I am going to pause in my story at this point and fast forward you to Ecuador. I met some very special people when I got back to Cartagena and I shall continue my Colombian story in a later post, but for now, mid October found me in the south of Ecuador in Cuenca.
Described in every guide book as a ‘colonian gem’ I have to say that I have seen better on my travels but this city in the south of Ecuador oozes calm and tranquility.
I stayed at the Mallki Hostel which was only opened six months ago by Andres. Along with his partner Eliana he has converted a derelict building into a home away from home, breathing life into its old bones. It is a hostel like many others with dorms and private rooms, a kitchen and a roof terrace, but what sells this hostel above many others is the ambience that Andres and Eliana have created.
Breakfast is included and there is a really great seating area with a large TV, an extensive DVD library and a Playstation with many games. A nice touch are the different guitars which are dotted around for guests to play and the beers in the fridge which are paid for with an honesty system when you settle your bill.
There are optional daily (free) activites available to guests as well as plenty of free bikes to hire. They offer a free dinner to guests once a week, a cocktail evening, bike tours and group walks too. On my first afternoon there were no other takers for the bike tour but Giovani who works at the hostel didn’t hesitate to take me along for a tour of the parks and along the river banks.
On my second morning a group of us walked with Andres, Eliana and Vincent (their rescued from Peru Old English Sheepdog) to the large weekly produce market. I love markets but what made this one special was the presence of Andres and Eliana. They pointed out many of the different fruits and vegetables and even purchased different things for us to sample and then we all sat down to a filling set lunch which cost us very little indeed.
It was here at the Mallki that I met Brian. He is from the US and has been travelling for over four years on his BMW 1200cc motor bike. Beginning in Alaska he is working his way down to Buenas Aires and as I write this he is somewhere in northern Peru. You can check out Brian’s route here – but as a bike owner and rider myself I was very envious of his trip and mode of transport.
One evening Andres boiled up a big cauldron of magic which included a bunch of flowers, and then with the generous addition of home-made shnapps we all tested the local drink known as canelazo.
An extemely funny convoluted game of Jenga followed with ten of us from all nationalities playing until late into the night. Despite the large amount of canelzo, or perhaps, because of it, we all took it very seriously although we did end up bending the rules quite wildly.
Another afternoon and evening found a lot of us piled on the sofa and huddled under a blanket from the cold watching DVDs. We watched three in a row and was just like a grey autumnal day at home – I think we all needed this downtime.
Cuenca has some cool museums and architecture but much of its attraction lies in the surrounding countryside. I never actually made it to the Ingapurka ruins which are apparently Ecuador’s version of Machu Picchu but I did get to the Parque de Caja.
Formed from glaciers this region reminded me very much of Dartmoor in Devon – it was just bigger and higher with the muted greys and dusky greens and the Ecuadorian versions of gorse and heather. This park also has one of the highest concentrations of individual bodies of water in any highlands with over 271 lakes, ponds and puddles.
We – two Spaniards, a French woman and a Chilean woman set off to walk around one of the larger lagoons. We had been warned not to attempt any of the larger hikes due to the inclement weather and the thick fog which was due to come down later. Sylvi, Gonzo and myself followed this advice and finished early, waiting for the others in the on site restaurant over a late trout lunch. We waited, and we waited and eventually we had to run so that we didnt miss the last bus out. Luckily the other two turned up in Cuenca having actually walked out of another entrance earlier.
On another evening Andres led a group of us up to the Mirador. We climbed many steps up to the pretty little illuminated church at the top and stood and watch the city light up as the darkness fell.
I visited the largest museum in Cuenca – the National Museum of Banco where bizarrely, the ground floor was given over to an exhibition of erotic art whilst upstairs there were tableauxs and displays depicting life through the ages,m including a display of shrunken heads.
The best bit about this (free) museum were the extensive ruins behind them. They were quite impressive and had some good information boards and some really nice gardens and water features, as well as a rather nice Belgium waffle place.
Cuenca had a very nice Indian restaurant which I tested with Connor from Australia and a not bad Italian place which I sampled with Daniel. I was really pleased when a young man from Colombia sat next to me in the central park with his seven year old son and began chatting to me. Colombians are so friendly and will chatter away to anybody and as you know I fell in love with Colombia and found it to be mostly safe but this man’s story showed the dark side of the country.
B was a refugee who had fled from Colombia with his wife and two young children in fear for his life. He had been working as an anti-narcotic police officer in Cali but (and I really hope/wish that my understanding of his Spanish was incorrect) three members of his immediate family were very recently assasinated by members of the drug cartels when they found out he was a cop and he feared that he and his children were next on the list so he left his home and country
He was searching for work in Ecuador but had no papers and basically very little money to live on. I apologised and said that I had no spare money but wished I could help – but B was quick to tell me that he wanted simply to chat and forget his troubles and was not asking for anything from me. I believed him and despite his problems he was smiley and polite and his little boy very sweet yet subdued and quiet.
I gave his son some money for an ice cream and then I had to leave them to go and collect my computer which was being repaired. That didn’t cost as much as I had expected so I searched for B who was still wandering around the park and I gave him the difference that I had set aside for my computer repair. If I ever wondered at the truth in B’s story I didn’t doubt it when I saw the look on his face as I gave him the cash. He was lost for words and gave me a massive hug as did his little boy. I wish that I could have done more but hopefully he and his family at least had a decent meal that evening.
Cuenca is one of my favourite places in Ecuador despite being a bit cooler than others. If you visit and want a place to stay I highly recommend the Mallki hostel. If the efforts put in by Andres and his team so far are anything to go by the place can only go from strength to strength and get better and better. And if you want secure off-road parking for your motor bike he can supply that too.
I have stayed in countless hostels and I firmly believe that the best ones are owned or run by people who have travelled themselves. Andres was born in the jungle and is a qualified jungle guide as well as an adventure guide (leading rafting and survival courses), and as I have already mentioned, he has travelled himself. He can give you information on the local area as well as your further, onward travels and he plays a mean game of Jenga.
Disclaimer: Note:- Whilst I received some complimentary accommodation at the Mallki Hostal this did not influence my opinion or review in any way. I have portrayed an honest picture of my stay