Our taxi driver suggested we take a minivan rather than the public bus to Cuenca from Guayaquil. The bus was $8, the minivan with just 7 passengers was $12 so we chose a new looking van and driver and off we went upwards into the Andes again. Our driver was great, nice and safe, but then before we went into the mountains our drivers changed and we somehow ended up with the absolute worst driver in South America, bar none! So picture the scene, we’re driving around very curvy mountain bends at breakneck speed with a driver who takes more phone calls than an 911 emergency operator. He was a macho, jerky, rough driver who had obviously never heard of Swiss Tony saying “Driving a car is very much like making love to a beautiful woman…” As we didn’t want to be ejected by Senor Crapdriver from the van in the mountains, we kept our English commentary to ourselves but gave him several head shakes and tuts of dissatisfaction. On the plus side the scenery at 13,000 feet above the clouds was spectacular, we drove through the Cajas National Park with Scottish looking peaks, glacial lagoons and white fluffy llamas wandering by. Luckily we stayed on the road in one piece and made it into Cuenca 3 hours after leaving Guayaquil.
Checking into our hotel quickly soothed our nerves, as we were met with a refreshing welcome drink and were shown to our deliciously comfortable room. Mr E master of finding the bargains had surpassed himself with this fabulous hotel. The historic Santa Lucia hotel was built in 1859 and while it regained all the charm of the period it certainly lived up to boutique standards, we liked the hotel and Cuenca so much we extended our stay by a couple of nights.
Cuenca was once an important Incan city on the super highway from Cusco to Quito, but little now remains of the city originally called Tumipamba – Tumi meaning ridge and Pamba for plain. Incas excel at altitude, Cuenca is already at 8,315 feet and those Incas seem to love to build on big hills, partly for military purposes but also for religious and political reasons. While the museum at Pumapungo was terrifically dull it was a nice walk down the embankment and through the gardens to the river walk.
Cuenca is absolutely charming with narrow cobblestone streets, elegant with a beautiful shady central plaza and a daily beautiful flower market.
There are 4 rivers running through the historic city, the main river the Tomebamba is a dividing barrier between the old historic city and the expanding modern city. All along the pretty riverwalk smooching couples laze on the grass and families wash their clothes. Fun graffiti art adorns the walls under the bridges.
There are many craft and food markets where women sell their goods while donning fashionable toquilla straw hats at jaunty angles. The city is famed for the manufacture of these hats. They were exported to the north with men who had gone to work on building the Panama Canal, so although they originated in Ecuador these hats are now more commonly known as Panama hats!
Just a short $5 taxi ride outside of the city is the tiny town of Banos with its famed hotsprings. I had read on TripAdvisor about a 2×1 spa circuit offer on Mondays at the Piedra de Agua therma spa. So we hotfooted it there to enjoy the sauna rooms and Turkish baths. We scrubbed our bodies with red mud, moisturised with blue mud and submerged ourselves in the soothing hot spring waters that are heated from deep volcanic origins that reach the surface at a steamy temperature of 70c. It was indeed a blissful day for just $30.
But once again we changed our plans and abandoned the idea of 10 hours on the bus to go to the lovely looking Banos de Agua Santos when we realised we could fly to Quito instead in 45 minutes with TAME airline for £40 each.
So after a wonderful 4 days in affordable Cuenca, which has to be the nicest city in Ecuador we set off to the middle of the world.
Next up – Quito