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A place prepared

New Mexico day five


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

We took advantage of the breakfast included in our room rate at the Grants Best Western, where the buffet was more extensive than in some other places we stayed on this trip, with reasonable eggs and bacon alongside the usual juice, muffins, yoghurts and weak coffee. Then we checked out and drove east on I40, heading for our first major stop of the day.

Acoma

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Landscape with mesas, Acoma

This was definitely one of the highlights of our whole trip! Acoma Pueblo is built on top of a sheer-walled, 367-foot sandstone mesa in a valley dotted with sacred, towering monoliths, and is the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. While most Acoma people no longer live there, preferring a home with a few more ‘mod cons’ elsewhere on the reservation land (houses in the pueblo have no electricity, no running water and no toilet), it is still home to about 30 people year-round, and to many more during festivals when everyone returns to their ancestral home on the mesa.

To visit Acoma is to be transported to a time and place that has existed for centuries. We turned off busy Interstate 40, drove a few miles across an empty, dusty land, and suddenly we were in a different world. In a landscape dotted with sandstone columns and mesas it was hard at first to pick out the one that has a pueblo on its summit. The only giveaway sign was the twin adobe towers of the church of San Esteban on one side of the village, but even they blended into the warm hues of the sandstone and only became distinct when we were just a couple of miles away.

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At the Cultural Centre

To visit the pueblo you have to take a tour, which starts from the very attractive and informative Cultural Centre, so we parked there and went in to look round and purchase our tickets. The fee included permission to use one camera, which was tagged to show we had paid (we would have had to pay extra to have additional equipment tagged, if needed).

But the Cultural Centre is not just the starting place for tours, it’s also worth a visit in its own right as we discovered while waiting for our tour to leave. I loved the building itself, with its heavy doors (carved to resemble 19th century textiles) and restful interior. The Haak'u Museum displays not only traditional Acoma wares, especially pottery, but also hosts changing exhibitions of more modern art and crafts. When we were there in September 2011 there were two excellent photography exhibitions, one of photographs taken across New Mexico by Craig Varjabedian and the other, which we found the more interesting, of photographs by local Acoma residents. The latter, although amateur, were very accomplished and in some cases powerful works. There was also a very interesting display of modern interpretations of traditional native art.

When it was time for our tour, we joined the small group (we were seven in number) in a minibus for the short ride to the top of the mesa with our guide. We were then escorted around the pueblo – the tour lasts about an hour and a half and is accompanied throughout, so there was no wandering off on our own, much as I might have liked to do so.

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Our guide

There are strict etiquette rules for visitors to Acoma, and it is important to read and abide by these. Think of it as a visit to another country, whose laws must be upheld and whose traditions respected. They include:

~ You must register for a guided tour in order to visit the Pueblo, stay with your tour guide at all times and not wander off the designated tour route
~ Restrain your children at all times. Absolutely no pets are allowed on tour.
~ No Smoking
~ Permits for cameras must be purchased at the Sky City Cultural Center prior to photographing on the Acoma lands. No photography is allowed inside the Church, within the cemetery courtyard, and during feast days. Permission must be obtained prior to photographing tribal members or their artwork.
~ Use of tripods, go pros, video cameras, digital video cameras, binoculars and audio recording devices is prohibited.
~ Commercial use of a photograph depicting Acoma imagery for personal gain (profit) is prohibited.

There is also a dress code:

‘We encourage you to dress comfortably however out of respect for our religious leaders who reside on the mesa year round we ask that no revealing clothing be worn (short shorts, short skirts, halter tops, tube tops, spaghetti strap tanks, and tank tops etc). We do have limited clothing pieces available that may be borrowed at the time of your visit. If we feel that your clothing is inappropriate we will ask you to cover up. Thank you for your understanding and respect for our home.'

All guides come from the pueblo and really know their stuff – ours was excellent, and we learned a lot from her, and although some details I later forgot, I was able to piece them back together again with some subsequent research.

The story of Acoma

The name of this place, Acoma, is derived from the native word ‘Haak’u’ which means ‘a place prepared’. The people believe they are descended from the one-time inhabitants of Chaco Canyon, forced to leave their home by a prolonged drought. Their ancestors had been told by the spirits ‘at the time of emergence’, that is from the very beginnings of their existence, that a place had been prepared in which they would live. So the tribe left their lands in Chaco and wandered through the American Southwest, pausing from time to time to call out ‘Haak’u’. When they arrived in this particular valley, their call reverberated off the mountain peaks and returned to them in an echo, telling them that they had at last found their ‘place prepared’.

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View from the mesa top

But their first home in the valley was not on this mesa but on nearby Enchanted Mesa, seen to the right of centre in the background of this photo and more centrally in the photo higher up this page. According to their legends one day, when all but a few elderly women were down on the valley floor below tending the crops, a terrific storm blew up and destroyed their only path up to the top of this mesa. Those left above were trapped and sadly died (some say that they jumped to their deaths rather than face a slow starvation), and the larger part of the tribe abandoned this mesa and moved to one nearby, where they remain to this day.

Life here has been touched only superficially by the twenty first century, and indeed by all the other centuries that have passed since the village was founded in around 1150. Houses may have been modernised (although only a little) and access improved (one road now ascends to the mesa’s top), but the traditions, the sacred beliefs and much of the life-style of the Acoma people is as it has always been.

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In Acoma Pueblo

Of course there have not always been tourists here but others have come, some much more invasive than the current bus-loads of visitors. The first white visitor to the Acoma Pueblo was Francisco Vasques de Coronado on his 1536 expedition to the Indian pueblos. He and his soldiers were in awe of the seemingly impenetrable fortress at the top of the mesa, and left the Acoma people alone. But that could not last.

In 1598, the Spanish conquistador Don Juan De Oñate, under orders from the King of Spain, invaded this region and raided the native American pueblos, with his troops looting anything of value. They tried to steal grain from a granary and the Acoma fought back, killing several Spaniards in the defence of their crops. De Oñate ordered his soldiers to conquer the pueblo, and in the ensuing battle the indigenous population, which had been approximately 2,000 people before the Spanish attacked, was reduced to just 250 survivors. These were herded to Santo Domingo Pueblo, which the Spanish had previously defeated and were now using as a base. There children under the age of 12 were taken from their parents and assigned them to Spanish missionaries to be raised. Most of the adult Acoma were sold into slavery. Of the few dozen Acoma men of fighting age still alive after the battle, Oñate ordered the right foot chopped off each one.

