Crime, Cubalibres & Culture

Banos for food, fun and friendly people ­čÖé

Travelling around Ecuador has been a rollercoaster ride, pleasure, pain and everything in between, oh what a fantastic country! My first stop after the jungle is Banos, a small town very popular with tourists, a place to relax and unwind or adventure with many options for biking, hiking and river rafting. I arrive here with my jungle friends and we stay at one of the best hostels in town; Plantas y Blanco (Plants and White). It┬┤s known for being clean and friendly, and most importantly the breakfast is great. We relax, eat, eat and eat the naughty tasty treats on offer having been deprived in the jungle. After more than a few Cubalibres (rum and cokes) we┬┤re off to Leprechaun, the only place to be in Banos on a Saturday night (and one of very few places you can be!). It┬┤s great, a huge outdoor area in the back with a roaring fire in the middle, an even mixture of gringos and locals on two levels. We have a fab time and they play all my favourite reggaeton tunes. The local men here are known for getting a bit too close so I do my best to keep my distance-not easy!

My friends leave the following day so I hang out, relax and go for a pedicure. Carla a cute local 24 year old girl chats with me while painting my nails and I talk in Spanglish-we have a great conversation. We continue this over lunch, meat, fried plantain and rice, and I learn she has two children, is a single mother and wants to go to Canada one day. Ecuador and South America in general has high numbers of very young mothers and she tells me that contraception is not really advertised, and you certainly do not learn about this at school. Carla enjoys life, she┬┤s got a boyfriend, lives for free at her parent┬┤s hotel and they give her money and look after her. Her two siblings are both living abroad. Life is relaxed and easy in Banos and she loves it but wants more for her children and herself.

I reunite with an Australian girl I met in Quito who has been volunteering here for a few months and she introduces me to the locals, everyone is so friendly and generally in their mid-twenties to early thirties; a great bunch. People volunteering here are working on farms, in schools, the local library and learning to speak Spanish and they end up staying longer than planned as they love it so much. Well I am not one of them and pack up after a few nights for my next stop to Cuenca, Ecuador┬┤s third biggest city.

Travelling by bus is half of the experience

From Banos I get a bus to Ambato and need to change there for another 7 hour bus to Cuenca. My first stop is in the middle of nowhere and the man who works on the bus (there is always an assistant to the driver) signals me to get off. He hands me my backpack, says something quickly that I don┬┤t understand and points accross the road. The bus drives off leaving plenty of dust behind and I cross over to the other side dodging the traffic. Not many people around I can┬┤t see any buses about either. A young boy about 8 years olds runs over to me, dressed in dusty grey clothes, black shoes that look grey covered in grime, his hair and face are dirty. I tell him where I am going and he directs me to a little office where I can buy my bus ticket so I follow him-don┬┤t really have any other choice! The 7 hour journey turns into nearly 9 and I┬┤m sitting on half a seat as I┬┤m next to a huge middle aged woman taking the other half of my seat. The bus is full and I┬┤m the only gringo on it. The lady next to me cannot understand what I am doing travelling by myself and says I┬┤m crazy, she┬┤s not the first person to think this and surely not the last. I┬┤m sitting at the back of the bus with luggage behind me, every now and then a suitcase slides down and smacks me in my neck-not good. The toilet on the bus does not work-typical. Thank god we stop at a gas station for a trip to the bano and I buy some salchi papas-chips covered in salsa, kectchup and mayo with a little sausage on top-so good! A sweet little five year old girl named Tamara sitting in front of me keeps tapping me on the knee so I turn off my ipod. She┬┤s going home to Cuenca and lives there with her parents who both do not work, her father is sick. She chats away and I do my best to understand. Everything she is wearing is pink; pink hair bobbles, pink shoes, pink coat.

Culture and Chaos in Cuenca

I arrive in Cuenca at 9pm, Ecuador┬┤s 3rd biggest City. My taxi driver is very impressed with my Spanish and we chit chat as he drives me to my hostel recommended by Lonely Planet. It is the worst place I have stayed in yet and decide to leave on the morning for sure. I make the same mistake twice and choose another place from my guidebook that is better but nothing like the description given. Oh well. I hang out at El Cafecito around the corner, a hostel con bar where I should┬┤ve stayed and meet some travellers. One night I got for dinner with Aaron from Essex and we end up at a rather nice Italian restaurant-oops this is going to hurt the budget. I chuckle as the waiter hangs my dusty backpack on a posh little stand next to our table. There is a large group of elderly people sitting nearby making us curious as to why they are here. I learn later that there are a few expats living in Cuenca, and some retired Americans and Canadians who find their dollars go much further here.

