Urban Hiking In the Andes: A vagabond’s history, some cultural contrast of the sole, and high heels on horseback, all in the streets of Cuenca.
By Scott Fugit
He began his book, Vagabonding Down the Andes, with a warning to gringo hikers:
“Tramping down the Andes is like walking on the ridge of a steep roof, you can slip off one side or the other and slide down to the Pacific or the Amazon.”
That was Harry A. Franck in 1917. My wife, Dee and I would have to be careful. As we stepped out the front door of our condo for our first urban hike in Cuenca, it was hard not to think about Harry, the little dude on the big hike. Our walk would be just a few hours strolling around nearby streets. Harry walked from Panama to Patagonia, a distance of almost 4,000 miles. His fourth book describes the three year journey that took him, on foot, through the length of Ecuador’s highlands. For me, his story was humbling inspiration for us rookie expats on our virgin stroll in the streets of Cuenca. Writing constantly during his trek, he mixed dark humor with a sarcastic style that was unique for the era and 100 years ahead of its time. It clashed with the travel writing romanticism typical of the period. As we began our Cuenca hikes, I remembered Harry as the superstar of gringo tramping – the first string top of the heap, all-star champion walker (and writer) of his generation. Our trekking efforts would be modest, at the opposite end of the scale from Harry’s. The hardships on our trail are minor compared to his. But when it comes to cultural contrast, what expat hikers can see in today’s Cuenca might even top Harry’s times.
This is a city for walking, maybe one of Latin America’s most famous in that regard. In the plentiful publicity this popular expat destination attracts, walkability is often the first thing mentioned. Traveling to Cuenca? It’s almost a given you make the urban trekking effort, even if back home you rarely travel by foot. American expats often don’t walk much and it’s not always for reasons of poor fitness. A U.S. culture dedicated to cars discourages going anywhere on foot. Back home, it’s just one more type of exercise, not the original form of transportation. The shoe leather express isn’t practical in the land of strip malls, clover leafs and freeways. A visit here changes all that. For those expats not ready to match Harry in walking the length of the Andes, an efficient, compact city like Cuenca is both rare and welcome. History has actually helped. Walking still works here because the streets were laid out, in part, by a culture that didn’t even have the wheel. For many expats, this is something both ancient and new. In Cuenca, transportation means your feet are back in the game.
“As in ancient times, so it is in the Andes today; distance cannot be covered without fatigue. Though the means be more laborious, the mind is far sharper for facts and impressions while on foot.”
Harry nailed it. There is no substitute for walking if you want to learn about a culture. This seems especially true in Cuenca, where it’s not far between tiendas, mercados and restaurantes. On our first short walk we exchanged greetings with locals, practiced our Spanish with several shop owners, met other travelers, and were surprised to pass the pizza place we had taken a cab to on the first night we arrived.
Once we had gained some experience, our range quickly expanded. Just getting started? Think of your hikes in terms of time and not distance. Bragging about our 12 mile start at a dinner party was a mistake. I was quickly humbled by another story — 20 miles in the Cajas on a bad leg. References to distance seem to invite competition. It’s easier to say “we walked four hours.” Here’s another tip. If you want to meet lots of people on the street, use a paper map. Every time you unfold it, someone will ask if you need help. We keep a picture of the map on our phone. This allows my wife and I to reconnoiter in private. What guy wants to admit he’s lost?
“For after all, real travel is real labor. He who journeys only so far as he can without exertion will know no real joys of life itself……”
Easy for Harry to say. It was one of our first hikes and my fuel gauge was near empty. We had walked much of the day and finished up at the Mercado 12 de Abril gawking at the amazing displays of produce.
“The market of this town hung midway between the tropics and the temperate zone, and offers the fruits of both…..”
Dee bought the “both”. Everything that was a bargain and looked good. I did the stair step machine climb to our fourth floor condo carrying it all. I was feeling some of Harry’s “real joy”. Summiting to our nest was the much anticipated finale of each hike. We called this last 50 feet of elevation gain our final assault. Sure, we were just on the 3rd floor, but they start at zero. Yet, who could complain about lugging a few bags of groceries, knowing the little man from Michigan carried:
“A pack of nearly fifty pounds, in spite of a rigid reduction and a desperate throwing away…..”
We quickly separated short walks to the mercado or the launderia from our longer excursions. Like Harry, we actually spent time thinking about what we could physically carry, and for how far. This is rare for Americans, who are more commonly faced with loading up the SUV. As my wife frequently pointed out, I shouldn’t complain about carrying her purchases. I’d be shamed by every indigenous lady bearing a load in the streets of Cuenca.
“The carnival, set for mid-week, started soon after my arrival….. there where long stretches of cobblestone streets with no single inhabitant….”
Early on, we were warned by one Cuenca urban hiker: “The crosswalks are target zones — move quickly.” Certainly good advice. For a contrarian street experience minus cars and crowds, plan some walks during Carnival vacation holidays in February or March. As Cuenca’s population leaves for the coast, tramping city streets becomes a more isolated affair. The contrast adds an interesting change to the urban hiking experience. Your skills in the sport of dodge-car will be less tested.
“Especially were my walking boots in the last stages. As to socks, I had found that the best for tramping the Andes were none at all.”
Despite Harry’s advice, I still prefer socks. There is no doubt that urban hiking in Cuenca requires good foot ware, and padding. Don’t expect sandals to get you far. My favorite medium weight hiking boots were first on the luggage priority list. Foot ware is cultural, and there’s some quiet clashing with local customs. Call it a cultural contrast of the sole. I need real boots, not slippers. Harry had a similar experience.
“They squeeze their feet into articles of effeminate, toothpick shape for custom’s sake….”
