Ecuador conjures up images of pristine rainforests and exotic wildlife. It’s also a little less travelled than its neighbour, Peru, although there’s a fair share of US expats here thanks to the country’s adoption of the dollar as their currency. Although on the one hand, travel is made easier by the much shorter distances (goodbye 21 hour bus journeys), the buses are certainly not up to the five star standards of Chile and Argentina and we’ve been told to watch our backs and our bags.
In fact, we fall victim to some light fingers almost as soon as we have crossed the border. Our day bags on the floor by our feet, Rich reaches down to find his bag open and his laptop halfway out. Later, we discover they’ve robbed $100 out of the wallet in the front pocket. Thankfully, the camera, laptop and credit cards are all safe. We’re angry but also relieved they didn’t get anything more difficult to replace.
The anger is quickly replaced with fascination. As the light fades, the bus starts to make its way up into the Andean altitude again, only this time the roads are flanked by endless banana plantations. Ecuador is the world’s largest exporter of bananas, and as we drive past the enormous farms, we even recognise some of the brands from back home in Sainsbury’s. In between, there is little more than a few scattered huts – who cares about a few robbed banknotes when you get to see this kind of thing?
Our first stop in Ecuador is Cuenca, which, according to the Lonely Planet guide we were kindly gifted by Kate in Lima, is one of the country’s highlights. The uplit night shot of the city’s cathedral certainly looks impressive but will the reality live up to the reputation?
We’re staying in a cute little place called El Cafecito, bang slap in the middle of town. As you might guess from the name, it’s also a cute little café (if a little pricey), and although the dorm rooms have the unfortunate placement of being off the central courtyard (complete with heavy metal music depending who’s working the waiting shift), the private rooms thankfully look over the back garden in an altogether more peaceful setting.
Despite the rave reviews that this place seems to get, I have to admit we’re a little disappointed. Perhaps we have just seen too many colonial towns on our travels but for us this certainly doesn’t rank up there with the likes of Paraty or Sucre. It’s got plenty of churches and monasteries, in fact a little too many, practically one on every street corner, and these are pretty enough for sure, but the rest of the town in between is pretty grey and unforgettable.
One thing it does have going for it is being the epicentre of the world famous Panama hat, more correctly known as a Montecristi. The Panama hat is in fact Ecuadorian, and is made from the plaited leaves of the toquilla straw plant. It became known as a Panama hat because they were shipped through the Panama canal and many of the workers there took to wearing the hat. There are several traditional shops in town selling top notch quality hats which can cost upwards of $100, which are so fine they can reportedly pass through a ring. Of course, they also trot out the less high quality versions, starting at a little over $10 here, although still much more expensive back home. Still, it’s definitely worth a visit to one of the manufacturers to hear about the traditional techniques used and try on a few of their best wares.
Other than that, there’s not a whole lot more for me to say except that, for us at least, Cuenca was a little disappointing and if you are strapped for time, it’s certainly not a must-see. Still, another one to tick off the list, and hopefully more joy at our next stop, Guayquil.