|The New Cathedral in Cuenca.|
|The stairs to the mirador.|
|Impressive doors to the Cathedral.|
The difference in scenery from Northern Peru to Ecuador is big. My last few days in Peru were hot and dry, but as soon as I crossed over the border, things turn green, lush and wet. Being on the equator, the sun rise and setting times never really change, and although there are a variety of weather systems, I felt that it pretty much always rained at some point during the day. I really enjoyed the bus trips here in this country - looking out the window was a magical experience for the senses, and I'm sure people thought me weird but I couldn't keep the smile off my face. I sat there listening to my travel music reserved for bus trips to get me in the mood, staring out the window, not believing that I was busing in South America and this beautiful country - these moments of travelling when you are just enjoying everything are what you travel for, it's like enlightenment. I got off the bus early in the morning at my first stop in Ecuador, the city of Cuence, and still in high spirits despite the fact that I hadn't booked a hostel or changed any money. Armed with mobile GPS, I found an ATM and thanked it for dispensing me some much needed dollars and then went on the hunt for a hostel.
|You know you just want to pat me, you just don't want to be seen doing it tough guy.|
|The historic centre.|
Ecuador, following the financial crisis in 1999 when their currency's inflation went through the roof (and them some), now uses US Dollars - my most hated currency. Why do I hate it? Well for starters it's paper. Most countries still use the paper note system, as Australia own the patent for plastic notes and everyone that wants to make the change need to pay Australia for the technology, but a lot change adopted, including New Zealand, Chile, Brazil and even Romania. The States have made changed to their bank notes, like adding a little colour to the very bland black/green and white colour, which made it very dangerous as you could hand out a $100 note instead of a $1, making someone else very happy. The notes are also all the same size. Come on America, get your monetary shit together and move with the times, for everybody's sake! Anyway, I now had dollars and had to use them for the next 3 to 4 weeks while in Ecuador, so I had to just deal with it - the up side was that prices looked very cheap and no longer did I have to deal with huge numbers for anything - a local bus ride in Colombia for example costs 2,000 pesos, and things can easily get into the hundred thousands! I found a nice hostel, after walking around for an hour asking at every place I could find - so many places here were far above my budget level and very posh looking too. I checked in, and asked for the WiFi password as every backpacker does now, and chilled out for the day, waiting for the rain to stop.
|Waiting for the rain to stop...|
|The doors to the New Cathedral.|
Since Bolivia I have been in places higher than 2,000m above sea level and more than 3,000 in some places too, and Cuence was the same - it sits at 2,500m. Although accustomed to the altitude, and I no longer felt headaches or weak legs, you still don't really want to be running around here. The city isn't huge, with just under 600,000 people, but the centre is what everyone comes for, as well as the view of the surrounding countryside. The historical centre is UNESCO listed as the architecture is stunning. You may think these UNESCO people just sit there and 'like' cities in South America for new Trust Sites, but if you come here you will realise that it surely deserves to be there. The town was founded by the Spanish in 1557 and named after the city of Cuenca in Spain, where the town fathers came from. The Old Cathedral was built in the same year as the town was started (the Spanish had their priorities), but by 1880 it had become too small, and so a newer, bigger church was built - The Cathderal of the Immaculate Conception, also know as The New Cathedral. It sits right on the Plaza de Armas and is huge, the façade is made of alabaster and local marble, but it is the blue and white domes that really make it. Walking around the town, there are beautiful buildings everywhere, and loads of photo opportunities, but it is also a business city and it buzzes in the afternoon if the sun out. Walking the 45 minutes up to the mirador (lookout) is worth it as you get a wonderful view of the city and the mountains, but make sure you bring something for the rain, because chances are it will.
|The view of Cuenca from the viewpoint.|
|Down at the markets.|
Close to the city is the Cajas National Park, and it is very popular with the tourists. I decided to head there as well, get a bit of mountains and walking in as well as some fresh air and peace and quiet. Although it rained, it was a pleasant bus trip for only $2, and the weather cleared a little, enough to enjoy a 3 hour easy hike and get some photos in too. Although not Torres del Pain, it is still beautiful and this particular walk had mountains all around a mirror-like lake. The park entry was free and I enjoyed it. The next day I walked around the city again, my happiness and smile increasing with the sunlight that come out and really lit the city up. Lunch at the local markets are a must for anyone in South America, and here was no different, and I had a bowl of chicken soup and a plate of beef with rice and veggies and a drink, all for $2. The lunch ladies were also very nice, and we chatted and joked - the Ecuadorians are really very open and friendly people. The city is also famous for it's Panama Hats, and walking around just outside the centre and you can see stores selling them in huge quantities. The hat is a traditional brimmed, straw hat and traditionally made from the leaves of a palm-like plant, and started to be manufactured in the 1600s, and now the art of weaving them has been UNESCO listed too. Although the town isn't packed with things to do, walking around and looking was enough for me - I don't need adventure sports, hundreds of museums or banging nightlife. My next destination would be a little different though.
