We heard a lot about the magic of Cuenca when we first journeyed through Ecuador but we never made it there on that jaunt. On the way back north, we made it a priority to stop in this city full of colonial beauty. Although Ecuador’s third-largest city, Cuenca seems worlds smaller than Quito or Guayaquil. It has a very old-fashioned, livable charm to it. The only downside was that it is the most expensive city in Ecuador, with hostels and food costing much more than in most of the country.
After an overnight bus from Lima to Chiclayo, we waited around for a few hours and got on the 1:30pm bus to Jaen. The whole point of our taking this maddening route was so we could pass through Vilcabamba, Ecuador and check out this so-called “valley of longevity” where all the people supposedly live to be like 300 years old. But anyhow, we arrived in Jaen just after dark, a dirty and dusty town full of mototaxis. We jumped in one and told him to take us to the place where the buses leave for San Ignacio, the town closest to the border where we planned to spend the night. After negotiating a price, we zoomed down the dirt road, pulled a U-turn and and said, “Here is a good hotel!” Though our Spanish is not great, we swear that we use understandable words! Sometimes people don’t even listen to what we are saying and just try to guess what we want. This seemed to happen a lot in northern Perú both times we were there. Maybe they just play their music way too loud! So we re-explained ourselves and finally were dropped off where we wanted to be; a spot with shared taxis to take us the next two hours for 20 Soles each. For the first hour the road was perfect, paved and smooth. Then the farther away from nowhere we got, the bigger the pot holes became and eventually the road became a one-lane bumpy mess. Nevertheless, it was a nice ride, with a cool breeze blowing through the windows and lightning flashing in the distance. It was getting late when we got into San Ignacio, so we crossed the street to a dumpy-looking lodging and got a cheap room from an unfriendly receptionist and settled in to wake up early for the border crossing.
In the morning we asked about three different people and finally got a mototaxi to drop us off at the shared taxis to the border. 17 Soles each and five people in the cab, we headed down one of the worst roads yet. The night before there had been hard rains and the road was a muddy mess with landslides and road crews slaving away with shovels. I would have called the road “impassable” or “passable only with 4×4”, but our driver was a pro mudder and we only got stuck a couple of times. After two hours or so we were dropped off in the tiny village of La Balza at a bridge labeled “International Boundary” and we hauled our gear through more mud and over to the immigration office. It was hard to tell if the guy there was the border agent or not, but he stamped our passports and we walked across the bridge into Ecuador. On the other side was a uniformed official chit-chatting with the locals. He led us into his office and had us fill out the standard entrance form. Both of these “border agents” seemed pretty surprised to have any work to do, leading us to wonder how many people ever cross the border at La Balza. Our passports were soon stamped and, super hungry, we walked next door to the only place serving food. While we were eating, the border agent came over and rejoined his local friends. There were many local-looking people walking back and forth across the border; some he would yell at to come to his office, some just crossed; it was a very laid-back mess of confusion. Really, all you would have to do to get across this border illegally is run really fast. A very different experience than the United States border with our walls and hundreds of people in line. At noon we got on an old old bus with open sides and benches running from side to side. Really it was more like a truck pulling a trailer full of wooden benches. The speaker system rocked and it was almost like a party bus. For over an hour we bounced along with our heads almost hitting the ceiling on the worst potholes. This ride strangely brought smiles to both of our faces. The benefit of our open-sided vehicle was that at least we knew that we could jump out easily if we ever started careening out of control. Once in the nearest town of Zumba, we were able to get right on a bus to Vilcabamaba and arrived, again, just after dark. We were sore, tired, and grumpy, but a huge section of the continent had been conquered. Now for a few days of slightly slower travel then one more hard stretch to the Caribbean coast!
Hotel Pichincha is literally the cheapest place to stay in central Cuenca, the most expensive city in Ecuador. It’s a godsend in a city full of accommodations calling themselves “hostels” but charging $20 per person per night, minimum. If you can deal with chipped paint, slightly saggy mattresses, and shared bathrooms, Hotel Pichincha is a great value. The hotel is huge and sprawling, the fourth floor windows offer great views over the Cathedral, and the rooms are clean and spacious. Singles, doubles, triples, and quads are available. Shared bathrooms occasionally run out of hot water, but are clean and modern. The highlights to this place are definitely the fast building-wide WiFi, and the friendly owners who offer all the information you’ll need on Cuenca and surrounds. It’s proximity to the main plaza and the fact that it doesn’t break the bank put Hotel Pichincha in first place for budget accommodations in Cuenca.
Internet cafe in building
Laundry service available
Maps, brochures, and travel information
Sinks in rooms
Address: General Torress 8.82 (on the corner with Calle Simon Bolivar)
Price: $6 per person
Thanks to the awesome power of Couchsurfing, on our first day in Lima we met a friend, Jorge, who helped us a lot with some venue-searching we were doing for a youth orchestra from Zach’s hometown which is coming to Perú this summer. Jorge lived in Barranco, and just from our first meeting in a coffee shop there, we could tell it was an awesome area. We were able to find a free B&B in the neighborhood and moved in for our last few days in Lima.
Barranco is historically the poorer, bohemian neighborhood of Lima, although just like it’s NYC counterpart (Greenwich Village) it seems to me like it’s becoming more expensive and upscale then it probably used to be. Still, it definitely has a multicultural vibe and relaxed, “enjoy life” atmosphere. There’s an abundance of classic old cars parked on the streets, and the buildings are all colorfully painted or covered in cool graffiti-style murals.
The main plaza of Barranco is also just a few blocks away from Lima’s best surfing beaches. Being the Bohemian barrio, Barranco also has the best nightlife in Lima, all week long. We went to a salsa club with a live band on a Tuesday night, and the place was crowded with awesome dancers. Our salsa is terrible but it was super fun just to watch the band and the dancers who make it look so easy.
After several days in Barranco, neither of us was ready to leave. We decided to add it to the list of places we could potentially live someday. But we have to see the rest of the world before we decide!
We randomly encountered this tiny park full of cats while strolling through Miraflores. There were literally cats EVERYWHERE!
And then we saw the sign…
So was this a former dumping ground for unwanted pets and the sign was just recently posted? Or is everyone just blatantly ignoring it? What is UP with this place? Quite random and funny.
Sorry, this post is not about flowers, and I admit that is a really bad title. This post is about the Lima barrio of Miraflores, which literally means “Look! Flowers” in Spanish. Miraflores does have many parks full of beautiful blooms, and is the most upscale, cosmopolitan neighborhood in Lima. It’s where all the classiest hotels and restaurants are located. Wandering through Miraflores almost gave us reverse culture shock because of how similar to the U.S.A. it seemed. While not cheap, it is a beautiful area with great shopping and great food. It’s definitely one of the places that people who stereotype Perú as entirely rural, old-fashioned, and impoverished need to see.
We very happily stumbled upon this excellent vegetarian buffet inside an old train car while wandering Barranco looking for a lunch spot. For only 16 Soles, it is a steal! The selection is also excellent, the food delicious, and the location could not be more unique!
The train car is from 1909, and the furniture and decor is all from that time period and beautifully maintained. The buffet includes chicha to drink, a myriad of fresh veggies and salads, a soup, several delicious entrees and sides, and a couple desserts to choose from.
This place was so good that we had to go back for a second lunch two days later. Who knows, it’s quite likely we’ll end up back again for our third time today!
Location: Av. Prolongación San Martín 15, Barranco, Lima. (Just off the main plaza.)