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The middle of the world

Ecuador introduction


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Mitad del Mundo monument

The name “Ecuador” means Equator, which this small but very varied country straddles. Indeed, there is a monument near the capital, Quito, which marks “El Mitad del Mundo” – the Middle of the World.

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On El Panecillo

We came here primarily because we wanted to see the Galápagos Islands, but it is too interesting a country not to see something of the mainland as well, so that is what we decided to do. And we were not sorry, as we found so much to like and enjoy here in the middle of the world.

While the Galápagos were, as we’d hoped they would be, the highlight of our trip, we had a wonderful time on the mainland too. We started (and finished) our trip in Quito, which I grew to really like – a slightly mad, bustling city surrounded by volcanoes and with a lovely old colonial heart.

From here we made various trips out of the city – to the famous market at Otavalo, to the hot springs of Papallacta, and to Cotopaxi to the south.

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On Plaza Sur

After about ten days in and around Quito we flew south to Cuenca, a city with which we soon fell in love. I can see why so many Americans choose to retire here. A likeable mix of historic architecture, good restaurants, lively bars and a welcoming atmosphere left us wishing we had allowed more time for our visit to this very likeable city.

But the Galápagos Islands were calling us, as they had been for some years. We were originally due to visit them in January 2009, but when Chris’s father fell ill we had to cancel the trip. Since then various events had conspired against us rescheduling the holiday, but finally, in November 2012, we were able to fulfil our dream.

Like us, you will get there eventually if you follow this blog, but meanwhile some general points about our trip.

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At sea on the Angelito

It was my original intention to put the trip together myself, booking our Galápagos cruise on our chosen boat, the Angelito, through their Quito-based agents, Cometa Travel, and arranging time in Quito either side of it, from where we would have done tours to various parts of Ecuador in the north. But out of curiosity I also contacted a UK company, Real Ecuador (now Real World Holidays), to find out what they would charge if they were to put together a package for us – not a group tour, but to book the accommodation, internal flights etc. Their quote was of course dearer but not as much so as I had expected, and it included a couple of overnight tours from Quito, as well as a flight to and few nights in Cuenca in the south, which I really wanted to see. So we decided it was worth the extra to book with them, and I was very satisfied with everything, especially their flexibility. The original quote had included things like a guided tour of colonial Quito, which we didn’t want as we preferred to explore on our own, and a hotel in the city’s Mariscal district, whereas we wanted to stay in the old colonial area, and there were no problems changing things around to suit us. In the end I reckon the costs worked out only a fraction higher this way than if we had done exactly the same things but made the arrangements ourselves!

The only major thing I did arrange separately was our flights from London to Quito and back. We also chose to do our own sightseeing in Quito, as I said, and were able to spend two of our days there with the parents of a London friend who introduced us to some of the well known, and less visited, sights of their city. Meanwhile the arrangements made on our behalf by Real Ecuador for the other elements of our stay worked out very well and we were very happy with the decision we had made.

Here is a brief overview of the main places we visited – much more detailed entries will follow in due course:

Quito

We spent four nights in Quito at the start of our holiday, a couple more between tours to various places in the north, and two more at the end of the trip.

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View of the city and church of Santo Domingo from our Quito hotel

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El Panecillo

I grew to really like the city – the contrast between its traffic-filled, somewhat manic newer areas and the colonial quarter at its heart, and its situation in a cleft between the Andean volcanoes. This situation has resulted in the city developing in an unusually thin and long shape – only 5 km at its widest east-west point, but about 40 km from north to south. It is also unusually high – at 2,800 metres above sea level, the highest capital city in the world (La Paz in Bolivia is often cited as such, and is certainly higher, but is not the official capital of that country – Sucre is the legal capital despite most government functions being in La Paz). Anyway, whether highest or second highest, Quito is certainly high, and if you arrive from sea level you will notice it perhaps in some shortness of breath when climbing one of its many hills.

The old colonial quarter is near Quito’s centre, at the foot of the small hill known as El Panecillo, from where the Virgin of Quito watches over the city. The modern city stretches both north and south from here, with the northern part being more affluent and containing the museums, shops, hotels, bars and restaurants most likely to attract visitors. Most choose to stay here, but we opted for a hotel in the colonial old town, which, though lacking the vibrant nightlife of the Mariscal district to its north, had a charm that appealed to us much more.

We spent most of our time here in the city’s colonial heart, which was one of the first two places in the world to be listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site (the other was Krakow in Poland). We visited many of its churches, people-watched in its attractive plazas, wandered its streets and ate in its restaurants at night.

