Staying at the Santa Lucia in Cuenca is like going back a few decades in understated luxury. This hotel is one of the top boutique properties in town and is a visual delight.
Inside the Santa Lucia
Cuenca is an amazing city. The more we experience it, the better it gets. 4 rivers, 8 Universities and 52 Churches (one for every Sunday of the year!!!) – a tall order that is! The former Inca town of Cuenca (situated at about 2500 metres in the southern part of the Andes) was conquered by the Spanish in 1533 and founded in 1557. With a population of about 350,000 people it is Ecuador’s third largest city.
Colonial houses at San Sebastian Plaza
For its charming historical centre, the churches, the small cobbled streets and colonial houses with noble facades, prim balustrades, wrought iron balconies and red tiled roofs, it was declared as World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 1999.
The four rivers of Cuenca (meaning a basin made by a confluence of rivers)are the Tomebamba (named after the Cañari culture), Yanuncay, Tarqui and Machangara, in order of importance. The first three of these rivers originate in the Páramo of Parque Nacional Cajas to the west of the city. Very interestingly, these four rivers are part of the Amazon River watershed. Cuenca is surrounded by mountains on all sides, with passes to the west, south and east.
From El Vado
Our first day in Cuenca started with a stop at the San Sebastian Plaza where a lot of Cuencan histry has been written. From there it was a walking tour of the city that led us to El Vado. El Vado is currently under renovation and the old colonial buildings lining this plaza add to the flavour of this place. The walk takes you to a part where you come across the studio cum living quarters of Laura and Yani. Entering this house will transport you to a different world.
The sitting room at Laura & Yani's
For decades the couple has collected antiques from the area and live with them in the house. Laura is a doll maker and Yani (of Dutch origin) is a restorer of antiques. Inside the house every corner is precious and a visual delight. Laura’s kitchen, their bedroom, the bird corner, the central courtyard and even the bathroom is something to look at. Wish I had the liberty to do up a little corner of my house to these specifications! Stepping out, the next door belongs to Prohibido Centro Cultural, the den of Eduardo Moscoso, a well-known extreme art protagonist who has worked on various traditional themes in the most extreme manner. Every corner is interesting and oozes dark brilliance. The central courtyard serves as a set up for local bands playing alternative sounds but forbids the use of drugs, alcohol and other narcotics. There is only a small corner for smokers. The founder and owner of this place, Eduardo Moscoso, has turned the place itself to an eccentric, paradoxical work of extreme art.
Dining Room at Laura & Yani's
Overlooking the Cruz del Vado is the Tomebamba River and the sprawling campuses of the University of Cuenca. Going up the meandering road we took the next stop at the 10 de Augusto Mercado. Markets are my special weakness. It is in these markets I get to see the locals in their true spirits, without pretences, getting a slice for their survival. The character of a town is often revealed in its markets. This being clean, organised, odour free
Locals huddle at the 10 de Augusto Mercado
and bustling with activity. The fresh produce is all organic which we struggle to afford in the UK – US$ 10 can fill up your baskets with fresh fruits and vegetables for more than week’s requirement of two people! The chicken is naturally corn fed and is the cheapest on the list followed by beef and pork. I feel energised visiting markets.
From the market it was the San Francisco Plaza and the new Cathedral of Cuenca. Walking through the square we reached the Carmelite Church which on a Monday morning was packed with believers. The flower market outside bustled with shoppers and school children concentrated around ‘Helado’ carts. It was already past midday. The skies looked a bit threatening and we didn’t want to miss the chance of a view of the city from Mirrador Turi. Postponing lunch we drove up the hill to Turi from where the real shape and form of this lovely city unfolded. Coming downhill, it was a stopover at Eduardo Vega’s Ceramic Studio. Eduardo Vega is an internationally renowned artist working with ceramics and has a few grand installations in Cuenca city. The reluctant visit turned exciting at the sight of his work. Once again the wish was to carry loads of his work back home – a dream that ended in a small purchase – just enough to fit into our holiday bags.
The new Cathedral of Cuenca
It was already two hours past midday and the hunger pangs called for a visit to Villa Rosa. It was a grand meal of Locro Soup and a Churrasco (local steak with an egg, fries and avocado on the side). After the meal, it was a trip down the history of the Panama Hat and a visit to one of Ecuador’s premier Panama Hat making houses on the fringes of the city.
Cuenca from Mirrador Turi
PANAMA HATS (Paja Toquilla)– The History – Your Panama hat started its existence on the Ecuadorian tropical coast as a toquilla plant. The straw from this palm is processed by the locals to provide the fibre for the hat. This fibre is sold in bundles to the whole of Ecuador, mostly around the city of Cuenca. Although Montecristi in north-west Ecuador is the home of the original hat, Cuenca today is the centre of its final finishing. These hats have been traditionally woven by women and vary in quality from $20 to $1500. It is said the master weavers only use non-glaring light and weave only on cloudy days and/or in moonlight so as to see the fibres better, as this prevents errors. Working in the shade of large trees gives this option as well.
Weaving a Panama Hat
Centuries before Ecuador started exporting Paja Toquilla’s to Panama and the rest of the world, this type of hat was used by its population as a refuge from the strong Equatorial sun. In 1835, Manuel Alfaro, a recent immigrant from Spain to Montecristi, Ecuador, saw the potential that these hats carried and after some years of successful domestic business decided to begin exporting them to a public that would see them. Panama, a country flooded with Americans who furiously travelled west to California’s gold rush, was a guaranteed market. Within a few years, the demand for the hats grew and farmers of the Ecuadorean coast stopped farming cacao, coffee and rice and dedicated themselves to satisfying the growing hunger for Paja Toquillas’.
Inside Eduardo Vega's Ceramic Studio
In 1855, Phillippe Raimondi, a Frenchman living in Panama City, exposed the European audience to Paja Toquillas during the World Fair in Paris. Forgetting to mention their origin, these hats were quickly baptized as Panamas. Since then, Paja Toquillas have taken a life of their own, quickly shedding their humble origin. 220,000 hats were exported to California during the years of the Gold Rush.
Panama Hats waiting to be finished
50,000 hats were ordered by the United States government to be sent to the Caribbean to protect its troops during the Spanish-American war in 1898. In 1906, every Panama Canal worker owned one and a new fashion statement began when Theodore Roosevelt displayed his own during his visit to the canal!!
And that for you Ladies and Gentlemen – is the PANAMA HAT!