Day 121 – 30 Jun, 2015
It’s a funny thing when you cross a border by land. In some ways, everything seems exactly the same. After all, you’ve only crossed an arbitrary line in the sand. The landscape and people generally look the same. In the case of South America, even the language is the same. Then when you take the time to observe, really observe, you notice the little nuances that make a place unique and special.
The day I crossed from Peru to Ecuador it was a little different. The Atacama Desert meets the Sechura Desert and extends the entire length of the Peruvian coast until you travel inland, first encountering the imposing Andean range and then dense jungle in the interior. In Ecuador, even near the coast, everything is lush and green. The coast can see as much as 115 inches of rain annually, while the interior valleys can get up to 100 inches. All that rain means dense forest and verdant grassland. It was pleasing to the senses to see such a stark contrast in landscape so suddenly.
After spending a month in Peru, I had grown accustomed to their large double decker tourist buses with air conditioning and a meal onboard. I made a point to book a first class fare for my 9 hour ride to Guayaquil. Might as well enjoy the last of these! No longer would my bus security be a priority. No longer would I have leg room. No longer would I be able to wear headphones to drown out the D-list action movies – in Ecuador, they play the movie so loud that even the noise cancelling variety don’t work. No longer would I wonder about the merits of ginseng or toilet paper or gum, for in Ecuador, there is always someone on your bus to sell you something random like an in-person infomercial.
It wasn’t a new warning when people told me to watch my belongings in Guayaquil (just like in other South American cities, valuables tend to grow legs), but this felt different. Every local I encountered, a taxi driver and a bartender and an old woman next to me on a bench and countless others, emphasized this point. Ecuador is a poor country. Peru is poor as well but the Peruvians seem to have a stronger foothold on the tourism market, lessening their poverty just a bit. Many other travelers I met were breezing through Ecuador on a 2 day bus straight from Lima to Medellin or Bogota, taking their tourist dollars with them. There was a slight sense of desperation amongst the Ecuadorians I encountered, as if they really wanted my money, legally or otherwise. Since they changed their national currency to the US dollar in 2000, the cost of living in this poor country has become a hardship to the majority of citizens.
I spent my first week between Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador with a hot, steamy climate and Cuenca, a popular choice city for American retirees in the foggy cloud forest. Guayaquil felt every bit the big city, with traffic and pollution and crime. The Malecon 2000 was opened in…you guessed it….1999 (well, even the government overestimated how long it would take for completion. It opened in October 1999, ahead of schedule). It’s a river walk in the city center that has been gated off from the main thoroughfare to make it more secure and easier to patrol for criminals. Historically, this area was known for drugs and prostitution. In addition to the Malecon, I also walked up the 444 steps to Cerro Santa Ana and the lighthouse for a view of the river and surrounding cityscape and ventured into the more central park, Parque Seminario, that is famous for its collection of iguanas and Japanese tilapia. After observing these bold creatures, it’s no wonder that JG Ballard once famously wrote about iguanas taking over in The Drowned World.
In contrast, Cuenca is quiet and suburban. Ecuador has free public healthcare for everyone, a national or not, making this a prime retirement destination for Americans who can’t afford the notoriously high premiums in the US. The restaurants in Cuenca are also top quality to match the demand of the ex-pats who call this place home. For the first time in 6 weeks, it rained on me in Cuenca, but I relished the chance to catch up on Spanish studies, try out a new running path, and eat some amazing (and otherwise NOT Ecuadorian) cuisine in this livable city while I adjusted to yet another new country in my journey around the world.