Friday, 3 October 2014

Magnificient Ecuador, Cuenca & Banos

We left Cuba on the 2nd of September 2013, and flew to Guayaquil with a stopover in Bogota. Upon arrival, we took an overnight bus to Cuenca which according to our research was a good place to learn Spanish. The closer we got to our destination, the colder it became. We, of course, thought that Ecuador would be a warm country because of its location, but we were absolutely wrong. Due to high altitude some towns along the Andes Mountains can be bitterly cold. 

We arrived in Cuenca around 4am in the morning and were welcomed with temperatures of 4 or 5 degrees Celsius. Both of us felt very disappointed coming from the sunny and warm Caribbean.

Cuenca is a quiet and peaceful town with impressive architectures. We saw many cafes and bakeries full of retired people. In fact, it was voted as "the perfect place to retire" by many magazines. BBC even called it “paradise for immigrant pensioners” in one of its articles. In fact, many older North Americans are migrating to Ecuador mainly due to financial reasons. Ecuador was amongst the cheapest countries we visited in South America. Now you know where to retire.

One of the best things in Cuenca was the markets where we tried some interesting local dishes. These markets are perfect for cheap authentic lunches, fresh fruits and vegetables.  

2 nights in Cuenca were definitely enough. Although it is a beautiful and peaceful town, it was just too cold and quiet for us.

Baños in the Andes Mountains

Our next stop was Baños de Agua Santa. It is a small city in the Andean highlands of central Ecuador. It is situated under the active Tungurahua Volcano and is blessed with steaming thermal baths and magnificent waterfalls. We checked into the Hostal Princesa Maria which was recommended by a fellow traveller. The hostel was very close to one of the local markets where we obtained fresh produce for healthy meals. It was a perfect place to relax and meet other adventurers. During our first day, we met a lovely couple from the Netherlands, Lisette and Marcel who were on their honeymoon. 

Baños is famous with its’ outdoor activities, such as mountain biking and hiking. We rented some bicycles together with Marcel and Lisette and had a great excursion in La Ruta de las Cascadas, which is a 17 km ride with a dozen of waterfalls along the way. The most impressive one was the Pailon del Diablo, which means “Caldron of the Devil”. 

Caldron of the Devil
Riding along the tranquil Andes Mountains was an amazing adventure. Some other activities in the Baños valley are zip lining, cable car, bungee jumping and rafting. 

The virgin nature of these mountains was absolutely breath taking and energizing. We did many uplifting hikes around this peaceful town. After 4 days of fun and shared friendship, Marcel and Lisette continued their journey towards the Galapagos Island. The sad thing about travelling is to say goodbye to the wonderful people you meet along the way. However, it is a perfect reminder of the constant change in life.   

In Baños, I signed up for a week intensive Spanish classes including a home stay. Ecuador is one of the cheapest countries to learn Spanish. The cost was $6 or $7 per hour for a private tutor. In addition, Ecuadorians speak slowly and articulate well which makes it easier for beginners. Home stay was also a perfect opportunity to practice what I have learned at school. For a week, we stayed with Adrianne, Carlos and their two children. It was a lovely experience and I was able to improve my broken Spanish.

Our host family
Another attraction in Baños is the thermal baths. There are 2 main baths in town and both get very busy with locals visiting from surrounding villages. It is a good idea to go there straight after the cleaning process as the water gets dirty quickly with many people. The water temperature is around 35 degrees Celsius and it is easy to spend a couple of hours in these outdoor pools.

10 days passed quickly in this little Andean paradise, and soon we were on the bus to our next adventure: volunteering in an animal refuge in Tarqui, located in a tiny village close to Puyo, a small town next to the Amazon Jungle. We decided to help out in Zoorefugio Tarqui to get an understanding of working with animals. It was actually Alex’s dream for a long time. 

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