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‘Fanta Se’

New Mexico day seven


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Adobe house, Santa Fe

We slept well in our cosy casita in Santa Fe and woke eager to explore a town we had read so much about. For Chris today was also an opportunity to take a break from driving, as we left the car parked in our allocated spot and walked everywhere for the day – our choice of a central location was really paying off.

We could (at an extra cost, naturally) have arranged to have breakfast at the B&B owned by the same people as our casita, but chose not to, and we also didn’t want to self-cater, despite having a very serviceable kitchen. Instead we preferred to sample a variety of breakfast places in the vicinity of our little home. On this first morning we tried one that came highly recommended in our Moon Handbook, Café Pasqual’s.

It was very busy and we were fortunate to be able to get a good table straightaway – we observed that others who weren’t so lucky were quite happy to wait some time, such is the reputation of the place. It seemed to be popular not only with tourists but also locals – girl-friends meeting for breakfast, and a couple of local businessmen. I loved the colourful décor, with bright murals and Mexican tiles, and our table on a raised area at one end of the small room gave us a great view of this and of all the activity.

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Blintzes and granola at Café Pasqual’s

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Proper espresso!

We found the breakfast menu to be quite extensive, as befits somewhere famous for its breakfasts. I decided to try something different, the ‘Three House-made Blintzes, Golden from the Skillet, Topped with Strawberry Jam and Sour Cream’. These were good but very filling, with a bit too much cream for that time of day (regular cream, which I left to one side, as well as the sour cream promised by the menu). Chris chose what he expected to be a healthy option, the nutty granola, with yoghurt and berries, but the portion was so huge that it probably wasn’t that healthy after all! He also had a cappuccino and I had a double espresso, really appreciating the availability of strong coffee to kick-start my day.

All this didn’t come cheap however. The cappuccino alone was $5 which was more than we were used to paying in pricey London, and our total bill (with two grapefruit juices as well) was $50 – more than we had paid for the previous night’s dinner! So although we liked the breakfast, and loved the atmosphere, we went elsewhere on the subsequent mornings.

Santa Fe

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Adobe architecture in Santa Fe

Santa Fe has sometimes been nicknamed ‘Fanta Se’, and it’s not hard to see why. The city lives for its art. And I am not referring only to the thousands of people here who are engaged in the arts in some way or another – running a gallery, creating paintings or photos or sculptures, writing or performing etc. No – the city itself seems to have a sense of itself as a work of art. Local regulations control very strictly control the appearance of all buildings in the downtown area, around the Plaza – if it isn’t adobe, it had better at least pretend to be!

But if that sounds critical, it isn’t really intended to be. We had a lovely few days here, enjoying the history, architecture, galleries and surrounding countryside.

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Adobe in Santa Fe

Today our focus was on the historic centre. When we arrived at our accommodation in Santa Fe the owner of the Chapelle Street Casitas had said ‘And yes, there is a law that everything has to be brown!’ The downtown area here preserves a number of old adobe buildings from Spanish colonial times, but at first glance you might be fooled into thinking that all the buildings were old, and all of them adobe. And that’s just what the city planners want you to think. For decades now, all new building in this part of the city has had to conform to the same overall style, although many of the apparently ‘adobe’ buildings that you will see are in fact plaster and stucco, built in the early 20th Century to satisfy this collective vision of what the city ought to look like to appeal to tourists. A city ordinance exists to enforce the on-going homogenisation of the downtown district, requiring that all new buildings, additions and restorations conform to one of two traditional styles:
~ ‘Pueblo Revival’ – a mix of styles based on Native American mud buildings and Spanish mud-brick churches
~ ‘Territorial’ – a style based on early Anglo modifications of adobe buildings, with additions like wood trim around windows and door openings and decorative friezes on the parapets

Opinion is divided as to the success of this approach to town planning, and I couldn’t make up my own mind either. When we first arrived I was rather struck by the appearance of the streets around the Plaza, with their uniform colour and (mostly) low heights giving them a very characteristic look. But after a while the uniformity can start to look more dull than distinctive. The secret to appreciating these buildings, I realised as we explored, is to stop seeing them as a homogenous whole and look for the details that make certain among them stand out.

San Francisco Cathedral

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San Francisco Cathedral

We started our explorations in the area to the east of the Plaza, at Santa Fe’s cathedral. In the homogenous adobe world of Santa Fe’s downtown area, the Cathedral of San Francisco seemed somewhat incongruous. How did such a European-looking place of worship come to be here? Well, it was, unsurprisingly, due to one particular European, a French priest – Jean Baptiste Lamy. Apparently when he first arrived here in 1851 he was shocked at some of the religious practices, including the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and also horrified by the church buildings, finding it impossible to believe that anyone could reach heaven while praying on a dirt floor inside a building made of mud! So he commissioned this new cathedral for Santa Fe, and all of the old church was demolished, apart from one small side chapel. But it seems that he ran out of money, and the two spires that should have topped the towers either side of the front porch were never added – hence their rather odd stumpy appearance.

Inside it is light and rather lovely, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether the ancient adobe would have held more atmosphere and sense of the spiritual? I got some hint of that in the one remaining adobe chapel, on the left of the altar. This houses a small statue, La Conquistadora, brought to Santa Fe from Mexico in 1625. She was carried away by the retreating Spanish during the Pueblo Revolt, but reinstated in 1693, and has been honoured ever since for inspiring the Spanish to stick with their colonising project, and for what was regarded (possibly mistakenly?) her peaceful acceptance by the natives . Whether such colonial ‘smirking’ is appropriate in a church I was not so sure, but the little statue is a marvel indeed.

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La Conquistadora, and dreamcatcher bell

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Crucifix with saints in native clothing

Elsewhere in the cathedral though, the native influence was more apparent, for instance in the clothing of some of the saints portrayed and in the dreamcatcher-like bell that hangs above the lectern. This and many other elements of the decoration and ornamentation are quite modern, such as the windows of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel to the right of the altar, the altar screen and the great bronze doors. All of these were added in 1986 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral. I very much liked these modern touches, which added to the sensation of lightness and airiness.

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The altar screen

In front of the cathedral are a couple of interesting statues. One is naturally of the patron saint, St Francis. The other is more unusual and depicts Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint. She was a 17th century Mohawk-Algonquian woman, who converted to Christianity at an early age.

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Statue of St Francis with Contemporary Art Museum behind

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Statue of Kateri Tekakwitha

There is also a statue of Bishop Lamy, but I was perhaps feeling a little irritated by this rather sanctimonious French cleric at this point, as I omitted to photograph him!

Cathedral Park

Next we investigated the small park next to the cathedral. This was established in 1998 to mark the 400th anniversary of the first European, i.e. Spanish, colonisation of New Mexico. There are some lovely trees there and it seemed a quiet, restful spot away from the bustle of the streets. In the centre we came across a monument commemorating the anniversary. The inscription on it reads:

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Monument to the settlers, Cathedral Park

‘The year 1998 marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival in New Mexico of about 560 valiant men, women and children to establish one of the earliest permanent European settlements in the United States. Their leader and first governor, Don Juan de Oñate, led this intrepid band north over hundreds of desolate, dangerous miles to the green valleys of northern New Mexico. It was there the colonists established themselves by introducing European crops and the first horses, sheep, goats, cattle, donkeys and poultry – thereby establishing European culture and technology in the United States, where they had not previously existed.

