Ecuador: Cuenca, Baños + Misahualli

Ecuador: Facts + Observations

  • Ecuador is a small country (the size of Colorado), but it packs a punch! There are four diverse regions: Amazon Rainforest, Andian Highlands, Pacific coast and the Galapagos Islands. We explored all four regions.
  • The Panama hat is actually from Ecuador. Say what? In 1904 President Roosevelt was wearing an Ecuadorian hat when he visited the Panama Canal, and the media gave it the wrong name. The hats are still made in Ecuador.
  • Ecuador’s four major exports are oil, shrimp, bananas and roses. Yes, roses! Due to the equator, there’s natural light all year round which roses need to thrive, so they grow nice and tall. We were told that an Ecuadorian suitor should never buy his gal roses because they are such a “common” flower.
  • The traffic in Ecuador is relatively sane. The country as a whole wins the civilized traffic award based on driver courtesy and low horn usage. Note: the bus drivers still drive like maniacs.
  • Rafael Correa has been the president for the past 10 years. An economist by trade, he has reduced Ecuador’s debt significantly and invested heavily in education and infrastructure.
  • Buses work differently in Ecuador, making our bus rides even more challenging and annoying than normal. 1) Even though you buy a “direct” bus ticket, in reality there’s no such thing. Every bus will literally stop a million times along the way to pick up and drop off people. 2) The driver has a security wall behind him, which means that passengers cannot see out the front of the bus. This means I get car sick unless I take a Dramamine. 3) Vendors regularly get on and off the buses and walk down the aisles to sell their goods, like fried chicken, natural supplements, candy, sun glasses, and hot dogs.
  • We heard more stories about travelers getting pick-pocketed or scammed in Ecuador than in all other countries combined. Luckily nothing happened to us.
  • Ecuadorians love their ice cream! They eat it on foot, bikes, motorcycles and horses. You can buy ice cream from vendors in parks, on street corners and at traffic lights. Ice cream is to Ecuadorians as soup is to Peruvians.

Cuenca: Our First Stop 

Located in the Andes in southern Ecuador, Cuenca is a picturesque city with four rivers running through it. A major expat community, Cuenca offers a nice blend of local and international, old and new. Known to be Ecuador’s center of art and culture, Cuenca has a charming historical district, cobblestone streets, old colonial homes and over 50 churches. I was quite pleased to discover that Cuencans are in love with drinking hot chocolate made from Ecuador’s fine cocoa and milk.

Through Airbnb, we signed up to spend five days with Diana and her mother Ines in their old family home. What started as a rental quickly turned into a genuine friendship and we extended our stay to 10 days.

It was appealing for us to live with a family so we could experience Ecuador on a more intimate level. Additionally, we wanted to practice our Spanish, and what better way to do so than by living with a Spanish-speaking family? At times our Spanish felt fluid and graceful, while at other times (perhaps most of the time) it felt clunky and chunky. But laughter goes a long way and really, we did just fine.

On our first night in town, Diana, who is an artist, art teacher and hot chocolate addict, and her friend John drove us around and showed us all the local hot spots, including a giant swing (keep reading to find out more). This was a fun outing that included a visit to their favorite ice cream shop. We ended up spending a lot of time together that week. One memorable night we drank cheap whiskey and went out salsa dancing. We ate several meals together and we shared a lot about our lives in Ecuador and the US.

John is a big futbol (soccer) player and one night he invited us to join him for one of his games. Half the players on both teams were adults and the other half were kids, including Diana’s niece and nephew. The boys were not only young and fast, they also had great ball skills so we basically got schooled for an hour. It was a ton of fun and yes, we were very sore the next few days.

One Sunday Ines invited us to join her family at her “campo” (country home) about 30 minutes outside the city. There were 15 of us and we spent the leisurely day walking around the wooded property, eating heaps of food, drinking mugs of hot chocolate, practicing our Spanish and relaxing by the campfire.


