Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Cuenca: A Real Gem - October 24 - 28

Guayaquil failed to impress me (big, dirty, uninteresting), and so I left after a day there. The ride to Cuenca was a particularly tough one; OK, it was a holy bitch! After the first hour I headed into the mountains and the road got BAD. As I hit the cloud level it was foggy and wet, slippery mud, with visibility about 10 feet. I was able to average about 15-20 mph. At one point traffic was stopped for about an hour waiting for a construction site to be cleared, but we were all entertained by watching the boulders roll down the hill from where they were working up above. The word of the day was ¨DUCK¨. Then of course they had to clear the road.

The road kept climbing for hours, eventually reaching a pass of more than 13,000 feet. For those of you not used to driving at this altitude, engines need oxygen to work... and there isn't much there. The bike loses a lot of power at that altitude. It was COLD! In might be near the equator, but altitude trumps latitude every time.

I finally started back down the hill and into the Parque El Caja s (more on that later) and the scenery was spectacular.

Eventually -- cold, tired, and more than a little dirty -- I reached Cuenca.

Cuenca is a very nice colonial city of about a half million people. The central area has many beautiful old buildings, along with the obligatory dozens of cathedrals.

Part of what made Cuenca fun was the group of "kids" (aren't they all these days) that I met: Sandra (German), Markus (German) and Robin (Belgian).

Sandra and I went hiking in Parque Nacional El Cajas, an area I had ridden over on my way to Cuenca. Hiking at that altitude isn´t easy ( actually, it´s fine if you don´t need to breathe), but the scenery is incredible.

There's an old village in the park that use to be a way-station for travelers going from Guayaquil to Cuenca 150 years ago when the trip took about a month. Now it's maintained as a kind of museum, although we couldn't get in until we found a caretaker with a key.

Part of the village is underground... this was also a silver and gold mine. One of the more interesting rooms was the bathroom. An odd assortment of skeletons, stuffed snakes, and even a toilet!

Sunday, I went with the ¨kids¨ to the market at Gualaceo. This is a small town about an hour by bus (and 60 cents in cost) from Cuenca. A typical local market, but I always find these interesting.

The highlight was going to lunch in the municipal market building. There were different section s for different types of food. We opted for the roast pig, and I´ll tell you that for $2 we feasted. Crispy skin, tender meat, and appropriate accompaniments. Mmmmm.
And I was even told that it was guaranteed kosher (I think that´s what they said. Although it could be that ¨quosheir¨ means something completely different in Quechua... like maybe ¨taking dirty money and pulling pork with the same hand gives the meat better flavor¨, or something like that.
The next day we went to BaƱos, not the famous one, but a village near Cuenca. While we weren´t impressed at first with the facilities (just looked like a swimming pool, with some steam rooms up above), it turned out to be a great day. We sat around in the hot pool while it pissed rain all afternoon. Met some very interesting local people who always come on Mondays. Why Monday? Because they clean the pool on Sunday night. Good reason! There was also a fun group of Ecuadorians in the steam room. About 12 raucus, middle-aged businessmen who also come every Monday and spend the afternoon sweating and drinking. Sandra was excluded (men only steam room), but Markus, Robin, and I had a good sweat and a great time. No pictures permitted!

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