Ecuador 1 – The Southern Highlands – Loja, Cuenca and Parque Nacional Cajas.

Capital – Quito                  Currency – US Dollar                  Language – Spanish
14th August – Once over the border here at Macara, there are many more beautiful Ceiba (Kapok) trees amongst the undulating hills and mountains of the Southern Highlands.  They remind us of the baobab trees in Africa.
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Hostel Descanso just outside of Catacocha came to our rescue last night, allowing us to camp in their large parking area and have use of a bathroom and now we are heading towards Loja.  First however, we decide to take a small road that climbs steeply to the little town of El Cisne, perched just over 2000m in this highland area, where tomorrow there is to be a big festival held in honour of the Virgen del Cisne (Virgen of the Swan), who is said to perform miracles.  The statue of the Virgen is installed for most of the year in the town’s Santuario – a Gothic-style Cathedral.
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 However, every year on Aug.15th, thousands of pilgrims from both Ecuador and Northern Peru, flock here for the festival and then carry the statue on their shoulders to Loja, where she is installed in the cathedral until Nov.1st, when the whole procedure is repeated in reverse.
We make the mistake of thinking that it would be interesting to see the statue for ourselves before it is taken to Loja. We pass many people walking up the hill on our drive up, but judging by the enormous lines of coaches and cars ahead of us, it is obvious that we are not going to be able to get anywhere near the Cathedral.  We decide to leave the locals to their staue and festival, retrace our route and continue to Loja instead, one of Ecuador’s oldest cities.
Loja’s  main square – Parque Central, has many trees and colourful flower beds and the Cathedral, where many locals pay their respect to The Virgen del Cisne.
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South of here is the Plaza de la Independencia with the attractive Church of San Sebastian and interesting, colonial buildings, with pillared overhangs and wooden balconies.
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Leaving Loja, cloud and mist hang low over the hills and we are soon driving through steady rain and avoiding mud slides on to the roads.
The rain continues into Cuenca, capital of the Azuay province and 3rd largest city in Ecuador.  We know there is camping to the southwest of the city at Cabanas Yanuncay but unfortunately we don’t have a way point.  In the dark and rain it is becoming impossible to find and we spend well over an hour driving around the city in circles, coming across only one hotel that has a room but only parking for cars, which seems ridiculous in a city of this size.  The police here are not too happy either about us parking overnight in a guarded parking lot.
We have been driving now for 12 hours in order to reach Cuenca, without even a stop for lunch, which is not ideal!  We decide to do one more circuit of the town and whilst waiting at traffic lights, I hear a chorous of male voices shouting out, ‘Where are you going?’  To our left is a big, black Hummer with 3 guys in it.  I tell them that we have no idea, as we have been driving around unable to find a hotel.  Amazingly the guy in the back calls out, ‘Follow us, I have a hotel and we will take you to it.’  No time for anymore conversation as the lights are changing.
 Our hotel turns out to be the very beautiful, colonial Hotel Victoria by the Rio Tomebamba and what is more, there is secure parking behind gates in the garden area at the back, alongside the river.  Whilst Bill is shown the way to park, I am ushered inside, given a welcome drink and a chocolate and shown our lovely room which we are given at a very special price.  The guy who brought us here turns out to be the owners son and his kindness and hospitality to us, as complete strangers, was really appreciated.  Everyone in the hotel goes out of their way to make sure we are comfortable and the bar is kept open after its closing time of 10pm so that we can have a sandwich.  What more can we say apart from a very big ‘thank you’ and – what great guys for rescuing us!
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15th August – We have a wonderful breakfast in their award-winning ‘El Jardin’ restaurant, every table having a pot with a beautiful orchid.  Ecuador is famous for its orchids, many being sent all over the world and our hotel has many different varieties placed strategically around the building for all to admire.
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After Quito, Cuenca is said to be Ecuador’s most important and beautiful city.  Following the indigenous Canari people and then the Incas, The Spanish arrived and founded this city in the Andean mountain range in 1557, naming it ‘Santa Ana de los 4 Rios de Cuenca’.
The historic centre was declared a UNESCO World Heritage  Site in 1999 and Hotel Victoria is conveniently situated to be within easy walking distance of this.
