Cuenca didn’t disappoint! So much so that I could have stayed another week there. Not quite as high as Quito (2500 m above sea level as opposed to 2800 m), I knew I was going to enjoy the third largest city in Ecuador as soon as I reached it on my 23rd day in the country. I was almost immediately drawn to its UNESCO World Heritage centro historico, its colonial architecture, its grid-like layout, its relaxed, safe atmosphere and pleasant climate and its many many many bars and restaurants. No wonder that Cuenca has become the place to be and be seen for many expats and retirees from North America.

Historically, Cuenca began as a Cañari settlement around 500 AD, before being conquered by the Inca and turned into a magnificent city that was supposed to rival the likes of Cuzco. It was however then abandoned and only became known as Cuenca when it was founded by the Spanish in the middle of the 14th century.
The new cathedral and its high blue and white domes dominate Cuenca’s skyline, and looked impressive day and night. The adjacent Parque Calderón truly is the hotspot around which the city revolves. No matters in which direction I went, it felt like I always ended up back at the park… In total I spent four days exploring the city’s charming cobblestones streets, visited as many churches as I could find (supposedly there are 53 of them in the historic centre alone!), sat and people-watched in lots of parcs (my personal favourite being San Blas) and as always obsessed over food, alternating between dead cheap almuerzos and cenas, delicious pastries from some of the hundred panaderias and a couple of more upscale restaurants. Being in a bigger city, I also used the opportunity to visit a good bike shop to buy a new rear light and to go to the cinema twice.

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In the middle of my stay in Cuenca I resolved, out of the blue, to take a trip to the coast. This decision came from a combination of three things: 1) Two separate sources had told me that I shouldn’t leave Ecuador without having visited Isla de la Plata. 2) I realised that I was most probably not going to see the Pacific Ocean until I arrived in Santiago the Chile. 3) In the guesthouse where I stayed in Cuenca I made the acquaintance of another Stéphane, this one from Switzerland, who happened to be heading exactly the same way the following day. After a quick chat, and again deciding that we didn’t hate each other, we agreed to meet up at 5AM the next day to catch a bus to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, where we would hop onto another bus to Puerto López, our final destination. The bus terminal in Guayaquil, attached to the city’s airport, is like nothing I have ever seen before. It surpasses in size many larger European airports that I have been to! It felt hectic inside, but actually everything was quite organised and running like a well-oiled machine. After a gruelling nine-hour journey, during which the bus drove over a 4200 m pass before rushing down to sea level, we finally got our first glimpse of the ocean, shortly before reaching Puerto López. The small fishing village is the gateway to the Machalilla National Park and more specifically to the Isla de Plata, so after booking a tour at one of the many agencies and getting a decent night’s sleep in one of the many beach-front guesthouses, Swiss Stéphane and I embarked on a boat the next morning for the 40 km journey to the Isla de Plata. At this time of the year many humpback whales have migrated thousands of miles from their high-latitude summer feeding grounds to these tropical waters to mate and then take care of their calves, so on the way to the island we got to enjoy the spectacular sights of whales jumping high out of the water and crashing back down on their backs in huge splashes (an action called breaching, which they apparently do in order to communicate with other whales far away).

The island is known as the “The Poor Man’s Galapagos”, because it shelters many bird species that can also be found in the Galapagos Islands. Once on the island our guide took us on a small hike so that we could enjoy close-up views of blue-footed boobies, Nazca bobbies and many frigatebirds (some showing off their distinctive inflated red gular pouch to attract females). We also got to snorkel of the island’s coast, which I found amazing, seeing a couple of large stingrays, many beautiful colourful fishes (which shows the extent of my knowledge…) and most amazingly swimming closely with turtles.

Other than fishing and attending to the many tourists, Puerto López didn’t have much else to offer. I personally didn’t like the place much, it was loud, dirty and reminded me of some typical tourist hotspots in South East Asia. Swiss Stéphane felt the same way, so we didn’t hang about much and after returning to the mainland we quickly got into a taxi to the quiet enclave of Ayampe, 20 km down the road. The sleepy village felt like the polar opposite of Puerto López, with narrow muddy roads, a collection of tiny wooden houses, many surfing schools and yoga studios and no loud music, just the noise of waves crashing on the long tranquil beach. A great place to relax! Which is just what I did, between updating the blog and occasionally jumping in the ocean.

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In the end I am glad I took the time to discover this different side of Ecuador. It set me back four days, but it was worth it and if I hadn’t gone, I would have definitely regretted it. After all, travelling by bus seems rather easy and cheap in this neck of the woods, it would be a shame not to make the best of it once in a while to visit some places that are out of the way.

It was now time to leave Cuenca and cycle the remaining part of Ecuador. Peru was calling!

To be continued…

More photos of Ecuador can be found here!