Thursday, 27 June 2013

Just a taste of Ecuador: Guayaquil, Cuenca and Banos

Amazingly enough, Ecuador was the country I was most looking forward to on this trip and the place where I expected to spend the most time, funny how things don't exactly go as planned when travelling. Having had pretty much amazing weather for the entire trip thus far, barring Patagonia where unexpected weather changes are expected, bad weather finally caught up with me in Ecuador.

Crossing into the country is seriously easy, the exit station for Peru and entry station for Ecuador are at the same place, the desks are literally side by side. Apart from my crossing from Argentina to Chile via Mendoza, this is the only other time it has occurred. It makes so much more sense than having to get back on a bus or walk over a bridge just to enter another building in apparent 'no man's land'.

Guayaquil is only a few hours away from the border and considering I had planned on spending plenty of time here I figured it would be a good place to start, after all it is the country's most populated city, more so than the capital Quito by a long shot, so there had to be something to do, right? Upon arrival I soon realised this was not the case. I stayed in a nice enough hostel which was quiet but as for anything to do at night or sights during the day, I found the city lacking.

One of the main attractions is said to be the Malecon, this is basically a boardwalk overlooking the Rio Guayas and goes on for a kilometre or so. There are a couple shops along the way and it's a nice place for families to hang out but beyond that not much else is on offer for me I'm afraid. At the northern end of the boardwalk is Cerro Santa Ana which offers views of the city but aside from pretty buildings there's really not much to hold your attention. There is of course the ubiquitous city cemetery but how many can you look at in one trip?

Just a four hour bus ride away is the town of Cuenca, a colonial favourite for natives and travellers alike, where domed churches and plazas abound. The town itself is split by the Tomebamba river and the town is easy enough to navigate on foot, provided you are actually staying within 10 blocks or so of Parque Calderon, home to the city's New Cathedral which dominates the square with it's hulking blue domes, and the Old Cathedral, with the former being much bigger and grander than it's predecessor.

As for activities in the local area, you can check out the local Inca ruins of Ingapirca, the Cajas National Park or nearby indigenous villages. Failing that you can purchase some of the relics you may find at these villages at one of the many street markets throughout the town or just relax and enjoy some downtime in one of the many cafes in the city or at the main plaza itself and pass the day people watching.

Seven hours north and with a change in the town of Ambato brings you to Banos, unfortunately named really but a beautiful little town in the hills home to waterfalls, thermal springs and adventure sports. It's little wonder this small place makes it on to most itineraries.

Hot baths surround the town but asking at your hostel for the most popular one is probably the best and safest bet for a decent experience. The same goes for hiking, before undertaking anything ask how the trails are. Mountain biking and zip lining are a couple of the more popular activities to do in the area, renting a bike is also a good way to see some of the nearby waterfalls as you can pretty much free wheel down for 20+ kilometres and then stick your bike on the back of a truck to get back to the town. No need for up hill slogging now.

Mancora, Peru

Heading up towards the north of Peru there isn't much on the radar for tourists until you come across the small village of Mancora, which is just a couple of hours away from the Peru - Ecuador border. What started off as just a small fishing village has grown to be a hub for those keen on finding some surf along the Pacific coastline, with decent enough waves for most of the year and with it being so windy, kite surfing is now becoming increasingly popular here.

When driving through the town itself, you wouldn't think there was much to see or do as it looks like it has been catered only for tourists with the main road packed with Internet cafes, restaurants, bars and shops selling all the usual junk. However, once you get off the main road and start heading west to the beach through the 'suburbs' you see that underneath this tourist facade lies a town like any other in Peru, with locals trading between one another, kids running around after dogs, shop owners standing outside their stores with the apparent air of not being bothered about selling anything all day, police chatting to locals and the daily chorus of singing from churches.

Accommodation is spread out all over the place here and with so many options you would be doing something wrong if you couldn't find somewhere you liked. All budgets are catered for as well as lodgings which range from dorms in party hostels to beach front bungalows. Food is fresh from the ocean, so much so you shouldn't be surprised to find some sand in half your meals, having said that though, if you like fresh seafood it doesn't get much fresher than here.

The beach itself is clean enough with fires been prohibited and most people spending the day either lounging on the sand or trying to catch that elusive wave. Parties abound every night with the weekends been the busiest as with any place, at this time the bars on the beach come to life with outrageous happy hour deals whilst trying to out do one another to see who can be the loudest. It's safe to say that there is always a random party a short taxi ride away if the constant competing for airspace starts to get old. Failing that, if it's peace and tranquillity you came here for, then it is just as easy to immerse yourself in the silence of a well secluded bungalow by the beach.

Getting here is ridiculously easy, the main street is the main road from Lima up north to the border with Ecuador, you basically can't miss it, I think it's the Pan-American Highway actually. If you have the time, it's a nice place to stop off to party/ relax/ surf or all of the above. The weather here is pretty much always perfect and compared to the temperamental weather of Ecuador, if it's beach time you are after, this might just be the place for you.