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By the beginning of July, our journey was close to an end, so Ellen and I started to make our way to Lima. Of course, we wanted to go the slow way, so after getting off the riverboat in Yurimaguas, we planned to hitchhike our way through the mountains for a week or so until we ran out of time and had to hightail it down the coast to Lima. Ellen’s flight was scheduled for the 16th of July, and I was looking for a job starting around the same time. To my surprise, a couple of hours of internet time rewarded me with four job offers in my inbox, and on very short notice I accepted one of them and booked myself a ticket to Taiwan, leaving on the 9th of July. Suddenly, our leisurely trip through the mountains was about to acquire a note of urgency.

We started our travels with a couple of excellent free rides, ending up dropped off in a valley right on the border between the jungle and the mountains. The fields nearby looked a little swampy for camping in, but an abandoned-looking dormitory had several open rooms that looked quiet, and even the locked rooms were visibly empty when we peeked in the windows. Ellen and I set up our sleeping mats and got down to relaxing in the hot afternoon sun. About an hour later, though, the owner showed up and discovered us, and naturally invited we intruders to join his family for dinner and stay at their house. We were originally unenthusiastic about the suggestion, but as he was insistent and we were squatting on his property, we agreed. His place turned out to be a sweet setup indeed.

It turns out our host was running a camp for workers at the nearby Stevia farm, and had an empty dormitory/storeroom for us to sleep in, and plenty of food to share. We sat with him for an hour shelling peas, and chatted about the area and our travels. After dinner, he invited us into the family home to watch TV before bed. I was wiped out, and would have gladly refused, as I still wasn’t sleeping well at nights due to tweaking my back a few weeks earlier, but I’m glad we joined him. Not because we watched anything interesting, nor had any conversation, but upon seeing his house we were able to recognize that the family wasn’t at all short of money and we had no reason to feel guilty for accepting his hospitality. The leather couches and big-screen TV in his living room assured us that we weren’t taking advantage of someone who couldn’t afford to be generous. When we left the next morning, not only did they feed us breakfast, but they also packed us a lunch to go and pressed a twenty into Ellen’s hands (worth about $8).

The next day’s ride was just as nice. A trucker who was driving through to Chiclayo on the coast, our driver was full of interesting conversation. He stopped to buy us lunch, pulled over for a scenic lookout he thought we’d like to see, and spent the time playing ridiculous music (Backstreet Boys? Really?) rather than harassing us about our life choices as Peruvians are wont to do. We got off on the road to Chachapoyas, intending to go through that town and Cajamarca on the way to Lima.

At least the road to Chachapoyas was beautiful, because it sure didn't advance us in our trip!

At least the road to Chachapoyas was beautiful, because it sure didn’t advance us in our trip!

Sadly, life had other plans for us. Upon getting halfway to Chachapoyas, we found out that the mountain road to Cajamarca was closed for repairs, and we had to double back and take the coastal route from Chiclayo to Lima after all. That delayed us most of a day, and we ended up stuck in the mountain town of Baguas, where no truck drivers seemed to be passing by on the same highway that had been so busy the day before. Finally, Ellen checked with a local bus company and got us tickets on an overnight bus to Chiclayo, from which city we intended to hitchhike to Lima. After a full night on the bus, though, a cheap ride on another bus line direct to Lima seemed easier, and so our last travel day ended up being 23 hours of bus time. We arrived at our couchsurfing host’s home around 9pm and were grateful for the welcome – and for bed!

I had two days in Lima before my flight, so Ellen and I set about exploring the city. We wandered around downtown seeing the sights, and came to recognize that we were ready for our trip to be over. We were done with admiring the architecture, uninterested in the hustle and bustle of the city, and unable to pay for any of the tourist sites. We still enjoyed exploring the markets, and I managed to buy myself a pair of shoes and a blouse for when I started working in Taiwan. I felt a bit silly that we stopped for lunch in Lima’s Chinatown the day before I got on a plane to Taiwan, but the food absolutely satisfied a craving.

What we really wanted to try was cuy, the Peruvian mountain specialty of fried guinea pig, which we’d never had the chance to try while we were in the mountains. Of course, it’s not traditional on the coast where Lima is located, so it took a fair amount of effort to track down a restaurant that served it. It took an internet search and careful cross-checking against a map to locate a tourist restaurant near us, and the day of my flight we went out at lunchtime to seek out the elusive dish. Our efforts were rewarded, though, and the tender meat reminded me of a cross between duck and rabbit, and certainly didn’t bring to mind a household pet.

