Cuenca'p the Awesomeness

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Fresh from the Galapagos we made a mad sprint to get to Cuenca the same day we had woken up at 5:45 AM to visit North Seymour Island and flown to Guyaquil from Baltra at 11:40/12:40 (Galapagos/Ecuador time). It couldn’t have gone smoother in Guyaquil and within 20-30 minutes of stepping off the plane we had gotten to the bus terminal (very logically located very close to the airport), bought a ticket for a bus leaving in ten minutes, and made our way up to the third level and our seats on said bus. The trip was just shy of five hours and though we arrived in the dark we got a taxi for $2 without even having to do the whole “we KNOW the price it’s SUPPOSED to be” routine to Hostal Paredes (now called Majestic). It was a pretty nice looking hostel, maybe even majestic, that is until he turned the corner to our cheapie $10 room. We should have looked a little more carefully but you’re always a bit more eager to take a place that looks remotely clean and cheap after dark. It was about as secure as a door on a chain with a piece of flimsy 1/8” sheet board covering the space above where the doors didn’t bolt closed. We decided before we left to grab dinner that we were going to have to look for somewhere else tomorrow morning. Monday night at 9PM, it turns out, Cuenca is deader than Riobamba on Good Friday so it took some time before we found a place to eat but we got some hamburgers to last us until morning and finally got back to the hotel and collapsed by 10. It had been a long day.

The morning came and I felt terrible with another feverish sleep and general achiness but two ibuprofen, water, fruit salad, and lemonade did a good job of diminishing that. On top of that, it turned out that Cuenca was even more beautiful than I’d heard; marble churches, sprawling monasteries, graceful and well-maintained colonial buildings, and clean streets. It is said, at least by the Lonely Planet, that Cuenca and Quito are often in competition but that’s doubtful. It is unfair to compare anywhere I’ve been so far in South America to Cuenca except for Cartagena which still holds the number one spot for me. Cuenca is just too much of a charmer. We found a hostel amidst the gawking called Monasterio and for $7/night instead, it had Wifi (two weeks in the Galapagos meant I’d be using that particular service quite a bit), big beds with actual firmness/back support, and a private bathroom that some German dude hadn’t defiled by coming home drunk, spinning around three times with the lights off, unzipping, and going to town. Done and done. And we didn’t know it ‘til later as neither of us was quite ready, but $1 big Pilseners [sic] too! Back to the Majestic Hostal, which by the way had refused me a Dixie cup of purified water to take some painkillers because I wasn’t staying in one of their more expensive rooms, we grabbed our bags and walked back. The sky was clearing from the morning’s overcast and I felt my mood and illness lifting in coordination with it.

In fact, I even grabbed my camera though I decided today to just let Bjorn deal with where to walk and I’d follow him. So we went through the old town and passed a place called “Casa del Sombrero” where probably the most famous maker of Panama hats (which actually come from Ecuador and are called Montecristis, muchas gracias) in the world, Alberto Pulla, has his store. I mean, the man is even on Tourism Ecaudor posters. It is so great to see someone who really loves what he does and what he has been doing for probably the last 60 years or more. He’s likely into his eighties and although he has almost completely lost the ability to speak I can’t imagine his smile has ever been bigger. He gets downright excited finding hats for people. We looked around for a bit and talked with him – I’m not sure how but I could understand him pretty well and wound up coming back the next day. I definitely had no intention of buying a hat but the next day I walked out with one of his own handmade ones keeping the sun out of my face and had promised him to send a postcard for his sprawling book of thank-you notes from all over the world. I couldn’t even bring myself to bargain with him, though whether out of respect for his life’s work, sympathy for his lost voice, or just appreciation of the smile is unclear.

Aside from Cuenca’s beauty, which occupied most of our two full days there, and the Panama hats, there is still one more thing Cuenca is famed for in Peru: Cuy. In English, that is munching on a whole guinea pig. Bjorn and I took a cab (again, no attempts at ripping us off in either direction, so nice!) down to Don Copal Street where there are several restaurants that specialize in it. I’m going to warn you, of the weak stomachs, that the photos at the end of this blog may well disturb you. We arrived and checked out a couple of restaurants: I had heard that they generally fried them whole, with the professionals using no less than six different oils of differing temperature to get it just right but here they were cooked on a spit. One lady offered us a taste of some apit-cooked pork that was spiced quite nicely so we sat in her restaurant and ordered a guinea pig to share between the two of us. The cost for a medium-sized one with a big plate of the flavourless white corn they serve here and some potatoes was $12 and before we knew it, our little creature arrived at the table, already chopped into sections with paws and teeth poised as though he might attempt to eat us instead were we not careful. I picked up the right side by the little paw and took a bite. Or rather, I tried.

Although I didn’t think I found it all that disturbing, my eyes fell on a small patch of fur that hadn’t been removed as I attempted to tear some skin between my teeth and I just about lost it there. I fought down the gagging with some Coke and potatoes and tried again, a more meaty part. I managed to get some down though there wasn’t a lot of meat to it in the first place. Then, as I picked apart the ribs to get at the meat there I tasted some really off-tasting meat and just about lost it for the last time. I got up when I was able and asked for a small portion of pork, both surprised and disappointed by my weak stomach as I sat back down and looked at the guinea pig’s head with mouth wide open and incisors polished. The meat I did manage to get down wasn’t particularly tasty though it definitely had its own taste, but it is considered a delicacy here and many families have a cage in the corner of their kitchen to raise the little guys for a feast. Me, I wouldn’t bother. The pork was just fine although I was further surprised to learn that gagging three times had stripped me of my appetite. Bjorn finished the Cuy thankfully and we took a cab back to our hostel for some beers on the rooftop patio. The next morning, he would leave at 5:30 for Quito and then Spain and I would leave an hour later for the Peruvian border and beyond, so this was the end of our 3 weeks traveling together. He may have terrible taste in movies but we had some great times and I look forward to toasting our success in Cotopaxi or the Galapagos sometime in Iceland over some hopefully not overfished/endangered traditional whale in the future. If I can get it down, that is.

Cuenca Photos

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