My next stop along the trail is the city of Cuenca, a colonial city which is the capital of Ecuador’s Azuay Province. The city is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its many historical buildings and sites. Unfortunately, I will not have a full week in Cuenca due to outrageous price increases in regard to accommodation for the upcoming nationwide holiday (Día de los Muertos) and the city’s Independence Day celebrations but I plan on taking advantage of three full days to see as much of the city as I can.
Arrival to Cuenca- As has become custom, I have designated Mondays as my travel days. I left my hotel in Baños at 8 AM in order to get a jumpstart on my trip to Cuenca. I arrived at the bus terminal to find out that a bus directly to Cuenca was leaving at 8:45 AM and would take 7 hours. The price was high ($10 USD) in Ecuadorian terms so I decided to take my chances and see if I could get a cheaper ticket in nearby Riobamba. I decided to pay $2 USD for a ticket to Riobamba and had to go wait on the side of the road to hop on a passing bus. The trip to Riobamba took about an hour and 45 minutes and I arrived in the Riobamba bus terminal at about 10:30 AM. Fortunately, there was a bus going to Cuenca at 11 AM which gave me extra time to charge my cellphone. However, the ticket cost $8 USD which would have equaled the price had I just chosen to take the bus in Baños. Nevertheless, I was on my way at 11 AM on a fairly comfortable bus with very few other passengers. The trip itself took about 6 hours as we passed through mountains and stopped in several smaller cities (i.e. Cañar, Azogues). However, as we were rolling into Cuenca, I couldn’t help but notice how lush and green the city was even compared to places like Baños and Mindo. The city was very clean and even the local houses had a unique colonial character to them. I arrived at the bus terminal at 5 PM and after charging my cell phone for about 10 minutes, I hopped into a cab and made my way to my hotel near the central square ready to explore the city.
Cuenca Walking Tour- As has become custom, the first thing I do when arriving in a new city is take advantage of the “free” walking tours. After some research, I made a reservation with Free Walking Tour Cuenca which offered tours twice a day (11 AM and 3 PM). I chose the 11AM tour and while I did not receive a confirmation email, there were instructions provided one the companies website on where to meet. I met the tour guide, Mica, in a plaza next to the city’s modern cathedral. She was standing with a couple. While I always book the tours in English, as it is my first language, I’ve come to figure out that most of these tours will always be done in Spanish given that most of the tourists are from Spanish speaking countries (If you don’t speak Spanish, then you can insist on an English tour). This time was no exception as the other couple did not speak English, so the tour was done in Spanish for simplicity. While the tour followed the same format as the other tours I’ve done, I though Mica did a good job at highlighting some of the unique facts as it relates to Cuenca such as the stories behind the city’s monuments and building, the isolated life of the nuns of the Monasterio de las Conceptas, and the importance of religion in Ecuadorian society. We also toured the gigantic new cathedral as we arrived right before the start of mid-day mass. We then made are way to the traditional marketplace where Mica recommended us several local dishes to come back and try. We ended the 2 hour tour at a lookout above La Universidad de Cuenca where I was able to get an excellent view of the city landscape. Overall, I enjoyed the tour and I thought Mica was pretty cute so there is extra points for that.
El Parque Nacional Cajas- Cuenca’s biggest attraction was actually not located in the city itself. El Parque Nacional Cajas is a vast national park located about 45 minutes northwest along the highway which connects Cuenca with Guayaquil. Only having a couple of days in the city, I wanted to make sure I took advantage of the opportunity to explore it. I chose to go on a Wednesday. I woke up about 630 AM and took a taxi to the bus terminal. Even though the taxi ride supposedly cost $1.20 the driver cited a “$1.50” minimum fare which was no where to be found. Having take a few taxis before in the city, I had not run into such rule. I called him out on it but ultimately decided .30 cents wasn’t worth any more of my time. I arrived at the terminal and got various answers on how to catch the bus to Cajas. I was finally able to find the right driver and hopped on the bus right before it left at 8AM. The trip took about and hour and cost $2 USD. However, I was dropped off right in front of the ranger station that I was required to register at. I was immediately greeted by the giant lake I had seen in the reviews. Not surprisingly, it was a lot more chilly in the park than back in Cuenca. Although I had heard a passport was required (I only had a picture of it on my phone), the lady at the station never asked for it and just had me type my information in the computer. More importantly, there was no cost to enter the park. Exploring the park was a “choose your own adventure” as there were about 10 different trails of varying difficulty and time. Not wanting to hike for 9 hours, I chose Ruta 1 which I had thought was only a 3.5 hour hike based on what I had read on the sign. Much to my surprise, after walking about 1.5 km to the first sign, I found out it was actually a 5 hour and 50 minute hike (it had 29 different stopping points along the trail). I still decided to go along that trail until I felt like turning around. While the trail itself provided many picturesque moments and was not physically difficult, the path was extremely muddy which made slipping a continuous possibility (I actually slipped pretty bad on my way back up). I ended up hiking for an about an hour and a half and got to “Point 8” of the trail where I was able to take a picture of another small lagoon and a small waterfall before heading back to the ranger station. I turned back because I was tired, hungry, and pretty bored of the views at that point. However, I could definitely tell why Cajas is a must-see for those passing through Cuenca, especially those who are a fan of the outdoors. It took me about an hour to get back to the ranger station and another 20 minutes to catch a passing bus back to Cuenca. Although I didn’t even do half of one of the shorter trails, I still spent a solid 5 hours at the park.