A beautiful, relaxing city
05.07.2014 - 02.08.2014 15 °C
In another attempt to find a warmer place Thomas and I flew from Santiago, Chile to the beautiful city of Cuenca, Ecuador. It had been months since we took Spanish courses in Buenos Aires so we decided to take a month worth of classes at a small school called Yanapuma. Our school offered an immersion program where you get to take classes for half the day and volunteer during the other half.
We rented a beautiful loft from a local woman and her mother right in the city center, around the corner from our school. Maria, the woman we stayed with, provided us with breakfast each morning of tropical fruits, homemade yogurt, granola and bread. My favorite fruit was the chirimoya – it tastes similar to a feijoa but sweeter and had more fruit. Our view while eating breakfast every morning was the beautiful garden on the terrace or the clay rooftops that peppered the streets. Maria’s mother required a lot of extra care so there was always extra people and visitors in the house – each day I think we saw someone knew. We shared the kitchen so we were able to spend quite a bit of time with the helpers who were all very kind.
Our school was pretty small, which meant that Thomas and I had basically private lessons the whole time. For a couple weeks Thomas actually got one on one classes for the group class rate. All of our teachers were really great and our Spanish improved quite a bit while being there. One of my favorite things about the school was each week they had a little exposition with the whole school to teach us about local fruits, sweets, grains, etc. They were always super interesting and the food was always great.
Thomas and I both volunteered at a library in the San Joaquin neighborhood, which is where a lot of vegetables farms are located. Taking the bus out there was a good time all in itself as there was always something interesting to look at - markets, farms, traditional garb, etc. The woman who ran the library, Indaura, iss one of the sweetest ladies and she works so hard doing everything on her own. While we were there she was hosting vacation workshops for about 75 children while they were on break from school and for those who either can’t afford school or need to stay at home to help on the farm. We helped her prepare some handicrafts and English lessons for the kids. During our last week we got to teach English classes in the afternoon. I taught the 5-8 year olds and Thomas taught the older ones (9-12). It was our first time teaching English to kids and I must say, it is extremely difficult, especially when you aren’t fluent in their language! But they are so cute and on the last day we got to play a bunch of games with them outside which was great fun.
One of the teachers in our school is on a traditional dance team that competes throughout South America. His dance company hosted a show at the University of Cuenca and Estaban got us tickets for the show. It was a fantastic night! The show was incredible and the dancing was like none other we had seen before. They were dancing to a live band that was also incredible. There were so many costume changes, so many colors, so many different pieces, and they all told part of a story – they were recounting the history of Ecuador. To top it all off, once the show was over (2.5 hours later!) everyone was invited outside to have a canolazo (a traditional hot alcoholic beverage with Zhumur, cinnamon and fruit brewed together) and watch one last dance. During this dance they had this crazy paper mache cow that was shooting out firecrackers as they danced around with it! It was a little out of control and a tad bit dangerous but it was all in good fun. Best $5 ever spent.
Immediately west of Cuenca is the Cajas National Park – its name is derived from a Quechua word that means cold. And the name doesn’t lie. We took an overly cramped bus out there and as soon as we arrived we wished we had brought more clothing. We sat in a little shelter for a few minutes to get warm and stir up enough courage to go back out there. Once we started walking though we were okay. We decided to hike ‘Ruta 1’, which was supposed to take about 4 hours. We were on the trail with about 8 other people but wanted to enjoy the beautiful hills and lakes in peace and quiet so we jumped ahead of them a little. We crossed this little bridge, rounded the side of a hill and then noticed that no one was behind us anymore… But we were still on the trail, or at least on A trail so we kept going. No one came and all of a sudden we were seeing blue trail markers instead of red ones. We don’t know where, but somewhere we went the wrong way. But we had gone so far so we pressed on. And on. And on. At one point we weren’t even on the trail and we only figured that out because we saw people about 100 m above us on the hill. The trail was not all that well marked just when you think you aren’t on a trail they present you with one. But then all of a sudden the trail actually looked like a proper trail and I felt so confident about it. At one point Thomas thought it was maybe too good to be true and he wanted to go back to double check – but this was the only time during our entire day I felt confident that we were on a trail and the right trail. So we kept going, for about an hour and a half, mostly downhill. Eventually we ran into a few people on horses and we asked how far until the park entrance. They looked at each other and at us with concern, and strongly advised us to turn around and go back where we came from or else the fog would overcome us and we would have to stay the night somewhere. So we had to hike back up this massive hill we have just descended and go all the way back. Eventually we found where we went wrong and found a park exit. We ended up hiking for 7.5 instead of 4. But it was the most beautiful park we had seen in a long time and the fog, although a little intimidating, was really neat to watch roll in and out of the hills. Getting lost ended up being a blessing as we came across this awe inspiring valley that was equally breathtaking and eerie.
One day, we took a two hour bus ride from Cuenca to see the Inca ruins of Ingapirca. The ruins themselves were nothing gigantic but the history behind them is unique compared to all others. This site originally belonged to a group called the Cañari and when the Incas swept through, they could not defeat them. They tried and tried but they could not defeat them. So instead they switched to compromising with them. The Cañari worshiped the moon and the Incas worshiped the sun and the architecture reflects this. They eventually lived in harmony together in this spot, worshiping both the sun and the moon and adapting and incorporating each other’s customs and rituals into their day-to-day. It’s because of this that the Ingapirca site is a special place. The temple of the sun, the most sacred place for the Incas, was a really cool circular building – blue/green washed square stones stacked right on top of another without anything holding them together. This is compared to the buildings of the Cañari that were always made of oval-shaped stones forming a large elliptic shaped building. Although a small site, it was cool to see a place where the Incas actually lived in harmony with another group. At least until the Spaniards came in and wiped them all out.
We loved being able to spend a large amount of time in Cuenca because it is a beautiful city, but so many other gringos think the same thing and Cuenca has this strange retired expat culture so you see a lot of older white people wherever you go. After a month though, we were both quite eager to move on, as the reality that our trip is coming closer to the end is becoming more and more prominent. After leaving Cuenca we had about 3 months of our trip left, but now it is closer to 2.5 months left in South America! It’s going to go way too fast. But we are both excited about the idea of getting to see our family and friends soon!
Miss you all!