The next day I meet Rhea from Switzerland and within our first hour of meeting we have dinner and find ourselves sitting in a concert hall with a couple from Berlin listening to Mozart at Iglesia de Santo Domingo. It┬┤s the Orchestra Sinfonica De Cuenca celebrating 20 years and we enjoy a free concert. A young Santy Abril takes to the stage for a solo on his violin for a rather complicated nail biting piece, I hold my breathe and one of the strings pop, he carries on regardless with his bow tie sticking out on one side, I can┬┤t watch and close my eyes as he screeches, and his fingers run faster over the strings, sweat beads collecting on his forehead and finally he reaches a climatic finish so I can relax. The venue is more than half full on a Thursday night, not bad. Thank you to the Ministerio de Cultura del Ecuado for my free evening of classical music. We move on from here to a bar with more live music, three classical Spanish guitarists and some live vocals-wonderful. The lights are low, cigarette smoke fills the air, the crowd is full of thirty-sixty somethings. For a moment I feel like I am in a Tarantino movie-brilliant.

The following evening I┬┤m stopped in my tracks by a shop across the road with a huge Khanda (symbol of Sikhism, like the Cross for Christianity) in the place where a store┬┤s name is normally written. I cross over the road and nose through the glass door, the lights are on but the shop is closed, seems to sell a few clothes and ornaments. The owner sees me and walks over to unlock the door. He is Indian, mid twenties perhaps, dressed in jeans and t-shirt. We struggle to talk in Spanglish then I try Punjabi and we┬┤re off. He is from the Punjab and has an uncle in Quito. He┬┤s out here to make a few dollars, we Punjabi┬┤s may be small in numbers but boy you can find us in every corner of the world! We have the usual conversation of exchanging village names back home, so exciting to meet another Punjabi as I have met no Indians so far on my trip, let alone Punjabis!

During the day I visit Museo Pumapungo for an ethnographic exhibition of popular arts, crafts, folk celebrations and way of life for the different groups of inhabitants in Ecuador in their varying zones of settlement. It is quite impressive and interactive allowing visitors to walk through the different dwelling, but I cant engage completely as all explanations are in Spánish only. I walk down 3 de Noviembre to the Inca ruins in the sunshine and enjoy lunch for one, always with Jugo de Mora, (blackberry juice) definitely not to be missed in Ecuador, is delicious. Cuenca is small and easy to get around on foot, you can´t really get lost here very easily. It is rather charming with it´s narrow cobblestone streets, handsome plazas and domed churches. Also to my liking it has a modern edge with welcoming cafes and bars not visible during the day, reminds me of a medium sized city in Europe, perhaps Valencia.

French, English, Spanish, Swiss! Cuenca

On Friday night me and Rhea decide to go out and the atmosphere over the weekend is fantastic, as the city becomes more alive. Suddenly lots of young people we have not seen all week fill the streets drinking cubalibres enjoying live music on the street, fireworks and the bars that are clustered together closer to where I am staying. We go from enjoying the street atmosphere to a few bars making friends along the way, and via a drum ┬┤n┬┤bass night end up at a small bar full of locals where we are given endless shots and drinks for free! We have an excellent time and Pablo walks me home as it┬┤s pretty late and the streets are deserted. Right outside my hostel door two older looking men walk over to us and demand we give them our valuables, it all happens so quickly, one tries to pull off my rings unsuccessfully then sees my handbag and pulls it breaking it off the strap leaving me with a massive bruise on my arm that turns a purpley green colour over the next few days. They now have my camera and itouch, all of my Ecuador memories gone in a flash. Pablo no longer has his wallet, car keys and phone; what a nightmare.

I sleep for two hours and am up again to pack; me and Rhea are leaving for Guayaquil today. In the morning the local owner of the hostel who watched me getting mugged and didn´t do or say anything at the time says only one thing to me ´you need to leave by 11am´ in Spanish of course. Completely different to when I arrived and she was convincing me to stay and asking for all of the cash upfront.  I meet Rhea at El Cafecito for breakfast and she is stunned by my experience of how a perfectly good night ended miserably. We´re both glad to leave and move on, onwards and upwards and leave the nasty experience behind.