As we toured the pueblo and listened to our guide we learned that although such injustices may, we hope, have been confined to the pages of history, they are not forgotten. The past has shaped this people and in this almost mystical place past, present and future seem largely indistinguishable from each other.

Acoma houses

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A street in the pueblo

The tour wound through the village streets where we saw the traditional houses, ovens, water cisterns and more. There are about 275 houses in the pueblo, although only around 30 people live here year-round. These are mostly older people and pre-school children, who are often sent to live with grandparents so that they can learn the culture and traditions of the tribe from them. But all the houses are owned and cared for by an Acoma family, and the family will visit and stay there during festival times. Many of the houses we saw therefore had been extensively restored – this is very much a living village, not a museum.

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Another typical street

The houses are made of adobe, like so many buildings across New Mexico (and indeed across the south-west). The Spanish invaders, on first encountering these structures, saw the straw glinting in the sunshine and believed the houses to be made of gold! The thick adobe walls keep the homes cool in summer and warm in the winter, and sharing walls with neighbouring houses adds to the insulation effect. The roads too were carefully planned, each exactly the right width to ensure that even the long shadows of winter would not fall on the houses opposite, so that all could benefit from the warmth of the sun’s rays.

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Typical houses

Traditionally all the houses were of three stories, but the use of each floor varied with the season. In the winter the ground floor would be used for cooking. Heat from the fire would rise to the floor above, which was used as living and sleeping space year-round, and food would be stored on the top floor away from that heat. In the summer the ground and top floor usage was reversed; cooking would be done on the top floor so the heat could escape through the roof without overheating the inhabitants, and food was stored on the ground floor.

Some of the houses have window frames painted in the traditional turquoise colour, symbolising the sky. In the past windows were made of mica, letting in some light but no view, but today almost all are of glass. But modernisation has only gone so far. To those of us used to ‘all mod cons’ it may seem strange to us that the Acoma choose not to fully modernise their houses here in the pueblo. They could easily do so. Those elsewhere in the reservation, on the plain below, have all the facilities we might expect. There is a school, a fire station, offices for the tribal government, a hotel and casino for visitors. But here there are only the bare necessities. There is no running water and no electricity. Coolers not fridges keep food fresh, although a few houses do have a generator.

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Building work

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Restoration in progress

Water, or rather the shortage of it, has always been a challenge for those living on the rocky mesa. It has almost no soil, so almost nothing of any size grows here, apart from a single tree. It is thought that this survives because of its proximity to a deep pool of water or cistern. In the past the inhabitants of Acoma relied on these cisterns for all their water supplies. They would collect rainwater during the wet summer months and this was carefully conserved and used in dry periods. To keep the water pure it was forbidden to wash or play in the cisterns.

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Cistern and lone tree

These days however water is brought up to the pueblo in tankers. But the houses don’t have any running water. The Acoma people prefer to keep things as they always have been here in the pueblo (we were to find the same preference for traditional ways later in our trip when we visited Taos Pueblo). Admittedly many choose not to live here year round, but some do – and all believe that a resistance to modern development is essential to preserve their traditions and to remind them to value what is important in life: family, tribe and the continual thread of their culture and beliefs that anchors each generation to the ones that came before and those to follow.

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Portaloos

There are no toilets in the houses either – instead you will see communal Portaloos around the edges of the village which are used by everyone and which are regularly emptied by a commercial firm. Our guide explained that in the past they had drop toilets, and also told us that there are plans to introduce new ones with a compostable system – but not to install them in the houses.

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Horno at the mesa's edge

Dotted around the pueblo you will see ovens shaped like beehives and known as horno. These were introduced by the Spanish, who in turn had adopted them from the Moors, so if they look like something you have seen in North Africa it is not surprising. They are used for cooking the traditional bread. A fire is built in the oven and left until the walls are red hot. The fire is then raked out, rounds of dough stuck to the oven walls, and the small hole at the front is sealed with mud until the bread is cooked. The result is a light fluffy bread, not dissimilar to pizza dough.

Kivas

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Street with kiva

In the photo above you can see the distinctive ladders resting against the houses. The double ladder near the centre of the photo indicates that the building is a kiva or sacred building. Kiva ladders also have pointed tips, believed to pierce the clouds and bring rain. The ladder below illustrates this belief, with a stylised cloud-shaped bar across its three poles.

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Kiva ladder

These kivas would once have been round but our guide told us that after they had been destroyed by the Spanish invaders they were rebuilt with square walls to look more like normal houses and fool the enemy. [I have also read a more practical explanation – that square buildings make better use of the very limited space here on the mesa top]. But you can spot a kiva as it has no door; entry is only by the ladder, whereas in the case of the houses the ladders are used just for access to the upper floors. Look at the photo above carefully and you will see on the far right the tips of the second ladder that leads down into the kiva itself.

No visitors are allowed in the kivas and guides are not permitted (even if they would want to) to share anything of what goes on in them. Their use is sacred and even to tell outsiders about them would be seen as a threat to the integrity of the tribe’s culture and beliefs. It is essential to respect this and not to push the guides for information they are unable to provide.

One of the interesting things I learned on the tour was that the Acoma have a matriarchal society; that is, the women are the more powerful sex. It is they who own the land, make the major family decisions and maintain the traditions of the tribe.

The land and the family home are passed down to the youngest daughter, as it is thought that she will have stayed closest to her parents and have the most respect for the traditions. The matriarch will pass on her role to this daughter at what she feels is the right time, not necessarily waiting until she dies. At that point the matriarch loses her role in the family, moves out of the home in the pueblo (if indeed she has been inhabiting it full-time) and relinquishes all claims on the family property and possessions. She will never live on the mesa again, but may return for visits and celebrations. If she dies before succession, the title of matriarch passes automatically to her youngest daughter or, if there is no daughter, to the youngest grand-daughter.

And so it is the women who have kept alive the traditions of the Acoma, they who have made this pueblo the magical place it is, and they who hold the responsibility to continue to do so for generation beyond generation to come.

