Llamas, whales, and finally the cobblestones of Cuenca: Travelers discover the wonders of the Andes
By Michelle Higgins
Two and a half hours and still no sign of llamas. We should have been winding our way through lush forests and mountain lakes instead of the never-ending banana plantations we continued to see outside our rented four-wheel drive. It was time to turn our dying iPhone’s navigation system back on and confirm the inevitable.
Somewhere between sprawling Guayaquil and the quaint cobblestone streets of Cuenca my husband and I had made a wrong turn. And now, on the second leg of our Ecuadorian road trip, with my mother consoling our hungry 4-year-old in the back seat, we had a decision to make: Do we turn back and take the well-trodden route through Cajas National Park we had originally planned to drive, or push onward, not knowing what the road conditions might be ahead, how long our journey would take or if our daughter would nap along the way?
We kept going. And though the journey took six hours instead of three, the landscape was stunning, the roads were paved, and our daughter slept.
Northeast toward Cuenca from Machala in El Oro province, banana fields gave way to winding mountain passes lined with cacao beans set out to dry on the pavement. At one point we crested an Andean summit and found ourselves in a lunar landscape before descending into a series of valleys, above which rose terraced hillsides dotted with cows and horses.
“I have never been to this part of the country,” declared my mother, who was born and raised in Ecuador, as she marveled at the scenery. “I never would have seen this if we hadn’t gone the wrong way.”
Indeed, the largely deserted and circuitous route ended up being exactly what we were after. Having visited my mother’s homeland over the years, beginning with family vacations when I was a year old, I had crossed some of the more typical tourist to-dos off my list: Straddle the yellow line that not so precisely represents the Equator at Middle of the World; bargain for handicrafts at the Indian market in the town of Otavalo; taste roasted guinea pig.
But beyond my family ties, what keeps drawing me back to this small South American country is its geographical and cultural diversity. Roughly the size of Colorado and bordered by Colombia to the north and Peru to the south and east, Ecuador has snow-capped Andes Mountains, Amazon rain forests, sun-soaked Pacific beaches and, more than 500 miles offshore, the Galápagos Islands. But what many foreign travelers miss are the attractions in between: mountain lakes, cloud forests, volcano-heated hot springs and colonial cities.
On our nine-day trip in July we focused on three of these offerings — beaches, mountains and colonial charm. The plan was to head north along the Pacific coast, then head east into the Andean highlands for high-altitude trails before spending time with family in the beautiful colonial city of Cuenca, where my mother was born. (We ended up doing it all, but not in that order, given our detour.)
We started out on a Saturday heading westward from Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, and then north along the coastal highway promoted variously as La Ruta del Sol (Route of the Sun) or Spondylus Route, named for a spiny shell that was once used as currency by indigenous groups. The route is Ecuador’s equivalent of California’s Pacific Coast Highway except with speed bumps, stray dogs, donkeys and far fewer cars, extending almost the entire coastline from the Peruvian border to Esmeraldas in the north. Along the way it passes through fishing villages, resorts, tropical dry forest and deserted golden beaches.
We (meaning my husband) drove about three and a half hours toward Montañita, a backpacker and surfer enclave. Fishing boats teeming with resting pelicans, bamboo shacks on stilts, shrimp farms, trucks laden with pineapples, and families sharing motorcycles were common sights. About halfway between Guayaquil and Montañita, we passed San Pablo Beach, a fishing village with roadside eating spots whose proprietors, eager for business, flailed at every car that passed by. We drove on, anxious to see the beachfront rental we had booked online.
Rentals in Ecuador can be hit or miss. Even some of the more luxurious places have lumpy mattresses, spotty Internet service, cold showers and nonpotable water. That’s beginning to change in cities like Quito and Cuenca, which have become retirement magnets for United States expats. Renovated one-bedroom apartments with Wi-Fi, washer/dryer and DirecTV can be found for as little as $350 a week. (The U.S. dollar is the currency of Ecuador.) If you’re willing to pay more, you can get housekeeping, airport transfers, prestocked refrigerators and even cooks.
