We spent a couple of weeks marveling at the cool animals and enjoying some of the most pristine beaches on the Galapagos. After that, we headed back to the cooler temperatures of the mountains of Ecuador. We split our remaining time in Ecuador between the cities of Cuenca and Vilcabamba.
Cuenca is a city of about 300,000 people and sits at 2500 metres above sea level. It had a much more relaxed feel than Quito or Guyaquil. The old town had some of the best colonial architecture we have seen in the country, and just about everywhere you look, there seemed to be yet another beautiful church. We rented a wonderful apartment close to the old town next to Parque de la Madre (Mother's Park) and the river. The park was the best designed, well used park we have encountered. There was playground equipment (including a zip line!) for the kids, exercise equipment that was actually used by people, and a track around the periphery of the park, also used by runners and walkers. In fact, we noticed quite a few speed walkers and realized that their celebrated son Jefferson Perez Quezada, was from here. He was a speedwalker, and he won the only 2 Olympic medals ever for Ecuador! The park also hosted a rock concert and a huge public aerobics/dance class while we were there.
Cuenca is also famous for being the home of the "Panama Hat". See Finn's blog for more information.
Just outside of Cuenca is Cajas National Park, a rugged mountainous area with great hiking trails through the paramao, high altitude grasslands. It is dotted with many lagoons of all different sizes. The area is known to have cold rainy weather most of the time but we lucked out and did a hike in dry warm conditions. I think I must have said "It's so beautiful!" every few seconds, and the camera was clicking just as often.
Vilcabamba is a small town nestled in the green mountains of the Southern Andes with the perfect climate year round. Whether it is truly the case or not, it is known as the Valley of Longevity... boasting a high number of people living well into old age. Because of the climate, the peaceful pace of life, and the low cost of living, it has drawn a fair number of expats who call Vilcabamba home. We stayed at the wonderful hostel/yoga retreat, Hosteria Izhcayuma, which was just outside of town perched on a hill with great views of the surrounding valley. It had a fantastic open air restaurant, a pool, ping-pong and pool tables, a life sized chess set, spa services, and of course an amazing yoga centre. And a good hostel is not complete without a cute resident dog. This one had a big friendly black labrador who loved getting pets from the guests. As the hostel was up on a hill, we would walk down into town and take a taxi back up. The walks into town followed a water channel and thus our epic stick boat races were born! With all the excitement and trash talking, you'd think it was the Indy 500! Alas the celebrated victors were Nico and John with their boats Ugly, Ugly3, and Brownie 3 Stripe.
We spent 6 weeks in Ecuador and covered a lot of ground but we easily could have spent much more time here. It is a stunning, diverse country! We found it safe and easy to navigate, and the cost of living was so inexpensive. For example, a set lunch meal which included a drink, a soup, a main with meat/rice/salad, was a mere $2.50 USD. And best of all, the people were so sweet and gentle.
Our original plan was to continue on to Bolivia but reconsidered after realizing it was going to be wet and cold at this time of the year. Instead, we decided to go to Chile!