FROM: Sua, Ecuador
Sometimes it’s easy to know you’re far from home. My time in Ecuador, which has so far included fantastic stops in Cuenca, Banos, and Quito, has offered several great opportunities.
Cuenca is a town of 350,000 located in the southern Ecuadorian highlands. Cuenca’s Old Town has a strong European feel and is listed as a United Nations World Heritage Trust site due to its many historic buildings. Old Town and its surrounding have plenty to keep visitors busy including a pair of cathedrals and a decent list of museums.
The highlight was the Pumapungo Museum, site of the city’s most significant Inca ruins, as well as an exhibit on Ecuadorian culture containing a handful of authentic shrunken heads. The heads were amazingly lifelike. The size of a fist, they had perfectly shaped ears and noses and well-groomed facial hair. Definitely odd, especially when you consider that they were often made to be worn on a necklace. The Museum of Aboriginal Cultures was also a nice cultural experience, cramming over 5,000 pieces of indigenous ceramic and metal artifacts into a surprisingly small display space.
My last day in Cuenca I went out with some new friends for a dinner of roast cuy (guinea pig). Guinea pig is a delicacy throughout the Andes that is generally reserved for special occasions. Like chicken feet in China, it’s the must-try dish for foreigners wanting to experience a true local delicacy. The locals I’ve spoken with have all given rave reviews of the fare. My assessment was that it was like very oily (almost slimy) duck meat with the added bonus of having a head and still somewhat furry paws attached. Not my favorite.
On my way out of Cuenca, I stopped by Ingapirca, a major ruin located two hours north on the way to Banos. Ingapirca is Ecuador’s largest archaeological site and was a significant religious and military center for first the Canari culture and then the Inca. The major structure at the complex is the Temple of the Sun, which aligns with the summer and winter solstices. The tour provided interesting insights into Canari and Inca cultures.
Banos is a beautiful town in the eastern Andes known for its thermal baths and waterfalls. The city is rife with natural hot springs that have been tapped for your bathing pleasure. For just a couple dollars (including mandatory swim cap rental, or purchase if you’re ambitious and style-blind), you can soak to your heart’s content and, according to the bath operators, remedy nearly anything that ails you. After several visits, I can’t vouch for the springs’ healing powers but I can say the baths feel great.
The area’s waterfalls are best seen via the Routa de las Cascadas (Route of the Falls). This popular bike ride runs through the Pastaza Valley from Banos to the jungle city of Puyo. With my friend Guillermina, from Buenos Aires, Argentina, I rented a mountain bike for the journey for $5 from one of the many rental agencies in town.
Our trip took about 3.5 hours as we followed the route down the valley toward Puyo. The most impressive sight is the Pailon del Diablo, a massive cascade with a path that allows you to walk behind the falls. Most of the major falls along the route require a short hike and payment of an entry fee to visit. The total distance to Puyo is 60 kilometers, but we stopped at the last large waterfall (about 30 kilometers in) and caught a truck for $2 for the return to Banos.
Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is a massive city nestled in an Andean valley. The city at large is too sprawling to get a handle on in just of couple of days, but the Old Town and Mariscal Foch (main tourist area) districts were easy to get to know. The Old Town in particular was a great place to spend some time. The area housed a number of beautiful churches and a massive basilica, the Basilica del Voto Nacional, that would have been at home in a European capital.
A trip to Quito would not be complete without a visit to the equator, which gives the nation its name. I met up with Carmel (my hiking buddy from the Huayhuash trek in Peru) for the hour-long bus ride to the pair of equatorial markers on the outskirts of town known as Mitad del Mundo.
That’s right, there are two spots marking the equator. The first – the one with the massive monument and major tourist complex – is in the wrong spot. It was calculated by French explorers prior to the development of modern technologies. The second – the one around the corner and several hundred meters away at the end of the anonymous dirt road – is the correct location for the equator as calculated by modern GPS technologies. This small site includes an interesting museum on indigenous cultures and a variety of gimmicky experiments (balancing eggs, bi-directional whirlpools) made possible by the equator’s weird physical properties.
Another top attraction in Quito is the TeleferiQo, a cable car that takes riders up the Pichincha Volcano. After rising 800 meter to drop riders at 3,950m, there is a nice three-hour hike to the top of the volcano at 4,600m. Normally, the hike provides spectacular views of the city. The day I went there was a thick cloud layer with a solid wintry mix for most of the descent. The clouds finally broke shortly before the return to the cable cars, but by that point my hiking buddies (3 other Americans and a Swiss) and I were soaked to the bone and looking forward to the return to lower altitudes.
One final cultural experience really made the trip to Quito complete. I was fortunate enough to visit during the World Cup and I had the chance to watch Ecuador’s final game of group play. The South American love for “football” is not exaggerated. The Mariscal Foch district was standing room only as thousands of Ecuadorans came out to watch the home team play France to a scoreless draw. Unfortunately, that result left Team Ecuador out of the next round and many of the locals near tears.
Next stops: Sua, Mompiche, and Riobamba