With the settlers came the Franciscan priests and brothers who ministered to the colonists and to the native inhabitants of the region. It was this unswerving devotion to their faith and to their families that consoled and inspired those settlers and their descendants to endure and prevail over 400 years of isolation, abandonment, hardship and cultural challenges. It is to those heroic precursors that our community joins in raising this monument to our forefathers’ continuing contributions to the history, culture and values of today’s America. May they serve as an inspiration to all who pass this way.’

The monument includes sculptures of different types of settler – Franciscan monk, a colonial settler family (man, woman and two children), and a Spanish soldier. They surround a column which is topped by a statue of Mary La Conquistadora. At its base are many of the fruits, vegetables, tools, music instruments etc. brought to New Mexico by these colonialists, and it is supported by a cow, a pig, a sheep and a donkey.

The Loretto Chapel

Our next visit was to the much smaller Loretto Chapel. Not content with rebuilding the Cathedral in an architectural style which, he believed, was more fitting for worship, Bishop Lamy also commissioned the small Loretto Chapel a little to the south of it – the first Gothic structure to be built west of the Mississippi. Outside the chapel we saw a tree hung with rosaries, which is interesting in the light of the fact that the chapel was desanctified in 1971 and sold to a private family.

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Rosaries hanging outside the Loretto Chapel

This family have preserved it well, hiring it out for weddings and opening it to the public each day. There is an admission charge of $3 (September 2011 prices) and I though it was well worth paying this small fee for a glimpse inside. The chapel is richly decorated with stained glass windows from France and Stations of the Cross from Italy, but what makes it special is the so-called miraculous spiral staircase that leads to the choir loft. Fashioned beautifully from an apparently extinct species of wood, it twists elegantly upwards with no central pole to support it, resting solely on its base and against the loft, and making over two complete 360-degree turns as it climbs. It is 20 feet high and was constructed without glue or nails, using only square wooden pegs to hold the parts together.

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The miraculous staircase

One story starts with the suggestion that the Sisters of Loretto had been given the funds by Lamy to build their chapel, but that the money ran out before they could build a stair to reach their choir loft. Another version says that the small size of the chapel meant that no carpenter could identify a way to fit a staircase into the space. Both versions go on to tell how the Sisters made a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. On the ninth and final day of prayer, a mysterious carpenter appeared at the Chapel with a donkey and a toolbox looking for work. He worked at the staircase for six months, never saying a word, and then left, without taking any payment. After searching for the man (an ad even ran in the local newspaper) and finding no trace of him, some concluded that he was St. Joseph himself, having come in answer to the sisters' prayers. Certainly the carpenter was never heard from again, although some historians claim to have tracked him down to Las Cruces, where he met his end in a bar fight. Whatever its origins, the staircase is beautiful, and even the later addition of balustrades and handrails (for safety reasons) cannot detract from the simple grace of its upwards sweep.

San Miguel Mission

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San Miguel Mission

Next we walked a little south of the centre to this adobe mission chapel, which claims to be the oldest church in the United States, having been built between around 1610 to 1626. Whether that claim is true or not, this old building certainly has plenty of character and again I thought it well worth the $1 we were charged for admission. Slightly oddly, you enter through the gift shop, so that it feels rather like a shop with a church tacked on to the back. But once inside you find a little gem. The beautiful wooden altar screen or reredos dates from 1798 and is the oldest of its type in the state. The statue in its centre is of the chapel’s patron saint, St Michael the Archangel and was brought here from Mexico in 1709.

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The altar screen

In front of the altar, glass panes in the floor allowed us to peer down at the original foundations of the church and of the Native American structure formerly on this site. At the other end of the little chapel, near the door, is a large bell. This once hung in the bell tower and has an inscription dedicated to San Jose and dating it to 1356.

There are several picturesque old houses in the area immediately around the chapel, one of which the oldest house in the city and also claims to be the oldest in the US, supposedly built around 1646 (a claim I was unsure whether or not to believe). Near this is another house with stunning turquoise wooden window frames and shutters.

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The oldest house in the US?

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A vision in turquoise!

By now it was lunch time so we wandered back towards the centre in search of refreshment.

The Shed

A friend who lived in the Santa Fe area for a while had recommended this restaurant, so although we usually choose somewhere more casual for lunch we decided to give it a try for our first lunch in the city – what a great decision! We loved it here – food, setting and ambience.

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At lunch in the Shed

The restaurant is located in an old hacienda (dating back to 1692) and spread over nine rooms, as well as a small courtyard at the front. The décor is bright and cheerful, with lots of interesting paintings and other traditional crafts.

They don’t appear to take reservations for lunch and when we arrived we were told there would be a 15 minute wait. We were given a pager and took a seat in the courtyard to wait but in fact were called to a table inside after about 10 minutes (we would have waited longer if we’d wanted an outside one I think). As we were looking for something light, we were pleased to find plenty of choices. I had the gazpacho which was refreshing and tasty, and Chris chose a ‘small’ salad (that is, smaller than the ‘big’ version of the same!) of chicken, blue cheese, walnuts and salad leaves.

While we were eating our lunch a lady stopped by our table to look more closely at the painting behind it and we got talking. She explained that she was from Guatemala (where we had been just last year) and recognised the style of the painting as Guatemalan, so was trying to make out the artist’s signature – sadly neither she nor we could do so.

On leaving we asked about reservations for dinner the next day but could only get a table at 8.30 pm (or 5.30pm, but that was rather too early for us). Although we normally eat a bit earlier that that we accepted, as we were very keen to return and sample more from their extensive menu. And we were very pleased that we had – but that’s a story for a future entry!

The Plaza

We had already passed through the Plaza earlier in the day, on our way to the cathedral, but after lunch we returned for a better look around. The Plaza originally marked the end of El Camino Real (the Spanish Royal Road from Mexico City) and the Santa Fe Trail, an important trade route. In those days it would have been surrounded by a large defensive wall that enclosed residences, barracks, a chapel, a prison and the Governor's Palace. Of these just the Governor’s Palace, on the north side, remains, and where there were once barracks and defences today you find restaurants and shops.

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In the Plaza

In the centre of the Plaza is the Indian War Memorial, which was dedicated in 1867 to those who died in ‘battles with…Indians in the territory of New Mexico’. As this inscription suggests, the monument was erected during times of conflict between colonists and natives, and the space between ‘with’ and ‘Indians’ originally carried the word ‘savage’. This has been removed in these more enlightened times, although the monument itself still seems something of an anachronism.

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The Indian War Memorial, with local and his dog

The Plaza is nicely laid out with lawns, trees and plenty of benches where you can relax and watch the world go by – an activity which locals seem to enjoy here as much as do visitors.

