Arriving in Cuenca from Baños involved a taxi, a national bus, a domestic flight and the last reserves of my energy. From visits as a child, I fondly remembered the laid-back little town near the water. I was surprised to encounter a sprawling city, almost as large as Quito. Our hotel was on the outskirts of town, worryingly far from civilization. I wondered if we’d made a mistake when we pulled up to a resort that had seen better days.
The place was deserted and when the clerk told us the thermal pool wasn’t working, I was too tired to kick up a fuss. I’d booked the place especially for the volcanic pool, which is reportedly revitalising and chockfull of healthy goodness. Instead, we were pointed in the direction of an alternative pool that was tepid, bordering on chilly, and filled with school kids.
We returned to our room and went to bed, miserable and missing the potato soup community steambath that was Baños.
At 6:00 in the morning, I awoke to the loud voices and laughter of hyper youngsters. I’d had enough. I ventured out of my room and was confronted not with teens but from a scene straight out of Cocoon. Roughly thirty senior citizens were splashing and exercising in the now-working outdoor thermal pool near our room.
Some of the elderly were doing laps. Some had on water weights and were walking purposely from one side of pool to the other. The rest were chatting and squealing as they ran and launched themselves into the pool.
The hotel manager told us that the Cuenca waters have powers of rejuvenation. Every morning, the residents of this little suburb gathered to swim. Some of them up to 5 times a week.
Eager to join them, we put on our suits, jumped in the pool and OH MY! The water was almost 50 degrees! I could barely stand in it, much less swim. After 10 minutes we had to get out to give our poor hearts a rest. Yet here were these Cuencanos in their 70s and 80s, paddling happily in that boiling lava, looking like wrinkly but rejuvenated puppies.
No wonder Ecuador has some of the oldest and fittest people alive.
Later in the evening, after a day of walking around the centre and looking at the fantastic architecture, we ventured into the pool again.
In the Sierra it gets cold in the evenings on account of the mountains. Imagine swimming under the stars, the volcanic waters giving off steam, the pure exhilaration of conflicting temperatures on your skin. When it became too much, we bundled up in terry robes to sit in the garden, cooling our bodies in the night air, as we watched the Cocoon posse, splashing with gusto, seemingly unaffected by heat or exhaustion.
Long after we went to bed, the old ones remained, laughing and playing in the water and most likely slapping each other’s behinds with towels.
In case you are looking for it, the fountain of youth is alive and well in Cuenca.