laugh at my attempts, despite him understanding me completely) and stopping up on solid walking snacks (biscuits) we set off at around 10:20am.
We spent the first hour battling with the altitude, Orla having a headache whilst I felt sick and dizzy, as we clambered up and around the lake, trying to spot the wooden poles that directed you along the route. We hadn’t even made it halfway round the lake before we came across a couple of Asian men whom asked for a photo with us. We agreed, to then have 5 others appear almost out of nowhere and join in the photo; we literally couldn’t stop giggling as they posed around us and the one taking the photo battled against a bush to try to get the optimum picture.
We eventually made it to the point where we had to veer away from the lake and instead following the red markings for Route 1, which were little more than splatterings of red paint on random rocks or tree trunks. One arrow by a red marking indicated “cueva” and not knowing what that was we headed off the track and into the forest to then discover it was a cave, and we had come away from the route we needed to be on.
This also happened when we had to cross through the forest, branches of trees zigzagging across one another like Mr Messy, clambering down muddy, slippery land to stumble across a stream we were unable to cross. We probably got lost a handful of times and had to go back on ourselves but, to be fair, the signs just said “follow the trail” but there was no clear, distinct trail to follow.
What I should say is that the landscape and our surroundings were absolutely spectacular. I have been to many national parks on my travels and most are filled with tourists or feel enclosed, whereas this one felt like being out in the open mountains, walking through cool dense forest at times but spending a lot of it in the open, fresh air, having to walk up and down as we went but being able to still see far and wide. When we reached a babbling brook that we had to cross via rocks cutting across it, I was reminded of The Sound of Music – it was just so fresh and beautiful.
It was shortly after being captivated by this, however, that I went to cross a particularly muddy section of land to find myself mid-calve deep in mud. It was so far in that I struggled to pull myself out, especially with my wounded right leg having to be the one to support my entire body weight as I tried to pull my left leg out (have my legs not suffered enough??!) I eventually heaved it out to find half of the ground welded to my walk boot, so I had a good splash in the aforementioned brook to wash it away.
Despite getting lost a few times and taking it especially slowly (which I actually really enjoyed and, other than the moments of altitude intensity, we didn’t find it too exerting) we made it to the main road just after 2pm. There is then a walk to the entrance but we managed to get a hitchhike from the main road and the lovely Ecuadorian even drove us all the way back to Cuenca, saving us $2 for the bus and shaving off half of the hour journey time. Honestly so many local South Americans are so generous and helpful. Back in Cuenca we wandered to Puro cafe, which overlooks the mountains, where I cheated and had a white chocolate latte (I’m sorry, Doctor, but I need something to ease the pain!) However I did give my free bag of chocolate buttons to Orla, cos I’m generous like that and a star patient (ok, ok, and I’m not personally a fan of dark chocolate anyway). I then walked to the bus terminal so I could book my ticket to Piura, Peru for the following evening before heading back to the hostel where we spent another lazy evening on the sofa watching American Hustle.
I spent my last morning in Cuenca visiting the clinic for a final time (woohoo, #living) before visiting the Pumapungo ruins. I didn’t pay to go into the museum as I had heard it was all in Spanish but the ruins and the gardens below were beautiful, and it was so peaceful just wandering around in the sunshine.
I then decided to go to Mirador de Turi; a viewpoint of the city next to the church. Without going into too much detail as it bores even me, I had to get two buses, which I waited around for, sit on a hot bus for about 30 minutes before arriving at a viewpoint that I would describe as average at best. Maybe I have seen a lot of viewpoints, and many of cities, but this just didn’t do anything for me. To be fair I prefer a view when I have earned it on foot and I was feeling low emotionally about my leg and the limitations (I would have walked the hour if my energy levels weren’t so unusually low) but I wouldn’t go out of your way for it.
I spent the rest of the afternoon back in the Old Town, absorbing the architecture and the narrow cobbled streets for one last time, purchasing a coconut with milk and strawberry with yogurt drink combination (I am so demanding) for $1, before heading to Moliendo Cafe, recommended by Lonely Planet for its amazing Colombian food.
It was nice, but at $3.50 for the set meal I could have paid half of that for a similar quality. So, I made my way back to the hostel just as the heavens opened and a downpour commenced to settle back on the sofa with Orla to watch Trainspotting, which I have shockingly not seen before; I never thought I would be attracted to Ewan McGregor, especially in that sort of attire, but there you go. Just before 9 I suddenly realised I should probably be leaving for my 9:30pm bus, so I grabbed my stuff, said a hurried goodbye to Orla after such a lovely time with her in both Baños and Cuenca, and caught a taxi to the bus terminal, the driver speeding away before I had even managed to shut my door, with me squealing and him then laughing as he did so. I’m not sure I had the same sort of Cuenca experience as other travellers, but I had a great time on that sofa watching films and eating food – oh, and the Cajas National Park is well worth the trip to Cuenca alone!