|The town of Baños.|
|Jumping off a bridge... why?|
Baños is a town tucked away between mountains and volcanoes. The big boy Tungurahua resides right above the town, and at more than 5,000m is an impressive site. It is still actives, and in fact was having a little bit of a spit 3 days before I arrived. The town, it's full name being Baños de Agua Santa (Baths of Holy Water) is famous for taffy, adventure sports, such as rafting and bungee jumping, and also for it's proximity to the Amazon and the Pink Dolphins found there. I wasn't really interested in all of that, well the dolphins yes, but the jungle trek to see them was way over my budget. I wanted to walk and see the volcano. In this town you have to take advantage of the weather when you can - if it's not raining, hurry up and go out and do something before it starts to rain again. I walked up to the Ojos del Volcan (Eyes of the Volcano) to get a good view of it - hours of zig-zagging road up and barking dogs, but the view was incredible. The town is nestled between the mountains with a river running through it, and a dam at the far end of the valley. Tungurahua guards the town, there are farm all over the side of the mountains and clouds hanging around the peaks. There is a swing here that goes right over the cliff too - after a thorough testing I gave it a go, scared myself half to death, jumped off and settles for a photo from the safety of the road. I didn't fancy walking back down another 2 hours, and I hate going the same way back, so I jumped in a local 'taxi' (a guy in a ute), paid him $1 and got back to town in record time.
|Baños and it´s waterfalls.|
|A dog advertising peanuts.|
|The waterfall feeding the baths.|
After a day of walking, I decided to visit the name sake of the town - the thermal baths. The Termas de la Virgen are at the edge of town, and the water that feeds the baths come straight from straight from the mountain. The scene is lovely, two waterfalls pouring down the cliff behind the building, views of the mountains, clouds and setting sun from your hot tub. It only costs $2 to get in during the day and an extra $1 for a night-time dip. After washing off in very warm water that comes straight from a pipe in the wall, I sought out my fist pool. I've been to Roman baths before, and Turkish ones as well as Japanese Onsens, all of which have multiple tubs with varying degrees of heat. This one had 3 - cold, hot and too hot. The first bath you climb into is the hottest, and the first time I tried it was too hot - a real 'monkey bath.' For people that have never heard me say this before, a monkey bath is when you put your toe in and it's too hot, making you go 'oooh oooh oooh.' Monkey Bath. Someone then advised me to sit in the cold water first for a minute or two, then get in the hot one - maybe to numb my skin? Anyway, it worked and I managed to climb into the soup pot and enjoy the 42c water for about 5 minutes before climbing out slowly to avoid being cooked. The second pool was far too cold for night time, and I quickly got out and headed for the middle pool - this one was just right! It was like a game of Goldilocks finding her ideal porridge temperature, and now I had found mine. So had everyone else it seems, and there was a bit of a jostle for a seat and the best spots, as well as kids and adults all moving around and talking loudly. South Americans aren't quiet people usually. I got up and left to have dinner, not quite feeling like a virgin again, but must refreshed.
|Nuns in church.|
|... the reality.|
The next day I ventured out early (as it wasn't raining) to hike up to the Casa de Arbol, or Treehouse, on the opposite side of where I walked the previous day. A lovely walk up, mainly following the road as I didn't want to be sweating it out as I walked in and out of jungle, and the road provided a much better view too. I managed to make it about 4 or 5kms before the rain started to come in, but I was rescued from getting wet from two very friendly Canadians (aren't they all!) and their dog. Brett, Una and their dog Ella had driven all the way down here from the West Coast in their Chevy van. I sat in the back with the very well behaved Ella, chatting to the couple up front, talking about travel, Ecuador, weather and how awesome I thought it was that they were doing it all together in their own car! They explained that the dog was great, but she made museums and cafes hard sometimes, wet weather was no fun (wet dog smell...) and hot temperature makes the 'hotel room' unpleasant. All that aside, they were having a ball and I really want to buy another van and a dog and travel Sarah Connor style! The Treehouse was a disappointment unfortunately, as the weather had well and truly come in by now. Normally from the swing on the Arbol (yes, another swing!) you swing right out into nothing with the huge volcano right in front of you. I didn't swing (wet bum) and nor did I see the volcano (cloud cover). A few people did the swing and photo because they had made it there, but I waited 15 minutes for the weather to clear then left. It rain for the rest of the day so I sat in my $10 private room and watched TV.
|Wet bum and bad photo - is it worth it?|
|Cuy doing the dirty on the BBQ.|