ALPACA! No wait... That might be a llama...
Trip Start Sep 28, 2012
11Trip End Apr 09, 2013
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I was able to upload some Baños pictures, but Cuenca is yet to come. I'll add them on this blog post when I find a computer! Stay tuned!
GAP YEAR GOOD?
I often think (or maybe it's hope!) that as humans it's natural to second-guess our decisions. I've questioned myself on whether I should have foregone the gap year and headed straight to uni. I certainly would be one year further in my degree! But would I have been happy with myself, my experience, and where I was headed? I will never know for certain, but what I am sure of, is that the past few months have taught me many things about the world, who I am, perspectives, values and more that I probably wouldn't have discovered in a textbook! So do I think it was a good decision to take a gap year? So far... Absofreakinlutely!!! I'd recommend it to anyone not 100% sure of their direction :)
I never considered myself a foodie until I came to Baños. I can't tell you how many hours I've spent running up and down the streets trying to find the local Humita Señorita who wanders around pushing her little cart...Too many, that's for sure! But her homemade, $0.35 humitas, a sweet corn mix baked inside a corn husk, just can't be beat! I and a few other chicas from the hostel, loved trying all the street food. My second fav? Morocho, a hot milky cinnamon beverage with white corn pudding mixed in. Delish! The other girls, more brave (and non-vegetarians!), took a shot at some of the other street foods: cuy - roasted guinea pig, plantain and pork rolled in a ball, some purple warmed drink - of what we never actually found out, and of course the fresh empanadas and tamales.
Along with my favorite street vendors, I frequented Arome, an Ecuadorian chocolate/spice/nut tienda (shop), and El Paisano - a restaurant of gloriously crafted and presented (yet somehow still extremely wallet-friendly!) vegetarian meals. El Paisano doubles as the owners art studio/gallery so while you eat, you can admire his amazing acrylic on canvas pieces covering the walls from floor to ceiling. A really unique spot!
On November 22nd, a found myself part of a backpackers American Thanksgiving, sitting amongst 20 others from all over the world sharing a potluck feast! I had a lot to be grateful for :)
THE ADVENTURES OF THE GROUP OF 11:
While in Baños, there was a group of 11 of us hostelers, who joined together to take advantage of what the town had to offer. One day we all rented bikes and rode down the Ruta de las Cascadas (Route of the Waterfalls) on the highway towards Puyo. Highlights? Stopping at one waterfall where you hike down to an area in which you crawl along the rock crevice before finding yourself standing behind the thundering mass of water spilling over the cliff! Another highlight was at a waterfall in which we swam - the water sprays hitting our faces like small needles as we plunged into the chilly waters (before making an extremely quick exit onto dry land again!).
The group of 11 also embarked on a rafting adventure. It was a day of hoots, hollers, laughs and screams as we rode the rapids of the Pastaza River. Our raft definitely had the craziest guide - he sang, danced, and shrieked his way through the rapids, intentionally getting us stuck on rocks and attempting to manufacture a plan to flip the raft! Luckily he didn't have to though, as it started to pour just as we were finishing. Good thing we had attractive wetsuits, helmets and life jackets to keep us dry! (Ya... Not so much.... :)
As they say, time flies when you are having fun. Two weeks in Baños and it was my time to carry on. A night of homemade celebratory farewell dark-chocolate fondue, and it was time for the group of 11 to go their separate ways :(
You know you've landed in a country that knows how to celebrate life when....
You're laying in a bunk bed in Cuenca at 11:00pm, and your nighttime kum-ba-yah is the sounds of Spanish karaoke sung by a choir of males whose harmonies so shockingly "unique", must be aided by the consequences of a few too many beers :) This lovely choral performance is, at random intervals, momentarily paused to make way for the zooms, whirs, and bursts of the colorful fireworks that seem as though they are coming from next door. Oh how I love traveling <3
My multi-bus journey to Cuenca had me eating meat products, a failed act of courtesy for my Columbian friend (not so delightful being violently sick for the next 24 hours!), peering over the "Devil's Nose" as we rode through terrifyingly steep portions of the Andes, and fantasizing over famous Spanish love songs as they blared over the bus speakers.
At present my home-away-from-home is the lovely city of Cuenca. Having experienced remote jungle and small mountain town, I figured the next spot to try in the Ecuadorian wonderland would be a larger city. But to my pleasant surprise, Cuenca doesn't feel overwhelming or impossibly too large to discover, in fact this colonial paradise is home to 500,000 but feels like 3,000.
This is the kind of place I would be HAPPY to wander around and get lost in. Stumbling upon hidden gems within the streets, sitting in the parks and taking in the ambiance of a piece of South America I never imagined witnessing.
The solid combination of traditional culture meets modern influences can be found here in Cuenca. Standing on a street corner you can see it: opposite is an older man, hands calloused and coated in years of black polish as he sparkles a man's shoes good-as-new; on the opposite corner there is the fashionable lady who you can't help but admire for avoiding getting her 4 inch stilettos stuck in the cobblestone sidewalks; on the next corner, you see an older woman and her baby daughter snuggly slung across her back dressed in the traditional clothing of a Panama hat, solid green woven shawl, white blouse, long skirt elaborately embroidered at the hem, with hair in two long braids down her back, sitting curbside chanting "Mandarinas! Mandarinas!" with a wheelbarrow full of the orange colored fruit; finally, standing beside you are a group of school kids dressed in neatly pressed uniforms, backpacks synched up to the nape of their necks (quite different to the low-riders back home!). All of this set amongst a backdrop of colonial buildings-home on top, shop on bottom kind of gig. If you wander to any of the parks in town you'll find one of the 52 churches, currently adorned inside with the symbols and sparkle that tie to the approaching Christmas festivities. An interesting city.
Over the past week, Cuenca and surrounding area have been my treasure map. I took in the splendor of the Turi viewpoint, bargained my way through the grande indoor food market, jogged the river, chatted with self-proclaimed Ecuadorian hippies, learned about the tradition of shrunken heads at the Pumapongo Museo de Banco Central, discovered the world's greatest vegetarian restaurant for $1.80 three-course lunches (I never have to worry about what the heck I'm ordering in spanish!), hiked through the natural beauty within Caja National Park (meeting llamas/alpacas along the way... Still can't tell them apart!), and succeeded in hitchhiking back to the city!
Me and hitchhiking, those two things don't seem to naturally go hand in hand! .... But add an awesomely crazy 55 year old lady named Alice-originally from China, to the mix and we had quite the adventure! We were waiting on the highway for a bus heading to Cuenca. 40 minutes later, exhausted from the hike, fingers getting numb, stomachs growling, and feeling desperate, we stuck our thumbs out and got a lift with two auto lawyers from the coast. A half hour, an interesting Spanglish conversation (with many confused laughs!) and handfuls of perfectly ripe mangoes later, we arrived back at our hostel. Tired and happy, Alice and I just looked at each other, questioning our sanity over what just happened! The adventures continue as I am learning (slowly, but its happening!) to take in and enjoy every moment!
I hope everyone back home and other travelers are having a spectacular December and are looking forward to the upcoming holiday season! I'm not sure 'bout you, but no matter where I am, I tend to get that warm fuzzy feeling around this time of year with all the excitement in the air! I wish everyone an extraordinary final month of 2012!
Talk again soon! Ciao for now!