Cuenca

After splitting ways in Manta I (Mark) made my way to Cuenca in the south via Guayaquil. The latter is a modern city that is surging forward. Many people visit as a stop off to the Galapogas Islands and it is worth a day to go down to the city centre (people were very friendly – I got a lot of 'hello' from people who genuinely just wanted to say hi).

Cuenca is a short trip from Guayaquil through some nice hill country. It was fairly rugged and foggy, reminded me of photos I had seen of Scotland. Apparently there are a few hiking trails in them thar hills.

The view from my hotel rooftop.

Cuenca is a great little city built on an old Inca site. It sits in a valley with the old town separated from the modern city centre by a river. I discovered some nice restaurants and bars, an ugly museum, a nice aviary and a merry Belgian selling waffles.

The central square features a lot of wonderful colonial architecture.

The cathedral borders the central plaza. It is very nice but impossible to photograph from a good angle.


Short video of Cuenca and the aviary.

It was almost a year ago that I was in Cuenca and I still have fond memories of it. I could easily have stayed longer. The weather was beautiful the whole time I was there and I really enjoyed just walking around the city. A nice place to rest before exploring the region.

The rest of my trip was spent making my way to Santiago, via stop offs in Máncora and Lima to break the trip up. The goal by that point was to make it home without having anything stolen (we had been very lucky to date) and I must admit it felt like a minor victory to arrive in Santiago with all my possessions – although the adrenaline was already pumping through my veins after my alarm didn't work, necessitating an emergency dash to the airport!

 


Quito

It was in Manta that we temporarily parted ways. I (Saskia) went to Quito to fly back to Santiago and then make the journey home in order to get organised for a new job. Mark decided to stay a bit longer to get some more kite surfing practice in, and he took the more gruelling option of bussing back to Lima, then flying to Santiago and back to Auckland before meeting up again in Sydney.

By the time we reached this stage of our adventure, both of us were fairly exhausted. The travel had taken its toll, and with constant stomach bugs and other illnesses, we were getting quite weary.

When I reached Quito, all I wanted to do was rest before the long journey home. Whilst I had a couple of days there, I had lost the inspiration to go exploring so didn’t venture out much beyond the hostel and main part of town. I took the opportunity to get a haircut (first time in months!), buy some new clothes so I wouldn’t look so ragged upon returning to Sydney, and basically enjoy some time to myself.

I was fairly wary of Quito, after having had several friends visit who had all been victims of petty theft. As such, I kept my big camera locked away at the hostel and only ventured out with my phone and bare essentials when I wandered through the old part of town. It was nice to see that there were actually tourist police on almost every corner of the old town. It looked like they were really trying to change the attitude that people had of the safety issue in Quito, and it was actually fine. We managed to escape South America without once being robbed!

Tourist police keep an eye on things.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm to be a tourist, I would have to say that Quito was possibly the prettiest city that I had seen in South America. It definitely had a certain charm, which I had expected to experience more often in other areas but hadn’t. The old colourful buildings were beautiful, and the squares were similar to other places, but had a different feel. There is a definite distinction between Ecuador and what I imagine the other countries heading north would be like compared with the more southern South American states. I would love to go back again to enjoy Ecuador from a fresh perspective, and head north into Colombia and Central America to see that side of things. Perhaps another adventure awaits!

 

 


The Panama Hat

Before leaving from Santa Marianita we stayed one night in Manta. We were lucky enough to get a lift into Manta from a nice couple who were also at the Kite surfing resort, who lived right next to the hotel we had planned on staying at. We hadn’t actually booked anything but had seen it the day before when we went past, and as it happened, the couple who dropped us off actually owned a serviced apartment in the same building. They gave us a good price and convinced us to stay there instead. To sweeten the deal, they also offered to show us around and to drive us out to Montecristi to have a look at the birthplace of the Panama hat (and potentially buy one from their friends).

Who knew that Panama hats are actually from Ecuador?!? It turns out that former US President Roosevelt was wearing the hat during a visit to the construction of the Panama Canal. The trend caught on, and they became known as Panama hats.

Prices vary from reasonably cheap through to several hundred dollars, depending on the quality of the weave. The hats are quite durable, can be folded, become wet and still retain their original structure.

We saw several shops where there were people literally putting them together on balconies out the front, and sewing the final touches. Apparently it can take several months to finish the process for each hat!

The hats were impressive and we did in fact leave with a lovely Ecuadorean Panama hat, authentically handmade in the original town famous for the hats.


