I hate when something happens during a trip that completely ruins your vacation. My sister, Merry, had one more week of traveling with us after we returned from the Galapagos and I was excited to write about the many great stories from that week. However, yesterday we took a bus back into the city from the mountains and upon our arrival we found Merry's camera and binoculars missing from her bag. We are all to blame. We made a stupid travel mistake and put our bags in the overhead compartment of the bus. We all know better and now we're kicking ourselves because instead of Merry ending her vacation on a good note, she's going home feeling violated and bummed. I guess the thing to remember is that nothing happened to any of us and it was purely a loss of material things which can all be replaced.

Our week began in the city of Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city. It was dirty, stinky, loud and jam-packed with crazy drivers. There was a general gray color to the city as if everything was covered by a layer of soot or dust and hadn't been cleaned in decades. There was a nauseating aroma of exhaust fumes lingering in the air, which seems to be the case in most heavily populated areas and the sound of honking horns was never-ending. We thought New York City cab drivers were crazy, but they're nothing compared to the way people drove in Guayaquil. There were no lines on the roads and if there were, there'd be maybe 3 or 4 lanes of traffic. But since they're absent, people here just honk their horns, squeeze into the smallest breaks between vehicles and there always seemed to be 6-8 lanes at any given time. In addition, stop signs appear to be treated as yield signs. Every time a car approached an intersection, they'd honk a few times and speed on through. Needless to say, we've been on quite a few hair-raising taxi rides since we've been in Ecuador.

We had a mission to accomplish while we were in Guayaquil which was to find a camping stove because we couldn't fly with the one we used while cycling in the US. It turned out to be more difficult than we'd imagined trying to explain, in our broken and simple spanish, what we needed. It came down to us asking for a small stove that can fit into a backpack that would be found in a store that also sold tents and sleeping bags. It seemed straight forward to us, but we ended up spending an afternoon on a dead end rat race jumping from taxi to taxi and being sent to every type of store imaginable. Clothing stores, appliance stores, food stores, hunting kiosks in malls and Target-type stores – how people thought we'd find a camping stove at some of those places was beyond me. We eventually gave up and decided to get out of the city and head to the mountain town of Cuenca to try our luck there.

After a 4-hour bus ride on the most insanely intense, steep and winding mountain roads any of us had ever seen, we arrived in Cuenca, an adorable old town with cobble stone streets and old churches. It was quite a change from Guayaquil's hustle and bustle and fortunately we had much better luck finding a camping equipment store with exactly what we needed.

We had 4 full days in Cuenca and we couldn't have picked better dates to be there. We arrived on the weekend before a 3-consecutive day holiday. Monday was All Saints Day, Tuesday was The Day of the Dead and Wednesday was their Independence Day. The party started Saturday night and continued through Wednesday with the festivities growing larger and larger every day. There were markets and vendors in all of the parks selling everything from beautiful alpaca wool blankets, sweaters and ponchos, to purses, pottery, traditional instruments, jewelry and paintings. The colors throughout the city were vibrant and lively and I would have loved to have bought so many things, only we didn't have room to carry them on our bikes nor to send them home with Merry.
Cuenca market.

There were stages of musical performers, street performers and hundreds of people dancing in the streets starting as early as 8am everyday and continuing well into the twilight hours. The only times the city was actually quiet was between 4 and 7am. The city was a non-stop party, alive with locals, people from all over Ecuador and travelers from around the world.

There were food stands of ice cream, cotton candy, kabobs, frighteningly red colored candied apples and plums and huge mounds of colored marshmallow fluff looking substances that they ate in ice cream cones and though it all smelled delicious we didn't dare eat any.
Fluffy stuff in ice cream cones and candied apples.

There was one sound that was ever-present in Cuenca and it was the sound of wailing babies. In our hotel we'd hear cries, walking down the streets and at the festivals we'd hear them; they were everywhere, though we'd never actually see any babies. We quickly figured out they were small noisemakers, tiny straws with a tapered end and by blowing into one end and moving your hands around the other you could produce a horribly realistic baby cry. It may have been one of our most ridiculous purchases of the week, but we had to get one to try it for ourselves. It was a short-lived form of entertainment and before long it fell into the category of just another obnoxious and nerve-biting sound.

