C is for Cuenca, that’s good enough for me!
We secured our freedom from William and Fanny at the Zoorefugio Tarqui at 8am on Tuesday 6th May. William gave us a lift into town in the back of his pickup on his way to a contract. Then voila – more South American bus-magic and we were on our way to Riobamba. Alison, now back up to 100% organisational capacity, had carefully analysed all routes to Cuenca and found that the one recommended by most local people, via Maca, was actually the longest. I think some of them just love Amazonia so much they want you to spend as much time as possible there. On the way into Riobamba we caught some tantalising views of Chimborazo, coated in a little snow but retaining her dignity by hiding under some clouds. A volcano, hiding under clouds….never. I am starting not to believe in volcanoes since I never bloody see them properly. Riobamba to Cuenca another 6 hours through clouds on narrow roads and acting as school-bus along the way. I used to think I lived remote from the school when we lived in Banff many years ago; but I never exited the bus to walk up a mountain in a cloud.
Our next hostel sat next to a college called Colegio Benigno Malo, which seems to me to mean “The College of Good and Evil”; interesting classes I’d imagine and by the sounds of the band practicing on the field one night, it is attended by some aspiring Death Metal musicians. Looking a little like a mini French palace, once you looked closer you saw the cornicing and gargoyles were all made of simple brick and the ornamental red roof was simply corrugated iron bent into shape. Every day the streets around us were thronging with teenagers in uniform but I never figured out how to tell the good from the evil ones.
Cuenca, the third largest city of Ecuador, sits on a plateau in the Andes surrounded by higher peaks. A fast flowing river runs through it and during the spectacular thunderstorms we saw it swell appreciably into a veritable torrent. We managed to get caught out a fair few times in the Cuencan rain, always in the afternoon. The city is often cited as an ex-pat haven, but apparently people are starting to move: since the balance of the climate has changed over ten years to favour rain over sun. Certainly we encountered a lot more Gringos here than in Puyo and Amazonia.
On the Gringo front, we have officially become stalkers. We bumped into a Scottish couple at our Cuencan hostel and moved into their room after they left (our first room was a bit grim). It transpired we’d pulled exactly the same manoeuvre on them in Salento, Colombia (our first room was a bit grim there too). Amazing how often you re-encounter fellow travellers, I guess that’s why they call it the Gringo trail, everyone quietly telling themselves they’re planning their own unique route and yet all ending up in the same places.
The old part of Cuenca can be reached by a number of wide stone staircases next to the river and is a fairly straightforward grid of colonial style buildings. The restaurant I hastily trip-advised (chose) on our first night had a beautiful wooden exterior and gallery overlooking the river…apparently. It seemed that the authorities were up to something since four or five restaurants had been closed down and were sporting big seals/stickers advertising the fact. So it was into an Austrian style bistro/cafe and a much appreciated western meal. The last few weeks involved just a little too much rice, fried yucca and beans.
So entranced were we by this city of just the right size and texture that we entertained notions of staying a month and looked into renting a flat. The viewing fell through and we decided to move on (gotta speed up), but this is a place I can imagine staying for a longer period.
During our wanderings Alison invented a new game that will probably get us both sent to hell (as if we didn’t already have engraved invitations). She has a few photographic projects already: donkeys of the world, cats of the world, dogs of the world. This one involves shooting huge religious edifices in “diorama mode”, that’s the style that makes everything look like matchbox toys. Of course Cuenca has many huge religious edifices on which to start this fine enterprise. The New Cathedral on Plaza Abdon Calderon sports a fine trio of blue domes and for a small fee you can climb into the towers for a view over the city. Given the surrounding mountains, colourful buildings and moody skies it’s really worth it. Even after it has been miniaturized by Alison’s camera.
For an even better view, there’s a city bus that, for only for 25c, takes you up to Turi, a Mirador and Church on one of the hillsides overlooking the city. This is also home to ever more Artesan craft shops specialising in leather goods and some cool shoes and -notably – it is where we started our now legendary (in our minds) photo-bombing career. Hiding from the rain and needing to walk past a chap who was taking ages to be photographed in front of the church, we waited behind a pillar and chose our moment. As we sprung out in a classic one-two the photographer’s face lit up and howls of laughter emanated from some nearby locals. Will have to try that again, just not with police, military, airport security, people-with-guns etc..
As I mentioned we could have spent weeks exploring this place, trying all the different restaurants and trendy bars (I managed to avoid Karaoke) and continuing our now epic search for just the right set of new black leggings for Alison (as the originals are now sporting a hole).
Ah yes, and Cuenca is home to one grumpy barber-ess. Our first morning I decided on a haircut in a very old-fashioned barbershop that we’d spied the night before. Old cast iron and cushion chairs, wood panels and ancient furniture, strange unguents on the countertops and a super dusty, atmospheric feel. Unfortunately, I got the barber’s wife who was decidedly monotonic, muttery, grumpy and curt, although she did at least ask where I was from. So I spent an awkward fifteen minutes being spun round in fantastic surroundings – in a swivel chair – by a homicidal-looking woman.
I wonder if there is any correlation between how western a place is and how much we like it. Although we love to experience new cultures, we are we often more attuned to places with the cosmopolitan variety of home. This was definitely the case in Cuenca but not so with Medellin. I shall call this phenomenon: “The wimpy gringo/brave explorer duality”. As we left Cuenca, rested and enthralled by it I felt a little like a typical Gringo kid, searching for the extremes but honestly a little relieved when they’re not there. Cuenca’s fabulous but it’s too easy!
Right, bollocks to that let’s go live in a big f*** off desert in Northern Peru, that should get me dualities aligned proper!