Cuenca, Guayaquil, and a Little Bit of Montañita

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There’s a feeling that I can’t seem to shake whenever there’s an unknown just over the horizon line.  My mind yearns see and to know what furtive features lay claim to the earth just beyond eyesight around the next headland.  I can’t live another moment until I know life in the small colonial village on the tucked way up in the mountainside. I need to be tired and thirsty in the next rough and tumble desert village or else my life would be incomplete.  It was probably for one or a combination of those kinds of sentiments that we left our little room in Puerto Lopez and headed a little further up the coast for Montañita. It felt like it was time to move along to see what was next.

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When we arrived at Montañita we quickly noticed that it was packed to the gills with the kind of company we unfortunately weren’t looking for.  It happened to be Halloween weekend and we foolishly weren’t anticipating the scene that was slowly unfolding.  Our routine first walk through the village after getting let off the bus revealed a casually cultivated surf town scene gearing up for the big weekend ahead.  There were large beach style bars and clubs blasting music in the middle of the hot afternoon, each one practically devoid of patrons and all were advertising Halloween parties & drink specials.  The calles were teeming with beach shorts and hand made jewelry being hawked from street blankets.  Montañita was a popular weekend getaway destination for urban Ecuadorians needing some of those weekend beach scene vibes, and that was definitely in full play while we shuffled our backpacks around trying to figure out where we were crashing for the night.

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The hostel market was to be expected given the volume of people in town.  Prices were inflated and supply was low. After getting turned away from a few joints without vacancies, we found a bar hostel that had a few levels of rooms above the ground level restaurant.  The faces of most other patrons were young and energetic, which were telltale signs of the perfection combination to neutralize any expectations of getting a solid nights sleep.  We quickly set off to explore sans heavy luggage to try to get to know the area better and melt away our first impression.  The beach was naturally the first place we chose to scope out, walking among the weekenders & wanderers on the flat sandy shelf that reached out across a huge inlet between two tall rocky headlands in the distance.  Hippies selling fortune readings, weathered locals selling ice cream, and purveyors pushing horseback riding along the beach were slowly making their way between colorful sun umbrellas, some surf boards, and beach blankets.  The ambiance was very calming listening to the gentle waves continually lapping on the long low tide beach that stretched out into the shallow waters in the distance.

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The rocky headlands on either side of the village were stunning. We took a long walk after a short horizontal stint on the sand to investigate the large yellowy-orange pillars that sheltered the bay.  What we found was a naturally carved landscape complete with colorful tidal pools & giant cartoon-like rock tuffets set on a backdrop of smooth sandstone walls.  Thousands of years of waves and wind peeled back these cliffs creating chasms of all sizes and pitting the tidal bedrock. We marveled at the small worlds that existed inside of the shallow bowls of water left behind with the receding tide, all teeming with life and flaunting their exotic hues.  It was in these areas that a few young men were collecting shellfish of all shapes & sizes to sell.  They were on their hands and knees, reaching into little pockets of water the picking out the natural bounty the ocean fostered.

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After a night in town we grabbed an early bus back to Guayaquil.  We were going to meet back up with Erik with our eyes set on getting down to Cuenca.  Erik put a sweet ass roof over our head once again, and later treated us to one of his favorite dinner spots downtown.  He spoiled us with a few buckets of hard shell crabs, a meal complete with wooden hammers and splash bibs. We feasted and talked about the upcoming weekend we were going to spend taking in Cuenca.  When Erik first visited Cuenca he had a chance encounter upon a vendor who led him to a secret storage room full of Ecuadorian treasures.  He settled on a pair of llama wool chaps for the time being, but something else caught his eye that he passed up on that trip.  One thing on his short list for this trip was to find the same woman in the market who brought him to the backdoor marketplace to buy this item.

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The bus station in Guayaquil from memory was overwhelming to say the least.  It’s was a massive, mini mall sized building that seemed to have hundreds of transportation companies going in various directions at various times on various levels.  The steps involved finding the right company’s booth (typically grouped together by destinations they travel to for the most part), buying the tickets, then go find the terminal and hang out close by until they announce the bus is departing.  That morning we took yet another old bus across the South American landscape near the equator, which didn’t seem to be getting old.  I remember feeling like it was a beautiful time to be alive, rolling through the hills of a new country towards a new city.

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When we arrived we shacked up at the only place we could find with a vacant room.  Cuenca was celebrating it’s independence day that weekend and was absolutely stuffed to the gills with people ready to partake in the festivities.  After dropping off our gear we wandered into town to explore and get in tune with Cuenca.  It was easy to see just how beautiful this old town was the minute our shoes hit the cobblestone streets.  Cuenca is believed to be the most European city in Ecuador due to it’s abundance of 16th & 17th century architecture.  Spanish Colonial relics were everywhere your eyes could walk, dominating the landscape in the most beautiful way.  Elaborately decorated archways, stone pillars, and stoic facades warmly welcomed our worn out rubber soles without any effort whatsoever.  I can close my eyes now and picture the oversized churches & buildings in the plazas, the red clay tiles spilling over each hipped-roof onto the next, and the abundance of white washed buildings accented with period details & iron work.  There was a buzz in the air and tons of people on the beat, all making their way through life in this pretty old city.

