Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Baños, Cuenca, Vilcabamba - Ecuador

A lovely 30 minute bus ride from Salasaca is the tourist worthy town of Banos. The draw is the natural thermal hot springs and availability for outdoor sports such as canyoning, rock climbing, rafting and hiking. Our first free weekend from work a group of us headed that way for 50 cents on a nice, windy bus ride through the mountains, and after a week in Salasaca somehow Banos felt like the “big city”; even though you can walk around the square town in about 30 minutes and see all there is to see.

The buildings are cute and colorful; the streets are cobble stone and filled with folks for weekend fun. Ice cream and handmade taffy are as frequent as little restaurants with cheap almuerzos and tour agencies. After a quick lunch we went horseback riding for a couple of hours, from the town into the country side, to near a waterfall where we left our horses in “horse parking” and went up to have a look. Very beautiful! On the ride back we picked up the pace and had the horses galloping – my horse was the man! I was all the sudden so far ahead of everyone else (including the guide) I couldn’t even see them anymore when I turned around. It felt great to be running so fast on such a strong animal, I was laughing and shrieking so much I’m sure the local people on the side of the road thought I was a lunatic on a getaway horse.

That night we all met up and went for drinks, which somehow felt even better after a week of going to sleep at 9:30 p.m. and a day of mastering the equestrian art of living. Or at least having fun trying. Was good to cut loose with everyone and then crash on the late night 30 minute bus ride home.

The hung over Sunday windy bus ride wasn’t as charming, but we had a relaxing day in town, including my first sandwich in a month. Amazing what bread and vegetables can do for your spirit after a month of rice and meat. We attempted to go to the hot springs, but considering nearly the entire population of Ecuador was already there (and many of them literally showering/bathing in them), we opted out and headed back to Salasaca for another week of work. If our stomachs would have been in a different state, maybe we would have tried to Ecuadorian specialty of chuy (guinea pig).

The following weekend headed to Cuenca, “the most beautiful city of Ecuador”, which is located at 2500 meters (8,200 feet) above sea level and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I went directly to the flat of Pablo Garcia, someone who I arranged to stay with from Couch Surfing. He and his roommate were at a “day party”, so I explored the scenic city solo for a while. The architecture is unique and impressive; the city is beautiful, clean and felt relatively safe. More cobblestone streets and colonial feel, similar to Old Town in Quito.

When I arrived back to the flat I was there with Barbara (Germany), a friend of Pablo’s roommate, Daniel. The boys were inebriated when they returned, which made for a very comical introduction on my part. With their third roommate, Maria, we headed in the back of a pickup truck for dinner with Pablo and his colleagues (including his boss!). Wow. We continued to drink and Pablo and Daniel had everyone entertained… Pablo’s boss has a good sense of humor, lucky for him. The meal ended with a small food fight, and we hopped back in the pickup truck, singing and dancing our way to a club.

It felt bizarre to be in a place where people clearly had money and liked to show it, girls dressed up to the nines and guys that looked like they wished they just stepped out of a magazine, with drinks priced just as high as a club in the U.S. From Salasaca to there in one day, my head was spinning! Or maybe it was just the Pilsens….

Saturday we rode with Daniel’s friends out the Parque National Cajas and had breakfast, but ended up skipping the park itself as the day was chilly and the entrance fee was high. But a beautiful few hours in any case! After lunch I took to the city by myself while the others went for a siesta, and eventually we all regrouped for sushi – yum! I was forced to get over my contempt for massago, so that was a good thing, I’m not a picky eater but that was always holding me back during group sushi with friends. The club that followed was much more relaxed than the one on Saturday, a small and artsy place on the river where people danced salsa and meringue and we all drank warm, flavored Aguardiente, which went down easy and fast and had our cheeks rosy red and spirits feeling extra goofy. I loved how this group of people was so simple to get along with – we acted like kids and old friends together, it was great to have that instant camaraderie!

Sunday said goodbye and headed south to Vilcabamba, also known as “the playground of the Incas” (was a retreat for royalty) and “the Valley of Longevity” (not uncommon for people to reach 100 years of age here). The area is surrounded by mountains and rivers and is very aesthetically pleasing, while the atmosphere is rather tranquil and leisurely, creating the perfect setting for people to come when they retire. And this is what I experienced in Vilcabamba (I was there alone): being surrounded by older people who came to live a good and affordable life after leaving their own countries. Which is great for them, while it made it slightly boring for me. I took the opportunity to plow through some books, lie in hammocks, take walks in the mountains and drink nice teas and juices.

Oh, there was one morning of waking up to a riot outside my amazing hostel (Jardin Escondido, "Hidden Garden", $10/night including a great breakfast and the most amazing shower I've had on this continent so far) - there had been 2 thieves in town, and since the coup attempt just weeks before the police force hasn't been exactly favored among the public (they attempted to overthrow the President because they claimed he was withholding bonuses and wage increases). So vigilantes on horses caught one of the thieves and were expecting justice, while the police had other plans and took him to Loja (nearest big city) to be dealt with there (aka, immediately released). It seems like the logical way to deal with discount is what followed: burn stacks of tires outside the police station and start a riot. Duh.

Wednesday left Ecuador after a month and headed south on the night bus to Peru. Crossed the border at Macara, which was completely hassle free and painless. Around 3 a.m. got to immigration, so got off the bus and got stamped out of Ecuador, walked across the bridge and got stamped into Peru and then got immediately back on the bus. For some reason, that moment, walking across the bridge alone and at night, hearing nothing but the water running below and seeing the big Peru flag with the sign “Welcome to Peru”, gave me chills down my spine and had me so excited I could feel my heart pumping in my chest!


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