Big City but Boring

Rhea and I, Guayaquil

Guayaquil is massive-end of. Everyone has warned me of the dangers of being in Ecuador┬┤s biggest city. Our hostel is in a relatively safe location in the Urdesa neighbourhood, it┬┤s very pleasant with a pool and nice patio area with hammocks-I am now addicted to these and must have one in my house! I chat to the young owners from Germany and one is local. Muggings are the norm here but also everywhere else in Ecuador. It is not unusual for a car full of guys to pull up and hold you to the ground at gunpoint to steal your blackberry or ipod. The thing to do is simply surrender and save your life I┬┤m told. We spend the next few days catching up on sleep and hanging out with a few French, American and Australian guys checking out Parque Bolivar which is full of Iguanas meandering around, Penas, a hillside village to admire brightly painted homes and for a beer at the hilltop, and I shop for a new camera-ouch there goes some of my contingency. Guayaquil is not very exciting I decide, but I think I would┬┤ve enjoyed it a lot more if I knew some locals here. Owen from Sydney has been away for 7 months already and is travelling around South America on a motorbike-yes you guessed it Che Guevara springs straight to my mind as well as Ewan Mcgregor of course! The American who┬┤s name I have now forgotten has just run a marathon the day before.

It dawns on me that yes there are different kinds of people travelling this continent, but still a certain type of people. First off of course its the richer nationalities that are backpacking, so the majority of the people I meet will be Brits, Aussies, German, Swiss, a few French and Italians once in a while, a few Israelis, some Americans and Canadians and that my dear friends is the majority. This is the case for backpackers accross the world. Second it occurs to me that it takes a certain type of person to want to or be able to do this, to come to crazy Latin America, a confusing, vibrant, warm, exciting bouncing with energy music and hormones(!). It┬┤s a challenge but the rewards out number and negatives by far, oh they do indeed. A few days of rest in Guayaquil and I need to decide if I want to stop en route to Latacunga. Rhea is going to Banos, it is way too tempting to return to the land of relaxation so off we go.

Back to Banos

Carla and Friends, Banos

I enjoy a much needed massage and reunite with the locals, its always nice returning to a place knowing you are familiar with people and places. I bump into Carla again and we arrange to meet one evening and we all have so much fun together! The locals regularly watch travellers come and go, it´s not so easy for them to go and travel around the world but the world comes to them everyday. I meet a young film maker from Quito who is in town for a few days, we share a beer whilst discussing politics, religion, art, Ecuadorian culture and the purpose of travel. I wish I could do this with everyone but unfortunately I am limited with my basic Spanish skills. He tells me that there is no infrastructure for the arts here in Ecuador, it is all underground and there is a lot of interesting work happening that you will not find in the big galleries and government run venues. He believes that Ecuador lacks identity, and that because the government is corrupt there is no proper structure due to the numerous changes in power over the years. Religion is visible and acknowledged on the one hand but generally no one really pays much attention or lives by this. Yes there are many changes required and improvements to be made but why bother as life is too easy, this is the attitude he thinks, there is not enough desire for improvement as one can get by in their own little world. What is Ecuador to the rest of the world? What image do people have of the culture apart from indigenous communities dressed in traditional clothes? Who told you to come here? Who put this country in your head?  is the question an Ecuadorian asked me when I first arrived.  The people here do have pride and do take an interest in you, and they can be so friendly and welcoming like anywhere in the world, as well as those who see GRINGO stamped on your forehead and trying to steal your belongings. My understanding of this continent is growing and continues, we have different languages, food and music in the world but fundamentally what we want and need as human beings is the same. In varying degrees we´re all surviving, the rich and educated will prosper, and there will always be a hierarchy. So is there really any democracy anywhere in the world and how ´free´ are we?

Quiet in Quito? Never

Butterfly Farm, Mindo

Next I head to Latacunga on my own again, a good place to start the Quilotoa Loop and I really want to see the stunning crater lake; Laguna Quilotoa. I get off the bus and decide to walk to the hostel. In my head I think I must be mad to wander about the busy streets with all my belongings following recent events but I go ahead anyway, a friendly local gives me directions. Unfortunately this is the point in my adventure where I become sick and have to spend the following day in bed having bought some antibiotics from the pharmacia; all part of the experience. Still I have a pleasant time here and meet some good people. Back to Quito again and I bump into familiar faces, other travelers who now have stories of having been conned, mugged, bags slashed etc. I go to Mindo for the day with some Aussies and spend a great afternoon at the butterfly farm, they are beautiful! Anna and Jess who I met in the jungle arrive the following day so I spend Saturday afternoon with them. Today there´s a football match in Quito Ecuador Vs Uruaguay. We lose and its not a pretty sight where I´m staying Mariscal. Police fill the streets, cops chasing robbers, glass bottles fly through the air and we hear girls screaming and shouting-there´s a huge dispute both verbal and very physical in the middle of Gringo-Land. I hear that the day before a British girl was waiting for her taxi to the airport when a car pulled up beside her and she was held at knife point, they took absolutely all her belongings. I´ve heard enough and am ready to move on from here to somewhere safer. The following day I l fly to Galapagos at 5am. I can´t believe I am going to paradise I hope it lives up to my expectations!

Pasta with Anna & Jess, Quito


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