From 0 to 8400 in 6

We are in beautiful Cuenca. Ecuador’s 3rd largest city and listed as a UNESCO world heritage sight. The elevation is 8400′ (Quito was 9350′) and the population is 350,000.  We traveled from sea level to 8400′ on 6 hours of bus rides.

The iconic blue domes of Cuenca's cathedral

The iconic blue domes of Cuenca’s cathedral

Beautiful colonial buildings

Beautiful colonial buildings

We took one direct bus from Salinas to the port city of Guayaquil. It would’ve been a comfortable trip if they hadn’t played a DVD with the volume so loud the sound was distorted – buzzing and blasting right over our heads. I don’t know how anyone could stand it. Steve put in earplugs and I listened to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

The next bus traveled up, up, up over the Andes Mountains to Cuenca. Oh, how I wish I could’ve captured the sights with my camera, but for one thing the windows kept steaming up and pictures from a moving vehicle don’t do it justice.

Las Cajas National Park taken through the window of a moving bus.

Las Cajas National Park taken through the window of a moving bus.

The coastal plain was dry and desert but Guayaquil was green and soon we were driving through lush jungle. There were some muddy barren patches – mud slides just waiting to happen. I wish I knew the names of all the trees I saw, but it was solid green with vegetation: sugar cane, palms, banana trees, and lots of other jumbo-leafed plants as well as tree ferns and small delicate ferns – and some splashes of colorful exotic flowers. As we climbed in elevation we entered into the misty clouds and the jungle plants gave way to a different geographical zone of evergreen trees and waterfalls until we arrived above the timberline. At the top of the Andes there was a tundra type of tufted grass growing in shallow soil over granite. The road passed through Las Cajas National Park abundant with large and small lakes. And as we came down in elevation I felt as if I had been transported to Switzerland: scattered cabins, black and white cows grazing in green hills and meadows, and clumps of daisies growing along the roadside. Eventually the landscape became scattered with large clumps of pampas grass very similar to a California landscape.

We arrived in the outskirts of Cuenca as the sun was setting on a Friday night and I saw red-tiled roofs of homes with neat gardens all fenced in – and then we were in traffic slowly making our way to the bus terminal.

We’ve read that in Cuenca one experiences all 4 seasons in a 24-hour day. The sun comes out and it’s hot. It’s goes behind some clouds and it feels cool. It can rain and the wind can blow. Today the sky was covered with both blinding bright gray clouds and ominous billows of dark gray clouds.

Rio Tomebamba in the city of Cuenca.

Rio Tomebamba in the city of Cuenca.

Lots of walking and climbing of stairs on our journey to the historic district.

Lots of walking and climbing of stairs on our journey to the historic district.

Cuenca feels more prosperous. It is cleaner and the sidewalks are better than any of the other Ecuadorian cities we’ve visited. The cars seem newer and bigger. It has gorgeous old colonial buildings and newer modern red brick buildings. We’ve seen some lovely residences and I love the red tiled roofs. If the signs weren’t in Spanish you could easily think you were in Italy.

Flower Market

Flower Market

We are renting a newly remodeled small studio apartment. It has a beautiful bathroom, a bed with 2 lamp stands, love-seat, and ancient TV, small table with 2 chairs, closet, coffee maker, small fridge and microwave (2 coffee cups and saucers, 2 glasses, and 2 spoons) in a residential neighborhood near a university.

To reach the colonial center of Cuenca we walk a few blocks to a bridge over the Tomebamba River and up a flight of 81 stairs. (Another benefit of travel; don’t need a gym membership!)

We came upon the Central Market and bought a pineapple for $1.50, 3 gorgeous avocados for $1, some chocolates, and some ground coffee for $2. Great prices for sure, albeit gringo prices. The pineapple which I cut up with my Swiss Army knife is pale yellow, but super juicy and sweet. I want to return every day in order to sample all the exotic fruits. They sell everything in the market; it’s a riot of color and smells. Today when we went back, something smelled really good and there on one of the counters was a whole roasted hog. We should’ve tried some, but we hadn’t even had our breakfast yet.

You can eat for really cheap at the stalls. Steve ordered $1 orange juice and it was squeezed before our very eyes, served in a tall fluted glass with a straw. Feeling adventurous I ordered a fresh roll which she sliced and spread with fresh cream butter (tasted like honey butter) and to go with it – a cafe con leche (no sugar) and when she asked me how I liked it I said I like more coffee and without missing a beat she reached for a packet and poured in some instant coffee powder. For only .90!

Sunday we made it to the central square. I could smell the flowers before we actually got there: jasmine! There were large crowds in the churches. And there are lots of churches! We walked through a fragrant flower market too. Being that it was Sunday, most of the shops were closed. It’s going to look very different Monday morning.

Goodbye for now.  It’s time for a snack of mashed avocado with Doritos!image

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