Text and photos by John Keeble
It’s easy to blow hot and cold about Ecuador – they are both fantastic. And, if you are energetic enough, you can catch both in a day: the equatorial heat of the deserted beaches and the chill of the Andes. I took the slow way, enjoying both in a leisurely fashion.
The first was hiking in a hail shower at 13,000 feet in the Cajas Mounstains some 90 minutes by public bus from Cuenca.
My companions for the day, all good hikers with ages ranging up to mid-70s, congregated near Feria Libre, Cuenca’s biggest market and a busy bus hub. The sun was offering a pyrite promise of good weather but, as we stripped off layers of clothing while we waited for the bus, we did not believe it and had cold weather kit in our backpacks
The bus growled its way up from Cuenca, 8,200 feet above sea level, and the air gradually chilled. Hike leader Brian Bitner got the bus driver to stop precisely in the middle of nowhere and we trooped off. And got a shock.
The Cajas winter welcomed us with wind-driven hail as the bus receded into the distance, its stop a brief interlude between the warmth of Cuenca and the hot, humid coastal air of Guayaquil.
For us, it was a different story. We were suddenly racing the hail to put on waterproof clothing before getting chilled and soaked. Oh damn, why didn’t I buy weatherproof trousers that can be put on without taking my boots off first? And, finally, on with my favorite, a poncho to keep my camera and me reasonably dry and operational.
We trudged across the road and onto the rough, waterlogged trail, and collectively gasped at the staggeringly beautiful scenery. The hail was seeking any weakness but, heroes that we were, we kept going in a ragged string… over mud, crossing rivers, climbing hills. And we were loving every moment of it.
The track led us past lakes and through high points with incredible vistas opening up. Gradually, the hail gave way to rain.
In dry weather, it would have been fairly easy walking but the winter had made much of it slippery and filled the streams and rivers – which meant hazards, adventure and fun.
I was the first to fall when my boot slipped in the mud. But, good news. I managed to save my camera. Of course, doing that left my ribs to make enthusiastic contact with a rock. I think they are okay now. A hiking chum using poles was next: he crashed off the path and ended up in a muddy heap. And then one of the women whacked down… As they used to say in Britain’s Royal Navy: “If you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t have joined.”
After several hours over spectacular countryside, we suddenly entered another world. A quiet, comparatively warm, welcoming place. Rock outcrops, gnarled and wind-bent trees, grass, easy shelter. We snacked and rested together before setting off for the final leg of the route with the rain holding off and the incredible, changing light challenging our eyes and our cameras.
Our tough-as-old-hiking-boots leader showed us the trail towards the road – and then returned with fellow hiker Karen Wine to the place where we snacked. They hiked some more in the solitude, sorted out an evening meal, warmed themselves with hot tequila limeade, and spent the night in hammocks slung between trees.
“It was ethereal,” said Bitner when I next saw him. “I was so warm in the night that I had to unzip my sleeping bag.”
Wise commented: “It sounds cheesy, but it felt like the Cajas had wrapped their arms around us. We felt like the only people in the world.”
For the rest of us, it was a 90 minute trek back to the main Cajas-Cuenca road where we could get a bus. As we neared the end of our hike, the clouds started to close in on us. We climbed down a rocky path and got onto the road – just in time to flag down a bus for a $2 ride back to the city.
*Although this hike route needed a guide or good knowledge of the area, several Cajas locations can be hiked without a guide.
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Thirteen thousand feet lower, the temperature on the coast lured me into the warmish water of the Pacific. And a fellow hotel guest, Canadian tourist Karen McKimmon, tempted me to try to emulate the bodyboarders half a century younger than me. It didn’t work but it was great fun. Two more guests, Mara Mueller and Allan Capp, added to my admiration for water skills with their surfing. I didn’t try that!
I had grabbed a few days of quiet time to relax and write; jumped on a bus in Cuenca; and finally fetched up outside Canoa north of Manta. Bus fares are remarkably low in Ecuador and those over 65 can often get a 50% discount. It makes location hopping very attractive. And, despite the impression given by the big internet sites, there are good hotels at good prices.
The stars of the coastal shows are the beaches. I was in Canoa on the first anniversary of the earthquake that destroyed 75% of the resort village’s buildings, but the rubble had been cleared and the welcome mat was out for visitors. It coincided with the Easter holiday, and crowds were enjoying the village stretch of beach and the seafront restaurants. I and my writing tablet joined them in a garden restaurant overlooking the beach, the good-natured staff grappling successfully with my atrocious Spanish and my vegan diet.
Outside the village, the beach was almost deserted for mile after mile – even at that busy time. For me, the following days provided a beautiful opportunity to walk along the beach and enjoy the changing moods of the sea, weather and light. On some days, the sea was very calm and, on other days, it pulsed with surfers’ waves that remodelled the beach with every tide. And, as a sunset coast, it offered spectacular shows on many evenings.
My friend Sara Coppler, who has run disaster relief projects around the globe – including Afghanistan and Haiti – was in Canoa when I arrived, and she showed me what volunteers were doing to help the local community to rebuild their lives. Ecuadorian and expat volunteers went into the earthquake areas immediately to help and some, like Proyecto Saman which is mostly “staffed” and funded from Cuenca, have stayed.
Two Proyecto Saman projects nearing completion at the time I visited the area were both construction: a wood-frame house for one of the survivors who had spent a year in the Proyecto Saman emergency-aid ‘tent village’, and a fast food kiosk to help another family regain their livelihood.
Proyecto Saman and the resort village welcomes volunteers and tourists: rebuilding after a disaster is a long and difficult process and tourists’ dollars and volunteers’ work are equally helpful.
For tourists, there are good hotels, restaurants, the beach with surfing waves on many days, and trips to neighboring towns and villages. It’s also on the coastal route that can make up a resort-hopping tour by bus.
Canoa tourism: Google brings up many sites. I stayed at the totally relaxing Sundown Beach resort, 2km outside the village: large room with balcony & en suite shower etc; use of good communal area and kitchen, water – $135 a week.
Mara and Allan later wrote in their South America blog: “We spent about 10 days in the quiet coastal town of Canoa where we surfed, took a week of Spanish lessons and met some wonderful people.” Before they left, Allan told me they had liked the calm, tranquil, friendly nature of the area. “We’ve definitely enjoyed it,” he said.
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How you can help
Canoa now: https://www.cuencahighlife.com/earthquake-recovery-help-expats-brings-hope-changes-canoa/
Canoa volunteering: You can find out more about Proyecto Saman, volunteering, or donating at www.proyectosaman.com