After a few weeks exploring northern Ecuador, it was time to head south. First stop, for just one night, was the small town of Riobamba. We explored the pretty main square, complete with plastic illuminated trees, and visited a small natural history museum, which was a lesson in terrible taxidermy. Then it was onwards to the colonial city of Cuenca, one of Ecuador’s gems. The journey took us high over the sierra, through dry and dusty terrain, and remote indigenous villages, where scraping a living from the land looked like a punishing way of life. Sheer valleys dropped away beneath us, and at times we were above the clouds. An election campaign was in full swing, and even here rock faces, derelict buildings, and road edges were used as canvases for political slogans, advertising candidates, a surprising number of whom had names such as Stalin, Mao, and Lenin. The people we passed, and shared the bus with, wore colourful traditional clothes, in vivid contrast with the grey landscape. But to assume they lived in the past would be an injustice, and they retrieved their mobile phones from folds of clothing. We broke our journey with a visit to Ingapirca, one of the northernmost Inca ruins, a remnant of the great empire that extended across parts of what is now Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.
Cuenca is a perfect city for aimless wandering along pretty streets, and as we explored we soon found ourselves in the lush, plant-filled main plaza, in front of the cathedral. A military brass band played in front of a government building, and an elderly man gave speeches in between the musical numbers, and danced along while they played. Another square close by, in front of a beautiful church, was filled with flower stalls. We indulged in perfectly ripe avocadoes, delicious tropical fruit ice-creams, and little bread roll doughnuts filled with amazing blackberry jam.
The next day we headed to Cajas National Park, with the landscape shifting from tropical to Scottish highland over the course of an hour or two. We arrived at the main entry point, just below 4000m, to find what looked like Skye but on a much larger scale. Rugged mountains and craggy peaks, with lakes studding the high-altitude paramo vegetation in all directions. We followed a trail which took us through a Polylepis forest, a fairy tale wood of Queñua trees (no, not that kind) with gnarled trunks and peeling red bark, then past spiky plants and grass, bogs and lakes.
Back in Cuenca, the afternoon sun combined with the music on the taxi radio made it feel like we were in a film, an Ecuadorian soundtrack accompanying our drive through the narrow streets. The churches were illuminated as night fell, and the flower market was packing up for the day.