Another view from our room
After a good night’s sleep in our lovely room at the Hotel Victoria we sought out the included breakfast which was served in the large restaurant, Le Jardin, which as its name suggests overlooks the pretty garden and was very good. We sat at a table with a hummingbird visiting the feeder just by our window and enjoyed fresh fruit, papaya juice, a choice of bacon or ham with eggs cooked to order, rolls and much better coffee than we had become used to at our Quito hotel.
City tour with Terra Diversa
When planning our trip to Ecuador I was conscious that we were only going to have very limited time in Cuenca so when our travel company (Simply Ecuador) suggested pre-booking a half-day tour of the city I acquiesced, thinking it would be a good way to see a lot in a short time. But when we arrived, and I realised how compact the city was, I wondered if we would regret that decision as it seemed quite possible to cover a lot of ground even in the couple of days we had available. However, I have to say that the guide we had, Wilson from local company Terra Diversa, was absolutely excellent, with the result that we were very pleased to have secured his services. What made it so good a tour was the variety of places he took us, his flexibility in listening to our preferences (and adjusting to the fact that I couldn’t walk as far as I would have liked with my still-dodgy knee), and the wealth of interesting information he imparted. Terra Diversa offer lots of tours and I wouldn’t hesitate to book with them again, directly – and would certainly ask for Wilson by name!
Our tour started when Wilson collected us from our hotel at 9.00 and should have lasted four hours, but he was as happy as we were to over-run a bit and in the end we spent nearly five hours exploring the city with him.
In many accounts I read of visits to Cuenca a trip to a “Panama” hat factory was mentioned, so I was quite pleased that one was included in our tour with Wilson, despite being concerned that it might prove to be little more than a sales pitch aimed at persuading us to buy one. As it turned out it was a very informative visit and with only a little pressure to buy – which we resisted, more or less!
The factory we visited was one of the most respected in the city, Homero Ortega & Sons. The visit started with some history, and an explanation of the name, Panama hat. Everyone in Ecuador will tell you that the hats come not from that Central American country, but from Ecuador – and a specific part of the country, near the coast, where the toquilla plant, from whose straw they are made, grows. The reason for the misleading name comes from the fact that, like many other 19th and early 20th century goods from South America, the hats were shipped via Panama to be exported to Europe, America and even as far as Asia. They were popularised by President Roosevelt who wore one when he visited the Panama Canal during its construction – thus probably also contributing to the adoption of the name, Panama, for the hats.
Mock-up of hat maker's village home
Wilson told us all this and more as we studied the photos in the first of the three rooms at the factory that make up what they slightly grandly call “The Magic of the Hat” Museum. In the second room we learned about the process of making a hat, only part of which happens here at the factory. The hats are first woven by local women, working at home in the villages outside the city. They are delivered to the factory where they are examined and graded.
Homero Ortega buy only the best of the examples sent to them, so those that don’t make the grade will be sold instead in local shops at rather lower prices. Those that are selected are graded according to the weave (more strands of straw to the inch gives a finer quality hat) and sent back out of the factory, this time to specialist hat-shapers, usually men, who trim and neaten the edges and shape the hat on a mould. When they come back to the factory for the second time they are bleached, dyed, reshaped and given their final trim. They are then ready to be sold – here in the factory’s shop, through specialist outlets or sent all over the world. The best hats fetch huge sums – some over $1,000! We were shown photos of many famous people wearing Homero Ortega hats, including film stars, politicians and pop singers.
From the little museum, we went into the working part of the factory, but unfortunately as it was a holiday weekend very few people were at work and we could only see the machinery (very simple and unchanged for generations) and have an explanation of how things were done.
Trying on a hat
Naturally the factory has a shop, and naturally our tour of the factory ended there. But I have to say that there was minimal “hard sell”. We were persuaded to try on a few hats (and I at least was happy to do so, as some were gorgeous!) but no one forced the issue when we said we didn’t want to buy. Had we wanted to do so, the price range was considerable – from $25 for the simplest men’s ones, made from the coarsest straw, up to around $1,000 for a couple of special ones displayed in locked glass cabinets. Wilson explained that, sadly, making these ultra-fine hats is a dying art, with only a handful of people known to be producing them. They sell through agents, and even the factory owners don’t know where these skilled workers live, or anything about them. It is assumed though that they are by now fairly old, and that when they die there will be no more hats of this quality, so these are usually bought as an investment. Not an investment we chose to make however!
