I returned to Quito on Saturday for one night before heading down south to two remote yet historically significant cities: Cuenca and Loja. I had a couple of things to do in the city so I spent what was left of Saturday and Sunday running errands.
I caught up with Gloria and two of her granddaughters, Dani and Mariamelia (also now known as my two ñañas, or sisters in Kichwa). I also ran into my Danish friends, Christy and Dagny, randomly at the Magic Bean coffee shop. I developed a terrible headache late in the day and was in bed early that night. I assume the altitude got to me after being away from it for so long.
Sunday I got up early to take some pics of Quito before I left. I guess my prior three weeks in Quito wasn’t enough to take them. So, I set off on foot to grab a few to remember the neighborhood. There was a mini marathon going on and I went to watch since it passed me by only two blocks away. I stayed long enough to see my new friends from the US that I met in the Amazon run by. Gina and Michelle looked like they were running hard enough for all three of us. I snapped a photo for them and went back to my errands. By 2PM, I was on my plane ready for the 30 minute flight to Cuenca.
Sunday I took it easy and waited to meet up with a friend of mine from Guayaquil, Pato. On Monday, we got up and headed into “el centro”. Cuenca just celebrated its 450 year anniversary. It’s known as the cultural capital of the country. We walked around the paved and cobblestone streets admiring the churches and old buildings. Inside the churches we saw old wooden altars, statues and, at times, solid gold altars and other beautifully manifested statues. The late Pope John Paul must have been very popular here. There were homages all over the city to him. We caught a couple of mid-day services as people filled the churches. And, by “caught”, I mean we peeked in and then left. While I no longer claim my Catholicism, I was still in awe of the beautiful architecture and solemnity of the churches.
The other highlight was going to the local cultural museum founded by the country’s largest bank. This was a first-class museum. There were exhibits focusing on the archeology of the country, the different ethnic groups around the country and it had a numismatist gallery – not surprising to see the history of Ecuadorean money in a museum sponsored by a bank.
On Wednesday morning, I went off to the bus terminal to catch my bus to Loja, a city to the south not well known to foreigners since it is remote and difficult to get to. The biggest problem in getting there was that a group protesting something staged a protest by blocking part of the road we needed to use to get Loja. In this mountainous country, there aren’t a l lot of other options. So, took an alternative route. But, these protesters were smart and we came upon a road block filled with burning tree limbs. Luckily, a path had been cleared off to the side where the bus could pass. Six and a half hours later we arrived in Loja. My hotel was close to the terminal. The ride was long and tiring though and I went to bed early.
The countryside was beautiful. We passed through several microclimates. And, as is common here in Ecuador, the clouds often hung just above us hugging the fertile green pastures where the locals farmed the land. Traveling through the mountains meant a somewhat bumpy ride so reading or writing was impossible. And, many of the roads switched back as we ascended and descended on the road.
I awoke in the morning and after a quick breakfast, took a cab down to “el centro” to walk around. I wasn’t sure what to expect and came at the recommendation of my friend Roberto. The clouds hung over the city which lay in a small valley amongst the lush green mountains that encircled it. The city is old like Cuenca and the architecture reflects the strong Spanish influence dating back to the 1600s. The most remarkable thing was that I didn’t see a single other foreigner all day. The people took little notice of me as I strolled the streets taking pictures of the architecture and the churches.
I got a map and decided to walk back to the hotel. Of course, only I could get lost in a town the size of Loja. I found myself heading out of town. I was walking along the river and according to my map, that should’ve guided me back to my hotel. And, it would have if I had taken a left at the river, not a right. I finally asked for help from a local. He was very nice and asked why I was in Loja. When I told him I was here just to see the town, he became a little suspicious and asked if I was here to visit or evangelize. I guess the Lojanos were sick of Jerry Falwell too. I assured him that I was here just to visit and he relaxed immediately.
On Friday, I boarded my bus to head back to Cuenca. I have a flight on Saturday morning to Guayaquil where I will catch my flight to the Galapagos. The roads were all open by this point although on the way back we saw the remnants of several road blocks – some constructed of rocks (and nicely placed I might add), others of limbs and branches. The highlight of the trip was sitting next to two older Kichwa ladies. I’m not one to talk much on planes (or buses for that matter) and they both started conversations with me. They were both so sweet with faces that melt ice. Neither were well-traveled, but spoke with a quiet confidence that was profound and lacked egoism and ignorance. The one woman I could barely understand with her Kichwa accent. but, I didn’t care. I just smiled and nodded a lot and we got along fine.
I took a cab to my hostel, got checked in, ran a few errands, had some Cuban food and then went back to the hostel to get some sleep.
Cuenca and Loja showed me yet another side of Ecuador. And, while getting down south was a little bit of a chore, it was worth the trip. Loja in particular was an umwhynot moment. Not many people get down there, but I’m glad I made the trek. And certainly the ride down was worth it. If I had had another day, I would’ve gone down to Vilcambamba, a town known for having a high rate of people living to be over 100. Now I’m off to the Galapagos for seven days of sailing around this famous and biologically significant place.
Originally Published June 8, 2007