The Church of San Esteban

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San Esteban

Our tour finished at the pueblo’s church, its most prominent building, dedicated to Saint Stephen. It was built between 1629 and 1641 by the Acoma people under the direction of their Spanish conquerors. Some accounts say that the Spanish forced them to build the church, others that the people were grateful to the Catholic friar, Juan Ramirez, after he saved the life of a local child, and thus built the church willingly. A legend tells that just as Friar Juan arrived at the mesa this child fell from its edge and was assumed to be dead. But as the people grieved for their loss, the stranger arrived at the top of the stone steps carrying the lost child in his arms, safe and well. The people took this as a miracle and a sign that they should welcome this man and the new religion he preached.

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San Esteban

The adobe structure remains largely unchanged over the centuries. The left-hand of its twin towers contains an ancient bell (the one on the right is newer). According to the Spanish account, the Acoma people traded four children for this older bell, but according to the people of Acoma, the Spaniards gave the bell as reparation after stealing four children from their families.

Photography of the beautiful interior of San Esteban is not allowed by tribal rules. Its stand-out features include a traditional viga ceiling, with the characteristic parallel rows of heavy timbers, and a wooden altar carved by the Acoma in the 1630s, its twirled columns painted red and white – red, the colour of sandstone and adobe, to symbolise the Acoma and their traditional beliefs, and white to symbolise Catholicism, the two intertwined here as they are in the spiritual lives of the people. Most Acoma believe in and practice both religions, but a few only one or the other.

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At the edge of the mesa

In this photo of Chris and me at the edge of the mesa you can see behind us Mount Taylor, known as Kaweshtima to the Acoma people. It was from this distant and sacred mountain that the Acoma were forced by the Spanish to bring wood to construct the church, including the large logs of the traditional viga ceiling. The wood was not permitted to touch the ground between Kaweshtima and Acoma – if a log fell or was dropped it had to be left where it was rather than be used for the building.

Mass is celebrated in the church on special feast days. One of these is the feast of St Stephen, after which the statue of the saint is paraded around the village. Another is on Christmas Eve, when Midnight Mass is said. On these and on other feast days all the people return to the pueblo from their homes elsewhere as it is important for the tribe to celebrate together. As the church was built on the pueblo’s former plaza (lending credence I think to the version of the story that claims the people were forced to build it here), its dirt floor is kept largely bare and is used on native feast days for dancing.

I have no pictures of the adjoining cemetery, as all photography of it is strictly forbidden, but it is too interesting a place not to mention it here. It lies in front of the church and is even older than it. It was not part of the Acoma tradition to bury their dead, but with the adoption of some of the Spanish conquerors’ Catholic beliefs came also the introduction of burials. There is of course no soil on the mesa top, so earth for the cemetery has had to be carried up from the plains below in woven baskets. There are now five layers of graves here, and when this one is full no more will be added. Places in the cemetery are reserved for tribal elders and for those who have made the pueblo their year-round home – most Acoma are now buried elsewhere in the reservation, in the churchyard they share with the neighbouring Laguna tribe.

At one end of the cemetery, in front of the church, is a raised area with a large cross, a memorial to all the unknown ancestors buried here in unmarked graves. The walls around the cemetery have humps, which in the inside can just be made out to contain faces. These are the guardians of the dead. One wall has a hole in it, to allow the spirits of the deceased an exit route out into the afterlife.

A souvenir of Acoma

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Pottery seller

During our tour we had numerous opportunities to purchase the traditional Acoma pottery. There were tables set up at strategic points on the tour with a local potter displaying their creations, and our guide encouraged us all to examine these and waited patiently for a few minutes at least while we did so. We were tempted at several points, but I’d read that if you’re serious about buying it’s best to wait till the end of the tour and then ask to be escorted back to the one whose work most appealed to you.

The traditional Acoma style is very striking, usually in shades of black and red only, though some other colours are included in non-traditional designs in order to appeal to tourists. They didn’t appeal to us however, as we much preferred the simplicity of the traditional colour scheme which contrast well with the intricacy of some of the designs. These designs reflect the landscape around the pueblo and the legends of the people, so you will see triangular shapes for mountains, lines showing rain, and spiritual animals such as the lizard. We were also (rather incongruously it seems) shown designs featuring parrots. Of course there are no parrots in New Mexico! But there is an Acoma legend that tells how traders from the tribe visited rainforest areas in South America and brought back a parrot in the hope that the presence of a bird from that region would bring much-needed rain to the parched lands of their home.

Prices aren’t cheap, as everything is hand-made (if you think you’ve found a bargain, it won’t have been made by hand), but they are better value than in tourist shops elsewhere in the state, so if you like the work this is a great place to buy. We purchased a very small plate (about two inches across) decorated with lizards which cost us $20 – we wanted a souvenir of our visit but were concerned about carrying anything larger and heavier (and breakable) having already bought our ceramic horse in Hillsboro a few days earlier.

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Pottery for sale

Our visit to Acoma occupied most of our morning and has filled a lot of blog space, so I’ll stop here for now and continue with the rest of today in the following entry …

Posted by ToonSarah 09:15 Archived in USA Tagged art people architecture road_trip culture history church village houses new_mexico crafts customs Comments (7)

History and art in Taos

New Mexico day eleven


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

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Chris in the breakfast room

Our B&B in Taos, La Doña Luz, fell short of some of the other bed & breakfast places we’ve been to in the US in one respect – the breakfast part. There was absolutely nothing wrong with what we got, but it was self-service from a counter and didn’t offer much more than we had got in some of the chain hotels where we stayed on the trip, except that the waffles were made for us by the young girl in attendance.

However, it was served in a lovely room hung with some of the owner’s eclectic collection of art works, and there was fresh fruit to go with the waffles (though I discovered you had to move quickly to get some, as there wasn’t quite enough, unfortunately, to go around all the guests).

Taos Pueblo

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North House (Hlauuma), Taos Pueblo

After breakfast we picked up our car from its spot at the end of the road and drove the short distance north of town to Taos Pueblo. This is an incredible place, and a must-see when you are in the area in my opinion. It’s the only living Native American community to have been designated both a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark. Its multi-storied adobe buildings have been continuously inhabited for over 1000 years and are considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the USA.

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Walking tour map - Taos Pueblo

We arrived soon after nine to find the pueblo just opening for business. We were directed to a parking place and went to pay our admission fee at the ticket booth to the left of the gate. When we visited (October 2011) the fee was $10 for adults, and we also paid a further $6 each to use our cameras. Unlike at Acoma, you can take video here as well as still images, but you have to pay for each camera you plan to use, including your mobile phone if using the camera on it. I decided one was enough!