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Cathedral and El Sagrario at night

But we did venture further afield at times. We were lucky enough to have friends in the city, or rather, the parents of a London friend, who had offered to spend time with us and introduce us to some parts of the city that they especially thought we would like. So with Betty and Marcelo we enjoyed the views from El Panecillo and the Parque Itchimbia, visited the Basilica del Voto Nacional and the Fundacion Guayasamin, ate in a couple of very good restaurants in the Mariscal, shopped in the market and toured some of the outlying districts such as Guapulo and Nayon.

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Church in Guapulo and stella at the Fundacion Guayasamin

We also had some tours outside the city with a guide, Jose Luiz, which we had arranged prior to departure from England as part of our tour package with Real Ecuador and their Ecuadorean partners, Surtrek. One was a day trip to Otavalo, famous for its market and to the Mitad del Mundo monument which marks the line of the Equator (although in practice it is slightly off the line as its location was based on a scientific survey carried out before the accurate measurements later made possible with GPS). Another was an overnight tour to Cotopaxi and Quilotoa, and we also spent a night at the lovely Termes de Papallacta.

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In Otavalo market, and Chuquiragua flowers on Cotopaxi

Cuenca

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 apparently become a favourite place to retire for Americans, and I can see why. It has lovely architecture, a temperate climate, friendly atmosphere, good restaurants and of course the cost of living is low by US (and UK) standards. But it’s also a great place to include on a holiday itinerary for all the same reasons!

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Cathedral in Cuenca

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 Calderon, 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. We had a great couple of days here, and I left wishing it could have been longer.

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Independence Day parade

Galápagos Islands

For many years, I have wanted to visit the Galápagos: to walk on these remote islands where unique species thrive, where Darwin first developed the ideas that would change our understanding of nature, and where animals have never learned to fear humankind. Fortunately, the experience more than lived up to my expectations! A week of discovery, with each day surprising us with something new, something special.

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One day, a giant manta ray languidly turning in the waves beneath the cliffs where we stood.

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Another, an albatross chick, already enormous, sitting watching us as we sat and watched him.

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On one memorable morning, we were spellbound by a group of young Galápagos hawks who clustered around a new-born sea lion pup and his mother, one of them eventually swooping in to grab the placenta which all then eagerly devoured.

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And on another, we swam and snorkelled with a group of lively sea lions, patrolled by the watchful alpha male who tolerated our intrusion but disdained to join the fun.

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Fabian, our Galápagos guide

We spent our week travelling the islands on board the Angelito, one of the older established boats available for tourist cruises, and one of the best value. Its itineraries and guiding are recognised as first class, but the boat itself is less than luxurious, though it has all that you need for a wonderful week at sea.

No fancy cabins or leisure facilities, but a friendly and super-helpful crew, great meals conjured up in a tiny galley, a knowledgeable guide (Fabian) considerate of everyone’s needs, and enough space in which to chill and appreciate your surroundings between island visits. We were fortunate too to have a great set of travelling companions (important when living in such close quarters) and overall couldn’t have asked for more from our Galápagos experience.

Join me in my following entries to share our Ecuador adventure ...

Posted by ToonSarah 22:39 Archived in Ecuador Tagged tour galapagos quito ecuador cuenca Comments (13)

Viva Cuenca!

Ecuador day eight


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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)

On the banks of the Rio Tomebamba

Ecuador day eight continued


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View from our hotel room

After a morning exploring the heart of colonial Cuenca we returned to the Hotel Victoria, where we had left our bags on arriving some time earlier, to check in. The man on the reception desk, who appeared to be the manager himself, greeted us with the news that he had allocated us a very nice room. He led us a short distance down the corridor to one (#307) on the ground floor, opened the door and all we could see at first was the view!

The whole of the opposite wall was window, and because the hotel is situated on the steep river bank, what is the ground floor on the street side, is several stories up on the river side, where we now were. This isn’t so much a room with a balcony as a room on a balcony. The construction of the traditional houses along the river was designed to make the most of the location, with a long balcony on all the main floors that overlooks the water, and the Hotel Victoria, like some others we saw later, has been sympathetically modernised to glass-in but not otherwise alter those balconies, creating extra space while maximising the views. The view looks south across the river to the newer part of town, with the viewpoint Mirador de Turi, which we were to visit the next morning, on the middle horizon, and is framed by the tall palm trees that grow in the hotel’s lovely garden a few floors below.

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6468830-Another_view_of_the_room_Cuenca.jpgIn our bedroom, Hotel Victoria

Once we tore our eyes from the view we could see that we had a very nice room indeed. It was of a good size, with ample wardrobe space and a bathroom whose large shower shared the same view. We had a TV (which we never turned on), a large and comfortable bed with crisp white linen, plenty of towels and nice toiletries – everything we needed. Our earlier good impressions of the Hotel Victoria were certainly confirmed.

