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Fri May 02 2014: Shrunken Voodoo Heads!

We're both missing the sun and sand, and we debated long and hard about turning back the way we came from and heading back to the beaches of the west coast. But the pace has gotten too slow (even for us!) and we decide to move through Ecuador a bit quicker, so we're continuing our trek through the rainy Andean highlands.

Rain clouds greet us overhead as we ride through El Cajas National Park

El Cajas National Park lies just outside of Cuenca. It's a beautiful, but cold ride through the tundra vegetation of tall strawgrass. Parts of it remind me of Iceland... until you see the alpacas grazing by the side of the road.

Only mildly curious about the biker with the camera clicking away

This picture above reminds me of a couple of things:

1) I am constantly on reserve. El Cajas is about 30 kms outside of Cuenca, and yes, my display reads 29 kms till empty... Because Neda's range on her F650GS is about 50 kms more than mine, I'm always running on fumes when we stop for gas!

2) Gas is freakin' cheap in Ecuador! The price is fixed by the government at $1.48 USD per gallon. That's $0.41 CDN per liter! For once, it costs more to feed us than our motorcycles!

Twist and shout! in El Cajas

Riding through Colonial Cuenca

Cuenca is probably Ecuador's prettiest city. Its colonial past is proudly displayed front and centre as we ride through the narrow, cobblestone streets looking for a place to stay.

We find a nice hotel that lets us park inside, and every morning while we have breakfast, we can check up on the bikes

Although there are lots of indigenous people in Cuenca,
the town is also popular with gringo tourists

As we walked through the streets exploring Cuenca, we realized we had just stumbled upon another Gringo Trail town. The shell of grand, old historic buildings now house swanky restaurants and souvenir shops. Store-owners and waiters practice their English trying to lure tourists into their establishments.

Our snobbishness is wearing off though. One evening, we nosh on Beef Vindaloo, then Mexican food another night. We also repeatedly walk by a Caribbean restaurant that remained stubbornly closed throughout our stay in Cuenca. To say that we are getting bored of the local tipico food is a gross understatement.

Another evening, we visit a German beerhouse

I got Neda blind drunk and took advantage of her later on that night in bed. In Married-Speak, that means I got to hog all the blankets with no fear of retaliation as she lay passed out beside me... kikiki...

The next day, with Neda nursing a severe hangover, we do more sightseeing. We have spaghetti for lunch.

Panama hats!

While we were in Ecuador, I found out the traditional white, straw hats that everyone was wearing was called a Panama Hat. What was more unusual is that they are made right here in Cuenca. So why is it called a Panama Hat and not an Ecuador Hat? Turns out that the manufacturers who originally made the hats forwarded them to the Isthmus of Panama, for international shipping to other parts of the world. So the hats were known for where they were shipped from, not where they were made.

We spent the day walking through lots of museums. This one housed Inca pottery and other household items

As we poked around all the vases, pots and cups, I wondered what would the ancient Incas think about us displaying their everyday cutlery with such reverence? And then I also wondered what far-future archaeologists would think of our own household kitchenware. Would our plastic Ikea cups and Ginsu knives be displayed under glass with little signs explaining how 21st century inhabitants lined up for hours in a warehouse or dialed 1-800 numbers to attain these treasures?

The remains of an ancient Inca rapper: Fiddy Centavo

Outside the museum were the ruins of Todos los Santos

The interesting things about these structures was how the builders cut the stones in such a way that they interlocked with one another, without any need for cement. The best Jenga players in the world come from Ecuador.

I was most interested in visiting the Museo del Banco Central. Neda told me there was a display of shrunken heads, the result of a ritual (even practiced quite recently) by a native Ecuadorian tribe. That was the coolest thing I'd heard in a while, so all day I kept pestering her, "Are we going to see the shrunken heads now", "How about now?", "Can we see them now?"...

Real live shrunken human heads! This head was about the size of a fist.
So creepy and COOOOOOOOLLLLL!!!!

I did some research as to how these Amazon tribes (the only ones in the world) shrink the heads of their enemies: they remove the skull and replace it with a small wooden ball, then boil them in water with some tannins. Then they're dried and molded into human shape. Note the lips are sewn with cords to keep the evil spirits residing inside from escaping.

The funny thing (Neda thought it was gross) was that the nose hairs were still intact!

There are all these signs around the shrunken heads saying that we weren't allowed to take any pictures. And to underscore the point, there were surveillance cameras all over the exhibit. I really wanted to get a memento, so we scoped out what we thought was a blind spot amongst the cameras (like Mission Impossible) and then surreptitiously stole shots of the shrunken heads.

Not soon after, we saw a security guard approach us, so we quickly turned around and fled the building, giggling like little kids with the camera safely stashed away - our prized pictures inside!

A lot of the buildings in Cuenca are covered in amazing artwork

Neda can't walk past a pet store without stopping to go inside

Hanging out with Valentino in Jerez during breakfast

There aren't many things that dictate our travel schedule, but MotoGP is one of them. We stayed an extra few days just so that we could download the race that weekend, but to our surprise, the cafe where we stopped to have breakfast was actually showing the race live! Motorcycle racing is not very popular in North America, so it was quite a novelty to watch it in a public place.

We were the only ones watching the race in the restaurant, and we get quite excited and very loud when there's a close pass or a crash. Once or twice (or maybe more often), the other patrons looked up from their nice and quiet Sunday brunch to frown at our outbursts...

Bucolic countryside scene?

Nope, a farm right in the middle of the city!

You don't realize how strange soap operas really are
until you see one being filmed live...

Hiking up to the Mirador de Turi, to get the best view of the city

Reminds us of our trip to the Galapagos. Missing the beach so much!!!

Heterochromia (different coloured eyes) is a common trait in Huskies

Cuenca in Spanish means "Basin" made out of rivers

The city Cuenca is actually in the confluence of four rivers, hence its name. At night, multi-coloured lights illuminate the waters, a nice treat for midnight strollers or joggers. The city (and the country) feel very safe to walk around at all hours of the day.

Selling snacks outside the New Cathedral of Cuenca

Waiting for charity

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