This mega entry will do its best to catch everyone up on our first week in Cuenca! It's been seven full days of exploration and learning without work, and to sum it up: we're very happy we chose this place. Here are some observations on the four C's that have been the highlights of our week - read a little or read a lot, como quieres!
Cuenca is a city of 500,000 people, but with a much smaller feel when most of your day-to-day existence is walking around the general "centro" area. In just 7 days both Lynsey and I have noticed (physically and mentally) that we walk nearly everywhere. To the market, to our school, to the bus to the national park, to the gym, to most places we've needed to go. Walking has been wonderful, effortless exercise that slows us down so that we can process our surroundings a bit more. On our walks we reveled at the colonial center of Cuenca, famous for its cathedrals, plazas, and cobblestone streets. The center bustles with every store you can imagine, and, different from Chicago, not just high-end places. Due to its favorable climate, Cuenca enjoys year-round outdoor "mercados" where you can buy clothes, gadgets, flowers, and food - all unmarked with prices. At first this is intimidating, mostly because we are fully aware of "gringo-gouging," as we've come to call it. I don't necessarily blame Cuencanos for this, but the price can easily double simply upon gringo recognition. It's a learning game. Slowly over the past 7 days we've started to learn how much things SHOULD cost, and then at least we have some bargaining tool to work with. For example, a few days ago I wanted to buy fresh oranges from an indigenous woman pushing a huge mound of them around in a wheel barrel. Nervous to just ask "cuanto cuesta," instead I approached a Cuencana woman who had just purchased some who gave me the low-down that you should get 9 for a buck. Then, when I approached the orange lady with a fair proposition ("nueve para un dolar?"), how could she refuse? With an exchange of smiles we were on our way, both satisfied with the transaction. We're doing everything we can not to get gouged, but it will take awhile before we learn the basics and start blending it a BIT more.
What else can I say about the city itself? There are four boulder-strewn rivers that criss-cross the city (we live just off of the one pictured below), and the city is surrounded by a ring of green mountains. The climate has been unreal so far (cool light jacket weather at night, short sleeves in the sun during the day, no shorts unless going for the super-gringo look), though we're certain to get rained on soon. People smile and say hello on the street, want to know where we're from and what we're doing, and don't "just stare" much at all. There's something special about the kindness of Ecuadorians that we're noticing more and more. Life is slower here, and with that extra time comes more time for people. I haven't yet put my finger on what I mean exactly, but when I do I'll try to get it across in this blog. In all, Cuenca seems to us a very livable place, and we are enjoying living this different life to see what we might learn about living along the way. Bravo to you for surviving that sentence!
In all our conversations with friends and family about our set-up here in Cuenca the big "x-factor" was always housing. Where will we live? What are the neighborhoods like? How much? Hot water? Wi-fi? And make sure to find these things out en español. So, here's a condensed version of our housing story: Upon arrival in Cuenca we found a nice little hostel with a private room for about $20/night and began to think about the housing search. The second day in the city we visited our school, CEDEI, hoping to gain some advice on neighborhoods and places to find rentals. Towards the end of our conversation with two friendly teachers, and almost as an afterthought, one of them says, "Wait, I JUST looked at a two-bedroom..." and recounts that she had the phone number for the landlord of a nice place maybe 15 minutes by foot from the school. The rent was $300/month, and when we told these two that the price was in our budget (we thought), they seemed confident that we could pull almost any place we wanted at that price. Lynsey and I are lucky to split rent on what our teacher salaries will be, and I imagine that many of the people living by themselves have to rein it in a little more. So, with the help of a teacher (formerly from Chicago, has stayed 5 years, fluent Spanish), we called the landlord to learn that utilities are included but that they couldn't budge on the rent. Sounded okay to us, so that afternoon we headed over to find Pedro, a 21-year-old artist (and tagger) who runs the rental for his busy uncle. We realized that $300 was on the slightly high end for a furnished 2-bedroom, but also immediately fell in the love with the space, colonial feel, and view of the mountains from this place. Every night so far (there have been 7) we come home and say, "this is our house!"
Please note that we have a guest bedroom that's only function right now is to store our backpacking gear. To potential visitors: "Nos casa es tu casa."