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Native jewellery seller

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Artist selling his paintings

Palace of the Governors

The Palace of the Governors, lies on the north side of the Plaza – a single-storey adobe building running the full length of the block. It was built in 1610 as Santa Fe’s original capitol building, and claims to be the oldest U.S. public building still in continuous use. It was designated a Registered National Historic Landmark in 1960 and an American Treasure in 1999.

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The Palace of the Governors

Inside is a museum which tells the story of Santa Fe and the surrounding area. Collections cover the Spanish colonial (1540-1821), Mexican (1821-1846), U.S. Territorial (1846-1912) and statehood (1912-present) periods of history. We only had limited time to look round (doing our usual trick of trying to pack too much into one day, while also wanting to chill and enjoy our surroundings!) But even with limited time it was worth making the effort to go in – for me, not so much for the collections, good though they are, but for the chance to see inside this old building. I also liked seeing the period rooms which offer a glimpse of how life would have been in the past for residents of Santa Fe.

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The lady who made and
sold me my necklace

Along the portico of the Palace of the Governors, and on the north side of the Plaza opposite, Native Americans take up their places each day to sell jewellery and other traditional crafts. This is an eighty year old tradition, nowadays operated through the ‘Native American Artisans Program of the Palace of the Governors’. There are around 1,000 vendors who are licensed to sell here after going through a strict application process to assess the quality of their work. The goods displayed and sold by participants in the scheme must be made by the seller or by their household members. Every morning the 63 spots available, each 12 bricks wide, are allocated by lottery, so you can never be sure who you will find here or what they will be selling. But it’s a great opportunity to buy directly from the creator and as they all seem happy to talk about their work you will also find out a bit about the piece you are buying.

I looked at a number of items. One man was selling silver necklaces with representations of the different sacred animals, such as Bear and Wolf, and explained the meaning of each to me. But in the end I opted for turquoise, choosing a pretty silver necklace threaded with small stones which the seller told me came from Arizona, where she and her sister lived and made the jewellery. Sadly that necklace was one of the items taken when we were burgled a couple of years ago, so I'm glad I at least have this photo of the seller by which to remember my purchase.

Andrew Smith Gallery

We visited quite a few galleries during our stay in Santa Fe (most of them on our final day here), although only a fraction of the total number – I read that ‘Art galleries’ take up five pages in the local Yellow Pages directory, and ‘Artists’ have their own separate heading, with subheadings for painters, sculptors, etc. Perhaps our favourite gallery of all was the one we visited first, the Andrew Smith Gallery, which specialises in ‘Masterpieces of Photography’. It was a real thrill to see some of their wonderful images by such famous photographers as Ansel Adams, Annie Liebowitz, Edward Weston, Alfred Steiglitz, Cartier-Bresson and more, as well as to discover some that we didn’t know.

Although this is a commercial gallery and all the photos are for sale, we didn’t feel pressurised into buying and I got the impression that they are as happy to welcome enthusiastic sightseers as serious collectors.

Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

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Outside the O'Keeffe Museum

We had passed what is probably the best known of Santa Fe’s many galleries, large and small, earlier in the day, as it was just round the corner from our little casita in Chapelle Street. We didn’t know a lot about O’Keeffe before coming to Santa Fe, but we were keen to find out more. We had been warned by our Moon Handbook that the museum had perhaps fewer of her works than might have been expected in one dedicated entirely to this single artist – unfortunately by the time it opened in the late 1990s many of her pieces were already in collections elsewhere. But as the guidebook explained, this had been partly rectified in 2005 when the museum received the collection of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, so lovers of her work, or the curious such as ourselves, should at least find it worth a visit.

The gallery is modern and light, with six of its rooms now given over to the O’Keeffe collection. Of these I liked best the large flower pictures, such as white jimson weed, for which she is perhaps best known, and the landscapes painted in the immediate vicinity of Santa Fe, evocative of her love for this red sandstone country. I also liked the way the exhibition was curated, with some fascinating quotes from O’Keeffe painted on the walls alongside the paintings.

No photography was allowed inside, but I note from the website that this policy has now been changed and photos are actively encouraged – a sign, no doubt, of the increasing importance of social media in spreading the word about places to visit:
‘The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum allows non-flash photography in most areas. Feel free to photograph friends and family and your favorite works of art. Please note that photography is allowed only for personal, noncommercial use, with the following restrictions: no tripods, no flash photography, no selfie sticks, no drones. Some artworks have a no photography sign, we ask that you please honor this.’

The remaining rooms are devoted to temporary exhibitions featuring O’Keeffe’s contemporaries or artists influenced by her. At the time of our visit this meant a travelling exhibition called ‘From New York to Corrymore: Robert Henri & Ireland’. I didn’t previously know the work of Robert Henri, and sadly after seeing this exhibition I was not inspired to do so! Apparently he is regarded as ‘the leader of the urban realists group known as the Ashcan School,’ but the portraits of (mainly) Irish children were not really my thing I’m afraid. Nevertheless I was really pleased to have seen the works by O’Keeffe and that was, after all, the purpose of our visit.

On our way out we visited the inevitable gift shop, which was in fact one of the better examples of a museum shop that I have seen – relatively compact with high quality (and consequently expensive) items. I was tempted by some rather pricey silk scarves screen-printed with O’Keeffe’s flowers but managed to resist. We did however buy ourselves a small print – not one of her works but a good reproduction of an Ansel Adams photo of aspens which reminded us of our drives around the state. It now hangs in our lounge, a permanent reminder of this fantastic road trip.

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Chris on our front porch

We spent the last part of the afternoon relaxing on the small terrace of our casita, enjoying our little ‘home’ in the city.

Coyote Rooftop Cantina

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Sunset over Santa Fe

The Coyote Café is one of the more upmarket places to eat in Santa Fe, and looked rather more formal than we usually opt for when on holiday – the sort of place you’d celebrate a birthday or anniversary maybe, but not for casual ‘any night of the week’ dining. But adjacent to it, and under the same management, is a rooftop bar and more informal eatery, the Rooftop Cantina, which looked more like what we had in mind for this evening.

We didn’t have a reservation but it wasn’t too busy so we decided to start by having just a drink while seated at the area put aside for drinking only, the table around the edge of the terrace. Perched here you have a great view of the street below, and, if you time it right (we did), of the sun setting at the end of the road. But my attention was regularly diverted away from the sun’s orange glow by the possibly lovelier glow emanating from my excellent margarita, which proved to be possibly the best of the entire trip – the ‘Norteño Margarita’, which they make with a tequila infused with green chilli. Fantastic!

