After another poor night's sleep, and waking up with my left eye swollen halfway shut -- luckily it became normal again after showering, but eww, swollen eyes are unpleasant to wake up to -- I grabbed a quick breakfast at my hostal and prepared for my trip to a national park outside of Cuenca.
Today I headed to Parque Nacional Cajas, which is a twenty- or thirty-minute drive out of Cuenca, and into a moorland filled with over 300 glacial lakes, dotted with 500 year-old polylepis forests (trees that grow at higher altitudes than any other in the world), and cut through with numerous hiking trails. The landscape here is stunning, if rather bleak – much of the terrain is rock and scrub, yet there’s water everywhere – and one’s feeling toward it tends to change with the mutable weather, which today started off sunny and warm but ended cold and rainy. And when the rains come, mists embrace the mountaintops, adding to the feeling of mystery here.
Laguna Llaviucu, in Parque Nacional Cajas.
We visited three major lakes in the park: Laguna Llaviucu, Laguna Cucheros, and Laguna Toreadora. At one point we reached an elevation of 4167 meters (13,671 feet), where there are three crosses (Tres Cruces, it’s called) commemorating the lives lost by people traveling over the mountain pass.
Our guide, Martín, was very good, and he stopped to show us, and let us try, various plants along the hike that had medicinal properties or were commonly used in local cooking. He also pointed out numerous birds, of which the park has hundreds of species, and even stopped to pick through wolf excrement to show us what the animal had eaten.
Altogether we hiked eight miles in the park, and we were all exhausted by the end, especially since we were well over 10,000 feet all day.
For our 2:00 lunch we headed to a very nice restaurant on the edge of the park called Dos Chorreras, a rustic cabin-like place with a fountain inside where skittish trout swam.
Upon sitting down, our group was served a complementary glass of warm ganelaso, which is cinnamon mixed with alcohol and some kind of fruit – though it tasted faintly like beets to me.
We had two choices for lunch – steamed trout or fried trout. If you didn’t like trout, you were out of luck. Luckily, I like trout, and I ordered mine fried. It also came with fried yucca and negligible pieces of broccoli and carrot.
We were also served a thick, very orange potato soup with avocado. I was skeptical that the combination of potato and avocado would work, but in fact they went excellent together.
I also ordered a glass of mora juice, which comes from the mora berry, and is absolutely delicious.
Parque Nacional Cajas is an extraordinary place, and I highly recommend it for visitors to Cuenca. For the “shared tour,” which included myself, a couple from England, and a mother and daughter from Quito, the cost was $37 plus $10 for the park entry fee – lunch was free, except for drinks – and the trip lasted eight hours. For the tour I used Expediciones Apullacta, which can be found on the Internet at www.apullacta.com or on foot at Gran Colombia 11-02 (it’s in a big white building, on the second floor).
When I returned to my hostal, I showered and then headed back to Café Austria for something to drink and to use their wi-fi. As was the case yesterday, however, they had no wi-fi – but today it was because another power cut was in force only one block from where I was staying (apparently the power had been off at my hostal from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.). I was told by my guide to Parque Nacional Cajas that the power cuts were abnormal; the government was cutting power (without telling anyone when) because of an energy shortage caused by the lack of rain – Ecuador is trying to reduce its dependence on foreign oil at the same time it’s putting more of its resources into developing hydroelectric power. Of course, when there’s no rain then there’s nothing left to generate electricity.
When dinner time rolled around, I asked the hostal owner for recommendations on where to find seco de chivos, and he marked two places on my map. However, I had no luck finding either place, and in the end, after more than an hour of wandering around – Cuenca just doesn’t have a lot of restaurants – I settled on a place I’d passed twice before. It was called El Viejo Rincón, and it was empty when I entered (not usually a good sign).
Two items on the menu immediately caught my eye – ceviche de camarón (shrimp ceviche) and empanada de carne. I asked the waitress if that was too much food for one person, and she eyed me for a while then told me I’d be fine. Hmm. I’m not a big fan of the waitress once-over.
First came the ceviche. I was really surprised when she set it down in front of me, as I’ve never had ceviche served as a cold soup before. Nor have I had it served with popcorn. But I dug in, and wow, it was good. The broth had an umami element to it that took me by surprise, and the shrimp was served in a generous portion while the raw onions were quite mild. I was really glad I ordered this.
Since arriving in South America, I haven’t been a big fan of the empanadas I’ve come across, but after foodie-friend Anjelikuh suggested that I try an empanada de carne (do they even have empanada carnes in Poland, Anjelika?), the thought crossed my mind and I got one.
This was not your typical empanada, at least not in my experience with them. First of all, this thing was flat-out big, and the crust was light and flaky, not greasy and heavy like I’ve had them in the past. And inside, the meat, combined with slivered red and chopped green onions, was very nice – it was a perfect balance between turnover and filling. The ceviche was only $3, and the empanada an outrageously cheap $1 – these are some of the best dinner prices I’ve come across in Cuenca, and the meal was excellent. I definitely recommend El Viejo Rincón, though you should be warned that they have a TV hung prominently over the bar that plays Latin American video ballads all evening.
El Viejo Rincón is located at Presidente Cordova 7-52 and Luis Cordero streets. Tel: 284-3083.