You think you know someone… and then he climbs onto a big metal swing with nothing but a seat belt to hold him in place and swings like a giddy fool high above the city of Cuenca.

IMG_1868IMG_1870IMG_1874Harry was pretty pleased with himself!

These Guys

My Portland friend Beth e-introduced us to her friends living in Cuenca. Bill, a retired American teacher, and Rodolfo, an Ecuadorian tour guide, invited us over for a homemade dinner one night with their American teacher friends Karen and Dorothy. They gave us the insider scoop about Ecuador. We had so much fun and laughed like crazy at Rodolfo’s stories. On another afternoon we met to discuss our travel plans while indulging in the most fabulous mugs of hot chocolate ever made. These guys made our stay in Cuenca even more special than it already was.


Cajas National Park

Cajas National Park, only 45 minutes outside of Cuenca, is located in the highlands of Ecuador at 14,000 feet. The jagged landscape is covered with tundra vegetation. There are over 270 lakes and lagoons in the park. We spent one day hiking around the gem that is Cajas.


Baños: Adventure Capital of Ecuador

From Cuenca, we took one bus seven hours north and another bus one hour east to get to Baños. This cute town is surrounded by huge mountains on all sides. Many people come here to spend time and money zip-lining across the gorge, repelling down waterfalls and bungee jumping off bridges. We prefer our adventures to be a little more low-key, like riding bicycles on the highway next to trucks.

One day we rented some bikes and zipped down along the “route of the waterfalls”, a ride that took us on a busy road next to horses and big trucks. What a fun way to spend the day! Well, riding through a dark and scary tunnel wasn’t that fun, it was more like a total adrenaline rush. The 15 mile journey culminated at a majestic waterfall accessible only by hiking down into the gorge.


Misahualli: A Taste Of The Jungle

Taking Bill and Rodolfo’s advice, we made our way to Misahualli to experience the Ecuadorian jungle. It must be noted that the five hour bus ride through the mountains was just. plain. horrible. You get the picture.


Instead of embarking on a multi-day jungle tour, we opted to spend a few days in Misahualli where we got a taste of the jungle. We swam in the river and successfully avoided being eaten by a mysterious water creature (which surely exists). We hiked in the humidity up and down a muddy path to a waterfall that didn’t quite live up to its reputation, but we saw some magical butterflies along the way. We marveled at the beautiful jungle foliage and relaxed in the evenings listening to the sound of frogs and other creatures chirping and humming in the darkness.


As tempting as it was, we both decided not to eat grilled grubs on-a-stick, a jungle delicacy. However, we did like the way you could choose which wiggling grub you wanted to eat before it got speared and cooked.


Misahualli is known for the monkeys that hang out in the small village square and I was determined not to leave until I could take a selfie with a cute little guy on my shoulder. Ha! Little did I know that instead, I would be bullied and harassed.

Harry went into a store to buy our bus tickets while I stood guard over our backpacks, happily watching the monkeys up in the trees, silently begging them to come and play with me. All of a sudden one of them ran over, pushed me (aka: scared me) out of the way and jumped onto my backpack. Within seconds he had unzipped the top part of my pack. I was yelling at him to stop, but he just hissed at me (did you know that monkeys could hiss?), grabbed my notebook and threw it on the ground. As I worried about my safety and well-being, he reached in further, grabbed my book and ran away. What a little shit!

Harry returned three minutes later, disappointed that he missed the spectacle.


Up Next: Quito and the Ecuadorian Coast

Adios Peru, Hola Ecuador!

I was afraid to leave Huaraz. My guts were in an awful state and spending eight hours on the bus to Lima sounded so horrible that I cried. I was so disappointed because I assumed that after five days of being sick I would feel better, but that wasn’t the case… I was actually feeling worse. Wanting to be brave, although I wasn’t really thinking straight, I agreed to get on the bus.