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Margarita at sunset

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Fire-grilled salmon

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Wall decoration

We then moved to one of the lower tables more suited for dining. I decided to have a change from the tortilla-based dishes I’d been eating, so chose the salmon served with polenta and hot chilli sauce: ‘Fire Grilled Atlantic Salmon with Crunchy Fried Polenta, Bird Chile Sambal Sauce, Organic Lettuces & Pepinos’. Chris had the Kobe burger: ‘American Snake River Kobe Beef Burger with Manchego Cheese, Crispy Fried Vidalia Onion, Greens, House made Beer Pickles, Tomato & Cilantro Mayonnaise, Sweet Habanero Tomato Ketchup & Boardwalk Fries’. Both dishes went down very well indeed, although mine was a little on the small side – I compensated by pinching a few of the French fries that came with Chris’s burger! We shared a dessert, a ‘trio of sorbets’, and although the bill was higher than we paid elsewhere on this trip, it did include our pre-dinner drinks, including that wonderful margarita! We felt the quality justified the slightly higher prices, and with more time in Santa Fe we would definitely have come back here again.

After dinner we went back to the El Paseo Bar where we had drunk last night. This time there was no live music, and we enjoyed it rather more. The bartender poured a generous Jack Daniels, the non-live music was much more to our taste than the live had been, and there was a friendly, buzzy atmosphere without it being too busy.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:18 Archived in USA Tagged churches art buildings architecture road_trip monument history statue square restaurants houses museum cathedral new_mexico street_photography Comments (7)

Getting to know Quito

Ecuador day one continued


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Palacio Arzobispal

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Palacio Arzobispal

After our morning spent exploring the Compania church, Plaza San Francisco and Plaza de la Independencia (see previous entry) we decided to search out a light lunch. I knew from my research and tips from friends on Virtual Tourist (thanks Malena!) that there were a number of cafés and restaurants in the Palacio Arzobispal (Archbishop’s Palace) on the opposite side of the Plaza de la Independencia, so we decided to check these out.

The Archbishop's Palace is a two-story whitewashed building built in neoclassical style, with a colonnaded passage facing the plaza. Inside are a number of courtyards, around one of which are several restaurants (both fast food and smarter) and souvenir shops – also, conveniently, a good clean public loo!

It was built in the 17th century at a time when the Catholic Church was as powerful and important as the ruling Spanish government, if not more so. It remained the seat of power of the archbishops of Quito for centuries, undergoing various modifications as needed to preserve or improve the building. Its current restored appearance dates back to 2002 when the structure was strengthened and the courtyard given over to today’s commercial activity.

Querubin

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Humita

For lunch on this first day we chose the casual eatery Querubin, located on the ground floor of the Archbishop’s Palace. The space inside was quite small and full so we asked if we could eat at one of the tables outside in the courtyard, not being sure which of the several nearby restaurants they belonged to, and were told that indeed we could. It seemed that the tables were common to all the ground floor restaurants in fact.

We were keen to get our first taste of local food, having arrived too late for dinner the previous night. Chris chose a chicken empanada (a single large pastry rather than the more usual little ones) and I decided to try the humita. Humitas consist of fresh ground corn mixed with egg, sometimes cheese and other flavourings, wrapped in corn husks and steamed. They can be savoury or sweet. This one was savoury but was rather disappointing – so bland in flavour that I could only enjoy eating it once I had covered the corn with generous dollops of the chilli sauce known as aji. As we were eating outside I had to go into the restaurant to ask for the latter – normally it is placed on every table in just about any restaurant in Ecuador. My choice of drink was more successful however – a delicious glass of mora juice. I also had a single espresso after my meal (more caffeine needed!), and Chris had a coke.

The Cathedral

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Cathedral


After lunch we decided to pay a visit to the cathedral. Easier said than done, at first, as while there appears to be an entrance from the Plaza de la Independencia, and indeed one from Moreno, in fact you enter through an unprepossessing doorway on Venezuela, which is almost lost in a row of small shops, so it took us a while to find. Admission to the cathedral cost us $1.50 (remember, these are October 2012 prices) and I found it very interesting if less ornate than I had been expecting – but isn’t that quite often the case with cathedrals?

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This was the first cathedral to be erected in South America, between 1550 and 1562, although it has been since restored several times owing to earthquake damage. It is today a fascinating mix of 16th century colonial Spanish design and local native influences. As an example of the latter, on the wall to the right of the altar there is a painting of the Last Supper with dishes that include cuy (roast guinea pig) and humitas (fresh ground corn mixed with egg, sometimes cheese and other flavourings, wrapped in corn husks and steamed) – it’s unlikely that either of these would have been on the menu in 30 AD Jerusalem!

On the whole, the interior is as I’ve said less flamboyant than some of the other smaller churches in the city, but no less interesting for that. As well as the painting mentioned above, I was taken by the hammered-relief silver doors of the rear chapel, through which we had entered, and the beautiful wooden ceiling which dates back to the turn of the 19th century. I also liked the dramatic altarpiece in sky blue picked out with lots of gold – as the most ornate piece of decoration in the cathedral it really draws the eye forwards to the altar, as it is of course intended to do. No photography is allowed inside, as seemed (frustratingly) to be the norm in Quito, but I have to confess that I did sneak one of this altar, without using flash, obviously.

The cathedral has seen its share of bloodshed. A bishop of Quito, José Ignacio Checa y Barba, was murdered here during the Good Friday mass in March 1877, poisoned with strychnine dissolved in the consecrated wine. Only two years earlier, in 1875, the Ecuadorian president Gabriel García Moreno was attacked with a machete outside the cathedral and was brought inside – a plaque behind the altar marks the spot where he died. His is one of several notable tombs in the cathedral, and another is that of Mariscal Sucre, one of Ecuador’s heroes of independence. You will recognise both these names as they are commemorated in nearby streets – Moreno runs just behind the cathedral and intersects with Avenida José de Sucre just a block away.

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A Helado de paila pan

Leaving the cathedral, we decided to complete the fourth side of the rectangular route we had been following from our hotel. The historical heart of Quito (and indeed much of the rest of the central part) is laid out in the square city blocks typical of colonial Spanish towns, making navigation easy. We attempted to visit the attractive church of San Agustin on the corner of Guayaquil and Chile, one block southeast of the Plaza de la Independencia, but found it closed – that would have to wait till another day. But nearby I knew was a café named for the church, the Heladaria San Agustin, which specialises in a traditional local treat, which just had to be tried – Helado de Paila. This is a particular sort of ice cream made in the north of Ecuador. It is made not through churning, as is usual, but instead prepared in a wide metal pan (a bit like a wok) which the ice cream maker spins on a bed of ice. The fruit juice, with I think just a little cream added, freezes in the pan through the contact with this ice. The result should be a thick creation somewhere between a sorbet and ice cream.

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We found a table in the café, which has a somewhat European style to it. The waiter helpfully brought us a plate of small taster spoonfuls so we could make our choice. These were mostly flavoured with various local fruits, many of them unknown to us on this, the first day of our trip. A bowl with two small scoops cost $2.00, so we decided to choose two flavours each. I was tempted by taxo, a type of passion-fruit, but in the end chose guanabana, which reminded me a little of lychees, and naranjilla, a green bitter orange that I found refreshing. Chris tried mora, the local blackberry-like fruit, and chocolate. He was disappointed with the latter, and indeed all the flavours seemed a little watery, which made me wonder why Helado de Paila is so celebrated (and indeed why this establishment is so highly rated). However the next day while out and about with our friends Betty and Marcello we stopped at a roadside heladeria in Nayon, where I had a much stronger flavoured and very refreshing cone of taxo flavoured Helado de Paila. So I don’t know if we had just caught this place on an off-day perhaps?

