Christmas and other Caperings in Cuenca

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January 1st 2019
Published: January 1st 2019
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We decided to make an effort for Christmas this year, so have rented a nice, modern apartment in Cuenca for a month. This is the city that we hope to move to later this year, so we have been enjoying exploring the different neighbourhoods and experiencing some traditional Ecuadorian Christmas and New Year celebrations. For the first week in Cuenca we stayed in Tortuga at an overlander campground - well, driveway - run by a very welcoming Ecuadorian family. It's a tiny little place and can squeeze in about 4 small vehicles at a push, but Miryam and Richard were so kind and friendly that we felt at home right away, and I especially enjoyed befriending their sweet 9-year old daughter Romina. We were also able to meet up with our friends Jen and Kyle, the cyclists whom we had spent time with in Vilcabamba. They passed through Cuenca on their way north, so we enjoyed a good Thai meal with them and a hearty breakfast on another day. Since we are now planning to ship Tortuga back to the US from Cartagena, Colombia, instead of from an Ecuadorian port, we will hopefully cross paths with them again next month.
Christmas Eve paradeChristmas Eve paradeChristmas Eve parade

This parade went through the historic centre of Cuenca and lasted for hours.

After Jen and Kyle had left, we moved into our apartment and dropped the truck and Tortuga off at a mechanic's workshop to get some much-needed work done on the engine. The truck had been running pretty roughly for the last few times we drove it, so we had all the spark plugs replaced, injectors cleaned and calibrated, as well as the air, fuel and oil filters replaced. It seemed to do the trick, and the truck is running much more smoothly and will hopefully get us back to Cartagena in February! Whereas a lot of overlanders we've met carry oodles of spare parts and tools, Ken likes to say that his repair kit consists of a mobile phone and a credit card for getting any problem fixed. So far, it seems to have worked out OK! We've also learned that the $1.48/gallon gasoline isn't so good for our engine: when the mechanic removed the old fuel filter, he poured out the residual gasoline in front of us to show us how dirty and clogged it was. What he poured out looked like stale, black coffee which might help third-shift toll booth attendants and grizzled homicide detectives to keep going,
Cute kids with a basket of roasted guinea pigs!Cute kids with a basket of roasted guinea pigs!Cute kids with a basket of roasted guinea pigs!

There were hundreds of kids all dressed up in their parade finery!
but apparently isn't much good for a car engine. So we're now using the $3/gallon variety of gasoline here in Ecuador to avoid further problems.

With it being the festive season, there has been plenty of entertainment in the city and it's been fun to watch the parades that take place with impressive frequency. The Christmas Eve parade was the biggest and best-known, and passed through the historic centre for hours - thousands of spectators jostled for a good viewing position along Avenida Simon Bolivar and it was only thanks to us being considerably taller than the average Ecuadorian that we were able to see anything! The costumes were elaborate, the kids excited, the music lively (if not altogether tuneful) and the atmosphere very festive. After a couple of hours (or maybe minutes!), Ken had reached his parade saturation point, but I was pleased to discover many more parades over the following days! Ken opted out of the subsequent parades, advising, quite emphatically, that he'd 'rather shut his hand in a car door than jostle through crowds to get a glimpse of the tops of the paraders' heads'. What a Grinch!!

Another fun thing we did was attend
Free chicha!Free chicha!Free chicha!

These guys were giving out hundreds of gallons of chicha - a typical Andean drink made of fermented corn.
a couple of jazz sessions at the Jazz Society Café in the old city. We heard about this place through a friendly German couple whom we met at Miryam's campground, and the first night we met up with them to hear a visiting Belgian saxophonist, accompanied by an American pianist and a couple of Ecuadorian musicians on percussion and bass guitar. It was great, and even though we're not jazz aficionados, we decided to go back for their Christmas special the following week, which was even better - with a bigger group of musicians, featuring an incredible sax/clarinet player from the States. It's a nice change from some of the typical Latin American 'Reggaeton' music that we hear all around us, and which Ken describes as 'the sound of a car alarm mixed with the noise made by an indignant cat being swung around in a circle by its tail, mixed with an empty, metal trash can rolling down a bumpy hill.'