Victory!

Man versus kite: man wins.

Got up! With a bit of aggression the kite came under control and I was skimming across the surface of the water. Stoked.

None of these guys are me.

Its a surreal experience. I thought it would feel like wakeboarding but when surfing downwind the kite skims across the surface. It felt like I was on ice.

That's not me either, but he says hi.

Until, of course, the edge of the board clipped a waved and once again I was inhaling the Pacific Ocean.

Saskia enjoys the pool.

Saskia went for the sensible option and spent her time poolside. The resort, which hosts the kitesurfing business Ecuador Kite Surf, was our home for about a week. We spent the time chatting to locals and taking the occasional trip to Manta, 20 minutes north.

But for the most part we sat by the pool and enjoyed a beer in the sun.

That's me!

 


Kitesurfing is Madness

Salt water stings when it is forced up the nostrils at 100 km an hour.

This is me (Mark) during a kitesurfing lesson in Santa Marianita, Ecuador. I was doing my best but a water kite is a powerful piece of equipment. It can produce the same acceleration as a jet boat, but without the surety of control. All it takes is one gust of wind…

Still, if it wasn't for the risk I wouldn't be interested in kitesurfing. I get a real thrill watching people tearing along the surface of the water and launching into the air. I dream of being able to do the same!

It is an exciting sport but it is devilishly difficult to learn. From previous experience I knew that kitesurfing has a steep learning curve so I committed to an eight hour course to give myself the best possible chance.

The reason I'm still sneezing salt is because controlling the kite can be counter-intuitive. When a strong gust of wind catches me by surprise my muscles instinctively contract and pull on the control bar. This causes the kite to instantly gain power and next thing I know I'm swallowing pelargic fish.

We had an adversarial relationship.

For those unfamiliar with the sport it may help to think of motorcycles. If you pull back on the handle you accelerate, so time needs to be invested upfront to learn how to control the vehicle in all situations. And so it is with a 12 m squared kite, which at worst could drag me on land and through all manner of solid objects.

Speaking of which, my mates love to remind me of a time when I was demonstrating how to use my new kite on the beach. I misjudged the wind speed and a gust of wind lifted me off the ground and two metres forward in the air. I lost control, ripped the emergency chord and watched my friends run back and forth across the beach, doing their best to tame the beast while trying not to spill their beers.

Despite the hazards it is good fun. With practice my kite control has improved and by the end of the lessons I'm hoping for results…

My instructor Pauet, a great bloke.

 

 


Isla de la Plata

The affordable alternative to the Galapogas Islands, Isla de la Plata is an exciting day trip off the south west coast of Ecuador. Supposedly named after guano from the bird population (and less likely, the hidden treasure of an English sea captain), Isla de la Plata has many of the charms of the Galapagos Islands, just not in a comparable abundance. We had a great time and recommend it, especially if you are at the tail-end of your holiday and running out of kish cash.

Mosh pit.

The above photos were all taken from the landing beach. Not bad eh?

A view of the island.

Frigate birds clustered on a tree.

The charismatic frigate bird. The males inflate the pouches to try and pull the ladies.

A baby frigate bird.

A popular reason to visit Isla de la Plata is an opportunity to see blue-footed boobies nesting. We were lucky to be there at the right time.

As a final treat we were visited by a bale of turtles (that's what a group of turtles is called, apparently). They were pretty big, jumping in the water did not seem like a good idea…

 


Montañita

After a long overnight bus trip from Mancora with very little sleep, we arrived in Ecuador. Montañita is a little oasis of touristy delights. Perched right on the white sandy beaches of the Pacific ocean, the town is full of western bars and restaurants to cater for the steady stream of backpackers and holiday makers.

By the time we arrived, we were pretty travel weary so we made good use of the hammocks and the sand. The water was unfortunately freezing, which was disappointing! Even though we were so close to the ecuator, it was far too cold to go swimming but we did brace ourselves and jump in for a quick dip.
While we were there, we had the opportunity to go whale watching and spend a day in Isla de la Plata, an island off the coast commonly referred to as the “poor man's Galapogos” because it has some of the same animals but without the exorbitant price tag. The day trip was fantastic and highly recommended! We saw so many whales! They were breaching and playing all around us, one even went right underneath our boat. It was huge! An incredible experience!!

In the next post we will share our experience hiking on the island.