We splurged on a $350-a-night three-bedroom beachfront home that advertised all of the above on the rental website Homeaway.com and were not disappointed. Sliding-glass pocket doors the length of the kitchen and living room opened to a veranda overlooking a hot tub, pool and the deserted beach beyond. Every bedroom had a flat-screen television set, crisp linens and a spa-like bathroom. The refrigerator was stocked with the eggs, bread, peanut butter and other items we had requested.
There was high-speed Wi-Fi throughout and a filtration system to ensure that every tap and shower had purified water. The water was a feature we would have killed for on a previous trip with our daughter, then 1; we had to buy gallons of filtered water at the local supermarket and, as the Ingalls family on “Little House on the Prairie,” might have done, heated it on the stove so she could take a warm bath without our having to worry about her drinking tainted water.
Yet, what really set the place apart was the service. The on-site caretakers, Gilson and Kathy, who lived in an adjacent studio apartment with their adorable 3-year-old, greeted us warmly upon arrival. Every morning, Gilson, who spoke basic English, was up first, cleaning the pool and wiping down the lounge chairs. While we were out, the beds were made and the rooms swept clean. When we hinted that we might like shrimp for lunch or chicken for dinner, Gilson went off to the market to pick up the desired items. While we swam in the pool or collected shells, Kathy grilled up a meal and laid out a main dish with traditional platanos (fried green bananas) and rice. If laundry piled up, by the time we returned from sightseeing it would be washed, dried and folded.
The couple offered to help coordinate day trips to nearby attractions, but we were content to explore on our own. And so we set out for La Playa Los Frailes, billed as the most beautiful beach in Ecuador, about 40 miles north of Montañita in the Machalilla National Park. Along the route, which twists through lush hillsides and scrubby forest dotted with cactuses, we stopped at Puerto López, a picturesque fishing village. It was the start of whale-watching season on the Pacific coast of Ecuador, where each year, June to October, humpbacks arrive from the Antarctic to breed. A typical $50 half-day whale-watching and snorkeling excursion from Puerto López includes a visit to Isla de la Plata, where Sir Francis Drake is said to have hidden treasure. The island is also dubbed the Poor Man’s Galápagos for up-close encounters with blue-footed boobies, frigates and other marine birds.
In Puerto López, we stopped for lunch at Hotel Pacifico, which offered decent ceviches and bland fish and chicken. More satisfying was Pacha, an artisanal chocolate shop we stumbled across on our way out of town. Opened in October by an Argentine-Ecuadorean couple, Pacha offers handmade chocolate bars, cocoa “nibs” (bits of fermented, dried, roasted and crushed cacao bean) and brownies made with the heirloom cocoa beans known as the national variety. My mother gasped when she found a tub of pure cocoa butter lip balm.
“I used to use this when I was a kid,” she said, taking a nostalgic whiff of the salve.
Harvested nearby from small, organic farms, Pacha’s cocoa beans are fermented for four to eight days in large cedar boxes, then dried in the sun on elevated beds for 10 to 20 days. Shelled and roasted to bring out the complex flavors ranging from fruity or floral to earthy or even whiskey notes, the cocoa beans are then ground with a stone grinder. After tempering on a marble slab, the chocolate is ready to be molded, wrapped and sold. After indulging in a warm brownie, we were ready to hit the road again.
Some six miles north of Puerto López, through a tunnel of spiny branches that form a canopy over the road, a dirt track leads to a gated park entrance where a guard jotted down our nationalities. We followed the sunbaked, potholed dirt road, to a parking lot. Beyond a handful of vendors selling souvenirs, bottled water and $3 umbrella rentals, a narrow path opens to a crescent-shaped inlet with turquoise water and gray-white sands framed by cliffs and forested hills. On the day we visited, thong-clad French-speaking tourists shared the beach with Ecuadorean families huddled under sheets draped across driftwood posts. Nearby, a group of pasty Germans slathered on sunblock, snapped photos and played Frisbee.
Despite its popularity, the beach feels unspoiled, free of the vendors that pace the sands of unprotected resort-area beaches. Footpaths lead to adjacent beaches and up to clifftop lookouts. It’s a good idea to wear a hat and sturdy shoes. Signs warn hikers of poison manzanillo trees (Hippomane mancinella), which ooze a sap that can cause skin blistering and produce a toxic fruit.
