I moved further south on the Pan-American highway and stopped at Ecuador’s third largest city called Cuenca. It easily kept me busy for days.
My first full day there I took a 9am bus to the largest Inca ruins in Ecuador, Ingapirca. It was a two hour bus journey through the mountains and small villages north of Cuenca. Included in the entrance fee was an hour long English guided tour of the site. The guide my group had was evidently passionate about the place’s history and spoke with such animation and conviction that he made the place much more thrilling than it would have been otherwise. He explained that he lives with his family just up the hill and as a child he used to hide in the ruins and listen to the guides giving tours until he knew all the information himself. He then started giving unofficial tours to tourists which is how he learnt English and eventually he was employed officially. We thought he was great!
The ruins are mostly Inca but there are still remains from the pre-Inca time when the Canari indigenous people ruled the area. The Incas failed to defeat them and instead offered a friendship and the two peoples lived peacefully together. The Incas were eventually pushed back by the Spanish but the Canari people remained and the area around the ruins today is still proudly inhabited by direct descendants of the Canari. The most impressive structure remaining is the Temple of the Sun, which, like other temples in Inca towns, is built perfectly so that at the solstices the sun shines directly through the window into the centre of the temple.
The next day I decided to take a bus to Cajas National Park, 30km from Cuenca. It was unlike any landscape I’d seen in Ecuador, even in South America. It was a mixture of moorland and wetland with incredible lagoons and rocky mountains. I happened to see an Irish guy who had been on my tour in Ingapirca the day before and he came with me on my hike in the park. At first I was reluctant, I had planned to hike alone, but he had been teaching in Saudi Arabia for the past two years so we had plenty to talk about.
We knocked the hike over in three hours even though we’d gotten kind of lost. By kind of I mean we didn’t lose orientation, we knew in which direction the visitors centre was, but we suddenly found ourselves following blue markers rather than the pink ones we started out with. We soon decided to double back and we found our pink markers again and still made it back in the lower range of the recommended time. We then made our way back to the highway where we were told to flag down any bus heading to Cuenca. Well, we did that but two buses passed us by without even slowing down. After an hour a bus finally stopped and we got back to Cuenca in the afternoon.
The next day was the first day of Cuenca’s four day annual independence festival. It turned out to be one of the best days. Most of the main streets were closed off and filled with market stalls selling anything from gourmet food products to alpaca ponchos. I stuffed my face with copious amounts of street food until I felt ill, admired the high end souvenirs and listened to the live South American music playing at one of the various stages set up. I was on my feet wandering the streets until dark when I had to catch on overnight bus across the border to Peru.
The festival was such a fitting end to my time in Ecuador. I had unintentionally timed my stay in Cuenca right to experience a day of the festival and it turned out to be an awesome surprise. Similarly, people had told me Ecuador was “not as good as Peru” and “you could rush through it, there’s not much to see” but it surprised me a lot and I had a great time in the country. The people were extremely friendly, the traditional culture was still so evidently strong and it had amazing scenery from the jungle to the mountains.
*post adapted from my trip here in October 2015 and from my previous blog elishasbigtrip.wordpress.com