Tuesday this week we ventured to Cajas National Park for the first time, a place that played no small role in our decision to come to Cuenca. I had romanticized Cuenca in many ways, and one important one was imagining a city with its western border made up of scarcely inhabited mountains where a person could easily escape for a day and come back with a clear head. I have to say, I was not too far off. Cajas NP is situated to the west only about 45 minutes by bus (and $2), as it sits along a popular bus route that connects Cuenca and Ecuador's biggest city, Guayanquil. The bus dropped us at the side of the road nearest to the visitor center, and the ranger in me was glad to see that the park had an impressive infrastructure (not compared to the U.S. but to other South American parks I have visited). The visitor center proper had three rangers ready with suggestions and a gigantic map that outlined the many trails tracing the 270+ glacial lakes that dot the landscape. The ranger marked up our map with a plan for the day; a longer hike in the morning, lunch, and then an easy one in the afternoon. Lynsey and I were joined by a new friend and fellow teacher, John, who's an "up for an adventure" cool kind of guy. All three of us commented early that we noticed the elevation. Cuenca is at 8,200 ft., and we knew we were higher than that, but it wasn't until we found a sign at the end of the day that we realized the LOWEST elevation we had hiked at was near 13,000 feet! I spent the day a bit lightheaded and eventually with a headache, and the uphills left all three of us chasing to catch our breath. Which brings me to the actual hike.
One thing I will never take for granted after working in Glacier is how well the park's trail system is marked; nearly every intersection ready with iron signs and distances to destinations near and far. Having these signs allows the lay-visitor to go confidently out with a park map in hand with pretty decent odds of making it back without any bad turns. So, Cajas' system is different, and based on a color-coded markings, but with much much much less consistency. We set out on "green," and were glad to find the beginning trail arrow followed by about 30 minutes of consistent green paint markers on the rocks, etc. That being said, it was only about 30 minutes until we lost the trail! At this point our hike became an off-trail cross-country trip with the intent of ending up more or less where green would. The nice thing about being off-trail in this park is the open landscape; greens and browns cover rounded hills that ascend into craggy igneous bluffs and some sheer rock faces. The mountainsides were covered in small but thick patches of quinoa tree forest (one of the hardiest trees in the world for its survival at 13,000+ ft). Our adventure brought us huffing up and over a mountain pass (that I estimate at over 14,000 ft) and along a mountainside into a dense quinoa forest (a kind of spooky and very neat ecosystem) until we finally found an actual designated trail. I referenced the huge and slightly topographic map at each junction, and knew our general location, but it still became a route-finding mission for about 4 of our 6-7 hour adventure (which I actually love and reminded me of old days in Glacier). Simply put, this park has incredible potential for cross-country backpacking and most importantly having an immense amount of open land to explore; we're pumped about having it waiting for us only 40 minutes outside of town.
Early research on climbing in Ecuador seemed to indicate that the sport was growing and that most of the best climbing was located in the south of the country, near Cuenca. With so much volcanic rock (as we saw in Cajas), it's no surprise that climbers are finding new sturdy boulders and faces to test on a regular basis. However, accessing the climbing spots as a foreigner (without paying big guide fees) definitely seemed like a challenge. Before getting here I'd imagined a smooth process finding a climbing gym, getting "beta" (intel) from the regulars there about where to climb outside, and then maybe tagging along with them. Well, the climbing stars aligned because that exact thing pretty much happened! We couldn't have planned it any better. AFTER moving into our apartment I went on Facebook to search for a (the) Cuenca climbing gym, found it, and looking at the map then realized we live only 15 minutes by foot from the place. The next day Lynsey and I were there and met the incredibly friendly laid-back climbers/worker guys who were quick to not only welcome us but also INVITED us to climb outside with them on the weekend. And they go every weekend! Are you kidding me? I did everything I could to stay cool and hide my excitement, but knew that we had stumbled into the right place. Lynsey pointed out the wonderful phenomena of meeting people who are so welcoming because they're pumped that you're pumped about the thing they love. On top of that, the gym equipped with at least 7 ropes, lots of lead routes, and a slack line! I'm currently looking into a climbing cross-fit class they offer a few times a week to hopefully break into the next level and get my butt in shape. Stay tuned for stories and pics from our first outdoor trip, and climb on!