Back in Montañita, we strolled the compact grid of streets lined with Tiki-style restaurants and souvenir stalls manned by dreadlocked hippie-types. My daughter, flush with three weeks of allowance and some spending money from her grandfather, ogled the mystic crystals, hemp bracelets and I ♥Montañita T-shirts until she spotted a pink embroidered dress for $15, which my mother haggled down to $9. At Tagua 950, I scored a chunky bracelet made of tagua, a rain forest seed known as vegetable ivory.
But there is more to the town than souvenir shops. Surfers are drawn to Montañita for its strong waves, cheap hostels, laid-back vibe and boozy beach parties. When the sun goes down, especially on weekends, discos blare reggaeton and salsa, and shops stay open well into the evening. There are rows of bars and thatched-roof restaurants. We grabbed a table at the open-air Diablos Mexican bar and restaurant where the nachos were lackluster but the margaritas were decent, and our perch, at the corner of cocktail alley, where more than 20 cocktail stands line the road down to the beach, was great for people watching.
On our last day at the beach, we returned to town for lunch at Hotel Baja Montañita near where the sand dead-ends up against a rocky cliff. The sky was overcast and a cool, salty mist dampened our skin as we settled into beach chairs under a palapa. But after two blissful days beneath the perpendicular rays of the Ecuadorean sun, no one minded. A half a dozen surfers caught substantial waves and skillfully rode them toward shore. Pelicans dived into the surf, beak first, aiming for fish. And suddenly, way out on the horizon, a geyser-like spray shot up. A whale! Then, as if in response to my shrieks of excitement, it breached — not one, but three times.
The next day we drove back to Guayaquil, spending a night at the Sheraton simply to break up the journey to Cuenca in Azuay province.
Driving in Ecuador is not for the faint of heart. While the roads we took were well maintained and the speed limit was often respected, plenty of drivers ignore some basic rules of the road — like slowing down and forming lines along blind, mountainous hairpin curves lined with signs that read “PELIGROSO!” (Dangerous!)
When stuck behind a slow-moving truck on such a stretch, it is not uncommon for the car behind you to attempt to pass. As that car speeds up, the driver in the vehicle behind it will often decide to pass both you and the other car. Then a third car will inevitably race ahead. Watching this maneuver, you will pray. If those prayers are answered, a tractor-trailer will not come barreling down the other side of the highway at that moment. If it does, you will be forced to slam on the brakes and allow those three passing cars to somehow fit into one lane in front of you lest you all fall off the cliff.
Then there are the unexpected encounters with animals. Among the many that sent us swerving and slamming on the brakes were stray dogs, horses, donkeys, a horned cow and the proverbial chicken crossing the road.
By the time we reached Cuenca, roughly 8,000 feet above sea level, we were ready to ditch the car. Thankfully, its historic center — a Unesco World Heritage site filled with terra-cotta-tile roofs, domed churches, plazas, tempting bakeries and cobblestone streets, all set above the grassy banks of the Tomebamba river — is a perfect place for strolling.
When we arrived around 4 p.m., most restaurants were closed for lunch and not yet open for dinner. So we hauled our starving child to Raymipampa, which serves uninspiring Ecuadorean fare in a superb location: facing Parque Abdón Calderón, the city’s central square.
Marked by eight towering Chilean pine trees, the plaza, commonly referred to as Parque Calderón, is sandwiched between the Iglesia del Sagrario, known as the Old Cathedral, built in 1567, and the massive Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, with rose-colored marble floors and three sky-blue domes that dominate Cuenca’s skyline. It was completed in 1967 as part of the New Cathedral, the name more commonly used by locals.
Ecuador’s third largest city, Cuenca is a hub for local artisans, with indoor and outdoor markets offering high-quality handicrafts like Panama hats, hand-painted ceramics, embroidered dresses, heavy ponchos, intricate silver jewelry, leather jackets and other goods. You can barter with the street vendors at the Plaza de San Francisco or browse the indoor Casa de la Mujer, in the Municipal Handicraft Center between Mariscal Sucre General Torres and President Córdova Streets. If you’re short on time, Galeria El Tucán (Antonio Borrero 7-35, near the corner of Presidente Córdova) offers a nicely curated selection of traditional goods.
