Cuenca (pronounced “kwenka”) was the only location in Ecuador that we parked the truck and loaded our suitcases and toiletry belongings into a hostel room. We kept busy for about a week soaking up the sights, of which there were many. It was a bit of a shock to be back in a modern city with cinemas and malls, and we definitely wandered around wide-eyed at all there was to offer.
We enjoyed the parks and tree-lined river running through the city, saw ex-pats pretty much everywhere we went (Cuenca is a popular ex-pat spot), and didn’t mind being in the centre of a busy city for once. The only drawback was the terrible air pollution that burned our eyes as we sauntered down the sidewalked streets every day.
Cuenca is definitely an artisanal city. We spent several days visiting woven hat factories and museums, ceramic workshops, and art and history museums. Our first stop was the flower market, which bursted with bright red, pink, yellow, purple, and green flowers of all kinds.
As we passed the flower market we came upon the huge Cathedral de la Inmaculada. We toured the inside, including the rooftop and the crypt. Sure the crypt was painted white and brightly lit (not what we imagined for a crypt) but it was awesome to see the inner workings of one of Latin Americas largest churches.
The bustling Mercado 9 de Octobre. This is where you go if you want roast pig and fresh coconut and raspberry juice for lunch and a large array of fresh fruits and veggies.
We stopped in at the Museo del Sombrero del Paja Toquilla (say that ten times fast!!) aka the Panama Hat museum and shop. It was really interesting to check out the metal presses used to create the shape of the hats. We learned about what differentiates a superfino hat from the more loosely woven noggin-toppers. This article from NPR does a good job of explaining the time and effort that go into making an extremely high quality superfino hat (thanks to George and Rachel for sending it along!).
You may feel somewhat confused about the fact that Panama Hats are sold in Ecuador. In actuality the Panama Hat originated on the Ecuadorian Coast. Eventually shipments of hats (along with many other South American goods) were sent to Panama, which was the point of international sale. They were called Panama Hats not because of their place of origin, but their point of export. In Ecuador they are more accurately referred to as sombreros del paja toquilla (hats of toquilla straw).
The large Modern Art Museum housed a variety of interesting pieces, many with a focus on local societal issues.
The series of photographs (along with a video) below followed the story of a man whose tienda (small store) was reduced to rubble in order to be replaced by modern housing.
Richard gave this guy a thumbs-up and was rewarded with a big grin.
This is the new contender for best ice cream. The fresa/coco (strawberry/coconut) combo from Tutto Freddo on the main square was delicious. Ash’s face says it all.
The $0.15 pan de yuca from Deleyt. What you’re looking at here is warm, melt in your mouth, bread made from yucca flour and cheese.
Thai noodle salad? Where are we? What’s happening? We took advantage of our time in a small city and ate food that we didn’t find elsewhere in the country. GringosAbroad and the Gringo Post were great resources for places to eat. We found this spicy salad at A Pedir de Boca. The chef spent time abroad and returned to Cuenca, creating a menu filled with international food. The apple pie was the best we’ve ever had. We returned two nights in a row for it as well as the noodle bowl below.
The Pumpapumgo (El Banco) Museum was just across the street from our hostel, so we popped in for a quick tour. The highlight for us was definitely the first floor which contained a variety of vintage black and white photography and paintings.
Our daily dose of coffee. Tutto Freddo is good, but we couldn’t help but keep returning to the Nucallacta Cafe. The coffee (made with either a french press, espresso machine, or by classic drip) was amazing and we spent plenty of time chatting with the friendly owner.
Alberto Pulla’s legacy lives on at Casa del Sombrero. These famous Panama hats have been made and sold out of this small workshop at Tarqui 6-91 in Cuenca since 1943.
After an hour’s walk from downtown, we trudged up these steep steps for a great view of the city.
What we were really here for, though, was Eduardo Vega’s house/workshop/studio. Eduardo Vega is a local potter who studied in Europe and returned to Cuenca. His work is inspired by the Ecuadorian landscapes, culture, and animals.
Vega’s themes centre around the flora and fauna of the Galapagos Islands as well as traditional and rural occupations. Basically we just tried not to smash anything while we walked around checking out the breakables, his workshop, and the great view.
On our way out of town we decided to stop at El Cajas National Park. This beautiful park would have been perfect… if it wasn’t so cold, wet, and windy. We stepped out of the truck after a muddy drive up the mountain and immediately jumped back in, turned around, and drove back to the city for just one more night in Cuenca.