We arrive at Cuenca’s largest and elegant plaza – Parque Calderon, which is dominated by the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepcion (also known as the ‘new cathedral’) with its huge domes of blue tiles.
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To the side of the cathedral is the daily flower market, full of rich colours and exotic smells.
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Just around the corner from the flower market is Plaza San Francisco with a church of the same name and another colourful market selling handicrafts and clothes.
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Beautiful, colonial buildings and churches from the days of the Spanish Empire, are ever present amongst Cuenca’s cobblestone streets.
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This interesting city is also famous for its ‘sombrero de paja toquilla’ – toquilla straw, or ‘panama hats’ made from the fronds of the toquilla palm and which are exported all over the world.  Hats are graded according to the density of their weave and if the really superior hats are held up to the light, you should not be able to see a single hole in the weaving.  To the connoisseur, the panama hat is a Montecristi, named after the most famous hat-making town of all and one of the areas where the toquilla palm grows.  We really liked these wall paintings seen along the riverfront of the Rio Tomebamba in the famous El  Barranco area, that also serves as a border between the historical and modern areas of the city.
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Many of the indigenous women, still top their traditional dress with a straw hat!
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The El Barranco area is also worth a stroll to see the interesting facades of many of the old houses that overlook the river.
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Cuenca is also well known for its gold and silver filigree jewellery and elegant ceramic dishes and pottery, as well as many other traditional handicrafts that include weaving, embroidery, woven baskets, woodwork and ikat textiles with tie-dyed patterns.
Cuenca has certainly been a very enjoyable and interesting city to visit.
We spend the evening with Colon and some of his friends from the Land Rover Club here in Ecuador.  Colon in particular, has been really helpful by putting us in touch with the Land Rover dealer in Guayaquil for some spare parts, which has then resulted in further contacts being made.
Colon kindly invites us back to his family’s farm to eat on Saturday evening and we look forward to seeing his treasured Land Rover!
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16th – 20th August – We leave behind all our hotel luxuries today and drive to Cabanas Yanuncay for camping.  Colon arrives with his sister and friends and we follow him to the little town of Paute in the hills. We stop in the main square where there are many hot food stalls and sample some of their amazing chips before heading out of town to a beautiful, old hacienda that has been in the family for many years and now belongs to Colon’s uncle.  It reminded us of an old, French farmhouse full of character and in a lovely setting.
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Thank you Colon for a great weekend. You looked after us so well along with your sister and friends Cristian, Gabrrela, Paola and Joaquin.  The pizzas were great, the guayabas delicious and we hope you will soon be making rum from your sugar cane!
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Before leaving, we all have lunch in Paute’s main square and then visit its colourful and very popular Sunday market.
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Back at Cabanas Yanuncay, we meet up with Hannie and Jean Pierre from Holland with their very nice American camper and Kathrin (from Germany) and Harvey (English) who have been backpacking from the north.  Many thanks everyone for all your very useful information, books and maps.
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21st August – Today we leave Cuenca and are heading for Guayaquil and some warmer weather….we hope!
Our route will be taking us through the Parque Nacional Cajas, to a height of just over 4100m.This park includes lush, green valleys and hillsides, bleak and rugged mountains that rise to just over 4600m and over 200 glacial lagoons, connected to each other by rivers and streams.  These lakes are said to ‘shine like jewels’ but today, they are a very cold, steel grey.
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Parque Cajas is an important area for birds, mammals and flora.  Its name possibly comes from the Kichwa word ‘caxas’ meaning cold, and it is certainly this in the higher altitudes.  Cloud and mist drape the hills and swirl in the valleys.  In one magical place, dense, white cloud hangs between the folds of the hills, just revealing mountains that have pushed their way through….quite spectacular!
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At Puerto Inca however, there is a complete contrast…..a real tropical feel, with wooden houses built on stilts, stalls full of pineapples, huge, green melons, coconuts and massive bunches of bananas.  This fertile valley is full of rice fields, banana plantations, mango and papaya trees, sugar cane and……cacao trees, with huge red and brown cacao pods!
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We buy a huge pineapple that smells wonderful and continue toward Guayaquil.
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