A regular stop for my family is the Panama Hat Museum and Workshop (Museo del Sombrero Paja Toquilla) in the house of the Paredes Roldán family, which has been producing classic Panama hats (originally from Ecuador, not Panama) and other styles for more than 60 years. Each time we visit, there are more styles and colors to choose from, woven by hand, and offered in varying grades of toquilla straw.
Nearby, stone stairways lead down to the tree-lined Barranco, where old-world homes with wrought-iron balconies cling to the bank above the Tomebamba River, one of four tributaries that crisscross the city.
Though many of the outdoor markets and traditional shops are still going strong, it’s a different place from the one I remember as a child, striding arm in arm with my aunt. The cobblestone streets were not the pristine paths they are today. Beggars were a common sight. The markets were dirty, ramshackle labyrinths.
Today seesaws and slides dot the well-manicured riverbanks of Parque Paraiso, Cuenca’s largest city park. Restaurants, art galleries and bars line Calle Larga. Buildings have been restored and turned into boutique hotels, including our own family home, built by my grandfather in 1952, which my aunt lovingly restored, weaving family heirlooms throughout.
While tourism has blossomed and arguably helped maintain much of the historic center, the area has lost some of its residential feel as families (like mine) have left old homes for newer ones in the more modern city outskirts. Today, many of the people moving in are expatriate retirees; the U.S. Consulate estimates there are 4,500 of them in Cuenca.
Outside the city, artisans continue to churn out exquisite crafts. Near Gualaceo, about 40 miles east of Cuenca, weavers of the ikat tradition use hand looms to create wool shawls, sweaters and bags in brilliant colors. In Chordeleg, silversmiths specialize in fine filigree jewelry.
For a traditional meal in a magnificent setting, there is no place like Hosteria Dos Chorreras, a half-hour drive from downtown Cuenca through mountain passes and grassy slopes dotted with cattle and eucalyptus trees. The air turns cool and ears begin to pop as the altitude climbs to roughly 12,000 feet, near the entrance to Cajas National Park. Facing two streams that cascade down a mountainside, the eclectic restaurant has oversize windows overlooking a brook filled with rainbow trout that at one point runs through the building past moss-covered boulders. A strong, hot canelazo drink, often made with sugar alcohol, cinnamon and orange juice, will warm you up if the huge fireplaces aren’t ablaze.
We explored the numerous dining and lounge areas, each one its own enchanting fairyland with touches like a pool of rainbow trout or a purple couch next to a rock wall dripping with ivy, mosses and bromeliads.
After a satisfying meal of grilled trout, we climbed back into the car. The road climbed higher toward Cajas National Park. Pines and eucalyptus gave way to high grassland, scrubby bushes and gnarly trees clinging to a jagged mountain landscape dotted with lakes. Pulling through the gated park entrance my daughter suddenly gasped, “a llama!”
Standing regally on the side of the road, its fluffy gray head held high, the llama batted its long eyelashes at us. Wild llamas, reintroduced to the park in the 1980s, are perfectly suited to the area’s fickle weather. We had been warned to dress in layers and were glad we had bundled up with wool hats and scarves when we stepped onto a hiking trail off the main road.
Cajas, which spans about 110 square miles and ranges in altitude between 9,500 and 14,400 feet, is roughly twice the elevation of Denver. We huffed and puffed up a gentle slope alongside a glassy lake. Signs offered not-so gentle reminders to “walk slowly” to avoid altitude sickness and avoid long treks “if you suffer of hear problems.” The ground was a spongy carpet of succulent plants. Gnarly quinoa trees, or Polylepis, also known as paper trees for their flaky bark, were entwined in tangled groves.
In the cold, quiet wilderness of the Andean páramo the heat and golden sands of the Ecuadorean coast seemed a million miles away. But here we were at the end of our trip, winking at llamas high in the Andes. To think that only days before, we had been waving to humpback whales.
Credit: The New York Times