Our little tile
In a room that led off the hat shop was another shop, selling a good range of high-quality souvenirs including Tigua paintings, jewellery, organic coffee and chocolate and more. Here we did spend some money, buying a small ceramic tile with a picture of a blue footed booby that caught Chris’s eye (in anticipation of seeing the birds very soon in the flesh) and a packet of my favourite chocolate-covered coffee beans so that I could get my caffeine fix “on the move”. Then it was on to our next stop with Wilson
Mirador de Turi
I had read about and wanted to visit this viewpoint to the south of the city, so I was pleased when Wilson told us that we would be going there on the tour. It is a popular spot because it affords such a good panorama of the city, including the historic colonial part. You can pick out the blue domes of the new cathedral and from there orient yourself and find other landmarks such as the Parque Calderón. From this spot it is easy to appreciate the grid layout of the early city planners, and also see how the rivers wind through the city throw that plan out in places.
Iglesia de Turi
Next to the viewpoint is the Iglesia de Turi, which dates from 1835. We didn’t have time to go inside on this tour so were unable to see on the main altar the sculpture of the Virgin of Mercy, patron saint of the parish (made in Spain, about 80 years old), and on a side altar the Calvary with the image of the Lord in Bethlehem. This latter is also commemorated in a grotto a short climb above the church.
According to a local legend, the Christ Child appeared to a Cañari shepherd boy on this hill, and since then the Cañari people have had a special devotion to him, coming to the grotto and to the church to leave offerings such as bird feathers, animal feed and small model animals at his feet, thereby ensuring that throughout the year their animals, their livestock, their crops and products are blessed.
From the Mirador we drove through an area to the south west of the city famous locally for its restaurants and street-food, and in particular for its horno or roast pig. The smell (to a non-vegetarian) was delicious! And we were interested to see how the pigs had been decorated with flags to mark the independence celebrations that weekend.
Once back in the colonial city Wilson parked the car and the rest of our tour continued on foot.
Plaza San Sebastián
In the Plaza San Sebastian
I thought this was one of the loveliest and most peaceful spots in Cuenca, although there is a gory piece of history attached to it. It was constructed in the 17th century to serve as an open marketplace for the western part of the city. The church (which was unfortunately closed when we visited) is recently restored and has a carved wooden door, single tower and octagonal raised dome. In front of the church is the Cross of San Sebastián which marked the western limit of the city.
Iglesia San Sebastian
As we strolled around with Wilson he told us the tale of a member of the French Geodesic Expedition, the surgeon Juan Seniergues, who had come to measure the Equator and later settled in Cuenca. He was by all accounts a bit of a womaniser, but made the mistake of turning his attentions to the former girlfriend of a local dignitary and became embroiled in a dispute between the dignitary and the girl’s father. At that time (1739) the plaza was the venue for bull fights, but one evening at one of these a fight of a different nature broke out here, between the surgeon and some local “heavies”, and he was murdered. It had the appearance of an unfortunate accident, but it is generally accepted, according to Wilson at least, that his murder was ordered and planned.
Today this is such a peaceful scene that it is hard to imagine that it was the location for such an occurrence. And on the south side of the plaza is a great little museum.
Museo de Arte Moderno
This museum is worth visiting even if you have little interest in modern art, because of the lovely building in which is located, but even better if you do have such an interest because of the manageable size of the collection and exhibitions, and the way in which they are presented.
Museo de Arte Moderno
The building is the former Casa de la Temperancia (House of Temperance), built in 1876 to house people with drinking problems. It later became a convent and then an orphanage before being restored in late 1970s and opening as a museum in 1981. The building has been very sensitively adapted for this new role and provides a somewhat unique setting for the art, which is for the most part displayed in the series of very small rooms (some no larger than cells and housing a single sculpture) which open off the pretty courtyards. You could spend a very pleasant hour wandering from room to room and then relaxing in the greenery of one of those courtyards.
