Posts Tagged ‘Cuenca’

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.

Naturally Organic

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!


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The Church of Balbanera at the crack of dawn.

Our stay at the Hacienda Abraspungo was very comfortable; although it was Saturday night we had to pack in pretty early. Sunday morning getting up at 4 am, we did make it in time for some fresh fruits and coffee and were on the road to Alausi at 5.30am. The 2 hour journey through the mountains so early in the morning was breath taking – the misty haze gave way to the rising sun and a glimpse of the communities waking up for their Sunday chores. Our first stop was at Balbanera, the oldest church of Ecuador constructed in 1534.

Dawn breaking in the valleys

On the train to the 'Devil's Nose'

Destination Alausi, a typical small Ecuadorian town which is currently the starting point of a touristy train ride to Sibambe and back. Aside from the train service, Alausí springs to life for market day on Sunday, when indigenous people come down from the nearby páramo wearing their best and most colourful clothing. You can get a closer look at the statue of Saint Peter and admire the panoramic views by climbing the Lluglli hill. Alausí’s train station, the goal of most visitors, sits behind the small plaza at the north end of 5 de Junio. The train takes you through the famous Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose) to Sibambe. After a stop of one hour at Sibambe, it is once again a climb back to Alausi – total 3 hours. The Devil’s Nose was one of the most incredible feats of railroad engineering when it was completed in the early 1900s. The train descends through a hair-raising series of switchbacks that are so tight the entire train has to back up momentarily to fit through. Just below the switchbacks, the train stops near Sibambe, turns around, and climbs back through the entire route. For the best views, sit on the right-hand side of the train if you can. Riding on the roof is now prohibited following the deaths of two Japanese visitors in 2007.

This train journey is managed by the Ecuadorian government and 20% of the ticket money goes to the local community of Nariz who mingle with the visitors and give them a taste of their culture, music and dances at Sibambe. So even if you are not too keen on this ride, remember your 3 hours and a few dollars could add to the economy of a very impoverished community!


Once back at Alausi, we bade farewell to our companions for the last one week – our guide – the very knowledgeable and pleasant Giovanny Reinozo and our driver – the quiet but witty Armando. We were greeted by Xavier our guide for the next phase of the journey and Giovanny, the driver. Driving further south, our next destination on the way to Cuenca was the Inca ruins of Ingapirca. We stopped off at a point to have a good view of Alausi and carried on to Ingapirca on a long and winding road that took us through villages and truck stops dotted with colourful markets and eateries. The dirt track to Ingapirca was full of rustic charm.

Saying goodbye to Giovanny and Armando.

Ingapirca firmly stands at 3230 meters as Ecuador’s most impressive and most significant site of Inca ruins. These ruins are set in the rolling green hills of the Southern Andes region of Ecuador, about 90km north of the major city of Cuenca. A complex network of stone structures that surround a circular sun temple, Ingapirca displays both the Inca and Canari cultures’ mastery of stonework and their keen awareness of solar patterns. Set in an agricultural zone with a rich indigenous history, Ingapirca also evidences the fertility of the soil and the unique interaction between the warring Inca and Canari peoples during the pre-Spanish 15th century. The most important characteristic of this site is the Canari moon temple standing side by side with the Inca sun temple and a part of the original Inca trail passes here! We had a family of Huarizos (cross between a male Llama and a female Alpaca) giving us company at these ruins and it was interesting watching these creatures grazing the fertile grounds.

Ingapirca - The Inca sun temple from the Canari moon temple

Huarizos stand guard at Ingapirca

After a sumptuous lunch at the Posada Ingapirca we were once again on the road – to our final final destination for the day – Cuenca. En-route we passed through small communities and watched congregations enjoying a game of Ecuavolley – an improvised form of volleyball which is a craze only after soccer in this country of 15 million people.

Ecuavolley from the car

It was 2 hours more on the road and with a mix of dozing off and taking in the sights on the way we were atlast in Cuenca – another UNESCO World Heritage City of 4 rivers, 8 universities and 52 churches! Our stop for the next 4 nights is at the very colonial boutique hotel – Santa Lucia. More later.

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