Sunday, February 14 aka Valentine’s Day
We’ll start with a photo from the previous night that we both like:
We were not up early but when we went out for breakfast not much was open. Attracted by large crowd of bicycles across the river we crossed the bridge to take a look and found a bike rally had just ended.
We finally found the Windhorse, a small coffee shop run by expats. Although there was a table of Ecuadorian women all the other customers were non-Ecuadorian. And there was something going on upstairs; new-age music drifted down and people on a first name basis with the owner drifted in and up. However, our breakfast was certainly good (especially the coffee) if just a tad more expensive than we were used to.
We spent the rest of the day walking the streets of the historic old town centre of Cuenca. We saw several delightful old cathedrals, sometimes in the midst of Sunday services. At a small market opposite a large cathedral I bought Sue an orange (her fave colour) rose.
We found a major indoor mercado (market) and bought some fruit and jugos (fruit juices). The abundance of fruit in Ecuador is stunning. We stopped at another, small outdoor market where Sue shopped for pottery and wooden spoons. We criss-crossed the old town with no particular plan. Sometimes we just saw something in the distance that caught our eye.
At a corner we stopped and watched a couple tango; a very appropriate dance for Valentine’s. We`d passed a very interesting restaurant entrance and returned to it for a late lunch. The interesting entrance became a very eclectically decorated interior; everywhere an abundance of knick-knacks covered the walls and ceilings. One room featured a chandelier made of three decorated tires. We ordered the inexpensive set lunch and enjoyed the ambience.
Gradually we made our way back to the river and noticed numerous couples lazing on the grassy banks, some in decidedly Valentine’s embraces. We found a spot, lay back and enjoyed a relaxing hour on the riverbank (although we limited our passionate embracing; we`re so reservedly Canadian ;o).
Later we hummed and hawed about our next move. To Loja, located in the coffee country further south? Spend a day hiking in Parque Nacional Cajas just to the west? Or head for the coast and start our beach time? We couldn’t decide, so left our room in search of a cold beer. Not many of the local bars were open on a Sunday night but we eventually settled on a small bar with a friendly ambience and two screens of futbol (soccer) on. We had our usual large Pilsener each and then, inspired by their Happy Hour, decided on two Mojitos to celebrate Valentine’s and the fifteenth anniversary of our Permanent Engagement (which started in Havana, Cuba over chicken and Mojitos). Thus relaxed we returned to deciding our next move. The coast won out.
Monday, February 15
First thing we went to the Carolina Bookstore, just around the corner, to trade in our books. While Sue had a great conversation with the owner I browsed. The only book I could settle on was a Dominick Dunne compilation called Justice. If I had my Pender Library card with me I could’ve downloaded a book (make a note for next time).
We had an excellent breakfast at Moliendo Café, a Columbian restaurant, and then caught a taxi to the bus terminal.
As we left Cuenca the little valleys in the forest reminded me of small towns in the California Redwoods. But soon we were rising into the mountains and the trees thinned to a mix of grasslands and evergreens. And then the trees shrank as we entered Parque Nacional Cajas. By now the landscape was reminding me more of Scotland: windswept, golden, small lakes and a bit barren. Even in the bus we could tell the temperature had dropped outside as we’d gained altitude.
As we rounded steep valleys on the western slopes the clouds and mist drifted in and soon the landscape disappeared. When it cleared we were driving past thick vegetation and soon the coastal plains appeared. We drove past endless fields of banana and mango until we entered the outskirts of Guayaquil.
The bus terminal was huge; three stories high including a vast shopping mall. We popped out and grabbed a taxi. We knew our hostel was near but the driver told us it was going to be $5. We gasped and questioned the price. I even pointed to the rates painted on the door. No, $5 he said. When we got to the hostel we mentioned this to the reception and he said that was normal and asked where we’d been getting taxis. We told him a month in Ecuador and that was the most we’d ever paid for such a short distance. He looked at us pityingly. We got two beers and retreated to the rooftop terrace to try and acclimatize to the heat, humidity and change in attitude. Although this was simply a stopover in our transit to the coast the hostel was a bit of a disappointment. I found five long black hairs on my bedsheets; certainly not mine! The floor was unswept, the bathroom was not super clean and the wifi was weak. We turned the room fan up to full and attempted to sleep.
Tuesday, February 16
Next morning we took a public bus to the terminal. It took the same amount of time and cost us .25 each. Generally we take taxis when hauling baggage but this time the effort was well worth the savings.
As our bus headed north and then towards the coast the atmosphere was almost party-like. Everyone was friendly, the bus windows opened and the music was great. Then the Pacific appeared. Soon we arrived in Puerto Lopez, a small fishing village with a huge beach. We rode in a moto-taxi (shades of SEAsia) to our cabana, just across the road from the beach.