The little cuy's head on Ellen's plate. I'd heard they were creepy to look at, but we weren't bothered.

The little cuy’s head on Ellen’s plate. I’d heard they were creepy to look at, but we weren’t bothered.

I finally got to try cuy!

I finally got to try cuy!

Soon enough it was time to go. From our couchsurfing host’s house, it was a quick one-sol ($0.30) transport bus ride to the airport. Speedy it was, easy it wasn’t. Luggage is forbidden on transports in Lima, so I was squished into my seat with my bag on my back. The bus driver swerved sharply between lanes, floored it without warning, and screeched to a halt at random intervals, launching me into the laps of the passengers facing me every couple of minutes. I’d have apologized to them, but the locals without bags were equally uncomfortable and crashed into strangers just as much as I did, so I assumed it was par for the course. The woman next to me spent half the ride shrieking at the driver to slow down. When I got to the airport, four hours early for check-in, my flight had been cancelled and my itinerary changed. Thankfully, I was bumped up to an earlier flight, and was still leaving that night. As I watched my bag roll away behind the check-in desk, I smiled. My trip was over. Or so I thought.

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Ellen and I arrived in the jungle city of Iquitos early in the evening, and decided to get a room and relax rather than running around looking for internet to check if we’d been expected by our couchsurfing hosts. The city was full of touts trying to book us on jungle tours and expeditions. Since the cheapest ones were seven times our daily budget of $5 apiece, we weren’t particularly interested in hearing the sales pitches.

Upon failing to reach our host the next morning, Ellen and I grabbed a stack of brochures from an info booth, headed to a market area, and sat down over beer to make a plan. There were a few tourist attractions within our price range, so we had a couple of days’ worth of adventures to have in Iquitos. When we went to find a phone booth to call our host, someone called out Ellen’s name from a passing motocar. Iquitos, it seems, is small enough for someone to find us just by asking around. Walter, our couchsurfing host, took us to the waterfront to chat. Clearly, his idea of couchsurfing differed from ours – he immediately launched into a sales pitch for different wilderness lodges in the jungle. When it became clear to him that we couldn’t pay, he encouraged us to spend a few days at his uncle’s place, where we could fish and explore the jungle at our own pace. All we’d have to do was bring some food for the family. This we agreed was in our budget, so Walter was all set to take us back to the hostel. “Umm…” said Ellen, “Aren’t we supposed to be staying with you?”

Once that confusion was sorted out, we started in on the next one. What food should we take to Uncle’s place? Walter insisted on shopping for us, but wanted 200 soles – $70, more or less. That is well beyond a reasonable price for groceries. We talked him down to a much lower price, but the next morning when we saw what he’d bought, we knew we’d been ripped off. What we saw in front of us, a small bag of rice, some pasta, and toilet paper, couldn’t have cost more than $5. Clearly, Walter’s commission for sending us to Uncle’s was about 85%. We were pretty pissed off because it made us look like we were taking advantage of Uncle, rather than Walter doing so.

Finally, we got on a river bus, one of the local boats doing the chicken-run service from village to village. We felt half-excited and quite apprehensive. Was this all a scam, or were we in for the time of our lives?

After a day or two couchsurfing in Trujillo, Ellen and I were ready to leave this noisy city on the coast and go back into the mountains. Fernando, our host, convinced us to stay a few days longer so he could take us fishing on Wednesday. Little did we know what we were getting ourselves into.

The plan was that our host would get everything ready for the fishing expedition, while Ellen and I were only responsible for our tents. We’d ride in a little boat to an island, where we’d camp, fish, have a bonfire, cook outdoors, and drink plenty of beers. We were leaving after Fernando finished teaching on Wednesday, and getting back before his afternoon class on Thursday. Or at least, that was the plan as Fernando described it the day before.

The beach by the pier at sunset

The beach by the pier at sunset

On Wednesday afternoon, we gathered our camping gear and hopped into a taxi to the oceanside, where we were to catch a boat to the island. We arrived at the pier just as the sun was setting. The surf was rough, the pier was almost deserted, and the few locals hanging around kept trying to dissuade us from going out. The town drunk was also there, bellowing at us and at the boats in the harbour, whose captains were not going anywhere near the pier with the seas in this condition. A man in a rowboat finally pulled up to the pier, and Fernando convinced him to take us to the big port a few piers down the beach.