Luckily I made it to Lima without incident but I was super dehydrated and not exactly feeling like a million dollars. The next day Harry brought me to the hospital and I was hooked up to an IV. Thankfully my blood work came back negative. The doc believed that whatever I had was probably my Arequipa-born Evil Gut Monsters throwing a party. I was given a prescription and sent home with orders to drink a lot of water and eat soup when I was hungry. Of course my Peruvian doctor wanted me to eat SOUP! When don’t Peruvians eat soup?

He also told Harry to give me a massage twice a day, buy me lots of flowers and carry my backpack for an entire week. Well, maybe he didn’t exactly say all of that, I might have misunderstood some of his Spanish.

All in all, my trip to the hospital and pharmacy cost $260. Here’s a picture so you can see how cute and pathetic I was. My doc was pretty cute too, but Harry didn’t take a picture of him.


Lima: Round II

Since we’d already spent a week in Lima in early July, we really didn’t do much this time around since our goal was simply for me to get better. Of course we visited Kennedy “cat” Park again, and oh yeah, one afternoon I went to a dentist. I was very medically high-maintenance during this visit to Lima. I thought I’d cracked a filling a few months ago and wanted to get it looked at once and for all. Apparently my sensitive tooth was simply a product of my imagination, which is way better than needing a root canal. The dentist examined me and took a whole bunch of x-rays, and the entire visit cost $70.


Family Friend

One of Harry’s childhood neighbors lives in Lima with his Peruvian wife and their two adorable daughters. We had lunch with Brian one day at Maido, an award-winning Sushi restaurant. The guys ate some incredibly creative sushi while I sipped my tea. Later that day Harry and I visited Brian and his girls at their home. It was really fun to connect with him and to hear about his life in Lima.

Heading North to Ecuador. Slowly.  

We assumed that we would just fly from Lima into Ecuador, but once we learned that each ticket would cost $500, we quickly went to plan B. We had already taken a bus from Lima to Trujillo on the north coast of Peru, and we didn’t want to retrace our steps. Instead we spent a third of the price and bought plane tickets to Piura in northern Peru and then a cheap bus ticket to Mancora. Our flight was only 90 minutes and it felt so decadent, almost like eating an enormous piece of chocolate cake for no special reason. After the flight we could barely climb on board the hot bus to take us north to the beach. Three long hours later we found ourselves on the Pacific Ocean in the little surfer town called Mancora.

Mancora Needs a Makeover 

People who like to surf and party love this beach town, but to us it felt like it had seen better days. The Pan-American Highway serves as Mancora’s main street with buses, tuk-tuks and motorcycles zipping along all day. The landscape was hot and dry and the beach wasn’t that clean. Maybe it was because we were just ready to get to Ecuador, but we didn’t find any magic in Mancora. Luckily our hostel was an oasis of sorts with hammocks and a pretty garden.

On another note, three blog-worthy things happened in Mancora. Firstly, Harry was offered cocaine on the beach. He said no. Secondly, I treated myself to a haircut. My hair was washed in a bowl of cold water, it was combed out and the beautician made five snips in a straight line across the back with her scissors. The whole process lasted six minutes and cost me $4. Thirdly, I had an absolutely delicious vegetarian “menu of the day”; you can read about it here.


Crossing the Border into Ecuador 

After our two night pit stop in Mancora we were ready to head north…. all the way north into Ecuador. We had been in Peru for almost three months and it was time to experience a new country.

We had some trouble buying our bus tickets to get out of town, or at least we thought we had some trouble. Really, we were just suspicious and paranoid that the tickets we bought were bogus. After we interrogated our ticket sellers several times Harry convinced me that everything would be OK. It turns out that I am way more skeptical than Harry is, and he’s way more trusting than I am. We actually balance each other out. We loaded our packs onto the roof of a mini van, hoping we weren’t being scammed. Ninety minutes later we reached an actual bus station. After we moved our stuff onto a “real” bus, we both breathed a big sigh of relief and hunkered down for the six hour ride across the border into Ecuador. We were on our way to Guayaquil for a quick stop before transferring to the lovely town of Cuenca.

IMG_1784Hola, Ecuador!