After our ice cream we realised that the long flight, time difference and maybe also the altitude were catching up with us, so we decided to go back to the hotel for a break and also to get to know our temporary home a little better than we’d been able to do when arriving so late the previous night. We spent a little time in the large communal lounge which has two computers for free internet access (there is also free wifi, though we found it patchy in the rooms), checking up on emails and social media, and then headed up to the roof terrace, up several flights of steep stairs, to check out the views which were great.

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View towards Santo Domingo

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View of La Compania and beyond

Café de Fraile

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Palacio Arzobispal - the courtyard at night

Having seen the range of restaurants inside the Archbishop’s Palace when we were there in the morning of our first day in Quito, we returned in the evening to try one of the smarter ones. Our choice was the Café del Fraile on the first floor (second floor to US readers) balcony of the courtyard. There were a number of tables along the narrow balcony with good views over the courtyard below, but the evening was a little chilly so we opted for an inside one. The décor here was quite interesting, with some old paintings on the walls, antique instruments etc. Service was a little slow perhaps, but not really a problem as we had all evening.

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Tortillon

We were brought bread and a tasty chilli sauce, aji, with the two beers we’d ordered and decided that was sufficient as starters. For my main course I chose a dish called tortillon which consisted of pieces of well-flavoured steak (which I think had been marinated in something but I’m not sure what) served with boiled rice, llapingachos (potato patties with a melted cheese centre – these became one of my favourite Ecuadorean treats), fried egg, avocado and salad. The rice was a little dull but the rest of the food very good. Chris had a “Sandwiche Fraile” with ham and cheese, which was served with fries. At the time we couldn’t judge as this was the first main meal we had in Ecuador, but on reflection I think it was one of the better ones we had in Quito (although we had even better food elsewhere perhaps).

We walked back to the hotel along the quiet streets (the colonial city is not the part to come to for boisterous night-life), very happy with our first day in this likeable city.

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Cathedral and El Sagrario at night

Tomorrow we would meet up with a local couple, parents of a London friend, to explore further afield …

Posted by ToonSarah 16:11 Archived in Ecuador Tagged restaurants city cathedral quito Comments (7)

Viva Cuenca!

Ecuador day eight


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Cuenca

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The "new" cathedral

When we first decided to visit Ecuador, Cuenca was high on my list of must-sees. This beautiful colonial city in the south of the country has it all – lovely architecture, a temperate climate, friendly atmosphere, and some of the best restaurants in the country. The old colonial centre, where we stayed and where we spent most of our time, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for good reason. At its heart is the main square, the Parque Calderón, with two cathedrals (old and new), and in the surrounding streets are more churches, attractive old houses, interesting museums and some great bars and cafés for the essential activity of people-watching.

We were fortunate enough to be here at a weekend when two festivals were taking place – the nationally-celebrated Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) and the local celebrations that mark the anniversary of the city’s independence from Spain on 3rd November 1820. The city was in party mood and the various celebrations added to our enjoyment of it.

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Taking off from Quito

We came to Cuenca by air (with Ecuadorean airline TAME) from Quito where we had been spending the first part of our Ecuador trip. The flight left pretty early in the morning so we had to be at the airport by around 6.15 but already it was really busy, with a long queue at the TAME desk for the several flights leaving that morning. I was even a bit concerned that we could miss ours, as they were not prioritising those with the earliest flights, but I soon saw that the staff were really efficient and the queue moving quickly.

The flight was also quick at just forty minutes, and was mainly full of local businessmen, who must commute regularly between the two cities and many of whom seemed to know each other as lots of friendly greetings were thrown around on boarding. Flying south from Quito the route at first follows the line of the Avenue of the Volcanoes, and great views are to be had on either side. I was lucky enough to be on the left-hand side from where Cotopaxi could be seen, although unfortunately didn’t have a window seat. The man next to me however kindly let me lean over to take some photos of the majestic volcano poking up through the clouds. He even offered to swap seats (presumably he makes the journey very regularly) but I declined the offer as it was such a short flight and I didn’t like to put him to the bother. Besides, I had already seen the views and taken my photos, thanks to his obliging nature.

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Cotopaxi from the air

We were soon landing in Cuenca, where the weather was bright and warmer than Quito, being a little lower at 2,500 metres above sea level. Our pre-booked transfer meant that we were soon being driven through the city to our hotel on the edge of the colonial area. Our eagerly anticipated visit to Cuenca could begin!

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Hotel Victoria

When we arrived at the Hotel Victoria it was only 9.00 am, so we weren’t able to check in but could only register and leave our bags. Our first impressions were favourable – the lobby was attractive and the hotel well located on the southern edge of the colonial part of the city. We went off to explore confident that we had made a good choice.

The Coffee Tree

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Our first priority though was breakfast, and in particular, coffee. The first likely place we saw was this European-style café on a street corner just a few metres from our hotel. It was a bright sunny morning, warmer than we had been having in Quito, and the pavement tables and chairs looked very inviting. We managed to secure one of these spots and were soon checking the menu for breakfast options.

Chris decided to try a local dish that our transfer driver, Claudia, had mentioned – bolon. This is a ball of mashed plantain shaped around a cheesy filling and fried, here served with a cappuccino as a breakfast. I stuck to the more conventional muesli, which in fact was granola served with fresh fruit (pineapple, strawberry, kiwi and melon), yoghurt and honey (a very large portion and delicious) and also had a much-needed double espresso.

La Merced

Once we had enjoyed a good breakfast we were ready to start our sightseeing in Cuenca. Right next door to the café was the church of La Merced, so this was as good a place to start as any!

The church is an attractive one, set back a little from the road on a small semi-circular plaza. An inscription above the door reads “Ave Maria, Redemptrix Captivorum” – Hail Mary, saviour of captives. The door itself is beautifully carved – I loved the slightly grumpy lion on one panel in particular.

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La Merced

This church was built here in response to a request by the people of Cuenca, following the construction of the church of the same name in Quito. I was surprised when we entered to find that photography was allowed as in Quito the first sight that greeted us on entering many of the churches was one forbidding the use of any camera. So I was happy to be able to take some photos (without flash, naturally) as we looked around. I was especially taken by some excellent examples of the local tendency towards the gory in any representations of biblical events, which is often attributed to indigenous artists finding in their art an opportunity to draw attention to the blood spilt in the Spanish conquest of their lands.

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In La Merced

I read only after our visit of the painting here of the Sleeping Virgin, a representation of a miracle said to have occurred near Baños where it is believed her image appeared carved in a rock, so we didn’t seek that out. I also read too late that it holds the tomb of Julio Matovelle, local poet and priest, who founded the Congregación de Padres Oblatos and is best known for promoting the construction of the Basilica del Voto Nacional in Quito, which we had visited a few days before with friends Betty and Marcello.

