Finn and I arrived in Cuenca at 5pm. As we drove in above the city we could see just how beautiful it was and we could see the domes of the cathedral. We caught a taxi to Hostel AlterNative for $1.50. Our friends Stijn and Silvan were there and we dropped off our things and went out for dinner, bumping into Martin, another friend from Montañita in town. We found a lovely Colombian restaurant and had dinner for $3.50 including a main dish and juice. I had grilled pork and it was great. We had some beers and went to bed then got up at a reasonable time to explore Cuenca.
Our first stop was the viewpoint high on the hill above the city. The hike was tough and involved a lot of stairs towards the end. It’s incredible how the mountains rise so steeply out of a flat valley floor. At the top we found a beautiful church and a treehouse which we paid $1 to enter and reached an even higher viewpoint over the city. There is a swing out over thin air but only one of us went on it while the rest of us explored the church. The weather was perfect and we all grabbed ice-cream from the vendors at the top, not too overpriced.
We caught the bus down to the city ($0.25) to check out the old town and cathedral.
Then we explored handcraft markets and the food market (Mercado 9 de Octubre) where we had lunch.
The food was fantastic. Definitely the best traditional Ecuadorian food we had all had. Pork with boiled sweet corn, fried potatoes and some salad for $3.50, bargain!
We explored more of the town and found plenty of live guinea pigs for sale alongside chickens and then we saw lots more being cooked.
At one of the markets I found the contraption traditionally used to cook guinea pigs (cuy).
At the end of the day we visited Pumapungo museum with some Inca ruins and other exhibitions.
It was free and definitely worth a visit. Upstairs they even have an exhibit with shrunken heads. Down some stairs outside there is a beautiful botanical garden and a bird sanctuary.
We headed back across the road to our hostel for a rest when the museum closed (at 17:15) and went out to an Italian place for some lasagne. We had spent the day with Anna from Switzerland and she had to leave to go to Peru so Finn and I took her to the bus station and bought our tickets for the night bus to Baños the next night.
We found something hilariously typical for Ecuador. I haven’t mentioned just how hard it is to pay for anything unless you have change. Everywhere from the smallest vendors to the pharmacies. So when Finn and I spotted a change machine (like you get in games arcades in the UK) we thought it was a fantastic idea!
Only Ecuador could make it so tough. I felt pretty confident about this decision as I slid the $20 bill into the machine bit immediately I realised this confidence was misplaced when I heard the tinkling of many, many coins down the chute. Finn managed to jam his hand over the chute in time to stop most of the avalanche of dimes and quarters, interspersed with a few dollar coins) made their way onto the floor! We both laughed ourselves stupid as it was so nearly a great idea, but with an Ecuadorian twist!!
The next morning Finn and I caught an 8am bus to Los Cajas National Park, one hour from Cuenca. We planned a 5 hour hike at altitude to get some preparation for further hikes. We registered at the guard post and the man recommended we did Route 2 (6.8km high difficulty) followed by Route 1 (3.9km moderate difficulty).
Route 2 was an excellent hike. Tough, as it started at 3,900m and ascended to over 4,200m, but totally worth it for the views over the park.
The start of Route 2 was a little hard to find as it involved walking along the main road as it twists and turns up the hill but, as promised, I found a sign on the right and we were fine.
Route 1 was definitely easier and had more people on the trail but it felt tough after all the climbing on the first route.
We spent about 5 hours over 3,900m altitude, which was a good introduction to hiking at altitude as we are beginning to train for tackling Cotopaxi, a live Volcano near Quito next week.
We caught a bus back to Cuenca and got some dinner and relaxed at the hostel before catching the 11:00pm bus to Baños.
The journey was terrible, as we had been warned. The driving was awful, the brakes were squeaky and the roads were perilous so all-in-all not much sleep was had despite eye-mask and earplugs. But we arrived safely at 5am and walked to our reserved hostel, Erupción Backpackers, where we checked in an passed out for a few hours in comfortable beds.
There is so much to do in Baños that you could stay for a while week or more if you had the money. Finn and I explored the town in the morning including walking up to one of the holy waterfalls close to the main thermal baths in the town.
Then we met Stijn, had lunch and went white water rafting in the afternoon. The company I booked with MTS Adventure seemed professional and straightforward though all of the tours have roughly the same price with each operator. Rafting cost $25 per person and included hot chocolate and a sandwich to warm up after we got out of the water.
It was a great afternoon rafting 3-4+ rapids on Rio Pastaza.
In the evening Finn and I went to a fancy place on the hillside to use the thermal baths with a view over the city. Entry to Luna Runtun spa costs $20 for up to 3 hours and the taxi ride up there costs $6-7 so we couldn’t persuade any of the others to join us. But it was worth the money to relax in a tranquil environment alternating between good views over the city and being in the clouds. There were a few different hot tubs with different temperatures and also a swimming pool. I stuck to the hot tubs to warm up after rafting!
The next morning we joined a group of people from another hostel, some of whom we met in Montañita, to hike up to La Casa del Arbol, the Treehouse, high above Baños. The hike took the 8 of us two hours, though we avoided the route with the stairs and took a longer path past Luna Runtun instead.
The whole sky was full of cloud so we couldn’t see down to the city at all but it was certainly interesting going on a tree swing out over the clouds! We queued for a while (busy for Easter Weekend) but when it wasy turn I suddenly realised how scary it was to be on a tiny swing so high up.
We didn’t want to walk back down and the bus was a 45 minute wait so we were very happy when our hitchhiking attempt paid off immediately. A guy in a pickup with his whole family let all 8 of us pile into the back of the truck and we had an awesome ride down the mountain round all the crazy hairpin bends.
Finn and I found a cafe to plan our next steps and decided we would go up the volcano near Baños and then head to Secret Garden Cotopaxi, one of the most highly rated hostels in Ecuador, so I made a reservation for two nights. We met the group for dinner and went out for a drink with some of the guys from the school in Montañita who took a trip to Baños for Easter Weekend.
The next morning we caught a 4×4 taxi up to the Guard Hut for the hike to the Tungurua Volcano Basecamp/Refugio. We registered and hiked up the muddy trail for 2.5 hours to reach 3,800m for some acclimatisation. We paid $10 each at the Refugio for a sleeping mat. It was a little chilly up there and the warden, Fausto, gave me a blanket when Finn and I went downstairs to make our dinner (granola and yogurt with banana).
We got plenty of rest to make sure we acclimatised properly. The weather turned and we had heavy rain overnight and in the morning we got up to have breakfast and then headed down a very wet and slippery trail. It was a horrible hike and the trail had turned into pure mud. We made it back to the park entrance and struggled to get a taxi until we phoned Fausto back on the mountain and asked him to call us one from Baños. We waited 45 minutes and then we were off down the bumpy, windy trail in a 4×4.
We arrived in Baños, collected our things and jumped on a bus towards Quito, aiming to jump off in a town called Machachi along the Pan-American Highway. We paid $4.50 each for the tickets. In Machachi I phoned Secret Garden Cotopaxi hostel and they arranged for a taxi to collect us and transfer us one hour up a crazy bumpy road for $15.
The rest of the story here is linked to our prep and summit attempt for Cotopaxi so I’ll post that together.