Also unlike Acoma, you are free to wander around on your own, following the map you’ll be given when you pay, although some areas are off-limits to tourists. But we decided to take a tour (free, although tips are of course welcome) and were very pleased that we had done so. Our young guide was excellent and shared more about the culture here than we had learned at Acoma, although she was still a little guarded on the subject of traditional beliefs. We heard lots about the way of life here in the Pueblo and elsewhere on Taos tribal lands, and about her own life growing up here. A university student, she was paying her way through college by working here as a guide over the weekends and in college holidays, but it was clear from how she spoke about her home that she also sees this work as her way of giving something back to the community – she would not dream of taking work outside the Pueblo.

She also told us something about her hopes for the future, about the balance between traditional and Catholic beliefs, and about relationships (and marriages) between different tribes. I really felt I got to know so much more about the people here than at Acoma and the place came alive for me as a consequence, rather than seeming to be mainly a historic curiosity.

San Geronimo Church

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San Geronimo

Our tour of Taos Pueblo started here, at the church that sits in the heart of the village. And isn’t it a stunner, with that combination of adobe and white against the blue sky? I could have photographed it for hours! Only the exterior though, as photographing the interior is strictly forbidden.

This church, the third in the pueblo to be dedicated to Saint Jerome (I have also read four in some sources), was built in 1850 to replace the previous church which was destroyed by the U.S. Army in 1847 in the War with Mexico. That church, whose evocative ruins still stand near the entrance to the Pueblo, was first built in 1619, but destroyed in the Spanish Revolt of 1680 and rebuilt on the same site.

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San Geronimo

St. Jerome is the patron saint of Taos Pueblo and a santo of him can be seen in the church, as well as one of the Virgin. It is the custom to change the clothing of the santos several times a year, according to the seasons and festivals. When we were there Mary was dressed in a gold-coloured cloth, for the autumn and harvest.

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San Geronimo

The church has the traditional heavy viga ceiling and is very much in use as a place of worship. About 90% of the Pueblo Indians describe themselves as Catholic, although the majority of these practise that religion alongside their traditional beliefs. Our young guide explained that they saw no contradiction in doing so and that the two belief systems were quite complimentary in their eyes.

The old church and cemetery

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Old church and cemetery

As the Spanish conquered the area now known as New Mexico, they brought with them their religion, which they imposed on the defeated inhabitants. Thus the first Spanish-Franciscan mission was built here in Taos Pueblo by Spanish priests using Indian labour in about 1619, and was dedicated to St. Jerome – San Geronimo. It did not last long. Worsening relations between conquerors and conquered gave rise to the Pueblo Revolt. This uprising was co-ordinated by several different pueblo communities, through a series of secret meetings held here at Taos Pueblo and covert communications between tribes. In August 1680 more than 8,000 Pueblo warriors attacked a number of Spanish settlements, killing 21 Franciscan friars and over other 400 Spaniards, and they drove around 1,000 settlers out of the region. During this uprising, the San Geronimo church at the pueblo was also destroyed. Some accounts also tell of a previous uprising, in 1637, when an even earlier church was destroyed, but the official Taos Pueblo website only mentions the 1680 one.

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The old church

Twelve years later, in 1692, the Spanish re-colonized the province. There were on-going skirmishes with the inhabitants of Taos Pueblo, who were repeatedly attacked for refusing to provide corn for starving settlers in Santa Fe. However by 1706 things had settled down enough for the San Geronimo Mission to be rebuilt. This is the church whose ruins can be seen here today. So why is it too now in ruins? We have another revolt to blame for that – one which our young guide talked about still with bitterness in her voice.

In 1846 the United States conquered this territory, which at that point still formed part of Mexico, and installed a governor, Charles Bent. The Mexican loyalists plotted to oust the conquerors, and enlisted the support of pueblo peoples. In early 1847 the uprising began, centred on Taos and led by a Mexican, Pablo Montoya, and a Taos Puebloan, Tomas Romero. The latter led a group of Native Americans who broke into the home of Governor Bent, shot and scalped him in front of his family. Further attacks followed in the area, and the US army retaliated. They moved up from Santa Fe and pushed the insurgents back as far as Taos Pueblo, where they barricaded themselves into the church, thinking that its thick adobe walls would offer sufficient protection. During the battle that followed however, the US military breached a wall of the church and fired cannons into it, killing about 150 rebels and wounding many more. As our guide told it, women and children were also taking shelter there and were killed in the fighting, although other accounts that I’ve read don’t mention this. The US also captured 400 more men, while only seven of their own troops died in the battle. The next day they tried some of these captives in a very one-sided trial and hung those convicted of murder and treason on the Taos Plaza. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the fighting, it seems clear there was some questionable use of violence of both sides.

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The old church bell-tower

The ruined bell tower and walls of the church still stand, as a reminder of that bloody battle, and around them lies the burial ground that holds the remains of those died in it. It is thought in fact that this cemetery dates right back to the very first church, and as at Acoma it holds several layers of graves. Unlike Acoma, there are no restrictions on photographing the cemetery, but you are not allowed to enter it, nor to climb on the crumbling walls that surround it. Our guide explained that even the Pueblo residents only enter twice a year – once on the Day of the Dead, and once on the anniversary of their loved one’s death. On these occasions they go to visit the grave, not to mourn but to celebrate a life well lived.

Multi-storey living

The most distinctive structures in Taos Pueblo, and the ones you will see in every photo, are the multi-storied, multi-home North House (Hlauuma in the native Tiwa) and South House (Hlaukwima). These are considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the USA and are really an early example of an apartment block, though built in this manner as a form of defence.

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The North House (Hlauuma)

The North House consist of five storeys and the South of four. They are built entirely of adobe, with walls several feet thick in places. These walls are regularly re-plastered with mud to keep the structure sound. Originally, the buildings had no doors or windows and entry could be gained only from the top of the buildings by means of ladders, but gradually openings have been added over time as the need for defence declined and the need to have easier access took over.

