We arrived in Cuenca at around 5 in the evening after a looonnnnggg bus ride from Latacunga. Ecuador may be small but the roads here are built in clear defiance of God´s will; up and down unbelievably steep Andean foothills with switchbacks galore and in and out of deep side canyons. As the crow flies it´s only 240 kilometers or 150 miles between Latacunga and Cuenca but it takes between 6-7 hours to make the journey by bus. That said, we enjoyed spectacular scenery the whole way- green hillsides dotted with farm plots of corn, quinoa, and potatos (built again in defiance of God and good sense) and charming whitewashed towns clinging to those same hills. It is difficult to verbalize the scale of these "hills". They are massive vertically, horizontally, and due to the lowlying clouds their tops cannot be seen. The best moment came as the sun was setting between the hills and below the clouds: the world seemed almost turned upside down and the sun illuminated a bright point between the vallies. Then came the neblina-fog thick-as-pea-soup-so intense that we could hardly see the hillside looming above us. The bus slowed not a wit.
After a $2.00 cab ride to our hostel, AlterNative, we walked up Calle Larga in search of somewhere to eat. As Cuenca is well-known for it´s foodie scene, we decided to splurge a little on dinner. We ended up at a fancy restaurant called La Esquina and enjoyed a fantastic meal of steak in a red wine cream sauce with local mushrooms and fried potatoes, served Argentine style on a giant cast iron platter. Easily the best meal we´ve had in Ecuador and an excellent way to lift our spirits after a challenging bus ride. Even better, there were leftovers to be had on toast for breakfast the next morning on the patio of our hostel, overlooking the Museo Pumapungo and Incan ruins.
We spent our days in Cuenca wandering the city's streets; exploring the museums, churches, and artisanal shops of Cuenca while also admiring the classic Colonial architecture of the city: beautiful old buildings with balconies overlooking the street. Highlights included the Museo de Arte Moderno, where we took in some fantastic 'impressionist' style paintings of the Amazon while wandering through courtyards full of sculptures. The Nueva Catedral of Cuenca was also breathtaking, with soaring butressed domes and beautiful stained glass. Cuenca is also the home of the Panama hat and we visited the Museo de Sombrero where we got to see how the are made and Annie picked up a stylish new sombrero.
Parque Nacional Cajas
Located just 30 minutes from Cuenca along the road towards Guayaquil and the coast is the lovely paramo parque of Cajas. Ecuador has been a bit of a disappointment in only one way: there have not been many opportunities to hike and camp without a guide, however we were assured of the opportunity in Cajas. After a late start, we splurged on a taxi ride to the center of the park, the refugio at Laguna Toreadora where we had to register and pay an entrance fee. Unfortunately, the ranger did not have a map to offer us, but he did let us take pictures of the map with its various, well-marked trails. The ranger also offered to give us a lift to the start of our hike at a place called Tres Cruces (also the high point at 4100 meters, from there the road drops to sea level in about an 1.5 hours). From Tres Cruces we followed Ruta #4, or the blue trail, as it dropped steadily through a lovely valley past several lagunas. After an hour or so we decided to make camp in one of the few flat spots next a lovely lake. The spot may have been flat but almost nowhere in Cajas is it truly dry--our campsite was soggy to say the least. Undeterred, we made camp and enjoyed an amazing sunset as we cooked a quick dinner of risotto. Then it was time for bed.
In the morning we continued to follow the blue blazes of Ruta #4 until we hit the intersection of Rutas #4 and #7. Our plan was to take the #7 route, this time blazed with purple and white, as it crossed the park and brought us back to the Cuenca-Guayaquil road a few kilometers outside of Cuenca. Ruta #7 is also called the Ingañan and it is a remnant of Inca Road which at one time connected the coast with the Inca city of Tomebamba, on top of which Cuenca now stands (classic Conquestador move). Taking the Ingañan east, we promptly lost the trail. Purple and white blazes did not stand out the way industrial blue did against the background of moss and licken covering every rock. However, Annie's cool thinking and my compass kept us heading in the right direction so that after a half hour or so of hoofing it over the paramo grass and around several muddy bogs, we found the trail again! Much relieved, we continued on our way. The trail began to climb towards a high pass at just over 4000 meters, wherein we faced rain, fog, and cold wind. "There is not such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing" as my father-in-law likes to say and we were adequately prepared to face these challenges. However, with the weather showing no signs of improvement and Annie not feeling tip-top, we took the opportunity to bail on the Ingañan when it intersected Ruta #6 (white and brownish green this time), a much shorter trail that led back to the road.
Ruta #6 took us back up to 4000 meters where we hiked gamely through thick fog for a few hours, enjoying the changing views of the landscape--lakes (so many lakes! Did I mention that Cajas is super wet?), imposing cliffs, and rolling hills--while occasionally shouting "Heathcliff!" as the paramo bares more than a little resemblance the the Scottish moors.