 


Máncora

Our last stop in Peru after Lima was Máncora, a surfing destination close to the northern border with Ecuador. It is a popular backpacker spot but most importantly, it has a beach.

We decided to find somewhere quiet to stay and found a nice bed and breakfast just down the road from Máncora. Marcial and Cecilia were wonderful hosts, great cooks. We really enjoyed our stay there, some much needed seclusion.

Our room at Marcilia Beach Bungalows

Our hosts explained that at this time of year the humpback whales were travelling south along the coast. That afternoon, as the sun was setting on the horizon, we saw a humpback from the comfort of our deck. We rushed down to the beach and watched the creature launch itself out of the water, again and again. Magic.

After two nights of solitude we shifted to Máncora, where we stayed for three nights. Again, peace and relaxation were on the cards. Fortunately some friends from the dune boarding adventures were also in Máncora so we caught up with them. A friendly Irish lad also became a regular drinking partner.

Kimbas Bungalows

Máncora was a good stop but we were surprised by how austere the landscape was. Much of the Peruvian coast is arid and desert-like. Máncora was an orange, rocky expanse with a beach. If it wasn't for the surf break it may not have become a destination in its own right. We had heard that Montañita in Ecuador was better so we packed our bags, gulped down some ceviche and said goodbye to Peru

 

 


Lima: The City of Kings

The best thing about this city is the food. We finally found something worth eating – ceviche, the delicious dish that is the star of Peru’s culinary repertoire.

A sample of ceviche.

Wandering along the coast line, stopping to drink wine and eat seafood is a pretty awesome introduction to any new place. We decided to stay in Miraflores, the seaside suburb of Lima, and stopped for lunch at ‘La Mar’, one of Lima’s best cevicherias. Here we were treated to a selection of different ceviche dishes (variations of raw fish, chili and onions marinated in lime juice). Ceviche, where have you been all my life!?

Lima is also the home of the Pisco Sour, a cocktail that is popular along the west coast, and the Lima Sigh, a wonderfully sweet desert. A stop at the Gran Hotel Bolivar, where the Pisco Sour was conceived, is mandatory, and any decent restaurant around the central squares will spoil you with a Lima Sigh.

We weren’t in Lima for long, but we did manage to catch up with old and new friends, as well as wander around the shops and city streets. A referral put us onto a city tour bus, which we thought was the easiest and cheapest way to get around and see the sights all in one afternoon.

We went through the old squares in the center of town and saw the glamorous buildings from the colonial era, which still look magnificent.

The tour finished at the Museo Larco, which has one of the most incredible collections of Inca art anywhere in the world. The museum is a beautiful building of white washed walls and red flowers. Established in 1926, the Museo Larco hosts a vast collection of around 45,000 artifacts excavated from northern, central and southern Peru.

Photo taken from the courtyard.

Peru is one of the six cradles of civilization and the museum exhibits cover the many tribes that rose and fell over the last 5,000 years. Over time it is possible to see how the art became more sophisticated and how the different cultures influenced each other. The apex of this art is represented by the Incas, who amalgamated all of these influences as the empire spread across Peru.

We learnt a lot from the visit, and as it happens many of the best pieces from Cusco’s Museo de Art Pre-Colombino are on loan from this museum. We were so impressed with the collection that we bought a photographic book published by Museo Larco (which Mark used to design a tattoo on his back).

Lima itself was rather grey due to a haze that hangs over the city from April to November. It would have been nice to stay longer, but we were getting travel weary and were keen for some sunny beach time. So we boarded a dreadful overnight bus and escaped to the surfer’s paradise of Mancora!

The hazy shades of Lima.

 


The Nazca Lines

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While we were staying at Huacachina, we arranged for a day trip to Nazca and a flight over the Nazca Lines. Although we had heard scary stories of the plane ride, we thought it was an opportunity not to be missed.

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Apparently these lines were created by the Nazca people sometime around 400-650 AD, but only became well known after a Peruvian archaeologist saw them while hiking in 1927. Although some can be seen from on top of the surrounding foothills, it is best to see them from the air to get the full scale and magnitude of the images.

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The lines are made by removing the red pebbles on the ground and uncovering the lighter coloured ground beneath. Once up in the sky, it is quite astounding to see that there are lines EVERYWHERE! Along with the familiar pictures there are also just geometric shapes and random lines scattered across the desert landscape.

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The most impressive where the hummingbird, monkey, whale, dog and the waving man that looks like an alien!

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