La Parola

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Lunch beckoned next and we looked for somewhere nearby on the Calle Larga. La Parola caught my eye because it had an upstairs terrace which seemed an attraction on this warm sunny day and which we thought might offer views over the Rio Tomebamba. However when we got up there we found that it was largely glassed in and rather hot, but we managed to get a table by a window, which the waiter helpfully opened, so we decided to stay, prompted by a tempting menu.

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Pitta

This is really more bar than café and I am sure is very lively at night, mainly attracting a non-local crowd (and one rather younger than we are, I suspect). But it was a quiet relaxing spot for lunch, though a bit pricey by Ecuadorean standards.

I had a delicious pitta bread stuffed with various vegetables – tomatoes, red and yellow peppers, onions, olives, and with cheese. There were skewers of grapes and more olives too.

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Big sandwich

Chris had a huge sandwich with different meats and cheese, accompanied by very good chips. We both drank sparkling water. The bill was considerably more than we had got used to paying for lunch in Ecuador, but also a rather bigger lunch than we would normally have, and very tasty, so probably worth it.

Leaving La Parola we decided to explore the area to its immediate east and south, near the banks of the Rio Tomebamba.

Todos los Santos

The first thing of interest we saw was this small complex of ruins, named for the nearby church of Todos los Santos. The complex was closed (I have read that it usually is) so I had to content myself with peering over the fence. And to be honest, the ruins are so compact that you can see a fair bit that way. Although small, this is an important site in the history of Cuenca, as it was the first place where the Spanish founders of 1557 built over the old city. The ruins therefore are a mix of Cañari, Inca and Spanish with remains of all three civilisations including Inca walls, ruined arches and an old Spanish water mill. In my photo below, you can see the distinctive Inca construction technique, with the large stones in the walls neatly locked together without any need for a cementing substance.

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Ruinas Todos los Santos

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Todos los Santos

Near here is the Museo del Banco Central, with the archaeological remains of the Inca city, Pumapungo. But we had too little time in the city to see everything, and I lost the argument with Chris about how many museums we would go to in that limited time! So that will have to wait for a possible future visit ...

Also nearby is the church of Todos los Santos that gives the ruins their name. This was the first church built by the Spanish, but various restorations, most recently at the start of the 20th century, mean that today it shows elements of colonial, Renaissance, neo-classical and Gothic architecture. The main west-facing front is ornate with architraves, friezes, balustrades, niches etc. and an attractive and elaborate bell-tower. Despite the newer work, it still has its adobe walls. Unfortunately though, it is only open for Mass on Sunday evenings (18.00) and can’t be visited at other times, so as with the ruins I had to content myself with photos of the exterior only.

Puente Roto

From Todos los Santos it is only a few steps to the Puente Roto. Several bridges cross the Rio Tomebamba, linking the colonial city to the more modern area to the south. One that doesn’t however is the Puente Roto or Broken Bridge. This is an old stone arched bridge dating from the 1840s, a large part of which was washed away by a flood in 1850, only a few years after its completion. Today there is a small gallery under one of the arches whose paintings and sculptures spill out on to the path. On Saturdays this expands into a mini open-air art fair but on the Thursday we were here this part of the river bank was fairly quiet.

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Puente Roto

Rio Tomebamba

We strolled west along the north bank of the river. There are actually four rivers that flow through Cuenca – the Tomebamba, Yanuncay, Tarqui and Machangara. Indeed, the presence of these rivers gives the city its full and rather grand name of “Santa Ana de los cuatro ríos de Cuenca” – Santa Anna of the four rivers of Cuenca, with “cuenca” meaning watershed or basin.

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The Tomebamba

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Typical house

Of these rivers, the Rio Tomebamba is closest to the old city, forming its southern boundary in the area consequently known as El Barranco. A walk here is a very pleasant way to see another side of the city – literally, as it will give you views of the river side of the old buildings on Calle Larga, with their traditional balconies almost overhanging the river. The path is lined with trees and the several benches invite you to sit for a while. I have read that in the mornings local women still come here to do their washing, but on this afternoon visit the activity was of a very different nature, with the riverbanks hosting some of the city’s Independence festival celebrations.

This part of the festival was designed to celebrate the cultures of all the Latin American countries, with dancers from Cuba and Argentina, among others, and stalls selling alpaca scarves from Peru and wood carvings from the Brazilian Amazonia. Locals mixed with tourists, all enjoying the spectacle and the sunny weather. It was a super atmosphere and an unexpected bonus.