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The North House

The UNESCO World Heritage listing states that the:
‘Pueblo de Taos is a remarkable example of a traditional type of architectural ensemble from the pre-Hispanic period of the Americas unique to this region and one which, because of the living culture of its community, has successfully retained most of its traditional forms up to the present day. ... The multi-tiered adobe dwellings still retain their original form and outline, but details have changed. Doors, which traditionally were mostly used to interconnect rooms, are now common as exterior access to the ground floors and to the roof tops on upper stories. Windows, which traditionally were small and incorporated into walls very sparingly, are now common features. The proliferation of doors and windows through time at Taos reflects the acculturation of European traits and the relaxing of needs for defensive structures. In addition to ovens located outdoors, fireplaces have been built inside the living quarters.’

My photos are all of the North House, by the way, because the South was in shade and harder to capture.

Red Willow Creek

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Red Willow Creek

A small stream runs through the heart of the Pueblo, known variously as Red Willow Creek or Rio Pueblo de Taos. The stream begins high in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, at the tribe’s sacred lake, Blue Lake. A traditional belief among the Taos Pueblo people is that their ancestors originated from the waters of this lake. The land that surrounds it had been taken from them to create the Carson National Forest early in the 20th century but was restored to them by President Nixon in 1970. They regard this restoration as the most important event in their recent history, so clearly Nixon got some things right!

It flows gently through the Pueblo, providing the water essential for life here – for drinking, cooking, bathing and for religious activities. Even in the depths of winter, which is harsh at this height above sea level, it never completely freezes. Because the water is the main source of drinking water visitors are asked not to paddle in it – but clearly nobody told the dog in my photo that the stream was off limits!

Pueblo homes

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A pueblo street

As well as the multi-storey homes of the two main houses, there are several streets of smaller individual ones. These are also built from adobe, in the traditional style. Many still have mica windows instead of glass, as you can see in some of my photos. In some you can also clearly see the viga beams that support the roof jutting out through the adobe wall.

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Traditional ladders

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Mica window, and chillies drying

Although all these houses are owned and cared for by a Pueblo family, only a few are inhabited full-time, with most being used more as holiday homes for festivals and special family occasions. The small number who do live here permanently live as their ancestors would have done, without electricity or plumbing. Those that live elsewhere will have ‘all mod cons’ in those properties. The rationale for not doing so here is to preserve a traditional way of life in this sacred spot, not through a more general aversion to modernisation such as that practiced, for instance, by religious groups such as the Amish.

Traditional ovens

After our visit to Acoma we were quick to recognise these ovens shaped like beehives which sit outside most homes here too.

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House with horno

Known as horno, they were introduced by the Spanish, who in turn had adopted them from the Moors – so if they look like something you have seen in North Africa it is not surprising. They are used for cooking the traditional bread. A fire is built in the oven and left until the walls are red hot. The fire is then raked out, rounds of dough stuck to the oven walls, and the small hole at the front is sealed with mud until the bread is cooked.

Traditional crafts

Several of the homes in the Pueblo have been adapted to serve as small shops, selling a variety of traditional crafts. Even though we didn’t especially want to buy anything we did go inside a few for the opportunity to see inside the ancient dwellings.

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Pueblo shops

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Outside the Morning Talk shop

We particularly liked the Morning Talk shop, which had an interesting mix of pottery, drums, dream-catchers, jewellery and more. And I also enjoyed talking to the owner of the Summer Rain Gift Shop where the jewellery looked especially good. We didn’t buy anything at the Pueblo (I was sort-of all shopped out at this point) but I was tempted by the ‘smudges’ – small bundles of cedar and sage bound with grasses that are traditionally burned in ceremonial cleansings. They have a lovely scent and would be wonderful to toss on a fire at Christmas, or simply to leave in a bowl like pot-pourri. I did afterwards rather regret not buying a couple, especially as they only cost a few dollars.

La Hacienda de los Martinez

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La Hacienda de los Martinez

I had read about another out of town sight that sounded interesting, La Hacienda de los Martinez, so before returning our car to its parking place we detoured to visit it. This is an historic house from the late Spanish Colonial period, dating from 1804, and was the home of Severino Matinez and his wife Maria who raised six children here. Their eldest son was Padre Antonio Martinez, a forward-thinking priest and educationalist who argued for Native education, founded the town’s first newspaper, and resisted the attempts of Bishop Lamy to enforce Western European principles on Hispanic New Mexicans.

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At the hacienda

Touring the hacienda’s twenty one rooms is said to ‘provide the visitor with a rare glimpse of the rugged frontier life and times of the early 1800s’. Note I say ‘is said …’ – on arriving here we found that contrary to the information in our Moon Handbook it was closed on a Sunday morning. And although we considered returning later in the day, as it turned out we found more than enough to occupy us in the centre of town and never did so. I had to be content with a few photos of the exterior and surroundings, before we drove back into the centre to park and look for a late-morning coffee.

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In the grounds of the hacienda

World Cup Coffee

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Display in World Cup Coffee

You couldn’t get a better location in Taos than this for a friendly local coffee shop, and it would be hard to find a better selection of coffee drinks too, so the only thing this place really lacks is space. There are just a few seats on a bench outside, and a few more at a counter inside, and if we hadn’t been able to secure one of the latter we would have had to opt for ‘coffee to go’ – although with the Plaza just a few steps away that wouldn’t have been too bad an option. But we managed to grab a couple of those inside seats and enjoyed a relaxing brew – an iced latte for me and a cappuccino for Chris – while watching the world go by.

The Kit Carson House

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The Kit Carson House

We hadn’t been able to go inside the Hacienda de los Martinez, but in town there was an historic house that was open on a Sunday morning, the Kit Carson House. I confess that I didn’t know a lot about Kit Carson before visiting his house, and our motivation for doing so was not so much to find out more about him as to have an opportunity to see inside a historic Taos home, but we did also learn quite a bit, and enjoyed the various displays here.

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In the Kit Carson House

Our visit started with a video about Carson’s life, which I thought was well-made and carried just the right amount of information. In fact, this video was described as ‘award winning’ (I don’t know what award!) and was made for the History Channel, so was of broadcast quality. From it we learned that Carson lived in this house for 25 years, having bought it as a wedding present for his bride, Josefa Jaramillo. His work as an army scout, Indian Agent and army officer kept him away from home a lot of the time – the period of time that Kit he actually lived in this house was during the time he served as Ute Indian Agent from January 1854, to June 1861, when he had his Agency headquarters in Taos. Meanwhile Josefa raised the family here – seven children born to her and Carson, and several more Indian children adopted by them after he had freed them from captors.