We've been able to explore a lot of the city on foot, as it is not actually that big considering it has a population of over 500,000, but we also took a trip on the double decker tourist bus one day to see a little more. It turned out to be a fun few hours, with us perched on the top deck and having to regularly duck down to avoid being decapitated by live electrical cables and low-hanging tree branches. The route took us from the main plaza (Parque Calderon) through the old city and then across the river Tomebamba and into the new part. We then visited the Turi viewpoint to the south of the city, from where you get a great view of the whole of Cuenca and surrounding mountains, and where we were given a free shot of 'canelazo' - a cinnamon flavoured hot drink with a splash of orange juice and strong liquor in it. Quite tasty! We also enjoyed meeting Gitta and Ben, a Danish couple who were travelling in Ecuador for about 6 weeks and happened to be sitting next to us on the bus. We went for a coffee with them after the tour and enjoyed hearing about their travel experiences in the country - they had also spent a week in Vilcabamba so we were able to compare notes on that too!

Last night was New Year's Eve
Small police dogSmall police dogSmall police dog

I'm not sure what function this little dog could possibly perform for the police...maybe he is a good sniffer dog!
and we had quite a fun night, starting with dinner at an Indian restaurant in the old town, followed by watching a live rock band at a local bar, and then enjoying the impressive and multiple firework displays from one of the bridges on the river Tomebamba. The burning of the 'viejos' (old ones) was a sight to behold - every family buys a dummy/effigy/scarecrow kind of thing and proceeds to set it alight in the street at midnight to say goodbye to the old year and welcome in the new one! Some of the dummies are really creepy looking, and others just plain weird or even wrong (considering the subsequent burning ritual!) - for example, we saw what appeared to be effigies of small children and dogs!! Walking home at 12.30am was like walking through a war-torn city, with explosions and smoke everywhere and great big piles of burning materials! Everyone was in good spirits and we exchanged many greetings of 'Feliz Año Nuevo' with locals as we walked back to our apartment through the smouldering landscape.

So here we are - 2019! We are now entering the third calendar year of our Tortuga trip, having left home
Miryam's campground, CuencaMiryam's campground, CuencaMiryam's campground, Cuenca

With our German friends Christian and Susana, and their campervan 'El Burrito'
in November 2017...a little longer than we had expected to be travelling, but I think we've finally found a place to call home! We've decided to ship Tortuga back from Colombia as the departure dates from the port in Ecuador didn't really work out so well, which means we'll be driving back up to Cartagena in February and shipping from there. In the meantime we still have a couple of weeks to enjoy all that Cuenca has to offer, before we start driving back north through Ecuador and Colombia. Happy New Year to you all and thanks for following our trip!

~ Fi and Ken

Additional photos below
Photos: 23, Displayed: 23


Jazz Society CafeJazz Society Cafe
Jazz Society Cafe

We had two great evenings at this local jazz spot, with musicians from the States and Ecuador performing.
Decorating the tree in our AirbnbDecorating the tree in our Airbnb
Decorating the tree in our Airbnb

We wanted to make a little effort this year, so went to the Christmas market and bought this little tree and decorations.
Christmas DayChristmas Day
Christmas Day

We even had a few gifts to open!
Christmas dinnerChristmas dinner
Christmas dinner

Not the customary roast turkey, but steak in peppercorn sauce, with sweet potato mash and braised baby spinach - not bad if I do say so myself!!
Ken trying on a Panama hatKen trying on a Panama hat
Ken trying on a Panama hat

These hats are actually unique to Ecuador, despite the name implying otherwise. They are handmade and some of the finer ones can cost over $1000!
City of CuencaCity of Cuenca
City of Cuenca

Taken from the Turi viewpoint
Cuenca city tourCuenca city tour
Cuenca city tour

We took the sightseeing bus one day and enjoyed seeing some new parts of the city that we hadn't visited on foot.
Tomebamba riverTomebamba river
Tomebamba river

This is one of the four rivers that flow through the city. This one, the Tomebamba, is right in the centre and has some lovely river walks and parks along it.
10kg bag of biscuits 10kg bag of biscuits
10kg bag of biscuits

That's an awful lot of cookies!
New Year's Eve dummies for saleNew Year's Eve dummies for sale
New Year's Eve dummies for sale

These creepy dummies are called 'viejos' (old ones), and are burned on NYE to symbolise the end of the year and to say good riddance to any bad spirits.
Burning of the 'viejos'Burning of the 'viejos'
Burning of the 'viejos'

We passed dozens of scenes like this on the way home to our apartment.

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