Published on March 16th, 20168
Good Times With Good Friends!
As an expat loitering in far-off foreign lands for nearly 5 continuous years now, I’ve had many delightful visits from fellow wanderers in Vietnam, Thailand, and here in my newest “home” Cuenca, Ecuador. But recently I enjoyed a first – a visit from an old geochum from my beloved Seattle.
The lad’s a veteran pilot for American Airlines and thus is able to whiz freely ’round the globe, but I must say, I was happily stunned when he announced that he had some spare vacation time (before heading to Hawaii for a week of R ‘n R with his wife) and would I be open to a quick visit to Cuenca? Would I? Why of COURSE – I’d love to show him around my (likewise beloved) new home here at the top of an 8,000+ foot mountain in Ecuador.
As he had just a handful of days to make the trip, while he fiddled with routing himself from Seattle to Cuenca (no easy fiddle via SEA-JFK-GYE-CUE), I busied myself with planning a wowzer itinerary for his short stay. Plenty of interesting things to see and do right here in my little cobbled “El Centro” hood of course, but I’d long put off taking a peek at the nearby (~ 5 hrs. by bus) towns of Loja and Vilcabamba, so I thought that would make for a nice little shared adventure.
His air fiddle resulted in a bit of a snag: his flight into Guyaquil was set to arrive at (the ungodly hour of) 3:20 a.m. while the connecting flight up here to Cuenca didn’t depart til 8:50 (a 5+ hour layover!) He could bus or taxi to Cuenca in less than 4 hrs. of course – but winding through those hairpin (often foggy) mountain roads in the dark – suffice, a good bit dangerous and not recommended.
BUT then I did a little air fiddle of my own and discovered he could instead fly from Guayquil to Loja (i.e. where we planned to head anyway) – and that flight left at 5:40 am (a much shorter layover wait), and we could start our adventures in Loja/Vilcabamba. I could bus to Loja the day before, spend the night and easily meet his flight the next morning – shaving nearly a full day of bus travel time off our tight itinerary.
I also scored big time on a colonial hotel for him to stay while in Cuenca. A room the size of a tennis court (no exaggeration!) on the 2nd floor, with two balconies – on the corner overlooking those spectacular blue domes of the New Cathedral and the Cuenca Flower Market (voted *best* flower market in the entire world by no less than National Geographic). And this – for what turned out to be a mere $28 per night!
The weather for his short stay proved perfect, and we jammed quite the eclectic potpourri of fun things into but a few days. Hard to know where to begin, but suffice I’ve cobbled no less than 50+ images to help me tell the tale of an absolutely FANTASTIC visit with a good friend.
First a little back-story: Interestingly, there was a time when I thought sure I would HATE Cuenca, and instead would likely find that Loja (smaller, less gringos) better suited my expat tastes. I was living in Chiang Mai at the time (the expat “darling” of Asia) and wanted o.u.t. precisely due to waaay too many farangs (gringos/foreigners – suffice I don’t move to foreign lands only to hang out with folks “just like me”).
My research on Cuenca was all positive (for climate, size, health care, visa requirements, etc.) but Cuenca was also touted as a magnet for expats. Thus I was afraid it would likewise be the “darling” of South America – ugh! Indeed, as my plane touched down on the tarmac here, I was fully 85% sure I WOULDN’T LIKE CUENCA, and would move on to the smaller, far less touted by gringos town of Loja.
The rest is history. The moment I gazed at Cuenca’s cobbled streets, the red-tiled roofs, the wondrous colonial architecture and those astounding blue domes of the New Cathedral it was love-at-first sight. And I’ve been blissfully happy here ever since. Indeed, in the past 2 years I’ve never given a moment’s thought to even checking out Loja, so it was with great curiosity that I finally headed there to meet my Seattle chum’s flight.
Suffice that when I first arrived in Loja, I was honestly underwelmed. Visually not nearly as charming as Cuenca, and on first glance – rather plain. Nonetheless, upon my friend’s arrival the next morning, we set out to explore the town and I must say – while comparatively, Cuenca far more tickles my toes – Loja has some lovely corners of its own.
One of the highlights of our morning’s amble around Loja was sneaking up into the tower of the “Puerta de la Ciudad” (The City Gate). Built in 2000 and modeled after the castle on the city’s coat of arms, the structure seems a bit Disneylandish. And while the stairs to the tower were blocked by construction, I simply asked the workers if we could por favor tip-toe around the construction debris (an utterly reckless act that would never in a million years be allowed in my native land for fear of a dozen law suits should I happen to stub my toe). Their response? “Si” – which gave us some great aerial views of the entire city.
I’d made reservations at a lovely place in Vilcamabamba, so we next headed there by local bus. Most sources say the bus from Loja to Vilca is about an hour, but – with all the stops along the way, it took more like two. Nonetheless, we eventually arrived and Madre Tierra turned out to be truly enchanting and each of our rooms offered a hammock and patio with a breathtaking view. Unfortunately however, with but a handful of days for his visit, we only had but that afternoon, and the next morning to enjoy those views before heading on to Saraguro and Cuenca.