Carson was a member of the Masons, and it is they who purchased the by-then dilapidated house in the early part of the twentieth century, restored it and now open it as a public attraction. This gives the presentation of the family history a slight slant perhaps, as naturally they put more emphasis on Carson’s activities as Mason than you might expect, but on the whole I thought it provided an interesting insight into life in a frontier town in the mid nineteenth century.

I especially liked seeing the kitchen, which is sparsely furnished with objects of the period. Each room had an informative notice detailing how it would have been used in Kit and Josefa’s time here, and inviting visitors to imagine the activity around them – with so many children, and regular visits from many of the important men of those times (including Generals and Congressmen), it must have been a lively household.

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In the kitchen of the Kit Carson House

Doc Martin's

When we left the Kit Carson House we were ready for lunch and decided on a return to the Taos Inn where we had eaten last night, mainly because we liked the look of the little patio at the front of the building.

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Grilled apple & blue cheese salad

But we discovered that only the limited bistro menu was being served here, and as we were looking for salads which only appeared on the main brunch menu, we were directed to the restaurant, Doc Martin’s. This is quite a formal place by Taos standards, and more so than we would usually choose for lunch, but we’d been on the go all morning and were ready for the break it offered.

The brunch menu was extensive and with larger appetites I think we’d have found it difficult to choose. But we rarely eat a large lunch, so we focused on the salads. I opted for the grilled apple and blue cheese salad, which was a good plateful and pretty tasty, while Chris chose the Cobb salad, which was OK though nothing special.

Taos gallery hopping

Some of our greatest day-time pleasure in the town of Taos itself was in simply strolling the streets, people-watching in the Plaza, and visiting some of the numerous shops and galleries.

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A Taos weaver

Of the latter, the one that impressed us the most was Lenny Foster’s Living Light Studio. Lenny is an incredible photographer (you can see for yourself on his website) and we were lucky enough to meet him in the gallery and enjoy a long chat – about his work, his general approach to photography and the possibility of him exhibiting in London one day (which we strongly encouraged, although I am not sure that he has yet done so).

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Lenny's calendar

I especially liked his images of New Mexico, while both of us were moved by his ‘Healing Hands’ series. After our chat he kindly gave us a copy of his 2011 calendar, which, although it had only a few months left to run, made a lovely memento of our visit. Sadly however, the prints themselves were a little outside our budget for holiday souvenirs.

In the Plaza

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Plaza bench

We spent the last part of the afternoon in and around the Plaza. Perhaps surprisingly, it would be easy to drive straight through Taos and miss this, as it is tucked away to the west of the main north-south artery, Paseo Del Pueblo. But to do so would be a real shame. The Plaza was intended by the Spanish settlers who created Taos to be the heart of their community, and such it remains today.

Guadalupe Plaza, to give it its proper name, is surrounded by shops and galleries, with its south side dominated by the historic Hotel la Fonda de Taos. We popped in here briefly hoping to see the collection of D H Lawrence’s so-called ‘Forbidden Art’ – paintings by the author which were considered obscene and banned in England, and under threat of destruction until Lawrence removed them from the country and brought them here to New Mexico. Unfortunately a private function in the room where the paintings are displayed prevented us from seeing them, but it was worth going in to see this Taos landmark.

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Statue of Martinez

In the centre of the Plaza is a gazebo which was donated to the town by heiress and long-time resident Mabel Dodge Luhan, a famous patroness of the arts scene here (it was she who encouraged Lawrence to move here). On its south side, in front of La Fonda, is a large bronze statue of local hero Padre Antonio José Martinez, the son of Severino Matinez whose hacienda we had been unable to tour this morning.

Much of the Plaza was taken up by a craft fair (I don’t know if that’s usual at the weekend or if it was a special occasion). We enjoyed browsing the stalls, even though we didn’t buy anything here. But we did shop for ice creams in a shop just next to La Fonda (part of the same building, in fact) which we enjoyed sitting on one of the many benches in the Plaza while people-watching.

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Plaza craft stall

In the south east corner, we found an interesting shop selling Native American crafts, clothing etc. which was well worth a browse. And down the little alley to the right of this we discovered a surprisingly good view of the hills that surround the town.

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The mountains around Taos

Eske's Brew Pub

Eske’s came well recommended by a Virtual Tourist friend, Richie, and was also just across the parking lot from our bed and breakfast, so it was a natural choice for an evening out, and a great one! This is a casual spot that seemed popular with locals as well as visitors to Taos, and with good reason, as both food and beer were very good. There are a couple of linked rooms, and the only tables available when we arrived were in the first room, so that’s where we settled. There are also tables outside, but October evenings in Taos are too chilly for us to have contemplated that option!

We shared some good hot salsa and chips to start with, while we sampled our first beer (the Artist Ale for both of us) and perused the menu. The beer was fresh-tasting and went well with the spicy flavour – a good meal accompaniment. From the tempting menu I chose the Green Chilli Burrito, which was stuffed with beans and cheese and smothered with a vegetable and green chilli stew – yummy! Chris was pleased to see a German favourite so went for the bratwurst with sauerkraut and mash, which he also really enjoyed.

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My burrito, and Chris's Bratwurst with Sauerkraut

We had no room for dessert, but of course hung around to sample more of their beers. After a taster of the Green Chilli Lager I decided that this was surprisingly good, so had a full one – and another! Meanwhile Chris was drinking, and enjoying, the Seco Stout – described as ‘Irish style’. A super evening to end our too-brief stay in Taos.

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Eske's at night

Posted by ToonSarah 04:11 Archived in USA Tagged mountains churches art culture history statue restaurants houses museum photography new_mexico taos customs Comments (7)

Of Route 66 , the Wild Wild West, and the ‘Long Walk’

New Mexico day fourteen


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

Our stay at the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas included a hot breakfast, chosen from a menu of about half a dozen options, all cooked to order rather than from a buffet – the best hotel breakfast of our trip by far. A shame then that my margarita-induced hangover prevented me from making the most of it!

This morning we continued our drive south, taking I25 for a few more miles before forking left on Highway 84 and then turning east on I40.

Santa Rosa

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Sign in the
Route 66 museum

As we approached Santa Rosa on Interstate 40 the heavens opened and for about ten minutes we drove through a downpour so heavy that it was almost impossible to see the road or any other vehicle on it – scary stuff. Maybe the elements were finding a way to punish the road that almost destroyed one of the most iconic of all American cultural icons, Route 66. And we were here to visit the Route 66 museum, dedicated to capturing and preserving all that is most symbolic of America’s Mother Road.

