Cuenca, our shortest, and most southern stop in Ecuador, is the countries fourth most economically important city. Here the Panama Hat is king. These handmade straw hats where made famous by Theodore Roosevelt as he was photographed wearing one, during his visit to the Panama Canal construction site in 1904. Though their origins are in Ecuador, this fact is not well known, and their name give credit to a country that does not produce them. The hats actually date back all the way to the 1600’s and made their way to California during the gold rush in the 1800’s. The name ‘Panama Hat’ though fueled by Roosevelt, actually caught on during this period as the hats were being shipped through the Isthmus of Panama and were stamped as such when arriving at their destinations. I learned this tidbit from our guide Alex, who never ceases to amaze when it comes to his insane amount of knowledge. The way he knows dates, and names off by heart, without missing a beat is awe striking.
Cuenca itself is very much a city, and though some of the architecture, primarily the amazing colonial church in the centre of town, is unmissable, and full of great photo ops...the rest of the city is a bit bland; there really isn’t much else to do there. It was our final opportunity to eat a classic dish that is part of Ecuador’s cultural gastronomy. The dish is called Cuy…which translates to Guinea Pig. Yes that’s right, Guinea Pig. It is said to taste a bit like duck, and can be enjoyed fried, stewed, filetted etc. We actually made it to the city too late at night to find any restaurants that served it at that hour, but I’m not entirely sure if I’m upset about that. All curiosity aside, I had 16 guinea pigs as pets throughout my childhood, and so I wasn’t in a rush to betray them. I can still hear their tiny little squeaks from their cages every time we opened the refrigerator, as the smart little buggers knew that’s where the lettuce was.
As we laid our heads down for the night, we, like school girls, shared our excitement for the possibility of tanning weather, and beaches to come. Though it is technically winter in South America, the coast can be forgiving and give you a bit of sun here, and there. We haven’t seen the Pacific Ocean since Cartagena, Colombia. That’s a painful admission. Though I love being able to say that I traveled through the Andes, returning to sunshine is all that’s on my mind at this point. Give.me.a.tan.
After our early rise, we missioned to a place with so many lagoons, they stopped naming them, imagine that. Cajas National Park, is a camping haven where all your outdoor activity dreams can come true. You could literally hike there for weeks. The place is so big, and so endlessly green, if you spun me around there with my eyes closed, I’d be lost forever. Though our time there was brief, it was memorable, as it marked a major shift. As we exited the park we gazed upon our last views of the Andes Mountain range in Ecuador, and it was the best imaginable send off. It was one of those times where you stop to think about just how fortunate you are to travel, and to see such sights with your own eyes. It can make you nostalgic about how far you’ve come, and hopeful about how much further you’ll go. Seeing something for the last time, can turn you into a philosopher in seconds; pretty powerful stuff. I learned that morning however, that there was something much more powerful...the sun.
As we left the Andes, we were immediately met with warmer...much warmer...weather. Ah, there is nothing like the sun shining on your face, and warming your body to make you forget all the thoughts you had in your mind. All the inspirational quotes swirling around in my head just moments ago, disintegrated to nothing as the rays of absolute warmth reminded me that sunshine is life. I had been wearing my coat for weeks, and taking it off, was literally like lifting a weight off my shoulder. Sure maybe I’m a bit dramatic, but freezing my butt off will always be dead last on my list of things to do.
Our next stop reminded me of something else quite powerful, mosquitos. Those little buggers sure do love me. If someone gets 10 mosquito bites, I, in the same setting...will get 30. It’s a sharp price to pay for warm weather, and tanned skin. It almost made me go loopy in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica, as persistent rains and our jungle backdrop, drove me to the brink. You can very quickly forget about all the itching, and scratching in cold weather, oh but they will remind you when the coat comes off; that they will. The literal and figurative irritation is, and always will be something that makes me think twice about forever trading in my coat for a bikini. That’s saying a lot, trust me. As we headed west, we made a stop at a cacao farm, and got a lesson on how chocolate is made. Let me tell you, learning about where processed foods actually come from can make you feel instantly ignorant. Chocolate comes from a fruit, that grows on a tree. Did you know that?! If you did, here’s a gold star for you. I’ve often seen coffee plantation, chocolate farm tours and things of that sort on offer while traveling, but always thought of these things much like a museum, something for the older crowds that aren’t partial to beaches, hiking, and rigorous activity. I actually really enjoyed the experience though. It’s just one more way that Wanderbus helped us discover things we likely would have never done on our own.
Our next destination is where the shorts, tank tops and bikini finally make it out of the backpack!! And I’ll tell you all about it real soon, I promise. It’s like a dramatic soap opera…. ‘to be continued’ right?!
As always, be wise...travel flexible.