I headed 6 hours farther south down the Panamericana, the mountainous road that cuts straight down through the Andes of Ecuador, on a particularly miserable bus ride (see previous post for the failed attempts at taking the train). It was a foggy, bumpy, uncomfortable, and long ride... but the next stop was well worth it. Cuenca is an endlessly charming old colonial city, just the right kind of size to make it completely walkable, approachable, intriguing, and delightful all at the same time. It was also the warmest place I´d been yet. Frankly, I felt like I was back in Spain. This doesn´t come as too much of a surprise, seeing how the Spaniards are responsible for all of its architecture and city planning (much of which dates from the 16th century). I spent days lounging in beautiful parks, eating delicious helado (ice cream), wandering the streets, seeking out vegetarian cuisine, admiring churches, and even enjoying a budget-extending raucous night out in a city that really does feel decidedly European and sophisticated in a very nonchalant kind of way -- just like Spain, but minus the flamenco.
Mostly, Lauren and I took it easy in Cuenca, but we did have a very unexpected adventure one day. We read in the guidebook about the local University-run Orquideario, a nursery where they house and grow all species of orchids from Ecuador. We jumped on a local bus to get there, but after seeing absolutely no signs at all and traveling for some 15 minutes along increasingly empty-looking roads out of town, we realized we´d gone too far and turned around. We got on the same bus headed in the opposite direction, and asked the driver to drop us at the University. Instead, we ended up back in downtown Cuenca. Ok, new plan. We ate lunch and decided to grab a taxi this time. However, our taxi driver had never heard of this strange orquideario word we kept repeating, nor the street it was listed to be on. And neither had the other 12 taxi drivers he asked. Hmmm... eventually someone actually picked up the phone at the university and gave me slightly confusing directions from a nearby hotel. Well, we made it to the hotel but wandered around in the heat for half an hour until finally a kind woman at the hotel, the first person who´d heard the word, directed us to it. We rejoiced when we finally found the one and only sign hidden down a dirt path. The good news was this place was well worth it. It housed over 500 kinds of orchids of all shapes, sizes and colors, some of which could have easily passed for space aliens or deep sea creatures. It was amazing.
Eventually we decided it was time to check out the beach. We´d heard a lot about this place called Montañita, famous for its excellent surfing waves and the party scene. It was nice to be at the beach, but wasn´t quite what I had imagined. First of all, it was hot. Really hot. And when it wasn´t hot, it was rainy. But ok... it is the beach in Ecuador after all. Second, it was pretty touristy. I recognize the fact that I am endlessly biased after spending so much time on so many amazing beaches in Southeast Asia, but the truth is that tourist towns don´t do it for me anymore, and for better or worse it takes a damn nice beach to impress me. Third, we arrived on a Friday night to find the place disgustingly packed full of locals from Guayaquil with no free hotel room in sight. After a good 90 minutes of wandering around, we did eventually snag a room way far down the beach, but it wasn´t exactly a friendly welcome. But no matter. Fortunately, once the weekend passed the city folk went back home and the place chilled way out. I spent most of my time lying in the hammock outside of our room, reading my Bob Marley biography, and going for the occasional swim. We were lucky enough to have 2 really awesome surfer dude neighbors, who provided plenty of fun company and good times. And the absolute best thing about Montañita were the little roadside beach bar stands, chock full of fresh tropical fruits and plenty of alcohol for whipping up incredible and cheap cocktails. I had the best mojitos ever, all four of which went down far too easily... luckily, I had that hammock right outside the door to get me through the next day.