Posted by: Jena Davison | June 18, 2010

Cuenca and Around

I got back to Quito Tuesday morning, feeling groggy and heavy eyed, after a nine-hour overnight bus ride from Cuenca, Ecuador’s third largest city. Sleeping on buses is not my specialty, especially when religious films about saving marriages provide the background noise, but I got enough shut-eye to keep me going at work on Tuesday.

People had briefed me on how beautiful and different from Quito Cuenca is, and both of these instantly appeared to be true. Not only was I instantly taken aback by the niceness and hospitality of the people, but the cleanliness of the streets and the noticeably safer atmosphere were significant upgrades from Quito. I hate to compare the two because they are so different and they have such different personalities, but Cuenca was definitely a more laidback, toned-down, less shady version of Quito.

Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its impressive colonial architecture, so just walking around might have been enough to entertain us. Parque Central fills an expansive plaza that is fringed by the Old Cathedral and the New Cathedral, two major city sites. The Old Cathedral used to be the main place of prayer for the Spanish conquistadors; in fact, none of the indigenous people were allowed inside of it. However, once the Old Cathedral reached a congregation beyond its capacity, the New Cathedral was built, and now the Old Cathedral only functions as a museum. The New Cathedral is much more impressive architecturally and has a few baby blue domes in its back, which are visible from side streets off the plaza.

New Cathedral Domes

Front of the New Cathedral

The entire city of Cuenca has cobblestone streets, giving it a very antiquated feel. These streets are lined with cute cafés, shops and restaurants that have intricate storefronts. The food options in Cuenca were much better, but the restaurants also seemed a bit more expensive than those in Quito. It may have been that we stuck to a bunch of internationally owned, gringo places, but I’m not entirely sure. Interestingly, Cuenca has become a popular spot for Americans and other foreigners to retire do to its cheap real estate, relaxed feel and pretty location in the mountains. I had heard this before I went, but we definitely ran into our fair share of English-speaking retirees while there.

The first day was spent walking around the city and visiting some of its major attractions. In addition to exploring the city center, we walked along a path that hugged the river that flows through the city to a worthwhile museum. The museum, called Museo Pumapango, had a focus on anthropological and archaeological exhibits about the indigenous tribes that once did and continue to inhabit Ecuador, particularly those from the areas surrounding Cuenca. The intricate exhibits staged dressed-up dummies acting out different typical rituals and everyday practices. Probably the most interesting portion of the museum was the exhibit featuring real, preserved shrunken heads. Some indigenous tribes used to decapitate and shrink the heads of their enemies or of those who violated some major law. This was seen as a necessary sacrifice to renew the positive energy in the circle of life. The museum also had some modern and religious art and a large collection of coins.

Outside of the museum were the remains of some small Inca ruins, where many of the pieces inside had been excavated from. We walked around the area for a bit and then came upon a small zoo that had a few cages of brightly colored parrots, scary-looking falcons and even some toucans! They were super entertaining because some of them talked and mocked us. Afterwards, we went to a café for some food and to watch to U.S.-England World Cup game. We spent the bulk of the rest of the afternoon just walking around, and had some dinner at an international restaurant called Eucalyptus Café. I ordered Thai curry, which tasted more like Mexican food than Thai food, but it still tasted good. Another fail on finding decent Thai food in Ecuador.

Some Brightly Colored Parrots

The next day, the four of us went to three nearby villages that each had unique markets. The first was called Gualaceo, which was about 50 minutes from Cuenca. Its market was mostly just packed with produce sold by indigenous women. We were one of maybe five white people in the whole market, which made us feel like we were experiencing something totally authentic. The next stop was a jewelry town called Chordeleg, which was  little more than a small main plaza and a few streets lined with stores selling gold and silver rings, necklaces, earrings, etc. We had some lunch in this town and watched a portion of the Germany-Australia game. After Chordeleg, we headed to Sigsig, a larger town known for the art of Panama hat making. Although they are called ¨Panama hats,¨they are actually made here in Ecuador. Probably the highlight of the whole day, we got to watch some women and children make the hats. The small warehouse where the hats were made and sold was filled with differently designed, colored and shaped hats. They were beautifully made and we soon found out that they were all handmade by a collective of female artisans who created the organization so that they could have fair working conditions and adequate pay. All of us had a great time trying the hats on and we got to check out some of their other products like boxes, bowls, coasters and bags.

Produce Market in Gualaceo

Gualaceo Market

Girls Making Panama Hats in Sigsig

On Monday, Libby and I went to Parque Nacional Cajas, a gorgeous national park about an hour outside of Cuenca. The park is located in the páramo, which are high Andean moorlands that exist between the upper tree line and the permanent snow line. The ecosystem’s climate is cold and harsh so many of the plants that thrive there have defense mechanisms to keep from freezing. And, although we didn’t enounter any animals, the park is also home to many rare and endangered species. When we first got there, the chill in the air immediately hit us. After paying the $10 entrance fee, Libby and I decided to start walking on one of the many different trails. Turns out the trails were poorly marked so we all but got lost after 45 minutes in. However, we did get some fantastic views of the lagoons and the green blanketed mountains that seemed to roll on for miles.

Parque Nacional Cajas

The whole weekend was wonderful. We had such a good balance of everything: a major city, some small pueblos nearby, and a national park that was a complete and total escape from noise, people and city life in general. I would highly recommend a similar trip to any travelers passing through Ecuador.

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