Cuenca, the latin love child of Melbourne and Florence

So on our last night out in Banos the whole group went to dinner in a really nice place, just around the corner from out hotel. They gave us a local drink which is made from warmed orange juice with cinnamon. They give you a jug of sugar cane alcohol for you to add to taste. It was very nice and warming. Apparently the local people drink it at the street festivals which are held at night when it is cold.

I had a great Mojito and we all had really amazing dinners. The food was cooked on a charcoal grill and I ate some awesome beef ribs. It was nice to go out as a group after a few nights doing our own thing.

A few of us went dancing afterwards, Zi got danced with by the guy who had been picking me up and twirling me around the other night and he did the same to her ha ha! So it’s not only happened to me. A big group of European backpackers were also at the bar and were quite rowdy, so not there was not such a good vibe as the last time we went out and we just ended up heading home ready for the long bus ride.

Bright and early the next day we jumped on a two hour bus to Riobamba, which is the most central town in Ecuador. Because of its central location Riobamba is surrounded by a lot of indigenous families. Here we swapped buses and headed off for another 6 hours to Cuenca. The scenery along the drive was the most amazing mountains I have ever seen. They were enormous. For a lot of the drive we were actually up in the clouds. We climbed in altitude and drove past the viewpoint of the highest point in Ecuador at around 6000m in elevation, this is also a volcano but I couldn’t see it because of the clouds… So I just had to believe the tour guide. It is also apparently the point on the earth that is closest to the moon! I am very disappointed at the cloudy weather as we have missed the views of every volcano we have been close to! You could feel the increase in altitude, as Banos is only at 1800m, so that’s quite a climb.

Slightly blurry view of some of the scenery along the drive.

We also drove past a lot of indigenous farms and saw the local women with their traditional outfits. They wear really brightly coloured clothes, wide skirts and shawls, they wear their hair in two long pigtail braids. They also wear Panama hats and look very funky. They are really short in stature and I feel like a giant by comparison!

The route we followed was along the Pan Americana again, the Pan American highway. It turns out that the highway is actually built over the top of the Inca trail which ran the entire length of the continent.

Our hotel room in Cuenca is crazy! It is enormous and goes across the entire frontage of the hotel. There are four beds in the room for only two people. The ceiling is painted in a bright pattern and looks super fancy. There is a crazy bathroom which is actually an entirely separate room with its own pitched roof. The shower also has hilarious painted sexy lady tiles. It’s extremely surreal, I actually laughed out loud when I woke up in the room!

Cuenca is the third largest and important city in Ecuador and is around 2500m in elevation. It’s an old colonial town and is commonly described as the country’s most beautiful city. I have to agree as the buildings and squares are really beautiful and very European looking. The city was officially founded in 1557 by the Spanish, however it has a far longer history as it was originally a Canari village, which was conquered by the Incas and was called Tomebamba. The city was later razed during the civil war. Cuenca has very well preserved ruins and buildings and is actually a listed UNESCO world heritage site.

We headed out on the first evening for a walk around town and saw some of the many churches. We also tried empanadas from a street stall, these are thin deep fried pancake style pasties with cheese inside, and they are then dipped in sugar. They are amazing and it took serious self-control not to order a tonne of them!

Hmmm get in my tummy!

Check out this amazing looking sweet stand!

The group went to a traditional restaurant that night and I had an amazing Ecuadorian chicken stew with passion fruit sauce. It was a bit like a mild curry, yummo.

We headed to a small bar with views across the river. There was a local musician playing and he was very much the typical South America muso you would imagine, dark gelled hair, undone shirt and a medallion… Brilliant!

Two kiwi girls, Mary and Anne, who will be joining our tour group down in Lima also joined us for drinks. They were also in Diego’s last tour group around the Galapagos Islands.

We ended up in a big Latin night club spread over 3 levels. We danced for a bit but were tired from the previous night and we gave up and headed home. The other girls stayed out dancing with some local guys. It will be interesting to see how the group dynamic changes when they join our group next week.