He was talking about the men. One hundred years later, the locals still seem to negotiate Cuenca’s broken cobblestones, heaved sloping curbs and uneven sidewalk cracks in thin leather loafers. To me, this looks like backpacking in flip flops. Shop windows are filled with shoes that seem to belong at a prom.
And then there’s the women’s shoes.
Some look as if they require a pilot’s license. Initially, I had to remind Dee to keep walking, no stopping and starring. Harry never mentions stilettos. Neither the indigenous nor older Ecuadorian women wear them. But fashion is well established here and it’s rarely practical. Seemingly the worst possible foot ware to bring to the Andes, some Cuenca shops feature nothing else. Impossible high heels are all that comes between many of Cuenca’s young, modern women – and the rough pavements of their city. Don’t try this at home girls. It’s a balancing act of carrying loads, leading children and trotting towards a bus, over rough ground — all while perched atop cantilevered spike heels. I found myself soon admiring the total body control and athletic ability. Maybe that’s the whole objective. It’s the steeplechase, it’s the balance beam, its juggling, all over fractured concrete and asphalt heaves. Practice makes perfect.
During one Cuenca hike we came across a cultural contrast Harry never imagined – high heels on horseback. You won’t see this at a dusty rodeo back home. It was the start of a parade in Parque San Blas, where Miss Ecuador contestants and other perfectly coiffed beauty queens took to the saddle in seven inch heels. The 15 minute process of getting each of them mounted was like watching the creation of a living sculpture. No spurs required.
“Hour after hour we struggled against gravity like a battle with some hardy wrestler, only to face the red trail zigzagging into the very sky above.”
Harry felt the burn. He understood that we are all soldiers in the war on gravity, although it’s best not to dwell on the inevitable outcome. This is the Andes, be ready for some elevation. For urban hikers in Cuenca, the sudden vertical accents constantly challenge you to do your duty. Put one foot in front of the other and climb. At 2,400 meters (8,400 feet), most North Americans will be feeling Cuenca’s altitude while still in the airport arrival lounge. The city has many level areas, but steep stairs or a 10% paved incline can be just around the next corner. For newbies within a certain age demographic, you may find yourself silently rooting for your aorta walls. Are you unfamiliar with the discomfort of physical exertion? Keep money in your pocket for a taxi. As you short step up the climbs, stop frequently and let your heart rate go down. Endurance coaches call this interval training. It’s a good line we use to rationalize our rest breaks.
“For our dinner it was four ounces of tea and a pound of sugar each, and at that it was a coarse, dirty, stony stuff, wrapped in banana leaf and so hard an ax was required to break it.”
Sugar blocks to fuel your hike? Harry often had nothing else. I once bought one of these dark bricks at the mercado after listening to a spirited discussion, which I couldn’t understand, between an elderly woman and the vendor. The discerning buyer carefully examined a dozen brown blocks before making a decision. To me they looked totally identical. Curious, I bought one that had been refused and determined it was still plenty sweet. It took me a month to eat off one corner, mostly stirring it into coffee. The remainder went to a friend’s horse. For the true Harry hiking experience, eat a pound of it for dinner, after walking all day. You may want to consult your physician beforehand.
“The pedometer registered 35 miles, and our feet and appetites several times that when we halted in what some sixth sense told us was the central plaza.”
Heading towards the main city square makes a good hiking plan. Luckily, modern treks in Cuenca have no lack of provisions along the way. It’s actually the opposite. Eating and drinking can impede progress. I have carelessly stumbled while digging in the bag for a piece of my favorite roasted coconut. The Cuenca streets are littered with another major obstacle. Many watering holes offer not just happy hour, but an entire happy day. Harry was a rough ex-cop and no stranger to the vices. One can only speculate on his reaction to such hindrances in the modern trail. I’m betting two for one margaritas and a friendly female face would have stopped him cold in his tracks.
After his long trip down the spine of South America, Harry A. Franck walked home through Brazil. He described that journey in another book called Working North From Patagonia.. It was published in 1921. He was to go on tramping the world for another 25 years, while publishing a total of 30 books. He somehow found time to get married and have 5 children. Each was born in a different location.
“It feels so good when you stop…. and Cuenca is a place for dreamy loafing…”
“Of all the earth, as far as I know it, Cuenca has the most perfect climate. Always cool enough to be mildly invigorating to mind and body, yet never cold….”
Throughout his three year hike down the Andes, Harry spent a total of six months in Ecuador. As a champion rambler, he also know how to take a break. When he found a location he preferred, like Cuenca, he took some time to rest his impressive durability. In his book he casually mentions one single day hike of 45 miles. Dee and I won’t be challenging Harry’s distance record. We might, however, be able to compete when it comes to the resting part.
With any endurance sport, like hiking, one question always comes up. Harry discusses this silly query several times throughout his book, usually with a heavy dose of derision. During one Cuenca hike, my wife and I were also asked this. Inevitably, someone will want to know: “Why would you want to walk that far?” My best answer: “Because it feels so good when you stop.”
There are other good reasons too. Besides the obvious health and fitness benefits, walking cuts down on cab fares. You also buy less stuff when you have to carry it all. Plus, gringo night partying is substantially reduced when, after a hike, you doze off early in your favorite chair.
Every urban hike in Cuenca brings something new to the expat experience. Tired feet enrich our cultural understanding. Harry understood this and beckoned all of us to join him. He also offered the best reason to be a dedicated urban hiker in Cuenca. It is still true today.
Long ago, Harry A. Franck recognized that, once your long walk is finished:
“…. Cuenca is unexcelled as a place for dreamy loafing…”
All photos by Dee Fugit.
Scott Fugit retired recently to study leisure, travel writing and Ecuador. His goal is to bring real experiences and entertainment to articles relevant to expat life. He and his photographer wife Dee are Cuenca wannabes.