Trying to sleep on a night bus with a backpack on your lap. Welcome to Ecuador. Two hours ago we passed through immigration and customs from Peru, and now I’m missing all that glorious Peruvian investment in the Pan-American Highway. The bus lurches to the right. Open my eyes from the slumber – nope, we haven’t crashed yet. We slow down and take a turn to the right and the bus starts violently shaking. Now on a dirt road through some type of plantation. And there’s a sign – only 200 kilometres to Cuenca. Then 10 minutes later we stop at a little shop in the middle of nowhere. What on earth is going on? The driver hops out of the bus and scurries off, and the other passengers are sleeping, or likely rather trying to sleep. It must be what, 4am by now? Oh how I am jealous of these people with an innate ability to sleep anytime, anywhere. The bus driver returns with an empanada in hand, the closest equivalent to a meat pie I’ve seen on my travels. Only 3 more hours to Cuenca. Please sleep, come take me away.
The bus gets in at 6.30am and I wake my Canadian travel buddy Ella. We stumble off the bus in a sleepy haze (in hindsight, I imagine it could have been a scene from dawn of the dead) and get our larger, less valuable backpacks. Every time you check in a bag with the bus companies here it is worth doing a few Hail Marys hoping that it won’t have disappeared by the time you go to collect it. Bags – check! It is a bitterly cold morning in this Andean town. But still, after the nearly sleepless night and the obvious poor clothing decisions I made in the tropical beach town of Máncora where we embarked on the bus, the sight of the majestic Andes surrounding the town makes me smile. Every, every time I arrive somewhere in the Andes (quite a few times now) it takes my breath away. We negotiate a taxi to the hostel (it feels very weird using USD here) and our beds aren’t ready, but they invite us to have a nap on the couch in the common room. Finally, sleep takes me away.
Five hours later we wake up feeling somewhat less hellish. Good improvement. Its midday and we are starving. We set off to walk through Cuenca’s famous old town. Its Sunday, and everything is eerily quiet. Not like Adelaide Sundays, this is another level entirely. Maybe it’s because I’m used to the hustle bustle and endless car horns of Lima. Someone slows their car down to let us cross the road. All this is most un-Peruvian. The cobblestone streets are almost like Prague, and yet the architecture has an almost Parisian feel about it. This city was hugely important to the Incas, and then the Spanish. Through Latin America you stumble on these almost unheard of, picturesque cities. The same place in Europe would be world famous, but who has heard of Cuenca? We ask a stranger on the almost deserted streets for directions to Calle Larga, a street where we have heard we can find some food. He points us up an enormous set of steps, almost like the Spanish Steps in Rome (yes, Europe has nothing on Cuenca). We struggle our way up, feeling the altitude and taking some silly happy snaps on the way.
At the top of the steps the guy (Carlos) who gave us directions catches up with us and asks where we are going and if we need any help. What did we want to do? Well truth be told we were ready to dive into the bakery across the street (so hungry it starts to hurt), but we said we didn’t really know and we wanted to explore the old town. He said he would show us to the centre and his favourite sites, and pretty quickly a friendship was born. We wandered the streets but the food question was still looming large, and pretty quickly Ella and I invited our new friend to eat with us. We made our way to a very basic restaurant and sat down to read the menu, and as we went to order Carlos said he wasn’t hungry… Of course we followed him up on this and it was the prices that turned him off. Crazy to think that $3, which we consider a small amount of pocket change, has a totally different significance over here. A stark reminder that despite how beautiful so much of it may seem, we really are in the third world. Of course we offered to pay for Carlos’ meal, and we continued our discussion of life in Ecuador.
Later that afternoon Carlos invited us back to his house to meet his family, and we hiked up a mountain to a village with a beautiful view of the city below. A picturesque scene of a grand church dominating a classic Latino village square filled with children playing soccer ensued – all with the classic green breathtaking backdrop of the Andes Mountains. We played soccer with the kids and chatted with the parents who were watching on. I really can’t think of a more stereotypical Latino experience. After watching the sunset we returned to Carlos’ house for coffee and snacks, and spent more time getting to know his family.
Later he showed us to the bus stop and we have organised to go hiking in the mountains together tomorrow. So what advice would I give to travellers in Latin America? Get out of your comfort zone. Take the opportunities to spend time with the locals, even if that means struggling through the language barrier. It’s the only way to improve your language skills, and the best way to see the real country, away from the gringo packed hostels and typical tourist destinations. Where you think you can trust the locals, go with it. It really is so incredibly rewarding!