Ellen and I are on the road again, and I’ve come to a realization: we are terrible at travelling in cities. The two of us just don’t know what to do when we’re in any place larger than a town.

The city that prompted this self-reflection is the one we’re in right now: Cuenca, Ecuador. Internationally recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cuenca features gorgeous stone architecture nestled amongst the mountains of the highlands. The historical centre contains dozens of churches with stunningly handcarved wooden doors and bell towers that sparkle in the sunlight. A river rushes through town, and its banks are lined with stone pathways and willows. The city is everything a traveller could want – and Ellen and I don’t have the faintest idea what to do with ourselves. Luckily, we had lined up a place to stay with a French-Canadian couple through couchsurfing, and had the benefit of local residents’ advice to help us figure out what to see.

Our couchsurfing hosts recommended we check out one of the city’s many markets, so our first stop was a huge warehouse not too far from our hosts’ home. We were up too late for the livestock trading, but there were still half a dozen vendors at the market entrance selling poultry, puppies, rabbits, and guinea pigs. Inside the bustling building was a maze of stands and stalls displaying all manner of foodstuffs, housewares, clothing, and restaurant equipment. We came to the market hungry, but had to do several laps of the food stands before we felt ready to decide on something to eat – there were just so many options. I’d hoped to eat something typical of the region, like cuy (barbecued guinea pig), but most of the charcoal grills weren’t up and running yet, so we settled on breakfast at a crowded stall at the market entrance. We didn’t know what half the dishes were and had no clue what to order, but the lady at the stand dished us up some stewed pork skin, potatoes in sauce, rice, corn, and egg for the reasonable price of $1.25 each. Satisfied, we wandered the market one last time to get supplies for the next couple of days’ meals before moving on to the downtown core for some sightseeing.

Market breakfast - inexpensive and tasty!

Market breakfast – inexpensive and tasty!

Our hosts had mentioned a river walk from the market to the centre of town, so Ellen and I meandered along the north side of the waterfront. After a few recent days of rain, the babbling brook was a rushing torrent, but we still couldn’t hear it over the traffic on the road either side of the riverfront green space. At several places, the trail forced us to cross the busy streets without the benefit of crosswalks or signals, dodging buses and taxis as we sprinted across the roundabouts. We felt relieved to reach the stone walls of the historical centre and leave the riverside behind.

The town of Cuenca, once we finally reached it, was lovely indeed. We admired the churches, took photos of the prettily painted buildings, and sat in the park to watch the birds hop between the trees. There were a handful of tourists, but not very many compared to some other cities in South America, and the town had the vibe of an artsy community rather than just a tourist destination on the Inca trail. One of the bars in town was advertising poetry nights, and several portrait photographers were set up with old-fashioned cameras in the main park, waiting for couples and families to pass by. Our Canadian hosts had marked the local microbrewery on our map (knowing our passion for good beer), so after an hour of wandering town we headed over to the taphouse to sample a local brew. Unfortunately, they weren’t open yet, and wouldn’t be for several hours.

A few pretty buildings in Cuenca's centro historico

A few pretty buildings in Cuenca’s centro historico

Graffiti in Cuenca - "Without poetry there is no city"

Graffiti in Cuenca – “Without poetry there is no city”

This was the point at which I realized we suck at passing time in cities. We had seen the churches. We had sat in the parks. We had done our shopping. What more could we possibly do? The city was full of people, all going about their business and doing things. What on earth was everybody doing? We were trying to conserve money, but indulged in a fifty-cent coffee for the chance to sit in the tiny Colombian coffee shop and play cribbage for an hour or two. We went back to the park and watched people while discussing the lifestyle here versus at home. We looked at the recommended walking tours listed on the tourist map, and got ourselves slightly lost trying to follow the directions. We found a jewelry market which was not particularly interesting to us, although we stopped to admire some cute stud earrings that were out of our price range. We eventually made our way to the craft and textiles market featured on the tourist map, but again the items were overpriced and very similar to those we’d seen in every craft market from Costa Rica on south. That didn’t stop us browsing, but we were very aware that we were only looking at the handicrafts because we had more time to kill before the brewpub opened.

At long last, four o’clock rolled around and Cuenca’s only microbrewery opened its doors. Ellen and I were almost the first clients in the door of the pub. There were only five beers on the menu (along with a variety of mixed drinks like Irish Car Bombs and Stout with Chocolate), and two of them were stouts (which Ellen and I aren’t that fond of), so we decided to taste the blond, the red, and the amber ales. We didn’t need to worry too much about blowing our budget – half a liter of beer was $2.25. Despite our being the only customers in the pub, it took the waitress a good ten minutes to pull the pints and bring us our drinks.

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I had ordered the La Compañia Extra Golden Beer, while Ellen sampled the Misionera Irish Red Beer. Both were much nicer than the standard pilsner which is sold everywhere in Ecuador, but slightly disappointing as far as craft brewed beer is concerned. I thought the beer lacked something in its flavour, but couldn’t define the problem. Ellen, who is much more knowledgeable about brewing than me, pointed out that both beers had problems with the balance between malt and hops. She found they were too high in protein, giving them a slight issue in taste and a cloudy look. Ellen’s red beer was a bit too sweet, while my blond ale was bitter but was lacking body. Despite the drinks not being perfect artisan beer, they were more than satisfying, especially after the plain pilsners we’d been drinking on the farm. We couldn’t get any beer to take with us, but enjoyed every drop we drank in the comfortable and cozy pub before walking home in the setting sun.

Mmm! Craft beer!

Mmm! Craft beer!

Today, Ellen and I are leaving Cuenca to go south again, stopping in Loja tonight where we’ve arranged another couchsurfing experience before hitting the Peruvian border tomorrow. One day in the charming city of Cuenca was enough for us. As we think about it, we’re going to avoid staying in cities as we go through Peru. On the road, we’ve derived much of our pleasure from watching the farms as we pass – seeing how the houses are constructed, what crops grow in the region, and what livestock the locals are raising. As we continue on our journey into Peru, we’re going to try to ask farmers if we can camp in their fields, rather than spending our nights in crowded cities. It’s not that we dislike cities, we’re just not very good at finding things to do in them.

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