After our visit to the church we made our way through some of the streets of the old colonial town towards the plaza that lies at its heart, the Parque Calderón. The colonial heart of the city is of course only a small part of the whole, but it is where we, like most tourists, spent the majority of our time. It has retained much of its character and sense of history, arguably more so even than Quito, although like the country’s capital it is very much a working city rather than museum piece. Many streets are cobbled, adding to the sense of the past as you explore. A few ugly 20th century buildings mar the whole, but for the most part you both sense and see the history around you.

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Colourful doors, a Cuenca trademark

The Cuenca that exists today was founded by the Spanish in 1557, and its population and importance grew steadily during the colonial era, reaching the peak of its importance in the first years of Ecuador’s independence when it became the capital of one of the three provinces that made up the emerging republic, alongside Guayaquil and Quito. But its history goes back much further. It was originally settled by the indigenous Cañari around 500 AD and was called by them Guapondeleg – the “land as big as heaven.” It had been conquered by the Incas less than half a century before the Spanish conquistadors landed, and renamed Tomebamba (the name still held by its river). Soon after the defeat of the Cañari, the Inca commander, Tupac Yupanqui, ordered the construction of a new grand city to be known as Pumapungo, “the door of the Puma”. The magnificence of this new city was to challenge that of the Inca capital of Cuzco. When the Spanish arrived however, there remained only ruins, although the indigenous people told stories of golden temples and other such wonders. To this day, it is unclear what happened to the fabled splendour and riches of the second Inca capital.

Parque Calderón

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Parque Calderón

At the heart of Cuenca, as with all Spanish colonial towns and cities, is its grand plaza, here called Parque Calderón after Abdón Calderón whose statue stands in the centre. Calderón was born in Cuenca in 1804 and became a hero of Ecuador’s fight for independence when only young. His death in the Battle of Pichincha at age just 18 ensured his conversion from hero to legend. According to accounts of the battle he stood immovable in the line of fire even after receiving 14 bullet wounds, and ensured that his battalion held firm. He died of his wounds and of dysentery five days later in Quito. His story is still told to young children in Ecuador and his statue here, which depicts the wounded hero holding firm to the flag of independence, was a focus for the city’s celebrations of its own independence day on the weekend of our visit.

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Monument to Abdón Calderón

Around the square are several of Cuenca’s most notable buildings including the cathedral, and the old cathedral which stand respectively in its south west and south east corners. Other less eminent but equally historic buildings add to the overall impression. The square is a focus for both tourists and locals and has plenty of benches and shady corners where you can relax and take a break from sightseeing which indulging in some quality people-watching.

Viva Cuenca!

As we were here on a holiday weekend the Parque Calderón was especially lively, with a variety of entertainments laid on for the local families who had flocked here to join the celebrations – stilt walkers, musicians, photographers with props (you could have your photo taken as a cowboy sitting on a model pony, for instance) and people selling all sorts of food and drink as well as cheap toys.

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Stilt walker and musician

But why the celebrations? On 2nd November each year Cuenca, like the rest of Ecuador, celebrates the Feast of All Souls or Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), and a day later on the 3rd it marks the anniversary of its independence from Spain. The two events form one merged celebration, Viva Cuenca!, and when, as in 2012, they fall at a weekend, the city really takes on party mood. We arrived here on Thursday 1st to find the Parque Calderón full of locals watching the All Saints Day procession which wound slowly round two sides of the square. We hadn’t at that point learned of the independence festivities so were a little puzzled by the floats that seemed to depict periods in the city’s history, but when we picked up a leaflet called “Viva Cuenca!” later in the day, all became clear.

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Floats in the parade

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Locals watching the parade

We hadn’t planned it, but we were lucky to be in the city at this special time and to be able to join in some of the fun. Later in the weekend we were to come across other elements of the celebrations – traditional dancing, live music – all adding to our impressions of a colourful and welcoming city.

Raymipampa

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Light fitting

By now we were in need of more refreshment and luckily help was close at hand! We were slightly wary that a restaurant situated in this prime location on the west side of Parque Calderón, right next to the cathedral, might be a tourist rip-off, but Raymipampa was anything but! We found it busy and bustling with a really mixed clientele – local families enjoying a meal together while attending the holiday weekend festivities, young women in town on a shopping spree, tourists of all ages, and even a group of young men and women in army uniform who had I think been taking part in the parade.

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In Raymipampa

The décor here is eclectic and in places eye-catching – in how many restaurants are pieces of old cutlery and broken crockery used to make light-fittings?! More conventionally, there are some interesting historic photos of Cuenca on the walls, and the building itself is old and full of character.

On this occasion (we were to visit again later in the weekend) we were just looking for a cold drink, having been standing in the sun watching a procession wind its way round the Parque Calderón. There were lots of fruit juices to choose from, and I opted for pineapple while Chris had passionfruit – both really refreshing. We had been given a table by the window so could watch the holiday crowds outside as we drank, and despite the fact that it was very busy and we weren’t eating a meal, we didn’t feel hurried but could relax and enjoy our drinks.

Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción

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Refreshed, we continued our sightseeing. The west side of the Parque Calderón is dominated by the city’s “new” cathedral. This was built when the older cathedral (which still stands opposite but is no longer consecrated) became too small to hold the city’s entire population. Its distinctive blue domes have become a symbol of the city. You see them everywhere – on tourist publicity leaflets, on restaurant menus, on hotel websites and more. Ironically, you don’t see them very well when in front of the cathedral itself, as they are set back a little – the best views are from nearby Plaza San Francisco from where my photo on the right was taken.

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Main facade facing the Parque Calderón

This is the largest structure in the colonial part of Cuenca. The domes are almost 50 metres high and its towers should have been even taller than they are had the architect not made an error in his calculations and failed to dig foundations strong and deep enough to support the planned weight. But even with its truncated towers it is still an impressive sight. Started in 1885, its construction continued over the next century, and the result is a blend of neo-gothic and Romanesque. The imposing west front that faces the Parque Calderón is alabaster and local red marble, while pink marble imported from Carrara in Italy covers the floor. The domes owe their sky-blue hue to tiles from Czechoslovakia.

The inside is equally imposing in size, having been designed to hold the city’s then population of 10,000. It is somewhat austere but has some striking stained glass windows and an imposing marble altar decorated with gold leaf, a copy of one in St Peter’s in Rome. This interior was only completed in 1967, more than 80 years after the first foundations were laid.

I wasn’t sure whether photos were allowed inside so I only took one quick one of one of the windows that I especially liked. It is a great example of how local artists blended traditional biblical imagery with motifs from their own surroundings. See how the people who kneel at the feet of Jesus are dressed, not in the costume of first century Palestine, but in that of the Andes region.