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Dancers and audience

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Craft stall

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Colada morada

After some time sitting on the steps that lead down to the river here, watching the dancing and soaking up the atmosphere, we sought more refreshments back at the nearby Coffee Tree café where we had eaten breakfast. This was an opportunity for me to try the traditional drink, colada morada. This is made and drunk only around the time of the Día de los Muertos, and is peculiar to Ecuador (unlike most other elements of that festival which are common to all Latin American countries). It is a thick drink (or some would say a thin porridge) made from purple maize and Andean blackberries, flavoured with cinnamon and other spices and served hot. The traditional accompaniment is guagua de pan, a (usually sweet) loaf shaped to look like a swaddled baby. Guagua means baby or small child in the native language, Quechua, and pan means bread in Spanish, reflecting the dual nature of the origins of the custom, mixing native and Roman Catholic beliefs. I rather liked my colada morada but I passed on the guagua de pan as I’d had a rather larger than usual lunch.

By now we were flagging a little after our early start to the day (having been up at 5.00 for the flight from Quito), so it was back to our lovely hotel to relax a little and settle in properly.

Tiesto’s

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In Tiesto’s

Betty and Marcello, our friends in Quito, had told us that Cuenca was the place to eat the best food in the country, and I had read that Tiesto’s did the best food in Cuenca, so it seemed that this was a place we should try. We had popped in while passing earlier in the day and reserved a table, and it was just as well that we had, because the restaurant, split over two small rooms, was packed. Even with a reservation we had to wait five minutes for our table. But the food was worth the wait.

On seating, we were brought a basket of baguette slices and eight (!) little bowls containing a variety of chilli sauces which were named and described so quickly by the waitress that we didn’t really take in what she said – though I do know one sauce contained pineapple and another apple, while one was very hot indeed!

We were still enjoying these when our mains (we had wisely opted not to have starters) arrived – rather too quickly really. These were both delicious. Chris had chicken in a sauce made with blue cheese (en salsa de queso azul), while my chicken was cooked in sauce of tomatoes, peppers and onions (el Tiesto en su salsa). The latter was an especially large portion so Chris had some of that too. More, slightly larger, bowls appeared with a variety of accompaniments including boiled potatoes, rice, salad, white corn, a semolina salad and marocho (a variety of maize and my favourite, though Chris was less keen).

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Bread with eight dips, and my chicken dish

You could spend quite a lot of money here, especially if indulging in the tasting menu, but our bill, with two Club beers, was very reasonable. The only sour note (apart from the over-speedy serving of the main course) was that we were short changed, and although this was corrected as soon as we pointed it out, there was no apology. But plus points for the cosy atmosphere, lovely old building and gregarious chef, who makes a point of visiting each table to check that you are enjoying his food.

As we only had two evenings here, and as we were equally impressed with our dinner on the second of these, I’m not in a position to vouch for this being the best – but I can say that it was very good food indeed, despite the few issues with the service.

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In the Wunderbar

Colonial Cuenca appears to have rather more of a nightlife scene than Colonial Quito, lacking the latter’s competition from neighbouring districts perhaps. I had read about the Wunderbar on a VT friend’s Cuenca page and it sounded like our sort of place – I liked the sound of the cocktails, and Chris liked the pun in the name! What is more, it was only a few doors from our hotel, the Victoria, so we really had to check it out.

This is a really cosy spot and one where you are likely to feel comfortable whether old or young, or in-between. There are a number of small connecting rooms, each with just a few tables. We found it busy enough but not crowded – there was no problem in securing a table. We discovered that Thursday was “Ladies’ night”, meaning that all cocktails are half-priced for female customers, so I had an excellent caipirinha for just $2.25 (it would have been good value even at the full $4.50) while Chris stuck to beer.

A very pleasant way to end our first day in Cuenca, a city we were already starting to like very much indeed, and we were looking forward to seeing more of it the next day …

Posted by ToonSarah 13:34 Archived in Ecuador Tagged ruins hotel river restaurants dance festival customs cuenca Comments (5)

Walking the city

Ecuador day nine


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

Cuenca

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Another view from our room

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At breakfast

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.

"Panama" hats

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!

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Unfinished hats

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Mirador views

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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.

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Horno

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Chapel ceiling

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.

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Tin craftsman

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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Light-fitting

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Typical of the art here

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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.

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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.

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One of the cats

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Cheers

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?

Las Monjas

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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.

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Garlic bread & dips, and starter platter

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Corvina, and chicken

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 …

Posted by ToonSarah 06:27 Archived in Ecuador Tagged art views restaurants city museum tour ecuador crafts cuenca 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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