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Cuenca, Ecuador, and Mancora, Peru

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After leaving Quito last week, we took a night bus to Cuenca in southern Ecuador. We got to Cuenca about 5:30 in the morning, after another long sleepless night on a bus. At that hour, we arrived to a dark, sketchy bus station surrounded by a bunch of crooked cab drivers. Although this proved a bleak welcoming, we ended up finding Cuenca to be a great colonial city with a style and character all of its own. Eric and I really fell in love with this town, so we found ourselves spending three memorable days enjoying our time there. Cuenca is a very livable place with great restaurants, ice cream parlors, and an abundance of churches and parks.

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One of the best parts about our stay in Cuenca was our hotel room. The hotel was a grand dame, dripping with faded grandeur, and the room was outfitted with a majestic chandelier, high ceilings, a fireplace, and a second story balcony that overlooked a busy street. The balcony was the perfect height to make you feel as though you were a famous dictator addressing the masses hoarded at your feet.

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It’s worthy of mention that Cuenca is famous for making the highest quality Panama hats in the world. It turns out Panama hats are actually from Ecuador, not Panama. Apparently this famous misnomer occurred due to their exportation through the port of Panama. They were also used by many of the workers on the Panama Canal, and thereby became known as a “Panama hats.” We’ve come to learn the correct name for these hats is “Montecristis.”

We visited many of the Sombreroias in town and got a first-hand look at the incredible labor and artistry that goes into making these special hats. While meandering through the town’s hat district, we came across a humble storefront with a sign reading “Casa del Sombreros.” Upon entering we were greeted by a smiling, little old man with a very sunny disposition. His hands were chalk-white from coloring hats, and his tracheotomy prevented him from speaking in more than a scarce whisper. He shook our hands heartily, and smiled a kind of innocent smile only children and little old men are capable of.

We came to find out that the little old man who stood before us was 82-year-old Alberto Pulla, the most famous hatter in all of Ecuador. He is a man who knows hats like few others and has been making them since the wee age of 6. After several more smiles and a few attempts at conversation, he ultimately took us upstairs to the “private selection” area of his store. Here we viewed a selection of the very best “fino” and “superfino” Montecristis in the world. In addition to the hats, he showed us several articles written about him in publications from around the globe.

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After personally selecting the perfect hat for Eric and myself, Senor Pulla gave us a big smile and posed proudly with us for pictures. We found the new hats to suit our respective characters perfectly: Eric went for the classic white Montecristi, and I opted for a more reserved, dark-gray fedora style. To further the theatrical mood the hats lent us, I decided to shave my beard, leaving only a handle-bar mustache that I plan to fashion into something reminiscent of Salvador Dali. All in all, Cuenca was an excellent chapter in this trip. Our experiences in both Quito and Cuenca make us want to return to Ecuador and explore more of this incredible country.

After leaving Cuenca, we traveled a good ten hours southwest and are now in Mancora, Peru. Mancora is a very laid-back surf town with incredible year-round sun. We have found the warm weather a delightful change from the cooler climes we experienced throughout Colombia and Ecuador. Mancora is the same kind of beach-bum hippie town that you could easily find in southern California, or even in Thailand.

Eric and I have done little here in Mancora other than lay out on the beach and feast on excellent local seafood. You can sit right on the beach with your toes in the sand and sip beers while watching the sunset over a pile of delectable fried shrimp. We’ve also had some incredible chiviche (raw fish in lemon juice) that is made to order at a little street-side shack. We’ve spent the past week here and could easily spend a few months. This place is truly magic.

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Tomorrow we’ll be heading to Lima where we will hopefully be meeting up with Persephone. This Persephone is not the queen of the underworld, but a beautiful opera singer and coworker that I met mere weeks before embarking on this journey. She is presently trying to fly standby to Peru, but the flights are looking bleakly overbooked. Right now we’re not sure if she’ll make it or not. We originally planned to have her travel with us for two weeks while we are in Peru. Eric’s girlfriend Rori will also be joining us in a few days in Cuzco. Hopefully Persephone is able to make it.

July 7th officially marked the half-way point of our 6 month trip. We are now tentatively looking into flying home out of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.

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