Our only full day in Cuenca was spent checking out the city. We started by walking across the main square over to the flower market, which was really beautiful.

Beautiful coloured flowers, I couldn’t stop looking at them all.

Floral displays like this one, which would cost around $50 at home, are only $5 here and use the locally grown roses, beautiful.

Diego was ever the gentlemen and bought all the ladies roses, look how happy we all are 🙂

A perfect red rose, so beautiful it’s so sad they have to die. I wish I could have saved it and taken it with me.

We did a group tour of a Panama hat factory and museum. It was really interesting and you can understand the amount of work that goes into making the hats.

The hats are made in factories in only 2 cities, Cuenca and also Monti Christi, which is down on the coast. There are four factories now in Cuenca which continue to produce the hats.

Panama hats are made from thin sections of split reeds, which are taken from a plant that only grows in Ecuador and in limited areas in Colombia. We saw this plant in the jungle but I cannot remember its name. Apparently people tried to grow this plant elsewhere but it didn’t take.

They are called Panama hats as the USA president back in 1912 (possibly Roosevelt?) liked to wear The traditional Ecuadorian hats as they can be rolled up when you’re not wearing them for storage, They have quite a wide brim to keep the sun off your face and they are also very lightweight. The president ordered these hats for the Jamaican workers who were building the Panama Canal and the name seems to have been associated with that and has stuck. Although no Panama hats are made in Panama.

The hats are woven by the traditional women in the town, who sell the raw woven hats to the factories. They get around $10 per hat, which is a reasonable price. Apparently it takes around day to make a decent quality hat.

Raw unprocessed hats, as sold to the factories.

The factories then finish the hats and sell them on. Firstly the hats can be coloured using artificial dye, although traditionally they used to treat the hats with sulphur to change the woven fabric from a natural brown colour to the famous pure white colour.

They also stamp the woven brim fabric to make it softer and smoother using a large machine which beats the hat fabric by repeatedly hammering it.

Traditionally the hats were moulded by placing them on a cylindrical wooden moulds and being beaten into shape. They were first exported to the USA and then to the UK, to Luton of all places. The UK then requested greater production rates and sent over machines to make the process faster and easier. We saw some of these in the factory and saw a demonstration of a hat being made which was really interesting.

Wooden hat moulds.

Hats were traditionally bashed into shape.

Using the new machinery the hats are put into a sized mould upside down and then another internal mould is placed in the inside of the hat, the outer mould is made of aluminium and the inner mould is made from rubber. The hat brim is then covered with a leather ring to protect it and it is hot-pressed into shape for about 20 seconds. After that the brim is marked using a kind of rotating ruler to determine the width of the brim. The brim is folded over and it is then stitched using a normal sewing machine. They then cut off the excess and you have an almost finished hat! Coloured bands can then be put on the inside and outside of the hat to decorate it. Sometimes the women can use coloured pieces when they weave the hats to create fancy patterns on them.

A hat mould, Stetson style.

The new machinery presses the hats into shape.

We tried on lots of hats and had fun looking silly. I tried on a huge hat which was amazing and only $50, it would have been great for the races… If I ever went to events like that.

Amazing huge hat, enough said.

The moulded hats cannot be rolled up, which is a shame, only the traditional unformed ones, otherwise I might have been tempted to splash out, as I love hats.

The hats range quite a lot in price from around $20 for a traditional unfinished hat to upwards of $800, although those are the ones with very thin, finely woven fabric.

Some people in the group then went to visit the national park, called El Cajas, which is at over 4000m elevation and has llamas and alpacas. The national park is also home to a population of 12 condors, but no one was lucky enough to see one.

Karen, Zi and I did a city tour with our guide Diego and we were all still suffering a bit from lack of sleep from the night before and the whole thing was a bit of a random ramble, but it was very enjoyable. Cuenca is beautiful and a great city for taking photographs.

As Cuenca is a very strongly catholic town there is nothing open on Sunday as families attend church and spend time together. Shops are not allowed to sell alcohol anywhere on Sundays either! This is probably a good thing after the last few days though!

