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Published: June 13th 2008
Church in CuencaGetting to know the lesser visited parts of Ecuador
Just one example of the many beautiful churches in Cuenca.
The old town area of Cuenca
is one of only four UNESCO world heritage sites in Ecuador, which might lead you expect to see crowds of tourist and backpackers. But despite the abundance of churches and colonial buildings, we saw very few tourists in Cuenca, and enjoyed a few days break from the usual "Gringo Trail", as we explored the city and the surrounding countryside.
Cuenca is Ecuador's third largest city (after Guayaquil & Quito), the largest city in the southern highlands, and is a good place to break the journey between the south and north. It's had a long, colourful history, being an important pre-Incan city, first known as Guapondeleg
(the land as big as heaven) after being founded in 500AD by the Canari tribe. The Incas defeated the Canaris in the 15th century, and, later, following the Inca Civil War, Cuenca (or Pumapungo
as the Incas called it) became capital of one half of the Inca Empire. Very little remains of either the Canari or the Incas around Cuenca, as the Incas obliterated all the Canari buildings, while the Spanish later did likewise to the Inca temples and
Our hike in Cajas National Park took us past a small forest of polylepis trees. They have distinctive bright trunks, and grow in all directions, like something from a Disney Movie!
palaces. Legends tell of golden temples and palaces built by the Incas, but these were all obliterated by the time the first chroniclers arrived. The Cuenca you see today is very much a Spanish built city, which, with it's numerous churches, impressive large squares, colonial palaces and narrow streets bears more resemblance to Andalucia than Ecuador. Waiting for the sun
The journey from Loja to Cuenca supposedly offers spectacular scenery, but for the majority of the trip clouds covered the skies, obscuring the views. We arrived late in the day so did little in our first evening other than find a hotel and briefly explore the city. We seemed to have arrived in the middle of a festival as there were crowds on the streets. At first I thought it was a religious event as there were priests leading a crowd of people, who were singing hymns and holding candles, around the main square. But the line between religious festival and all-out-party is often a little blurred in South America, so when we saw more of the festival after dinner the priests seemed to have dispersed and the crowds were enjoying fireworks, beer and food on the plaza.
In Cuenca's Archaeological Museum
I've still no idea what it was all about but it was very colourful.
Hotel Milan was a step up from our usual South American lodgings in that the staff had uniforms, the cable TV actually worked and we had a balcony! It was in a good location on Plaza San Francisco and they even piped a choice of films into your room in the evenings. Unfortunately the choice was made by whichever of three knocked off DVDs on display in reception got the most votes from residents. Clearly the place was full of philistines as Ruth and I never got our first choice, which on the first night was a Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece, with worse to follow the next night with Harry Potter!!
We sampled our first Colombian food in Cafe Molinda in Cuenca, run by a man from Bogota, and offering a small menu, but with delicious food. I knew nothing about Colombian food before this, but we were quick converts after tasting arepas (maize pancakes) and patacon pisao (fired plantain usually topped with cheese and beans). The more we travel in South America, the more we hear good things about Colombia, and the
A taste of Colombia
Trying a delicious Patacon Pacao in Cafe Molienda.
more we think of adding it to our itinerary.
Cuenca deserves its accolade of UNESCO World heritage site as there are so many beautiful colonial buildings in the centre. We visited the archaeological museum, which detailed the history of Ecuador's pre-Columbian sites. It seems there were just as many ancient civilisations in Ecuador as in Peru, so all I learned about the Chimu and Moche in Peru was pushed out of my head by the Canari, Valdivias and others from Ecuador. Lagunas & Cloudforests
Ecuador's best known Inca ruins are located close-by, at Ingapirca, but, unfortunately, our visit coincided with restoration of the ruins. The next biggest attraction in the region is Cajas Naional Park
, known for its hundreds if not thousands of lakes & lagunas, and lying 35 km to the west of the city on the route to Guayaquil. The bus left from a small terminal in the west of Cuenca (which we'd never have found without the help of the lady in the tourist office), and took just over an hour. We alighted at the administration centre, build on the edge of Laguna Toreadora
, one of the park's highlights. We had to pay ten
Alpacas & Llamas
In Cajas National Park.
dollars each entrance fee, which seems like a lot, but which is a standard entrance price for an Ecuadorian National Park. The park appeared to be very well run, and the warden gave us an excellent map showing eight different trails, so at least our ten dollars was going to something useful.
We picked what looked like the most interesting hike: once around Laguna Toreadora (a longer hike than it looks), then a climb up Cerro San Jose, followed by a descent through the forest and on past more lagunas before continuing along the trail back to the road. There may have been plenty of clouds overhead but it didn't rain and we thoroughly enjoyed the hike. Cajas park lies between 3500 and 4500 metres altitude, making it a good acclimatization for the volcanoes and mountains further north, but also making it a tough proposition for a day hike. We were occasionally a bit breathless on he uphills but overall we felt fine - all that high altitude training in Peru hadn't worn off yet.
Before I finish I have to mention must go to the lady in the tourist office on the main plaza. I'm not a
The main building on the central plaza.
keeping a list of the best tourist information offices in the country, but if I was, this one would be top. She gave us plenty of helpful information about Cuenca and about the national park, as you might expect, but when I told her I needed new hiking boots, she even called up a few stores to see if they had my size! A very friendly lady, like many of her fellow country men and women.
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