Early Thursday afternoon we said goodbye to Peru and boarded our bus into Ecuador - our 6th country to visit in our marathon around South America!
We reluctantly boarded a stuffy and very hot bus. Our last hostel owner had warned us about the state of these buses - no air conditioning, and sometimes without windows that open. In preparation, I put on the coolest piece of clothing that I own - my light cotton sundress. That proved to be a mistake, as within one hour of leaving I snapped one of the spaghetti straps (as I was twisting in my seat to try to get the air from the window to cool down my back). "Well, at least maybe we'll have no issues at the border then," Pete exclaimed as I struggled to make sure that all relevant portions of my body were covered at all times.
Within two hours we were in Aguas Verdes, the Peruvian border town right before the Ecuador border. This town is home to (as Lonely Planet states) one of the sketchiest border crossings in all of South America. Yikes! Sure enough, shortly after getting our exit stamp out of Peru, Pete and I were shuffled into an adjacent room by a few men and asked for money to buy our Ecuadorian "visa". Knowing the scam, we strongly said "no pagamos nada" (we are paying nothing!) and they let us on our way without a fight. Phew!
Back onto the bus and across the border into Ecuador. After saying goodbye to our friends Fran and Ross who were continuing on the same bus to another point in the country, Pete and I changed buses for another 4 hour ride to our first stop in Ecuador, the enchanting colonial city of Cuenca. As we headed inland and away from the desert coast of Peru, the terrain changed incredibly. We became immediately aware of how such a small country can be the worlds largest exporter of bananas as we passed by miles and miles of trees bursting with the fruit! It is also quite a mountainous country and as we began our ascent around the winding roads, we were in awe of the lush green valleys and raging rivers below. We were also very in awe of the farming practices here - there are fields literally right up the sides of the mountains. That can't be easy.
We drove through several small towns before reaching Cuenca and each time were greeted with stares from the locals who spotted us through the open bus windows. I never thought we were that far off the "gringo trail", but I guess it is low travel season now and white skin is becoming a bit of a rarity. We stopped for traffic in one town and a cute little old man (sitting on the side of the road, apparently just watching traffic) lit up and smiled a big toothless grin when he saw me. He emphatically blew me a kiss with both hands and waved continuously as the bus started up and moved off again. I blew a kiss and waved back. He made my day! And perhaps I made his, as the position of my tattered dress at that point might have been compromised. Oops!
We pulled into Cuenca two hours earlier then expected - thankfully, as we were in need of a shower and our tummies were grumbling! It didn't take us very long in the city to exclaim how very impressed we are with it. Cuenca is touted as one of the most beautiful cities in Ecuador - Pete and I agree that it is one of the most beautiful we have seen in all of our travels. The streets are spotless and there is immense colonial architecture throughout (not just in the city center). And, as you must know by now, I am a sucker for cobble stone streets, of which Cuenca has aplenty!
Besides spending hours ambling around the beautiful streets of the city, we decided to take a sidetrip to Ingapirca, a small town that is home to the best preserved Inca ruins left in Ecuador that are still used for fiestas today. Again bypassing the more expensive tourist option to make the journey, we decided to make it an adventure and boarded a local bus in the early afternoon.
We were told it was a two hour journey, but it ended up being three. It was an entertaining journey on the way there at least - we actually got to see one woman in traditional dress pay for her bus fare with fruit, and Pete caught one guy behind me smelling my hair. Not things that you see everyday!
By the time we got to Ingapirca, we only had 45 minutes before the ruins closed down. We hastily made our way through without a guide, enjoying the views but wishing that we knew more about all of the little intricate details of the ruins. Thank goodness for Wikipedia.
We made our way on foot the one kilometer back into town, hoping to catch a local bus back down the hill to the larger town and find another bus to reconnect to Cuenca. There was no bus - instead there were a group of taxi drivers waiting to offer to get us to town muy rapido. We asked some kids sitting around about a bus, to which they responded that the buses were done for the day. Reluctantly, we coughed up the few extra bucks for the taxi, which ended up also transporting this group of kids (and for much less then we paid).
It didn't take long for us to figure out that there still were many buses on the route, and that we had been scammed by both the kids and the taxi driver who were obviously working together. When we reached the bottom of the hill, Pete turned to the same kid and asked about the buses. Sure enough, he nervously laughed and nodded. We had been punked! At the end of the day though, we probably would have taken the taxi anyways (we were very hungry at this point, and cognizant of the fact that we still had another two hour ride to Cuenca). It didn't take long for another bus to come along and we settled into our seats for the long journey to the city. An awful lot of bussing for only 45 minutes of sight-seeing - Pete and I have different views on whether or not it was worth it.
Overall though, I am not quite sure what I expected of Ecuador, but thus far I would have to say that I am thoroughly impressed. I guess I half thought that it would just be an extension of Peru, but there have been a few things that have differentiated it from it's southern neighbour that we are really enjoying. Besides the extreme cleanliness that we have seen thus far, we also appreciate the fact that Ecuadorians drive like human beings! Traffic lights are heeded instead of being taken merely as a suggestion, and they even use their turning signals (the sound of which actually astounded me, I'm not sure we've heard that noise since Chile). We have only estimated a couple of weeks to explore this country, and I have a feeling it won't be enough.
Today we had another 9 hours on the bus to get to one of the more tourist destinations - Baños. It is a small town idyllically set in green mountains and surrounded by waterfalls - having been here only a few hours we are contemplating adding an extra night to our stay. It is THAT beautiful, plus, I think I will need some more time to get rid of the "bus-rot" that is developing in my bones. We have been on a bus at least every three days since Arequipa, and it is time for a rest! Thank goodness our next trip will involve a much shorter bus ride and then some valuable re-energizing via a bag of Canadian dill pickle chips - we are getting a visit from home in Quito! Can't wait.
P.S. Being abroad is never as fun when loved ones at home are going through a tough time - Muchos besos parati Avery, te amos mucho! xo