The city has two cathedrals which are both located on the main town square. The old cathedral is actually built over the top of Inca ruins and you can see evidence of this in the cathedral foundations. It was built in 1557 but was later damaged in the earthquake of 1756 (I think?). The city then decided to build a new, far larger, cathedral.

The new cathedral was built in 1908 and is still actually unfinished. It is also built over the top of Incan ruins and over part of the Inca trail, which you can follow over a three day walk.

The cathedral was designed by a French architect, who is blamed for its unfinished condition. It was supposed to have taller towers, but the building was not strong enough to take any more weight. It is also wonky and out of line with the main street and square and is not actually rectangular. This seems like the fault of the engineer and builders, not the architect though… I guess it depends on the plans though ha ha!

Walking around inside the cathedral you can see it’s not as grand as the religious buildings of Quito. The cathedral is built out of a mixture of small reddish coloured bricks and natural rock, mainly marble, which looks slightly strange together.

The old cathedral.

The front of the new cathedral.

We saw lots of other churches too including a convent where nuns go to live with no contact whatsoever with the outside world. They never see anyone from the outside world at all!

They trade goods from a bakery they run to make money but they do not see anyone when they receive produce or sell their baking. You have to put your money on a rotating table which then turns around to give you your product, a bit like a secret doorway!

Another church, can’t remember the name of this one though. I think it might be Santa Domingo.

View of the back of the new cathedral from the market. I love the blue roofed domes against the red roof tiles of the surrounding buildings.

From there we went down to the river and saw a bridge which was damaged by the earthquake and is now with just one side. Bizarrely we saw a naked lady washing in the river there, right in the centre of town!

At the city museum we saw an exhibit on the famous shrunken heads. They used to make them as trophies after a warrior decapitates a victim and takes the head. A spiritual ritual is then completed by the warrior and they remove both the skull and brain and boil the head down to shrink it to about 30% of its original size. The mouth is initially closed up using splinters from the Chonta tree, this is to stop the bad spirits from escaping and coming after the warriors. One month later there is another ceremony and the Chonta splinters are removed, the mouth is re-sewn with thread and then this and the hair is combed. The heads are carried as trophies and can last a very long time. The skin of the heads is very dark, almost black, they look like baby sized adult heads. You couldn’t take any photos in the museum, so I don’t have any to show. It is also now illegal to make human shrunken heads in Ecuador and the practice is only continued using sloths.

We stopped in cafe and did some sketching, Karen keeps a sketch book and is a really talented artist, she’s draw some great pictures of places on the trip so far. I did a sketch of Diego which was very bad! He looks a bit like he has a shrunken head in it, apt after the museum!

I also bought a pack of cards so we can learn the Ecuadorian card game, which is popular and they have a big national competition every year. So that should make for a fun evening.

It started raining a lot again this afternoon and I got caught in a downpour 😦

It has rained every single day in Ecuador, this is the wettest country I have ever visited!

I love Cuenca, it feels very modern and cosmopolitan but also old and cultural. It is like the baby of Florence and Melbourne. There are lots of funky cafés and bars with colonial squares and houses with lovely facades and balconies. It’s the kind of place you can actually imagine living in. I wonder if the universities have good geology departments… There are lots of volcanoes to study nearby!

The old bank.

Oh look, another great door!

And another door/window photo… No pattern emerging here!

Down along the river is the area with all best houses, they are very big, about 3-4 stories tall. We were told that they cost about $250k to buy, which is expensive for here but seems amazing looking at them. Maybe I should be investing in property here!! We saw people filming close to the river which was cool and there is lots of awesome street art randomly around the squares and on the sides of buildings.

Tonight we might check out some street food, as we saw some amazing looking meat skewer stands last might. Tomorrow we have an early start as we head to the border and cross into Peru. We will also be saying goodbye to our awesome guide Diego and getting a new Peruvian guide. I really like that the company uses only local guides to provide more employment opportunities.

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