The Santa Rosa section of Route 66 opened in 1930 and the town flourished with the business it brought. Motels, diners, gas stations lined the highway here, and you can still see some reminders of that era lining the historic route that runs parallel to the Interstate. I was also interested to read that Santa Rosa's stretch of Route 66 is part of film history. The film of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath was partly shot here, and the director John Ford used Santa Rosa for the memorable train scene in which Tom Joad (played by Henry Fonda) watches a freight train steam over the Pecos River railroad bridge into the sunset. The Grapes of Wrath is one of my favourite books, and I loved the film, so our visit here sent me back to watch and enjoy it again.

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In the parking lot of the Route 66 museum

Route 66 Auto Museum

One of the pleasures of a US road trip for us is discovering the off-beat attractions as well as the major historic sites and natural wonders – and Santa Rosa’s Route 66 Auto Museum is an excellent example! Owner Bozo Cordova has amassed a wonderful collection of classic cars and Route 66 memorabilia, and has turned his passion into a great attraction.

Cordova grew up along Route 66 and this gave rise to a lifelong interest in cars. He started out with the model variety and worked his way up to the real thing, starting a Route 66 business, Bozo's Garage, here in Santa Rosa. But his collection of classic cars grew so much that he opened the museum to accommodate and show them off.

Even before we went inside the museum we discovered a number of vehicles parked outside worthy of attention and of our cameras. Unfortunately, although it had stopped raining just as we arrived, the sky was very leaden, so we only took a few pictures here.

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Outside the Route 66 museum

Once inside we found ourselves in the large gift shop / café where we paid the $5 entry fee for the museum. This lies behind the wall that separates it from the shop and is vast! Classic cars of all kinds make up the bulk of the collection, and their elegant shapes and interesting details made for great photos. Among others we saw Chevys, Buicks, Fords, a Coupe de Ville, a Mustang and more.

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In the museum

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Car details

There was also lots of smaller Route 66 related memorabilia, both in the museum and in the shop area, and some original signs, including the original Fat Man sign from the now defunct Club Café which was painted by Route 66 sign painter Rudolph Gonzales of ‘Signs by Rudy’ in nearby Tucumcari.

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Signs in the gift shop

Incidentally, a few of the cars were for sale when we visited, so if you’re looking for a very big holiday souvenir this could be the place! It wouldn’t be a cheap souvenir however – the 1970 Dodge Roadrunner that caught my eye was $45,000.

There were more reasonably priced souvenirs to be browsed through in the shop which had a large collection of Route 66 related items, including t-shirts and other clothing, model cars, shot and beer glasses, various signs and of course model cars. Although we weren’t shopping it was interesting to see the additional museum items displayed here. I particularly liked some of the old photos of the road at the height of its importance.

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In the gift shop

Fort Sumner and Billy the Kid

Fort Sumner is a fairly unprepossessing town, strung out along Highway 84, but it is home to a number of different attractions, most (though not all) associated with one of New Mexico’s most notorious characters, Billy the Kid. It was near here in 1881 that Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett finally tracked down the gunfighter and shot him, as dramatised in the 1973 film. Having seen that film many years ago (OK, when it first came out!), I was keen to see the setting for myself. The next day we were to visit Lincoln Courthouse from where the Kid had made his escape, filling in another chapter in the story of his short life.

When we were here in 2011 Billy had two museums devoted at least in part to his life (one has since closed down), and even two graves! The real grave lies some miles south of town, so the enterprising owner of the museum in town has constructed a replica for those who can’t be bothered to drive any further, thereby hoping to lure them into his museum! Luckily I had done my research and knew to ignore the sign in town and to direct Chris to keep driving – east on Highway 84 and then south on Billy the Kid Road.

We parked in front of the Old Fort Sumner Museum (the one that is now closed) and walked around the left side of it to the small cemetery behind, in which the grave lies. It is surrounded by an iron fence, after the tombstone was stolen three times since being erected here in the 1940's. William H. Bonney, to give him his real name, is buried here with two of his ‘pals’, Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre.

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The (real) gravestone of Billy the Kid

Elsewhere in the cemetery is the grave of one of Billy’s victims, and also that of Lucien B. Maxwell, who bought this property (along with much of northern New Mexico) after Fort Sumner was decommissioned. It was in his son’s house, a mile away, that the shootout between Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid took place. Although there is a theory that in fact Garrett conspired with the Kid to fake the shooting, allowing him to escape to Mexico. Several other men later claimed to be Billy, though their claim was never proven. Some years ago, investigators into the claims wanted to exhume the body buried here, along with that of Billy’s mother which is buried in Silver City, and to carry out DNA testing. But the move was blocked by the mayors of Silver and Fort Sumner, so the truth may never be known.

The Old Fort Sumner Museum

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A corner of the Billy the Kid Museum

Having bypassed the museum in town in order to see the actual grave, it seemed a shame not to check this one out (they sounded too similar to justify time spent at both for all but the most ardent Wild West fanatic). Admission cost us $4 and was worth it – not so much because the collection was great, but almost because it wasn’t!

And what a weird and wacky assortment it was! There were, as we expected, some items relating to Billy the Kid but also many that weren’t. Among the weirdest of the latter were a stuffed two-headed calf and a display showing a multitude of different styles of barbed wire – yes, really!

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Photos of Billy, and just part of the barbed wire display!

There was however an informative timeline describing the events leading up to Billy’s shooting by Pat Garrett, useful to us as we were encountering him at various places on our route through New Mexico, not necessarily in chronological order. There were also facsimiles of his surprisingly articulate letters to Governor Lew Wallace, arguing his case for clemency, and these I found the most fascinating objects on display – the two-headed calf notwithstanding!

Given our shared taste for the bizarre, we spent quite a while poking around in this small museum – it’s rather a shame it has since closed. But I guess Fort Sumner could only sustain one Billy the Kid Museum.

Bosque Redondo Memorial

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Bosque Redondo Visitor Centre

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Bosque Redondo Visitor Centre

It is easy to think that Fort Sumner is all about Billy the Kid and nothing more. But while the shoot-out with Pat Garrett was obviously a black day for the Kid, it is nothing in terms of suffering when compared with the fate of thousands of Native Americans, Navajo and Mescalero Apache, who were incarcerated at the fort during the Civil War. For many years their story went untold, but when we were here in 2011 a new state monument had recently been built to correct that oversight. When we visited it was still not complete, and we were almost the only people here (it was also very late in the season), so we were given a warm welcome by the rangers who not only gave us useful information on what we could see, but also told us a bit about future plans for the exhibits.