Exhibits outdoors and in
The exhibits are a mix of those from the small permanent collection and temporary exhibitions. When we were there the latter included some intriguing sculptures as well as paintings exploring how modern technology is changing who we are as humans (or so I believe from the limited amount of Spanish labelling that I could guess at, and the works themselves).
The chapel of the Temperance House has been restored to its former appearance and is used as a venue for talks etc. If not in use, you can pop inside to see the lovely painted ceiling and friezes.
A traditional craftsman
Next to some art of a different and far more traditional nature. Leaving the Plaza San Sebastián by its south-eastern corner Wilson led us down a street of small traditional houses, far less grand than most of those nearer the centre of the old city around the Parque Calderón. This is Coronel Guillermo Talbot and in one of the houses on the west side a traditional craftsman, working in tin, has his workshop. Wilson took us in to meet him. It was a fascinating place, the walls covered with examples of his craft and his tools laid out on the small table where he worked – tools he has clearly been using for decades. He proudly showed us his newspaper cuttings with several articles from local papers in which he has featured. Wilson acted as translator as he explained that sadly his son, like most younger people, has no interest in following in his footsteps and the craft of engraving in tin as he does it is dying out.
Engraving the tin
Of course all his work is for sale, but I’m sure you could come and visit just to see the work. Probably though, like us, you will feel that you want to make at least a small purchase to acknowledge his time and support him – and as a memento of the visit. We bought two of the pretty tin stars that he makes, to give as Christmas tree ornaments to my family. If you want something more than this there are photo frames, larger ornaments and pictures, many (but not all) of a religious theme. We paid $6 for each of our stars, which is at the lower end of the prices. If buying a more expensive item I reckon it would be possible to haggle but we didn’t as we were mainly buying to thank him so haggling seemed to go against that somewhat!
Plaza del Cruz del Vado
Cruz del Vado
Continuing our walk, we came to this little square perched on a ledge above the Rio Tomebamba on the southern edge of the colonial city. There are good views from here over the more modern city on the other side of the river. Its main feature is a cross, called the Cruz del Vado, which is protected by a six-sided structure. This cross was erected as a symbol of protection for travellers who had to cross the waters of Tomebamba.
Greasy pole sculpture
Next to the cross is an interesting modern sculpture depicting the Ecuadorean version of the traditional greasy pole contest. Women in local dress watch as two young men try to climb up to where a selection of pots, pans and other household objects dangle above their heads – such very practical prizes!
This square is located in one of the most traditional neighbourhoods of the city. Houses near here are for the most part less ornate than near the centre and some are run down and in need of restoration. Others though have been smartened up, and several have the traditional roof tile decorations to protect the inhabitants from evil spirits. It’s an interesting area to explore and I was pleased Wilson had brought us here as it wasn’t a part of the city I’d read about at all.
Traditional roof decorations
And nearby was an even more intriguing place. Wilson asked if we were easily offended, which seemed an odd question, but we assured him that we were not, so he proposed stopping for coffee in a rather different sort of café.
Prohibido Centro Cultural
In Prohibido Centro Cultural
In one of the old houses on La Condamine, which are gradually being restored, a local artist with a bizarre but very creative mind has undertaken a restoration very different in style. Yes, the old house (dating from 1810) has retained its traditional layout, with small rooms leading off open courtyards. But the décor in those rooms would I am sure shock the original inhabitants, although if you go with an open mind you will be intrigued and entertained.
You must knock for entry (apart from when one of the regular music events is going on) and will be charged just 50 cents. Believe me, it’s worth it! The whole house is an intriguing shrine to the macabre. There are skulls, coffins and tombstones; religious imagery with more than a twist; designs inspired by tattoos, heavy metal music and black magic; even a guillotine! And if you want to use the bathroom facilities (and you must!) you will find yourself washing your hands in water that flows from the “private parts” of an appropriate sculpture – a goddess for the men and an impish creature for the women.