Settled into our sublime digs, our first priority was to… why grab the nearby GEOCACHE of course! A super fun “World-wide game of hide ‘n seek”, Peter (a.k.a. “Dayspring”) is well-known in Seattle for his ingenious hides. And one of my fondest finds in Seattle, was the day he invited me to hop in his private plane and fly 60 miles north to grab THIS incredible cache hidden by one of our fellow geocachers (spoiler: it uses a remote am radio transmitter to announce the final location of the cache).
Our Vilcabamba quarry was much simpler and more typical though – a small tupperware container tucked into a nook alongside the road just a short hike from our hotel. But even better – the owners of the cache lived nearby, and we had a fun visit yammering about our favorite hides, and getting a quick tour of their small micro brewery.
The next morning Peter was up at the crack of dawn to climb up to the tippy top of “Cerro Mandango” (that proved a bit of a challenge even for my mountain-climbing chum) , while his more dodderin’ partner in crime opted for a leisurely breakfast and a morning’s fiddle with her brand spankin’ new Sony M2 camera he’d kindly muled in from Seattle. And by noon it was time to head (via a series of zany, albeit speedy taxis) to…
Among my favorite havens nestled amid these Andean mountains, I’d been to Saraguro last year for the Pawkar Raymi Festival and I was anxious to share it with my Seattle chum. And especially, I wanted us to eat at the amazing ShamuiCo Espai Gastronómic restaurant that I’d discovered there. As I was also determined to find him a plate of the quintessentially traditional Ecuadorian dish “cuy” during his visit (yup, that would be your cute little furry pet “guinea pig” for those of you up there in my native land) – lo and behold! Shamuico had the critter on their menu!
I’d hoped to also drag him out to the countryside to meet the lad who makes those silly “cow spot” hats that are unique to the tiny village of Saraguro, but alas we were running late from Vilcabamba so we had to swiftly move on to Cuenca for the night. Nonetheless, we did get a most bewitching photo of him wearing one!
And finally – onward to Cuenca (though not without a small skirmish at the Saraguro bus station wherein the bus from Loja was already full and there was no sure way to confirm seats on the next bus so…) We instead did a super quick negotiate with a taxi collective, and within minutes were stuffed into a (recklessly, or so it always seems) speeding taxi to Cuenca for a mere 5 bucks each!
Once back in Cuenca, my geopal was game for most anything, and everything we touched seemed to turn to gold. Passing the new cathedral, we tip-toed inside and discovered that a tour of the crypt beneath the church, as well as a climb to the rooftop was scheduled in just 20 minutes. So we dashed over to San Francisco Plaza and chowed down on bowlfuls of my favorite ceviche, then headed back to the cathedral for the tour. Needless to say – the views from the top were spectacular!
9 Octubre Mercado
The next morning I took him to my favorite fresh food market where I shop for most all my fruits, veggies, meats and fish. I introduced him to my favorite veggie vendor, Mila and mentioned that Peter was a “piloto de avión”. He happened to have some pics on his phone of the 777 jets he flies, and needless to say, Mila and her market friends were very impressed!
In addition to the traditional Andean dish of “cuy”, I was likewise determined that we have platefuls of my bar-none favorite Ecuadorian dish: “hornado” (succulent pulled pork – right off the roasted pig! – along with puffy dollops of fried mashed potatoes and a side of marinated “ensalada”).
After polishing off our delish “hornado” (sloshed down with a shared cerveza), we strolled across the street to “Rotary Market” – a collection of vendors clustered together selling kitschy souvenirs, along with more practical local kitchen items, terracotta cooking pots, etc. The market is also one of the places where indigenous lasses randomly gather to conduct “shamanic cleansing rituals”.
I’d seen them pat folks with handfuls of herbs and flowers on earlier occasions but hadn’t yet experienced the ritual myself. So I was thrilled to take turns with Peter, as our chosen lass energetically slapped each of us with aromatic greenery, chanted unintelligibles whilst rubbing whole chicken eggs over our skin, smudged each of our foreheads with a sooty cross, and (the grand finale) spit a swig of alcohol in my face (apparently Peter was laughing too hard to capture a photo of my stunned reaction to that endearing event).
New Geo Hide!
And finally, on the last day before his evening flight back to Seattle, the absolute perfect frosting-on-the-cake: Peter had kindly brought me an array of geo-paraphenelia from Seattle – including a ready-made pvc “tube” to replicate his legendary “Totally Tubular!” Seattle hide here in Ecuador.
Seriously, what could be more fun than scouting out the perfect spot along the river (with sturdy fence and handily adjacent drinking fountain!) and placing a southern hemisphere version of my geochum’s signature geohide: “Inca Tubo”? And afterwards, we celebrated our geo-mischief with cappuccinos along the beautiful Rio Tomabamba!
What more can I say? Thanks so much Peter – for a chance to share my new home here in Ecuador, and create so many great memories!