Cuenca: an Antique City

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We whisked through the narrow cobbled streets of elegant colonial Cuenca in a taxi from the bus depot and arrived at the obscure front door of our hotel, Casa Ordonez which we had booked on the advice of an American expat we’d met in Banos.

What a gorgeous old house, the perfect place to live in an antique city. The owner, Alberto, was there to meet us when we arrived, and told us that since we were staying a week we needed a large room by the lounge so we could relax. Our room was huge, with an impressive bouquet of roses on the ledge of the window opening into the central courtyard below. The house is 123 years old, and the Ordonez family has been in Cuenca since the early 1500’s. All 10 rooms are named after sisters of the last generation (ours is called Eugenia.) As in all these Spanish style houses, you have no idea what lies behind the heavy wooden street door which opens into a passageway with 2 more doors, and finally into a tiled central courtyard which formerly was open to the sky. All the upstairs rooms are ranged around a narrow balcony overlooking the central area. The courtyard is now glassed over to allow a dry area for the breakfast tables.

Alberto’s story is interesting — when he finished high school in 1990 Ecuador was in a financial mess, rife with corruption, and he had no money to bribe himself into university. Through a connection he got a visitors visa for the U.S. and ended up spending the next 17 years there, eventually enlisting in the U.S. navy having achieved permanent residency by marrying a Columbian-American woman. When his contract ended he returned to Ecuador in 2007 for Christmas. His elderly aunt, the last remaining member of her family died while he was home, and left her ancient family home to Alberto and his two sisters. It was a complete mess, she had rented out the main floor for shops, and was living in one of the rooms with the 7 or 8 remaining ancient servants living in the kitchen area. Alberto and his sisters decided to restore it as it had been, a stately family home. After extensive repairs and the addition of bathrooms to the bedrooms, it has become a most comfortable though not at all fancy, place to stay. The staff are all related to the family in some way, and they treat the guests like relatives too, so relaxing and welcoming. My initial impression was that it was like staying in the home of an elderly maiden aunt, but cleaner — and that was pretty close to the truth.

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We had planned to have a week here, doing some touring in the surrounding area but mainly exploring the elegant colonial churches, monasteries, museums, and other historic buildings. However Alberto told us that Cuenca’s famous annual festival was to take place the following weekend so we added 3 more days to our stay. There is a large expat community here, apparently numbering 6 or 7000 people, mainly American, so this is the first place so far where English is sometimes spoken in restaurants and so forth. Quite strange, these expats all know each other, and congregate in certain restaurants. There is a rather ghastly area of brick high rises which the locals call Gringolandia where many of them live. We obviously fit the demographic, as people ask us constantly if we live here, and I must have a doppleganger as American women keep greeting me cheerily as if they know me. Simply can’t see the appeal of such a life, but I think it is mainly that it is possible to live very cheaply here, in a country that is clean, has good health care, and is very friendly and accommodating. Many of them don’t even seem to bother to learn Spanish and have little interest in touring this lovely country.

For the first couple of days we roamed the city’s cobbled streets, checking out all the churches as we passed by. Most of them, though originally built in the mid 1500’s, have been refurbished more recently as various earthquakes disrupted the area. Embellishments are varied, with building materials ranging from warm flesh coloured marble to ornately painted wood. Large portraits and statues of religious figures fill every inch of wall space. Before I visit another South American country I am going to bone up on the lives of the many, many saints, and Catholic theology. Fortunately we do know our Bible stories from our youthful attendance at Sunday School but the United Church does not have any saints carrying eyeballs on a plate, or wielding silver brooms or self flagellation devices. The lore is all quite fascinating, so I strain to read the Spanish plaques under the life size, and I have to say, sometimes very gory statues.

As in Riobamba there is a large convent here, still partially inhabited by cloistered nuns, which has a very interesting display of religious and secular items from the convent’s history. Interestingly, the enormous building, right in the centre of the old city, was given to the church in 1546 by one of Alberto’s ancestors, Senora Ordonez, who gifted it as a dowry for 3 of her daughters when they entered the convent. In those days, when girls, some of whom were only 12, entered a convent they brought with them dowries as if they were brides — which in their minds they were, the brides of Christ. It is rather sad to see the toys and dolls that some of them brought, and the replicas of the very austere cells in which they lived. They still use a revolving shelf arrangement whereby gifts can be passed through the wall of the convent without the giver seeing the recipient cloistered nun.