Typical of the art here
Hand-washing and guillotine
As you can imagine we spent quite some time looking around and taking photos, but after a while took our seats with Wilson in the small open courtyard where we had a coffee. The artist’s wife sat with us and was stringing flowers as she chatted, preparing them for their afternoon visit to the family graves as part of the Day of the Dead celebrations. We wanted to treat Wilson to coffee but she said his was on the house, so we paid $3 for our own two. This is definitely something worth doing when in Cuenca if you want a change from the more conventional sights – and if, as Wilson put it, you are not easily offended!
We finished our tour with Wilson by walking some more interesting streets, peering into a few shops and ending up, a lot later than intended (by mutual agreement!) in the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, which we had already seen and which I have already described in a previous entry.
Locra de papa
Having said our goodbyes (and tipped generously as was deserved), Chris and I headed for a late lunch at nearby Raymipampa, where we had enjoyed our fruit juices the previous morning. We had a short wait for a table, but only a matter of minutes. I had the traditional soup, locra de papa, which was very good (one of the best I had on the trip) and a sparkling water, while Chris had a toasted cheese sandwich and a Coke.
After lunch we spent a bit of time relaxing in the Parque Calderón and enjoying some of the festivities there and in the surrounding streets, before heading back to the hotel. There we went down to explore the garden and enjoyed meeting the resident cats. There are some chairs set out here for guests to relax in, and you can access the hotel directly from the river through this garden.
One of the cats
Before dinner that evening we decided to try out the offerings at La Compañia Microcerveceria. It claims to be the first micro-brewery in Cuenca and when we saw the sign we decided we just had to go in and sample its beers. We liked the rather higgledy-piggledy arrangement, with tables on different levels and a friendly buzz, but were less impressed with the beers themselves – which were sort of the point! My Irish Red was OK, if rather cloudy, but Chris’s Golden Ale somehow managed to be both watery and a little acidic in flavour.
It was good to see that local entrepreneurs want to produce local beers, but we concluded that they would have to get better at it than this to really make an impression on the ubiquitous Club / Pilsner duopoly in Ecuador. Although having said that, the bar was busy enough when we went and many people were sinking back large glasses, mainly of the stout, so maybe that is a better beer than the ones we tried?
On our first evening in Cuenca we had eaten at the restaurant rated number one in the city, and the only way to follow that seemed to be to try the one rated as number two, Las Monjas. And to be honest, based on just one visit to each, I would give this one the edge. The only surprising thing is that it isn’t busier. This was a Friday evening and we were amazed to find only two other tables taken as we had worried that we might not get in, having not got round to making a reservation. This really deserves to be better known!
In contrast to the traditional décor of Tiesto’s, the atmosphere here is cool and modern. It looks expensive, but while you can certainly eat more cheaply in Ecuador, the prices here are not really much higher than many a less-good restaurant and we thought it was excellent value for the quality of the food.
They describe the cooking here as “New Andean” – a kind of Andes/European fusion. That may sound odd, but judging by what we ate, it works! The cover (which like everywhere we went in Ecuador was complimentary) was garlic bread with four delicious sauces – two with chilli and two we couldn’t identify. We then shared a mixed starter platter (one of two on the menu) which consisted of my favourite Ecuadorean treat of llapingachos (cheese-filled potato patties), cheesy empanadas (sprinkled with sugar as is quite common here), a stuffed green chilli and slice of pork in an apple sauce.
My main dish certainly reflected the fusion theme – corvina (sea bass) in a quinoa crust with an olive sauce, served on a bed of nicely al dente fettuccini (Ecuador meets Italy!). Chris chose one of several chicken dishes which had pieces of chicken, peppers and other vegetables in a sauce flavoured with tree tomato and accompanied with rice. We had no room for dessert despite a rather tempting menu.
On the way back to the hotel somehow our feet took a detour and we ended up back in the Wunderbar for a night-cap – a margarita for me and beer again for Chris.
Our time in Cuenca was drawing to a close, although we would have the following morning to take in just a few more sights …