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Stained glass in the cathedral

Plazoleta del Carmen

From here we started to turn our steps back towards the hotel, but there was a lot to see on the way. Although actually, we didn’t see a lot of the diminutive Plazoleta del Carmen, or Plaza des Flores as it is often called, as it was packed with the stalls of the daily flower market. As well as being a pretty and interesting sight in its own right, the market forms a colourful foreground for photos of the new cathedral on its north side and of the church right here on the plaza, the Iglesia del Carmen de la Asuncion. It’s also a good spot for people watching as there’s lots of activity among not only the flower shoppers but also those coming to pray at the church. Be respectful, naturally, and keep a low profile if you want to take people shots.

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Flower market

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Cathedral from the flower market

Iglesia del Carmen de la Asuncion

Finding the church open we popped inside for a look. The monastery here dates back to 1682 but the church that stands next to it is more recent, having been built in the 18th century, around 1730. The white marble facade features a carved image of the Virgin and the shield of the order of the Assumption. Inside, the Baroque interior has a stunning altar piece, again with an image of the Virgin of the Assumption, surrounded by angels, a very ornate pulpit, several other ornate altars and a ceiling beautifully painted in rather surprisingly delicate colours. Photography is allowed (without flash) and admission is free, but I have read that it is rarely open to the public so we must have struck lucky – maybe it was open for the holiday weekend?

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Main altar, pulpit and side altar

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We walked back in the direction of the hotel, along Padre Aguirre, which runs down the west side of the Iglesia del Carmen de la Asuncion past the Plaza San Francisco and the church of the same name. Here there were a number of stalls set out, all selling more or less the same things. The following day was, as I mentioned earlier, the Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, which is commemorated in Ecuador as in many South and Central American countries, although not to the same extent as in Mexico perhaps.

Its observance is strongest among the native people, the Kichwa, and especially so here in Cuenca. The stalls here were selling the typical decorations in white and purple which people were buying to decorate the graves of their relatives when they visited them for the celebrations. It is the custom to pay these relatives a visit on this day, much as you would if they were still alive – take them a gift, enjoy a meal (usually a family picnic on or next to the grave) and maybe play some favourite music while reminiscing about days gone by.

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Día de los Muertos decorations

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As with all my street / people photos, these were taken with a long zoom and I hope respectfully, but certainly anyone who saw my camera made no objections to my photography, for which I was grateful.

As in other parts of the country, many of the women were wearing traditional dress and again, as at Otavalo, we could see how this varies from place to place. One of these differences is in how the women here wear their hair – in two plaits instead of the single thick one of Quito or the unplaited pony tail of Otavalo. Hats here are made of straw, rather than felt, and skirts are not the sombre black of Otavalo but brightly coloured, often in velvet, and edged with colourful, even sparkling embroidery using sequins and metallic threads. We saw some of these skirts for sale in the shops – their shape is simple, just a tube of fabric, with several rows of gathers at the top and a ribbon to tie them on. They are also shorter than we saw elsewhere, being mostly worn knee length.

Many were in the traditional straw hat and double plait, but otherwise in quite modern clothing, but (perhaps because of the festivities) others were in the full traditional dress, as were the little girls we had seen at the parade in the Parque Calderón (above).

By now it was well past midday and we could go back to the hotel to check in. But I’m conscious that this entry is getting rather long, so let’s save that and our afternoon explorations for the next …

Posted by ToonSarah 19:23 Archived in Ecuador Tagged churches people market cathedral cotopaxi customs cuenca street_photography Comments (6)

Farewell to Cuenca

Ecuador day ten


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Museo de Las Conceptas

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On our last morning in Cuenca we had plenty of time before our drive to Guayaquil to do a bit more sightseeing, so we headed for a museum not far from our hotel which we hadn’t had time for the previous day, the Museo de Las Conceptas. This is located in the former infirmary of the convent of Las Conceptas, the oldest religious cloister in Cuenca, built only two years after the Spanish founded the city. The building was restored in 1980 and provides an attractive setting for this interesting collection. Even if you’re not especially interested in religious art a visit here gives you an opportunity to see inside one of Cuenca’s loveliest old buildings.

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Little statue

The collection is spread over a series of rooms opening off the cloisters, on two levels, and the rooms are numbered – visitors are asked to follow the numbers, and not to take photos of any of the art in the rooms, although pictures taken out in the open, of the cloister itself, are permitted. I bent the rules a little and took one photo of a small statue in a niche on an outside staircase.

A couple of the rooms contain one big piece (the pride of the collection appeared to be a beautiful altar in the small central chapel of the old infirmary) while others are themed, e.g. statues of the Holy Family, nativities, crucifixes or saints. I found this more interesting than a purely historical arrangement as you could see how the ways of representing a particular scene or individual changed over time (the collection covers the period from the 17th – 19th centuries).

As well as the religious art, there are rooms containing various items brought to the convent by the nuns as part of their dowries – some mere trinkets, brought by those from poor families, and some rather beautiful – ornaments, religious figures and china, for instance. A few rooms towards the end of the series have been used to recreate a typical nun’s cell and show what the kitchen would have looked like, and there are displays about life in the convent, with photos of nuns carrying out their daily chores. The embroidery of priests’ robes was a particular skill cultivated by the nuns here and there are some examples on display.

In addition to the exhibition rooms you can see the courtyard that was used by the nuns as an outdoor kitchen, with the old oven still in place, and the “indoor cemetery” with the walls lined with rows of (empty) cubby holes for burials. We spent much longer here than we had expected, as there was so much to see and the building itself so lovely!

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The Museo de Las Conceptas

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Eiskaffee

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When we left the museum, coffee called. I usually like to eat and drink mainly local treats when travelling, but I can’t resist a good cup of coffee, so the presence in Cuenca of a supposedly Viennese-style coffee-house was enough to tempt me to break that admittedly very flexible rule! When we got to the Café Austria I felt that it was in practice more like a French bistro in style than an Austrian coffee-house, but it was no less pleasant for that, and the coffee was as good as I’d hoped.

This is the sort of place you can sit over a drink or a snack for a while. The décor is pleasant, there are newspapers to read from around the world, and free wifi. I have read mixed reviews of the food (though people around us were tucking into late breakfasts very happily) but the coffee is widely praised and with good reason. I really enjoyed my Eiskaffee and Chris his cappuccino, and we thought the prices were reasonable. The service was perhaps a little slow, but this probably isn’t somewhere you would come if in a hurry.

Although we had spent a fair amount of time in and around the Parque Calderón over the previous few days, we hadn’t got around to visiting the city’s old cathedral, which stands on the east side of the square facing its replacement. So we settled on that as our final “sight” in Cuenca.

Iglesia del Sagrario

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This is the city’s original cathedral, built in 1557 using stones from the ruins of nearby Inca Tomebamba, and restored in both 19th and 20th centuries. It was the main focus for worship in the city for the Spanish during colonial times and became a cathedral in 1787.

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It is no longer consecrated as a place of worship however, having been superseded by the newer Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, built in 1880 when this one became too small to hold the city’s entire population, and is now a museum of religious art and a venue for occasional concerts.