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Erik brought us to the outdoor market he was seeking which was very similar to most any market we’d encountered Latin America.  Makeshift stalls comprised of corrugated steel roofs selling anything from leather goods to cook wear, lots of small booths selling food and drinks, plots squared off by blankets selling produce, and tables covered with locally made clothes & textiles.  I spotted woman selling fresh coconuts and ordered one up without any self control.  Post coconut Erik found the very same vendor he had purchased the llama chaps from on his previous trip.  After asking her a few questions she pulled out her cell phone & set up a meeting with someone else.  She led us to the edge of the market in front of a building, where a man opened up the door and let us all in.

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We stepped into a dimly lit entryway and followed them up the dark stairs onto the 2nd floor.  After a few twists & turns through empty hallways the man opened the door to a large room and hit the lights.  After a brief moment the contents of the room came into focus and my brain started processing the walls full of brightly colored handmade treasures.  Everything sold in the market outside seemed to be living in this room: odds & ends of all shapes & sizes, hats, toys, painted instruments, shoes, & clothing all adorned the shelves of every wall.  I recall that it didn’t take long for us to uncover some more llama chaps, which all of the sudden seemed like an item I might need for our trip.  Eventually an item was found hanging from a corner & it was brought to Erik and placed into his hands.  I couldn’t see what he was holding at first as his back was facing me, but when he slowly started turning around the light hit the long shaft of what I would come to learn is a Pizzle.  As it turns out, this whip is made from the sinew of the male counterparts of a bull, dried and swizzled into a long, firm shaft.  It seemed to be a traditional tool of sorts and carried a hefty price tag.  After some thought, he decided to purchase the whip he had sought to add to his travel collection and we headed back out into the market.

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While we passing through one of the plazas, a man shining shoes stopped us to ask if he could polish our shoes.   Upon closer inspection, he noticed that my tan sneakers & Elissa’s boots were exactly contenders for shoe shine therapy. In Erik’s black synthetic leather Nikes, however, there was potential. I laughed at the notion, but Erik actually took him up on his offer and he started immediately polishing Erik’s sneakers with tremendous vigor.  He used a healthy amount of black shoe polish to get those low tops gleaming at maximum shine.  Erik’s shoes never looked more fly, never turned more heads, & were never more ready to carry him with 100% confidence down those old Spanish Colonial streets. Armed with his shiny shoes & his new Pizzle, Erik was arguably unstoppable and this point.

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The city was having a world cultural fair that day and a big part of the event was held along the banks of the small river that cut through the city.  Vendors sold items sourced & made from all different parts of the world and each tent was worth a solid once over at the very least.  While browsing some leather bags a stranger wandered up to Erik, noticing the whip sticking out of his backpack.  He asked in Spanish if it was real, and Erik proudly replied “Si, es real”.  He proceeded to inquire on where he could find such an item, to which Erik’s reply was “Solo uno amigo. Solo uno.”  That interaction itself was almost too much to handle, like a scene out of a Latin Seinfield episode.  After browsing the crafts we decided it would be best to hang down by the river for a bit and take in the scene while the day sauntered by.  Later that evening we went out for a few drinks at some odd club of sorts called La Parola. There was live music going on that evening at a volume that commanded your entire attention, making little room for casual conversation.  After a few cervezas we decided to call it a night. Calle Larga was bustling with folks waiting in lines, milling about, and soaking in the sweet cool evening air.

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The next day we had to vacate the hostel & transfer to another one in the center of the city.  It was Sunday morning, and everyone was leaving town after the weekends festivities except for Elissa & myself.  Erik had to get back to Guayaquil, & get back to his site project.  We parted ways and bid our adieus yet again in life.  After he took off, we went right back to exploring Cuenca to see what else we could figure out about this city.  Eventually we stumbled into a huge indoor food mercado.  The building was enormous and shaped like a gigantic hollowed out church meets airplane hanger, with ample space for hundreds of food stalls & produce vendors to spread out and sell their goods on any one of the 3 different levels.  Each floor was an eclectic mix of food stations, smoothie stalls, produce tables, hot sauce shops, soup counters, and hot food plates with lots of communal tables & chairs to dine on.  We eventually settled on barbecued pig roast, complete with an entire pig on a table and served by hand with rice & veggies.  After some indulging and photo hunting, we left the building and continued floating through plazas, side streets, and cobblestone paths until our legs were giving up on us.  We went back to our hostel, cooked a meal in our greenhouse glass kitchen overlooking the city and called it a night.

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Cuenca was full of charm, full of beautiful architecture, and now some fond memories.  It’s easy to see how one could fall in love with this postcard city in the mountainside, and it’s charming people didn’t help to dissuade the mirage any.  If you’re ever in Ecuador, give Cuenca a shot and I’m sure you won’t be upset you did.

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