Several other interesting museums display ethnographic tableaus, indigenous artisans’ work, religious regalia, fine art and so on, and there are no end of interesting buildings to check out. Since it is a town so popular with tourists, both Ecuadorean and foreign, there are plenty of places to eat in the evening which makes a nice change from some of the previous places we’ve been.

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One day we took a bus back up the Pan American towards Quito but turned in at Canar for Ingapirca, Ecuador’s main Incan ruins. Small compared to those in Peru, but blessed with a glorious vista and well worth the trip. The Inca conquered and then co-existed with the native Canari people, whose present day appearance provided yet another hat type for our photo collection. The men look particularly impressive in white shirts, pants, and sandals worn with a black poncho and a large flat white hat with pompoms dangling from the brim. Lovely scenery on the trip, and yet another spectacular storm with thunder, lightning, hail and torrential rain on the way back.

Next we went out to visit Cajas National Park, a short ride west part way along the highway to Guayaquil at the coast. We went with a park guide who was really good, with extensive knowledge of plants and birds particularly. We knew it was much higher so dressed warmly but wore our Tevas as we have no other hiking shoes, however took along our wool socks. The first two hours we hiked around a lovely marshy lake where we struggled to see the birds he pointed out, but found the plant life very interesting. He showed us a lot of medicinal plants and talked about their uses, and also the water conserving properties of the indigenous mosses and other similar plants. One tree that grows in this area is called the quinua (not to be confused with quinoa, a grain) and grows at higher altitudes than any other tree in the world. Some shrub sized specimens he pointed out are estimated to be over 600 years old. The bark peels like the arbutus.

Then we drove to the highest point in the park – 4000 meters or 13000 feet – to view this very unusual alpine landscape. On the way up it first began to rain, then quickly to snow and hail. Inches built up quickly — we began to be a bit nervous, but our guide was ecstatic and took pictures to show his kids this unusual occurrence. Walking up the small rise to the viewpoint was a bit slow in the thin air, and bare feet in Tevas hardly the footwear of choice. The trail to the slightly lower lakeside area we intended to hike was clearly impassibly slippery, even if we had had proper boots, as some of the disappointed hikers standing at the trail head also decided. We ate a trout (from the lake) lunch overlooking the view and repaired to the car and a warmer altitude. Quite the fun day.

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The famous Cuenca festival, which combines Ancestors’ Day – somewhat like but less macabre than the Day of the Dead in Mexico – with Independence Day, started on the Thursday as a huge artisans’ market began to rise in a series of 50 or so tents on the bank of the river. Craftspeople came from all the surrounding countries and the standard of crafts was extremely high, so not cheap, but very interesting to peruse. Bands started playing in the town squares, and a number of concerts were staged here and there throughout the new and old town. People began streaming in from towns around and from Guayaquil and Quito. Quite the opportunity to observe the Ecuadorian upper class who are much taller, slimmer, and fairer than either mestizos or indigenous people. Lots of those too of course.

Today we viewed a large military and cultural parade and then watched an honour guard at the government buildings usher the Vice President into his car amid a great deal of chanting and pounding of pots. One thing about even our limited Spanish – I was able to ask a couple watching the kerfuffle what was going on and ascertain that it was a friendly demonstration even though there was some small protest about bank rates happening. This is one of those countries where it is not advisable to be an interested observer at a demonstration. We have, however, observed one by doctors and all medical related personnel to protest a new law which imposes a mandatory three year jail sentence on any medical person whose “error” leads to a death. All the medical people came out in their lab coats and greens and various uniforms and held placards saying – “We are medicos not criminals…” Not everyone loves this president as much as the owner of our hotel!

We will tear ourselves away from our comfortable life here and forge on towards the coast tomorrow, stopping briefly in Guayaquil before heading north. Our first time at a lower altitude, we are hoping for warmth!

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