It’s not fair, Ecuador. But after the idyllic lifetime highlight that was the Galapagos and what is turning into an insanely great two weeks in Colombia, the-rest-of-Ecuador feels like a house cleaning post. Oh, we still climbed a volcano, bathed in thermal springs, and ate some yummy food…. I think we’re pretty spoiled.
The town of Cuenca is a clean, charming little place without much to do other than marvel at all the elderly white people — this place is chock full of retired American expats. With so many signs and conversations in English, we felt like we were in an old Spanish town in the US sometimes. Still, a nice change from Quito. As Jordan said, “At least I don’t feel like I’m about to be stabbed every time I step out the door.”
The alliterative highlights of Cuenca: cookies and Cajas.
One day we wandered into a side entrance of the Todos Santos church and found a treasure: a bakery filled with goodies homemade by nuns! Incredible chocolate truffles, alfajores (caramel cookies), and cakes. Sisters, shame on you for baking such sinful sweets.
We worked off some of those calories with a morning hike at Cajas National Park outside of town. One of the TripAdvisor reviews calls it “Wales on steroids.” Never having been to Wales, I can’t comment on that, but it does feel like the sort of damp, windy place where you might run across people named Catherine or Heathcliff. Criss-crossed by rivers, lakes, and waterfalls, it is undoubtedly beautiful.
There’s a good reason why some locals know the stretch of the Pan-American highway between Quito and Cuenca as Volcano Alley. This long, fertile Andean valley is surrounded by nine volcanoes. Nine! Two of them, Cotopaxi and Sangay, just so happen to be among the world’s most active volcanoes. So of course we decided we needed to get as close as possible to the summit of Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s highest active volcano. We didn’t do the two-day climb to the top, but we did trudge up through a sudden snowstorm to the refuge perched nearly 16,000 feet in the sky, the highest elevation we’ve ever been to. Cotopaxi, with its textbook cone shape, last blew its top in 1904, and our guide said it’s due any day for its next eruption.
Purple drank, vol. 2
Our next stop was Otavalo for its famous Saturday market. Our love of markets is well documented on this blog, but Otavalo left us underwhelmed. Maybe we’re getting weary, but more likely it’s that the local Otavalo market is no longer local. Those llama ponchos and cheap tchochkes aren’t for Ecuadorians. We did really enjoy Otavalo’s beautiful main square, which was even better all decorated for Christmas, and eating at the local pop-up food stalls at night. That’s where we discovered colada morada, a delicious local holiday drink made with purple corn, juice and spices, served hot with chunks of fruit inside.
Christmas in the cloud forest
The undisputed highlight of our time on mainland Ecuador came right at the end, at Christmas. We splurged on a few nights at El Refugio Cloud Forest Lodge, a remote lodge in Ecuador’s Intag cloud forest reserve, nestled among beautiful hills and abutting a gurgling river. Beautifully decorated with local furniture and handicrafts, the lodge is owned by Peter, a kindly, avuncular retired American schoolteacher. He’s joined on the property by a lovely Ecuadorian couple, Oswaldo and Lupe, who act as caretaker and cook, respectively. An enthusiastic bird watcher, Peter was there during our stay and kindly offered to share his hobby with us, an invitation I bet he later rued. We are terrible bird watchers. We have trouble seeing the birds, even with Peter saying, “Right there!”, we make too much noise or get too close and scare them off. We did take a trip to an adjacent property to watch the Cock of the Rock birds, showy red animals with a protuberant head that scuffle every day for bragging and mating rights.
When not offending ornithologists everywhere, we did a whole lot of relaxing. We splashed in beautiful thermal springs fed on volcanically heated water with local families, read on the porch, took walks along the river, ate lots of Lupe’s delicious food, and drank cup after cup of coffee grown and roasted on the farm. It was a quiet, relaxing, and beautiful place to spend Christmas.