Was feeling the withdrawal symptoms of the Galapagos islands yesterday, especially when I arrived at a Quito that was the wettest and greyest since I knew it, and not particularly exciting on a Sunday evening, apart from Spain winning the World Cup. Decided to go to a nice bar and restaurant for dinner. Was going to order a beer to nurse the blues, but was told that by law no alcohol is sold after 4pm on Sundays!
Was fretting over the extreme bad planning of not checking the bus schedule to Cuenca, or book flight tickets in advance, and semi-regretting not disembarking at Guayaquil and make my way to Cuenca from there (which would have been a lot nearer than Quito).
At last, decided to take a chance and head to the Quito airport at 545am this morning, not knowing whether I could even get a taxi at that hour. Luckily I did manage to flag down a taxi, and by 6am I was at the airport, and managed to buy a ticket for a flight leaving at 650am!
Arrived at Cuenca’s airport 35 minutes and 420km later. It is a small though new airport and has a very helpful person at the tourist information counter. The airport is only 3 km from the city centre, so decided to take a bus to the city centre for 25 cents. Walked around scouting for a hostal, and checked into this old colonial-looking house; on further inspection I believe the interior is crooked. Talk about charm! A bedroom with a queen-sized bed, breakfast, cable TV, phone, bottled drinking water and private bath is US$18 a night.
After freshening up and pottering about in the room – partly to wait for the city to come to life – I took a stroll towards the river at around 9am, and down Calle Larga. Stumbled into a cafe that actually serves expresso coffee! Haven’t had expresso coffee since I came to South America. I couldn’t believe it at first and even boldly asked the guy whether it is real cappuccino. Another plus point about the cafe: the proprietors running the place are 2 friendly Australians from Brisbane who moved here for a change of lifestyle. In addition to the cafe, they also rent out 2 suites in the region of $45. They were quite excited to meet someone who also came from the opposite side of the world. After telling them how randomly I got to Cuenca, the very warm lady even gave me a bunch of brochures and suggestions on what to do in Cuenca, and offered their mobile number just in case I need help in the next few days as their shop will be closed for two days!
After the pleasant coffee and breakfast, I strolled down to Taller del Sombrero, which is essentially a sombrero hat shop that is very welcoming to visitors to just try on hats and take photos even if you don’t buy anything in the end (there were some really nice ones that actually looked good on my big head, but the more affordable ones cannot withstand being crumpled in a luggage). The shopowner also opened up the rooftop for visitors to take in the southbank view of Cuenca; making people feel at home is indeed the best marketing strategy! At the rooftop, met an American girl who was also busy taking self portraits like moi and we chatted and took photos. Like a lot of American students in Ecuador, she is on a study exchange with a university in Quito and came to Cuenca for the weekend. She invited me to sushi with her friends but sushi wasn’t what I had in mind for lunch in Cuenca. We exchanged email and parted ways.
Continued walking down Calle Larga and passed by a few museums. Went into Culturas Aborigenes, which is essentially an exhibition of a university lecturer’s private collection of pre-Colombian artefacts. By now (i.e. having immersed in cultural Quito for a while), I could rattle off names like Valdivia and Jama Coque like I were an Ecuadorian history student. So the artefacts were only mildly interesting by this point in time, but the building itself is quaint and lovely, like a lot of the other Cuenca buildings. Also, the souvenir shop sell some replicas of the artefacts at affordable prices. They didn’t have the particular Valdivian piece that I wanted but I might just go back and get the Jama Coque jar with iguana motif.
Walked around to enquire about day tour prices to a nearby Incan ruins but decided it was too expensive, and will go on my own tomorrow. Was hungry and followed the lunchtime aroma into a Colombian restaurant. And boy did I accidentally discover a popular place! Business was brisk and the menu selection typically Colombian meaty. Wasn’t in for a big meal so ordered a tortilla (a small dough pancake) topped with a small pork chop and fried banana (the fried banana is good) with avocado shake. But I must say the enormous plato paisa that my table mates ordered looked really good. A few other people joined my table (business is REALLY good so table sharing is inevitable) and a couple of them were really chatty. Once one of them heard I was going Peru, I was recommended to try all the food there. Also got a Cuencan restaurant recommendation for cuy (the local word for guinea pig), although I am still wondering whether I could finish one all by myself.
After lunch, I walked further down Calle Larga to Museo Pumapungo, yet another museum of Banco Central del Ecuador. What is a bit more interesting about this one is there’s an archaeological site of the Tahuatinsuyo empire, the Tomebamba, right behind the museum, accompanied by an exhibition within the museum. They didn’t have tickets so entrance was free!
Bummed at an internet cabinas till the rain stopped and became hungry enough for dinner. Went to this yellow house that I eyeballed earlier and had a typical house dish that is interesting for its sides: Plato el maiz: carne de chancho a la parilla (a large slab of grilled pork chop), mote pillo (corn/maize scrambled with eggs, cheese and scallions), morcilla blanca (flavoured rice sausage wrap), papas con salsa pepa de zambo (potatoes with a peppery sauce) and encebollado (essentially tomato and onions). The portion is generous enough for two. Also ordered a typical Cuencan drink called Yaguana de Mama, which is purportedly made of apple and spices, although I think it was too light on the spice. Really needed a warm alcoholic drink to kick things up on this rainy evening so ordered the canelazo (cane-based liquor with naranjilla juice amongst some other fruits), which has the effect of the German gluehwein.
It was already 8pm and I left the restaurant and hailed a cab, after walking around the whole day. But the lousy driver didn’t even know where Calle Gran Columbia is: at first I thought it was my less than perfect pronunciation, but after he called somebody to find out and me showing him the location on the map, he could still drop me on the wrong street and insist that was the street. Luckily for him I noticed something interesting happening on the street where he stopped so I got out without arguing with him. Turned out the commotion was of a concert of a Christina Somebody at a church, but there was a twenty dollar charge for it, if I understood the announcement correctly. Wasn’t too interested – even though the Christina Somebody’s voice through the speakers sounded nice – and walked back to my hostal.
Now back in the hostal, I review my day with a great sense of satisfaction, while Jamie Oliver cooks on TV in the background. Long live cable TV!