I was totally confused about what was going on – when Fernando told me before that we were catching a boat to an island, I had assumed there were actually boats around. Silly me. Climbing into a rowboat in rough seas in the dark with all my camping gear was not what I had pictured at all. I was getting more and more frustrated with Fernando, who isn’t the brightest bulb in the house and whose plans for the trip, it was becoming apparent, were nonexistent. As the sailor was rowing us to the port, he kept asking us if we were sure this was a good idea, because it seemed dangerous to him, and did we really trust this guy we were with? I trusted Fernando not to assault us, but had no confidence that he wouldn’t lead us into a ridiculously stupid situation, putting our gear and probably also our lives in danger.

Fernando, oblivious to the sailor’s comments and our discomfort, kept asking me and Ellen to go talk to the security guards at the port when we arrived, so we could get permission for our trip. He was completely unable to understand that since Ellen and I had no idea what our trip was, what we were doing, where we were going, or how we would get there, our ability to ask for permission to do it was severely hindered. Finally, our rowboat pulled up to the port’s pier, and we climbed the precarious ladder out of the waves. Here, we discovered that the “island” was actually the private beach in the port’s back yard, only accessible on foot by walking through their property.

We finally got to our campsite around 7:30 at night. Fernando chose a spot that was still wet from recent waves, and Ellen and I had to insist for quite some time before he acknowledged that further from the rising tide might make more sense. While I was setting up my tent, Fernando dumped his gear onto the ground and looked at Ellen expectantly. Clearly, he had never set up his own tent before, but decided that since Ellen knew stuff about camping she’d know how to set it up. Luckily, it had only three poles and wasn’t too difficult to figure out, although Ellen spent most of the time cursing at Fernando, who kept moving the tent poles that Ellen had carefully placed.

Once everyone’s tents were up, Fernando declared it too dangerous to go fishing at night, so better to start a campfire and drink instead. He had brought charcoal and paper, and asked us to search the expanse of sand for driftwood. In the ten-minute walk from the port, there hadn’t been a single twig on the ground; Trujillo is a desert, completely devoid of trees. Ellen and I declined to fetch wood, and suggested we save the charcoal for the morning’s cooking fire rather than try to start it in the high winds at night.

We got down to drinking. This was moderately more successful than fishing – Fernando had brought three beers each, plus a bottle of wine – although the conversation left something to be desired. Our host was completely incapable of carrying on a conversation in either English or Spanish. He’d ask a question and interrupt our response, or answer it himself before giving us a chance. He’d lose interest in stories after two sentences (whether he was doing the listening or the telling) and mentally wander off to some kind of no-man’s-land.

Within a few minutes of starting drinking, Fernando declared his intentions to conquer me, romantically. He was 44, I was 32, and we were both teachers. What more could we want? Clearly, we were made for each other. We could live in his apartment in Trujillo. (I hate his apartment in Trujillo – the bathroom is shared with his bar, and is everything you could expect of a bar bathroom in a third-world country. The apartment has no view in any direction thanks to billboards in front of its windows, but lets in all the sounds of traffic from the main street, in a place where every car honks at every pedestrian every two seconds. His apartment is the last thing that would tempt me.) When I said no, he turned to Ellen to ask her advice (“Forget it!”) and the already awkward and stilted conversation over not nearly enough beer became very repetitive very quickly. Fernando couldn’t imagine why anybody would turn him down. I went to bed as soon as the alcohol was finished.

Live bait, which Fernando later released since we didn't do any fishing

Live bait, which Fernando later released since we didn’t do any fishing

In the morning, I slept through Fernando’s failed attempt to catch any fish. Since he hadn’t brought any food besides buns, as soon as I woke up Fernando was too hungry to fish anymore and we needed to go back to town. In daylight, the beach was isolated and pretty, with wide expanses of open sand and several flocks of shorebirds. We hiked off the beach, walked through the port, and caught a bus back to Fernando’s apartment. Ellen and I went out for breakfast, rather than having to cook in Fernando’s kitchen with him there, and over my papaya juice and egg sandwich, I made a mental note: people who seem like idiots in the city probably won’t improve much on a fishing trip, either. At least we had an adventure out of the experience, and one more tale to tell.

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.