The design of the museum building is very striking, and was inspired by the traditional homes of the two tribes whose story is told here – the Navajo Hogan and the Apache tepee. Inside they were planning a series of exhibits telling that story, but in October 2011 most rooms were bare apart from the planned layout stuck on a wall. The rangers told us that they hoped all would be completed in about a year, i.e. the autumn of 2012, and checking the website it seems that there is certainly rather more to see there now.

In 2011 the main area of interest was outside, behind the building, where an interpretive trail helped us to follow the story of what happened here between 1863 and 1868. To properly bring it to life we were advised to hire the very informative audio guide, which gave us a really effective to the moving story told here. My account below is based on a transcription of that audio guide which I found on the memorial’s website at the time, albeit much shortened.

In 1854, the District Court in Santa Fe ruled that under the laws of Congress, there was no Indian country in New Mexico, and thus all Indian land in the state was opened to ranchers and farmers for the taking. The U.S. government believed that subduing the native population and settling these lands was their duty, their mission and their destiny. But the Native Americans viewed the incomers as trespassers on their land, while the settlers saw the American Indian as a threat to their new way of life.

James H. Carleton was a bright, aggressive officer who set his sights on putting his stamp on the Indian problem in New Mexico. In 1862 he obtained President Abraham Lincoln’s approval to establish a fort, which he initially justified as offering protection to settlers but later decided that the site of the fort on the Pecos River would be a good one for an Indian reservation.

On September 27th 1862 Carleton ordered Colonel Kit Carson [whom we had ‘met’ in Taos] to kill all Apache men and take the women and children captive. Among those captured was Chief Cadete, who was ushered to Santa Fe for peace talks and unequivocal surrender. Facing certain annihilation, and tricked into thinking they would be given a new reservation in their own country, Cadete agreed to Carleton’s terms and surrendered. But instead the surviving Mescalero Apache (almost 500 of them) were forced to leave their homeland and were exiled to Fort Sumner, more than 100 miles away.

General Carleton now turned his attention to solving the ‘Navajo problem’. On June 15th 1863, he issued the order to Carson to attack the Navajo. During the winter of 1863-1864, Carson’s New Mexico Volunteers ravaged the countryside, killing Navajo, burning crops and orchards, killing livestock, destroying villages, and contaminating water sources. This scorched earth campaign of Carson’s, designed to starve the Navajo into submission, was named by the Navajos ‘The Fearing Time.’

With no food, and nowhere left to hide, the starving Navajos were gathered at Fort Defiance, near modern day Grants in the north west corner of the state and forced to march to the Bosque Redondo reservation some 400 miles away, through dangerous river crossings and other hazards. Over several marches, between the summer of 1863 and the winter of 1866, 11,500 Navajo were sent to Bosque Redondo. Around 8,500 arrived; some others escaped and fled west, some were captured by slave traders, and many died along the way. This time of suffering is remembered as ‘The Long Walk.’

By March 1863, there were over 400 Mescalero Apache at the reservation. By the end of 1864, they were joined by more than 8,500 Navajo. The Army had only planned for 5,000 to be there, so there were shortages of food, water, and shelter. Fighting between the Mescalero and Navajo, who had never lived in close proximity to one another, was constant. The Mescalero came from a life in densely forested mountains where game and edible plants were plentiful. The Navajo had huge flocks of sheep and goats and came from a country where good grazing, and good food and water were plentiful. Here both tribes were essentially slave labourers. The Navajos would refer to this time and place as ‘hwééldi’, translated as ‘the place of suffering.’

By September 1864, the minority Apaches considered the Navajos enemies, and believed that if the Army could not provide a separate reservation from them, they should no longer be bound by their promise to stay on the reservation. Chief Cadete and his people put a careful plan into action. If everybody left at once, he decided, most might get away. By late October, before winter set in, they were ready. On November 3, 1865, all 400 Mescalero Apache deserted the fort and began their exodus back to their own country. As the normal evening campfires burned, they slipped away into the night. Only nine of them, who were either too old or sick to travel, remained to keep the campfires burning in order to fool the military into thinking that all was normal. Carleton undertook several pursuits, and accounts indicate a number of Mescalero men, women, and children were killed, but most escaped.

The Navajo remained here for three more years. In the spring of 1868, General William T. Sherman and Colonel Samuel F. Tappan arrived at Fort Sumner to negotiate a new treaty with the Navajo leaders, led by Chief Barboncito, who had been the last Navajo Chief to surrender in 1866. The Treaty of 1868 was signed in a field between the Fort and the site of the memorial. By definition, a treaty can only be signed by two nations. Thus, the Treaty of 1868 established, under Federal Law, the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation. The Navajo were allowed to return to their original homelands in the Four Corners Region.

I have reproduced all of this in some detail as the best way of giving you an idea of what we listened to as we walked the interpretive trail. Interspersed with the historical facts were many moving quotes from members of the two tribes, and some traditional music. It was a fairly short walk (maybe a mile in total) but there was a lot to take in and we took our time doing it. As we walked I got a strong sense of what the Navajo and Mescalero Apache suffered here, and also of a quiet satisfaction that at last that suffering and their history is being accorded the respect it deserves.

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The Navajo Treaty Memorial

As the sign on the marker at the spot where the Navajo treaty was signed says,

‘Cage the badger and he will try to break from his prison and regain his native hole. Chain an eagle to the ground and he will strive to gain his freedom, and though he fails, he will lift his head and look up to the sky which is home... and we want to return to our mountains and plains, where we used to plant corn, wheat, and beans.’

We had planned to spend the night in Fort Sumner, but with no accommodation pre-booked and plenty of time left in the day after our visit here, we decided instead to push on to the next town on our route, Roswell. But having devoted so much of this page to the harrowing story of Bosque Redondo (as it deserves, I hope readers will agree), I will save that very different place for my following entry …

Posted by ToonSarah 20:51 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip monument culture history museum new_mexico route_66 customs Comments (8)

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 (8)

On the banks of the Rio Tomebamba

Ecuador day eight continued


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

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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 (7)

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