The city of Cuenca is our last stop in Ecuador. Famed for its beautiful architecture, we were not disappointed: the city centres around Parque Calderon, one of my favourite squares so far, lined by palm trees and filled with old men on benches. On one side, the square is dwarfed by the huge Catedral Nueva, with curved stone doorways, a stark white interior, bright gold alter and a great taste in piped music. While we were there we had panpipe renditions of “Chariots of Fire”, Imagine” and – as if it couldn’t get any better – “Killing Me Softly”. The cathedral was busy, with people kneeling, praying and blessing each other and their children.
We walk on, through the flower market, and up to another square where we find the Iglesias San Sebastián. The plaza is quiet except for a group doing tai chi and a small girl running at a flock of pigeons which turn circles in the sky over th church spire.
We poke our heads inside the Museo de Arte Moderne, a collection of long whitewashed buildings with azure doors which seems to be between exhibitions. Many of the rooms are empty but we do find a guy outside working on large mural and watch him for a while.
We stop for coffee in a little cafe set in the open courtyard of a colonial building with ferns hanging from the first floor balcony. The coffee is black and strong and we eat it with a humitas – a snack made of ground corn and steamed in the husk. It’s so good we go back the next day and the owner recognises us with a smile.
In the afternoon, we visit the brutalist Museo Pumpapungo which is filled with costumes, masks, shrunken heads and artefacts from the Shuar culture. Out the back of the museum are the ruined remains of the Inca city of Tomebamba. Here once stood royal houses, buildings, orchards and gardens which were thought to be used for spiritual purposes. On the top of a mound are the foundations of four square structures and one semi-circular building, the centre of the workshop, an observatory where “cheques” (imaginary lines) were drawn to geographical landmarks and to the stars and constellations. Beneath are a series of terraces which overlook landscaped gardens. I love this ancient site in the middle of the city, and find it calming despite being next to a busy road.
That night we’re back at the museum but this time for a very random reason: we’ve been asked to be extras in an Ecuadorean film that is being shot in the city. The film is set in Berlin and they needed gringos in the background to make it believable. I was more up for it than Moz but we went along; after what felt like a million takes we were beginning to regret our choice, but it was fun nonetheless and a good/weird story to tell!
The next day we caught an early bus out of the city to Parque Nacionale El Cajas. The bus climbed and climbed, skirting lakes and snaking up mountainsides: the landscape felt almost like the Scottish Highlands and on a grand scale. The bus driver must have forgotten about us as he sailed past the entrance to the park so we had to get off and try and hitchhike the 4k back. Thankfully a bus coming in the opposite direction stopped for us (just as we were embarrassingly scrambling down a mountainside to try to find a shortcut) and took us to the entrance. From there we headed off on Route 2, a tough climb that took us to the top of a mountain range and left me breathless, stopping every few minutes to gasp at the air. We were walking at over 4000m and it’s amazing how weak your body can feel without the oxygen it’s used to. Moz was great at encouraging me up the hill and it was totally worth it, the views were stunning, mountains and lakes all around and no-one else there save for the distant grey ribbon of the road. The wind was strong and we headed down the other side to find a sheltered spot for our packed lunch.
At the bottom we joined Route 1, a gentle path that took us around four lakes, across streams, through forests with smooth, cool, twisted trunks and, at the end, onto the road leading out of the park – where we came face-to-face with some wild llamas.
The following day we were having a relaxed day we were leaving that night. We walked along the riverside path beneath tall pine trees, got a cheap lunch and waved back at an excited busload of school kids who were giddy to see us. Back to the hostel to do some admin and to FaceTime Davo to make plans for when she joins us in Argentina (!) then to the bus station for our night bus over the border to Peru!