You think the US celebrates their Independence Day with fireworks, but nothing we'd ever seen even came close to the displays we saw in Cuenca. We'd often wake up in the morning to the sounds of exploding fireworks, there were always several massive shows during the evenings, but the most outrageous exhibition came on the night we checked out the festivities in the city's central square. On each corner of the square was a structure built of thin plaster and bamboo sticks. The towers stood about 30 feet tall, were painted bright colors and were decorated with huge pinwheels and flags. We originally thought them to be decorative structures for the celebrations, but they were much more than that. We have named them “The Ecuadorian Flaming Towers of Death,” and here's why. We were standing on a corner about 20 feet from the tower, checking out some vendors, when suddenly there were fireworks exploding amongst the crowd. People started screaming and backing away from the tower in a moment of chaos. Fortunately we were the perfect distance away to get an up front view without being in the firing range of the spewing pieces of burnt metal that were raining over the crowd.
The Ecuadorian Flaming Tower of Death

We stood in awe, laughing hysterically in disbelief. There was no warning, no officials pushing the crowd back to a safe distance. Instead they just decided to set off a 10-minute fireworks show in the middle of a crowd of thousands of people. We enjoyed it so much that we stood around and positioned ourselves for front row seats for the second show, which again was unbelievable. It's amazing what people can get away with here and I don't think any fireworks show I'll ever see again will live up to the spectacular shows we witnessed in Cuenca.
The Ecuadorian Flaming Tower of Death at its finest.

After a few days in Cuenca we were ready for a break from the crowds and sensory overload so we caught a bus to Cajas National Park, about 20 miles out of town. Nestled high up in the Andes Mountains, the scenery was breathtaking. The mountains were green and craggy, there were countless little rivers and lakes, deep blue in color. We hiked through forests of quinoa trees, whose grain is tasty and popular throughout South America and whose reddish-orange flaky bark and knotted and gnarled branches make it one of the most unique trees I've ever seen. It felt, at many times, like we were hiking through a fantasy world forest, a dark, creepy place in which you could easily get yourself lost. The mountainsides were covered with tall grasses and when the light was just right they showed tints of every color of the rainbow. The rocks were covered with various mosses and fungi, interesting plants grew everywhere and the ground was covered with many varieties of tiny green flower-shaped plants. It gave the perception that we were walking on either some old wallpaper from the 70s or maybe on a beautiful hypnotic painting.
 Cajas National Park

 Quinoa tree

 Merry enjoying the scenery.

 The ground.


Cari hiking through the fantasy world forest.

It was nice to take a break from the city and explore a pristine section of the world. It was challenging hiking, though, ranging between 12,000 and 14,000 feet and we couldn't help but feel concerned about how difficult it's going to be riding though these mountains in a few days. If anyone is looking for a new place to do some back country backpacking, I would highly recommend this park; you could get lost in the wilderness for weeks and you wouldn't be disappointed.
The view from 14,000 feet.

Then came the upsetting bus ride where Merry's stuff was stolen. I guess we had all started to feel safe and comfortable here and we paid the price for letting our guards down. We spent Merry's last day in Ecuador in the police station. Fortunately there was a nice, older gentleman in our hotel lobby who spoke some english and when we discovered her camera was missing, he volunteered to help us out. He walked us down to the local police hang out, translated between us and the police, rode with us in the police truck to the county station and helped us file the report. It was frustrating with the language barrier, yet slightly comical seeing all of the looks we received while driving through town in the back seat of a police truck. We did what we could but I'm sorry my sister's vacation to a place she had been dreaming of visiting for so many years ended on such a bad memory. My only wish was that it had happened to my or Mike's cameras as they're much less important to us than it was to Merry.

We are now back in Cuenca which is where we'll begin riding again in a couple of days. Tomorrow Mike will rebuild our bikes and we'll get everything set for life on a bike again. It's been 4 weeks since we finished riding in North America and I must say we're ready to be back on the road. I'm looking forward to traveling on our bikes rather than toting them around with us in boxes, which has been a bit of a pain in the butt!
We barely fit!


Mom said...

What beautiful country! I can not imagine riding through the Andes, I am jealous of your youth. Sorry to hear of Merry's troubles. Keep in touch and remember I love you bunches.

NancyE said...

Jeeeeez! What a shame about Merry's camera. Did she lose very many pictures? (Says I, hoping she had more than one memory card, and the others were in her pocket...?) Glad you resisted the temptation to eat those pretty red apples. Wow, another batch of absolutely incredible pictures! Why couldn't you fly with the camping stove you had? I mean...assuming the fuel bottle was empty.