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March 23/24
Our non-stop Air Canada flight from Toronto to Lima is very convenient in that there are no connections in the U.S. but its drawback is a 2:00 am arrival.  Nevertheless, as promised, there is a nice man holding a sign with our (misspelled) name on it.  He bundles us into his car for the 25-minute ride to our hotel.  Lima is a gritty, and not very appealing, South American city, but its seaside suburb of Miraflores is quite lovely.  As we approach Hotel Torreblanca, our driver promises us a "romantic evening".  After our long and sleepless flight, romance isn't exactly top of mind, but we soon discover this is code for "power outage".  The hotel is quite a charming little place; winding hallways lead to unexpected staircases and each room seems to be on a different level.  The "romance" part, we guess, is the candle in our room.

Charming little Hotel Torreblanca

In the morning, we venture out for a day of sight-seeing.  We stroll down Avenida Jose Pardo: two lanes of traffic in each direction, but separated by a wide pedestrian walkway with park benches, flower beds and lots of shade trees.  The walkway is interrupted by roundabouts, where the right of way is evidently determined by who can honk the loudest.  Pedestrians cross at their own risk.

We wander through the Inka Market, admiring colourful woven fabrics, silver jewellery and gorgeous pottery; alas, we travel with only carry-on luggage. (!!!)  The heat is intense and we find a little cafe for a cold beverage.  I try a local specialty called chicha morada, a traditional beverage that pre-dates even the Incan empire.  It is made by boiling purple corn with pineapple and flavouring it with cloves and cinnamon.  It is delicious (and very purple) and very refreshing on a hot day .

We stroll along the malecon to take in the views of the seaside and wander through the many little parks.  The city sits on top of sheer cliffs about 200 feet above the beaches and there are no buildings or any urban development at sea level, because of the danger from tsunamis.  Everywhere are signs indicating evacuation routes, as earthquakes are common along the Pacific coast and the resultant tsunamis cause massive damage.

Being just steps from the ocean, we look forward to wonderful seafood for dinner and we discover several highly-recommended sea food restaurants lie just a few blocks from our hotel.  Alas!  Seafood in Miraflores is never served past 5:00 pm!  The catch comes in on the fishing boats at dawn and by evening the Chef considers it is no longer fresh enough to serve.  Who knew?

March 25
Up early for breakfast and a cab back to Lima airport.  We board our Avianca flight and watch as the scenery slowly changes from the arid mountains of the Atacama Desert to miles of flooded rice paddies as we approach the Guaya River Delta and land at Guayaquil, Ecuador.  A cab takes us to the bus terminal and we get tickets for the next bus to Cuenca, leaving in 45 minutes.  The bus is a 3- (or maybe even a 2-) star, and has no air conditioning, other than open windows.  For the next 45 minutes the bus travels across the flat coastal plain, though rice fields, sugar cane and banana plantations.  There are many small raised acreages with stick houses and small stock enclosures for pigs, chickens, goats and cattle.  We see two men hand-planting a rice paddy.  Soon, the bus begins to climb...and climb...and climb...up into the Andes mountains.  The plants and the landscape change dramatically and our ears pop as we rise up into the clouds.  Lush jungle, huge leafy ferns and tall palm trees; colourful flowers in pink, red, fuchsia, coral and yellow pop out of the background.  Higher still are gnarly pines, mossy slopes and close to the top, a bronze-coloured grass growing in huge tufts.  In distant meadows we see free-range llamas.  At the top of the pass (4167 meters, 13,700 feet) is Tres Cruces and Las Cajas National Park.  We arrive at the bus terminal in Cuenca, and find a cab to take us to Mike and Marilyn's apartment.

Visiting the Cuenca Market

 

Street musicians playing Andean music Ladies in traditional dress

March 27
Marilyn has arranged a special treat for us, though a local acquaintance.  We meet Mariana at 9:00 am and clamber into a van, which heads out into the countryside. We wend our way through smaller and smaller communities, the paved road turns to dirt, becomes rougher and eventually dwindles to a single track.  We pass small farms, growing corn and squash with tethered cows and pigs grazing in the fields and finally arrive at the rustic Kushi Waira Cultural Centre

Caņari culture interpretive centre Alfonso Saquipay

We are welcomed by Alfonso Saquipay, a short indigenous man, with a passion for the historical lifestyle, beliefs and culture of the Caņari people, who inhabited an area larger than current Ecuador in the time before the Conquistadores.  He talks to us at length about the sacred medicinal plants used by his people and invites us to join him for a traditional breakfast of large soft corn kernels and mint tea. 

Traditional Caņari breakfast  

Then we hike up a steep hill.  Fortunately, some of the steepest parts have little steps carved in them and, even more fortunately, Marilyn has provided me with a walking stick. We admire and smell many medicinal plants, pass patches of purple corn, broad beans and scarlet runner beans.  The views (and the climb) are breathtaking!  We hike through the Sacred Forest and our guide shows us many unusual plants and explains their medicinal uses.

   

In the Sacred Forest

We arrive at a little clearing where we sit while he explains that Pachamama, the earth goddess, is sick because of global warming, industrialization and other ills of our modern society.  His arguments to support his beliefs are sincere and sensible and we are unable to refute them.  Shortly, two Caņari ladies, dressed in their traditional costumes, arrive from the nearby community.  They spread out a lunch of traditional foods:  corn, rice, beans and grilled farm chicken, tea and a sugar cane tart for dessert.  After lunch, the ladies perform a spiritual cleansing ceremony, where they brush us all over with leafy herbs, while Alfonso plays traditional pipes.  Later, at the interpretive centre, we learn how to grind corn in a traditional stone mortar and pestle, listen to some flute music and play a children's' piņata game.

   
Cleansing ceremony while Alfonso plays traditional pipes

March 28
Mike takes us for a walk to a local market where, at one of the food booths, we partake of Mama Lolita's roasted pig for lunch.  Mama Lolita barbecues an entire pig every day and sells out early.  Later, we walk to the Inca Bar, a a popular gringo hang-out, for beer and burgers.

   

March 30
We catch the bus, this one is at least a 3-star and actually has AC.  Just outside of Cuenca the bus is pulled over at a military roadblock.  Everyone gets out and lines up on the roadside, but no one seems particularly upset or worried.  The soldiers peer at us and look in our bags and then we get back on the bus and resume our journey.  It rains for much of the trip down to Guayaquil and there are just as many switchbacks as there was on the way up.  We check into the Hotel Continental and go for a walk to admire the beautifully refurbished downtown district and the very attractive new malecon along the river.  No visit to Guayaquil would be complete without a stroll through El Parque de Iguanas.  This small park in front of the cathedral is home to hundreds of iguanas of all sizes.  They are completely unafraid of people and actually beg for handouts.

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