Visiting here I got a strong sense of it being neither one thing nor another – neither church nor museum. It retains so much of its ecclesiastical structure and features that you are left in doubt as to its original purpose, but has an emptiness of soul that is no less obvious than its lack of pews for being invisible. But that is not to say that it is not worth seeing. It is an impressive building, and it is hard to imagine that it was ever considered too small, as its present day emptiness makes it seem vast. There are three naves with central altar, in front which are life-size statues of Jesus and apostles arranged as if at the Last Supper.

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To either side of the naves are chapels with some beautiful altarpieces, religious statuary, and in one some wonderful illuminated manuscripts. Labelling though is all in Spanish so I wasn’t always sure what I was looking at – but it was still mostly very lovely. The ceiling of the main structure is also noteworthy, ornamented with paintings of flowers and leaves as well as religious symbols and saints.

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In the Iglesia del Sagrario

We were charged just $1 to go in although signs said $2 for foreigners – we didn’t question the unexpected discount, naturally, but I wondered afterwards whether it was a special price for the Independence holiday (surely we can’t have been taken for locals?!). The ticket seller told us we could take photos if we didn’t use flash, so I did, despite the several signs inside indicating otherwise. Most people in fact were doing so, and many of them even using flash.

By now it was time for lunch and it made sense to have this near our hotel as we would need to be back there soon afterwards for our transfer to Guayaquil. So we headed back to the Coffee Tree café where we had enjoyed breakfast on our first morning. Given that it was the Saturday of the holiday weekend we were very lucky to again get an outside table and enjoy the buzz on the street and the live music playing nearby. I enjoyed a spinach and cheese crepe and a fresh passionfruit juice, and Chris had the “pitta Arabe” topped with chicken, olives, peppers and cheese. A tasty finale to our wonderful few days in Cuenca!

Journey to Guayaquil

We had originally planned to fly from Cuenca to Guayaquil and to connect there with our flight to the Galápagos. But when Tame altered their schedules we had to change our plans to include an overnight stay in the city, meaning an afternoon departure from Cuenca. We were sorry to have leave early a city we had quickly grown to love, but we would have been even more sorry to miss that flight to the Galápagos! And the bonus was the journey there by car rather than plane – how much better to be driven through the countryside than fly over it! And what wonderful countryside ...

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On the road to Guayquil

We started our journey a little late, as our driver got caught up in the festivities marking Cuenca’s anniversary weekend, and also had to park some distance from our hotel for the same reason – there was a fun run going on outside. We drove out of the city through a western suburb where we were told a lot of expat Americans have settled – so much so that locals call it “little America”! We were soon in El Cajas National Park, an incredibly scenic if rather bleak area, with a large number of lakes set in a rather stark landscape of paramo, and rocky outcrops. Cajas means boxes in Spanish, and one explanation that is given for the name of the park is that it refers to this distinctive landscape, sometimes called knob and kettle geomorphology, where the outcrops alternate with lakes. Another possible explanation for the name is linked to the Quichua word "cassa" meaning "gateway to the snowy mountains”. The highest point in the park is Cerro Arquitectos, at 4,450 metres, although the highest point on the road was just over 4,000 metres. We only stopped briefly for photos but if you have more time there are lots of hiking routes. It would make a wonderful day out from Cuenca.

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In Cajas National Park

A striking feature of the road from Cuenca to Guayaquil is the dramatic change in height along a relatively short stretch of road. Cuenca lies at around 2,500 metres above sea level, while Guayaquil, being on the coast, is naturally at sea level. This is a considerable drop in just a couple of hours, and it leads to some very varied landscapes and a mini-lesson in climatic zones. When we left the national park, we were on the western fringes of the Andes, and below us was cloud forest. At this height we could look down onto the clouds that filled all the valleys, almost as if they were flooded. We stopped again for photos, and to use the toilet at a little snack bar.

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Looking down at the cloud forest

Then we plunged down into the clouds! The road twisted and turned, and the landscape around us (or what we could see of it – we were now in a thick fog) became lush with plants and trees, their branches dripping in the damp air. Every now and then the cloud would break and we would see that we were still pretty high – and hope that our driver knew the road as well as he seemed to, since there was quite a drop on one side!

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Cloud forest scenery

After a while we emerged fully from the cloud, dropping down below it to reach the plains. The mountains we had left so recently were totally invisible as the thick blanket hid them from view. And again the landscape changed, now becoming intensely arable in nature. We drove between fields of bananas, sugar-cane and rice paddies. In the small villages stalls were piled high with fruits and dusk was falling (it was now about 6.00 pm). Local people were riding their bikes, stopping to chat to friends, buy a few provisions for the evening meal or have a beer at a roadside bar. The air was warm and had that unmistakable tropical dampness. It was such a different world to highland Cuenca, yet only three hours away!

By the time we reached the outskirts of Guayaquil it was dark. Although not the capital, this is the largest city in the country and it was a bit of a culture shock – neon lights shone above US-style shopping malls that lined the road as we approached, and the traffic was heavy. By the time we reached our hotel in the centre we had been driving for about 3.5 hours and plans to do a little sightseeing while searching for dinner were abandoned in favour of a quiet night in the hotel. The sights of Guayaquil would have to wait for another visit!

The Grand Hotel

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In the hotel grounds

When a night in Guayaquil became unavoidably added to our itinerary Surtrek reserved a room for us at the Grand Hotel. This is as the name suggests a large hotel, very well located near the city’s cathedral – so near in fact that the wall of the apse forms the outer wall of the hotel’s small pool area (which is also watched over by a colourful giant sculpture of an iguana).

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Our bedroom

The lobby here sets the tone for the hotel – large, bustling, and rather lacking in character. You could be anywhere in the world. But that’s not a criticism – Guayaquil is a very different city from, say, Quito or Cuenca, and it’s not surprising to find a more international style of hotel perhaps (though I’m sure there are places with character to be found as well). As we were only here one night it suited us just fine, and we had a comfortable night’s sleep in our large room, with its queen-size bed, lots of storage and some comfortable seats. There was a TV too, and the bathroom was also a generous size with a tub / shower combination, hairdryer and plenty of towels. Everything we needed for a quiet night before the big Galápagos adventure would begin the next day!

There are two places to eat in the hotel, the smart 1822 Restaurant and the more casual La Pepa de Oro coffee shop. We had decided to eat in the former but when we went to check it out it was deserted so we opted for the friendly buzz in the coffee shop. We had expected that this might have a limited dinner-time menu but in fact there was plenty to choose from.

Our waitress was, to be polite, not “in the first flush of youth” and seemed to find managing the orders a bit of a challenge but she was so eager to please and agreeable that we didn’t mind. Unfortunately though the food was a little disappointing, but served in very generous portions. We shared empanadas to start with but these were not as good as those we’d had elsewhere, lacking flavour and being a little greasy. My main course of fajitas suffered from the same problem, although Chris’s club sandwich was better. We were too full for dessert, so finished the evening in the hotel’s cosy bar instead, which had a very good selection of drinks at reasonable prices.

Tomorrow our Galápagos adventure would begin …

Posted by ToonSarah 05:41 Archived in Ecuador Tagged landscapes churches art road_trip museum cathedral national_park cuenca guayquil Comments (8)

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