We walked to the town’s waterfront centre and had ceviche. Then we went for a brief swim in the surf and watched the sunset. Ahhhh…. the delight of being back on the ocean. The only downside was realizing we really did need to use the mosquito net over the bed as the wee bugs in the night were nippers.
Wednesday, February 17
One of the reasons we chose to stay in Puerto Lopez was so we could take a tour to Isla Plata, a recommended, less expensive option then going to the Galapagos Islands. Although it doesn’t have the same eco-system or breadth of wildlife as the Galapagos it was within our budget and featured some of the same wildlife. Isla Plata was an hour long boat ride from Puerto Lopez. A protected park since the late 1970s it accommodates many of the same critters.
With our eight fellow passengers we strolled through the crazy busy fish unloading zone on the beach and out the pier to our boat. The day was sunny and the ride pleasant. As we neared Isla Plata the boat suddenly veered and I looked over the side to see what at first I thought was a seal and then realized was a sea turtle bobbing along. As we approached the island we could see massive flocks of birds wheeling over the coastline.
On shore we were given a brief summary of park regulations (stay on the paths, don’t approach the birds, stay away from the edges of the incredibly steep and crumbly cliffs – unlike Galapagos Isla Plata is not volcanic). Then we walked to the centre of the island where the group made a choice as to which path we’d take. We chose a shorter path, closer to the cliffs, which meant we’d have more time for snorkelling later. We soon discovered we’d made a wise choice as it was very, very hot and the sun blazed down. And this is considered the wet season; apparently in dry season the island has no greenery (and sometimes goes years without greening).
We saw Blue-footed boobies, countless Frigate birds, Galapagos Iguana, a variety of flowers, pelicans and sea turtles in the water. We were quite toasted by the time we returned to the beach. After a quick lunch on the boat, with the sea turtles hanging around looking for scraps (they’re habituated to handouts), we were in the water. It was fairly clear and we could see some healthy-looking coral plus about half a dozen different species of colourful fish. No sharks or manta rays (although they are both in the waters around the island)
We finished the day with more seafood and a walk up the beach. At some point we visited a shop selling Palo Santo (Holy Wood) and found an interesting variety of goods made from the wood.
Thursday, February 18
First thing we strolled down to watch the fisherman unloading their morning’s catch. They head out pre-dawn and are generally unloading by 8am. We were amazed by the variety and amounts of fish we saw. We circled around back of the fish sellers and found a small, tarp covered restaurant for breakfast. At a table next to us a fisherman was celebrating his haul with three women and numerous beers. We both had shrimp laden omelettes and watched the scene.
Part of our morning ritual is finding coffee for Sue. In Puerto Lopez there were many cafes but for some reason most of them don’t seem to open either early or on weekdays. We finally found a small, bamboo shack run by a French woman that served excellent coffee. Seats were at at a premium as there just weren’t many. We soon discovered that it was a popular spot with expats as more and more arrived.
As I was feeling a bit sunburned from the day before and both of us felt we needed a chill day we found a spot under an awning on the beach and lazed around reading with occasional dips in the sea. We decided to stay another day in Puerto Lopez as we were moving so slowly.
Friday, February 19
Another day, another breakfast and the search for coffee. The French woman’s cafe was closed but we found another spot on the waterfront and plopped ourselves down. Big mugs of brewed coffee arrived and then a couple of expat men we’d met previously sat down. We had a long and interesting conversation about life in Ecuador with them; one advocating for Puerto Lopez, the other for Cuenca. It seems part of Ecuador’s attraction to expats is its medical care; we kept hearing how cheap it is and of the close relationship between doctor and patient. And nobody has a bad word about the climate.
While Sue lounged in the shade I decided to walk to the end of the beach. I had begged off taking a trip to a neighbouring beach with no shade (still feeling sunburned) but didn’t want to just sit. My walk took time due to all the stopping and checking out stones and shells. On my way back I passed the sea turtle rescue centre and met two volunteers taking a break out front on the beach. We’d talked to the two young men previously, congratulating them on their beach garbage clean-up efforts. They told me about the various things that happened to the turtles (mainly: swallowing plastic and fishing hooks) and their efforts to organize garbage cleanup around town. As I re-entered town I stopped at the Hosteria Mandala, a fantastic building in a fantastic setting, and purchased a T-shirt they produced to raise funds for an X-ray machine for the sea turtles.
I found Sue tucked in the shade and we took advantage of not being laden with a bunch of gear and went swimming together. The tide was fairly high and the surf break close in-shore so we leaped and frolicked in the break, sometimes getting thrown back towards the beach.
Then another grocery shop, a late lunch and another stunning sunset.
Although we stayed an extra day, and the expats almost have us convinced to stay, it is time to move on. On Saturday we head for Canoa, up the coast a few hours. It sounds like more of a backpacker/surfer town but we’ll stay a few days and then keep on moving north up the coast before heading inland again for our last week in Ecuador (gasp! Already?).