Of all the Ecuadorian cities that we visited, I found Cuenca to be one of the most beautiful. Perhaps, it is second only to the grandeur of the colonial center of Quito, but the smaller scale made it much easier to explore. Its’ historic district, which goes back as far as the 16th century, has been named a UNESCO heritage site, and the patchwork grid of streets does not let one down. There is great, imaginative architecture lining each calle, with towers, steeples, rotundas, storied balconies, brick and tiles, carved wooden porticos, and cobble-stoned roads entreating you to pause and look longer, while encouraging you to continue. I can say all this, despite the timing of our visit, which coincided with the closure of many main streets in the historic district. They were under major construction for the development of a city-wide and significant light-rail system.
Let me just start by warning you that this entry will be a rant – my own personal tirade against those who judge places, and especially cities, in a black and white manner.
I cannot count the amount of times someone has told me that they are not a “city” person. If these words come from a self-professed homebody, a non traveler, it can roll right off my back. I don’t expect the varied people of this world to see things the same way I do, BUT, this statement does raise my hackles, when it comes from a fellow traveler, a person who wants to experience the world, and might even consider themselves a bit of an expert on foreign destinations. Saying that you hate cities, is like saying you like someone’s arms and legs, but can do without the torso. It shows an unwillingness to appreciate all parts of a country, a culture, a people. It is a an avoidance of grit and painful contrasts, manmade wonders next to architectural atrocities, an unclean beggar seated on a subway next to an artfully made-up woman in designer clothing, a dirty sidewalk bordering a manicured park, and crowded streets, bursting with humanity all jostling for a place.
Our afternoon ferry trip to San Cristobal was not off to a good start. We arrived at the port, thirty minutes before the 2 PM departure, only to find that our names were not on the passenger list. We had bought our tickets the night before for $100, but either the booking company had not called in and confirmed our reservations, or the boat company had forgotten to write our names on the docket. Either way, it seemed that every last ferry headed to San Cristobal was already booked. We stood around, watching full boats depart, and other people get added to passenger lists ahead of us. Harbor police were appraised of our situation and calls were made to the tour company to confirm our purchase (which I had a receipt for). With strict occupancy loads for passenger ferries it looked like we might be stranded, but at the final minute, they fit the four of us into the last three spaces allocated for a boat, agreeing that our kids could count as one person!
Isabela was the second major island that we visited on our Galapagos tour. It is the largest of all Galapagos islands (1792 sq mi), but much of its land is uninhabited by humans. It’s main settlement, called Puerto Villamil is the third most populated city next to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal. Isabela island is also the youngest, and was formed one million years ago by the merging of six different volcanoes, all of them active today except one. On our fourth day in Galapagos we boarded a small ferry (more like a covered speedboat) to take us from Santa Cruz to Puerto Villamil in two and a half hours. Hearing horror stories about the bumpy and boring crossing, we made sure to take full strength Dramamine for the dreaded journey ($25 per person).
For those who don’t know, or have yet to surmise, our family is no longer on the great foreign road, and instead are back in the comfort of our Portland, Oregon home, entrenched in the routine of school and work. As I write these words, I am sitting in a local playground, watching my children practice riding their bikes in an empty parking lot. I spent the morning trying to edit the hundreds of photos, snapped while in Galapagos, now 3747 miles away, feeling so very far from that bucket-list destination, which represents true dream fulfillment.
Throughout our whole trip leading up to our final arrival on Baltra, Galapagos, we had constantly reminded ourselves to be frugal, and to not spend money on trifles, so that we could afford to include these islands in our itinerary. Despite all our threats and admonishments to forgo a drink or dessert, in order to save a dollar, we still fell short of our economic goals, by the time we had arrived in South America. We had underestimated the cost of our travels by a couple thousand, leaving fewer funds for the final quarter of our trip. Still, we had made it this far to Ecuador, and scrapping our plans to visit the Galapagos did not seem to be the right choice. We argued that a smaller cushion for our US return, seemed a small sacrifice that we would be able to survive. Months later, and I can confirm that there are NO regrets. Of course, with a diminished budget, we did not tour the islands on luxurious boats, and instead planned a DIY trip of our own, hopping from island to island via ferry, and being selective about which costly boat tours were worth splashing out on.
Quito, the capital of Ecuador, initially reminded me of the large Colombian cities of Bogota and Medellin. This was due more to the common look of these big South American cities (i.e. dense and sprawling concrete buildings, packed through a long valley, with neighborhoods pushed to the city’s geographical boundaries, and terraced up the mountain sides), than the spirit of each specific destination. And I will let you know, Quito is very special. In my opinion, this city has one of the most beautifully maintained, historical centers of any I have had the pleasure of exploring, in ALL my Latin American travels. It is unique for its contemporary mixture of indigenous culture and Spanish colonial artistry, both honored for their contribution to the Quiteno lifestyle.