Making an early start was necessary to arrive into Cuenca with enough daylight hours to taste a first glimpse of the city, but even after leaving Loja at 9am, a little later than wanted, I was not expecting the journey to Cuenca to take six hours, over two hours more than outward journey through the night a few days earlier. I certainly appreciate these types of journeys through the night, with the mountain hugging, winding roads, becoming a sickening affair.
Along the way I was hoping for decent scenery, scenery I had yet to witness during my time in Ecuador. As I should have known it was identical to everywhere else visited in the Ecuadorian Sierra, lush greenery, criss-crossed with a patchwork of farms and ploughed fields colouring the landscape with a multitude of green, yellow and browns. Even this wasn't visible for the majority of the journey, the surrounding hills and valleys covered in thick layers of cloud and mist.
Although landscapes might have been similar, one contrast was the inhabitants, who seemed to be a much purer breed of indigenous Indians, said to have a pure bloodline directly back to the Inca's themselves. Their dress was also distinct from other tribes, with grown men walking around in black attire and sporting three-quarter length trousers, something I once tried while living in Kenya, but after repeatedly mistaken for a butch lesbian, I decided against wearing them for the rest of my life. As many men here have hair matching the hair of their loved ones, I wonder if they are ever faced with such ghastly misinterpretations.
The colour black certainly seems to be in fashion, with the women also sporting this dark colour. Seeing whole towns going about their daily business dressed in nothing but black, many huddled together taking in the days gossip while spinning their freshly cut sheep wool, is a very strange, if not sinister sight. It would be like if everyone in my home town back in England turned out for the same funeral and then decided to wear the same clothes for the rest of the day. Although many towns from Loja to Cuenca sport this behaviour it is the town of Saraguro, approximately 80kms north of Loja that highlights the tradition in its purest form. If I had more time and had realised how long the bus journey was, it would have been nice to relax in this small town for a couple of hours as though stuck in a time warp from the 1800s.
Arriving into Cuenca mid-afternoon the first priority was arranging some accommodation and I was more than happy to bag a double bed at the first choice Hostal El Monasterio (Calle Padre Aguirre and Calle Sucre), located on the 6th floor of a block of apartments and doctors offices a street away from the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, the blue domed roof that symbolizes colonial Cuenca peering through the bedroom curtains for all to see. First impressions of Cuenca were very positive, just from the views of the hostel room; panoramic views could be had across the city, all for only $7.50 a night per person.
With only a couple of daylight hours left and the weather looking a little anonymous it was decided best not to venture too far away from the accommodation in an unknown city, so my girlfriend and I took in a scenic walk along the river Tomebamba. The first thing noticed, making our way along the narrow cobbled streets was the cities weird fascination and addiction it seemed to doctors. Cuenca must be one sick city as virtually every building contains at least one residing doctor. If not they at least hold the record for most educated inhabitants per square kilometre.
The walk along River Tomebamba wasn't as scenic as hoped, unless you find the thought of gazing into brown polluted water and trying to count the number of plastic bottles floating past appealing. With the weather deteriorating there was no choice but to run for cover into both the CIDAP Museo de Artes Populares (Mon-Fri 9.30am-1pm and 2.30pm-6pm, Sat 10am-1pm, free entry), holding a small collection of modern art for sale and Centro Faunistico Amaru (Tues-Sun 9am-1pm and 2.30-6pm, $2 entry), housing a selection of reptiles, insects, arachnids, and amphibians. Not holding the attention for more than forty-five minutes, even with a guided tour from an acne faced teenager, who certainly impressed with his intense knowledge of animals, said through chattering, nervous lips. I got the impression we were breaking his Gringo guiding virginity so to put him at ease, even if speaking a whole new Spanish vocabulary, I made sure I nodded and smiled in all the right places, something I have become a professional at.
After seeing a horny male tortoise trying to rape, or mate, depending on how you interpreted the situation, a female member of his species and laughing like a little kid at the strange faces he was pulling, and also a fish that uses its fins like feet and who can survive outside of water for up to three days, it was time to beat a hasty retreat back to the hostel. Even with satellite television and a host of channels in nothing but American, boredom soon set in and a quick trip was made to try some of the nationally famous ice-cream parlours, something I am sure the ice-cream capital of Ecuador, Salcedo would not be happy to hear. After eating at Heladeria Holodesa (Calle Benigno Malo 9-55), seen as the cream of Cuenca's ice-cream eateries and taking in the luminous lighting of the cities churches, such as Iglesia San Francisco and Iglesia Santo Domingo (strangely not the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception though), it was time to return to the hostel for a good nights sleep and to prepare for a full days viewing of historic colonial Cuenca tomorrow. It's amazing how sitting on a bus for the majority of the day can tire you out.