Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ecuador – Cuenca, sleeping beauty

Cuenca is famous for
its illuminated churches
"Cuenca is supposed to be one of the most beautiful cities in Ecuador", Sam said. But we never heard of Cuenca before, which doesn't mean much as we hardly read anything about Ecuador's sights until now. Honestly, so far ,we only bothered to read the paragraph called "highlights of Ecuador" in our guide book.

Based on our "South America on a shortcut" guide, we decided to move from Vilcabamba straight to Riobamba. Looks like we are on the "bamba trip" baby! But after Sam's enthusiasm to visit Cuenca, we did a bit of research and discovered that it's at least a 10 hour bus ride to Riobamba. Plus the Devils Nose train now starts in a town 2 hours south of Riobamba (closer to us) called Alausí. Plus, Cuenca seems like it will be a cool town.

So we join Sam, who by now has become our travel buddy, on the way to Cuenca. We already discovered that we have a similar style of traveling perhaps honed from months of being on the road. When we arrive in Loja and search the next bus to Cuenca, we are quoted a price of $7 which is a buck higher than the fare should be? Humm, is the gringo impuesta (tax) added on? Do we have to start watching the prices again like on the chicken buses in Guatemala? But Sam is just like us, we spread out to investigate... like a gringo militia band searching for the options to get to Cuenca. It's really refreshing to meet a fellow traveler that is aware of the value system in a country and doesn't accept the first price quoted with a "This is so cheap. It's only an extra buck." comment.

First impressions: is this a warning
that they eat tourist here in Cuenca?
Our arrival in Cuenca is not so lucky: the bus driver from the terminal misunderstands our address request and we get off much too early, having to walk almost half of the distance to the center. But the bus is a bit crowded anyway so we get a preview of Cuenca this way.

Once we are in the inner circle, Patrick guards the luggage while Julane and Sam set off to find a place to stay. They find a nice guesthouse, but unfortunately the room that Julane selected was more expensive than what she had thought it would be – a misunderstanding. Somehow she frequently mixes up veinte and treinta as they seem to sound similar to her ear! What is often the case in South America is the price is per person. So a single costs half of a double and is often the same matrimonial (large bed) habitación, which means that it can be cramped in size.

Hardly here for a few hours
and Patrick already got a job.
"Mandarina, mandarina"
We were excited by what we found during our first exploration walk on a Friday afternoon: Cuenca has a lively, charming, and colonial touch. It has a European appeal that we haven't felt since Granada. The city is known for illuminating its dozens of churches on weekends and does not disappoint in this category. The nightlife is said to be another selling point of Cuenca and this is Sam's main reason to visit! Although, we let him explore this part on his own after our nightcap together at the local Micro-Brewery (the first Micro brew since Peña Blanca).

Plumber inside?
When we venture out on Saturday morning on our quest for a better value room something has changed in Cuenca. Where have all the people gone? Ok, it's still "early" we figure. We return to a hotel called "Villa Flora" that was full the day before but made a good impression on Julane. Luckily one double was available in this nice modern and well decorated place. A good reason to stay longer! Now we are ready to venture out and explore more of Cuenca. But there's still only half as much activity as the day before... Where is everyone?

One of the few busy places on a
Saturday afternoon
Anyway, we haven't seen much of the city yet and wander up and down the streets, only the central market and the main square with the nearby flower market is busy. The advantage of a sleepy town is that there are fewer cars and hence less kamikaze drivers on the road – helps to explore without risking an extended visit to the hospital.

Did you know that the
"Panama hat" is actually
from Ecuador?
Following the apparent local custom, we decide to take a long siesta before meeting Sam for dinner at "Chipotle" which was recommended on the local Gringo website. Hey, it's Saturday night tonight so let's enjoy. After 4 Mojitos and a good dose of hot sauce on our Quesadillas, we are now immersed in the nightlife scene. Our restaurant is full. Time to check out the Latino dance life now. It's 11pm and yet every place we walk into is dead quiet – guess that means that Saturday night is not the time to go out and dance? Sam says that the dance clubs closed at 2am on Friday night, but they haven't even gotten started yet with a 3 hours window left... He also mentioned that the average age is 17-20 (we figure that afterwards they are married with kids.)

A ghostly quiet Sunday
Back at our hotel we find the party scene, it's right here in the courtyard – we have the pleasure to listen until the wee hours to the young folks using the hotel as a base to revved us for the nearby clubs. We had read that the hotels are full on the weekend and now we see why. These kids are not from Cuenca. Good thing we can sleep in on Sunday.

White on grey canvas
Cuenca's favorite colors

It's well after noon when we finally leave our room, the weather has turned into a light drizzle and is making sure that the few people that didn't leave town are hiding inside their houses. This is weird: Cuenca has fallen asleep – she is truly a Sleeping Beauty.

Later, we discover that Sundays are generally the quiet days in cities all over the country. People seem to head to the countryside or hole up indoors. Another thing that we heard is that the few that venture out to the quiet zones (generally to the old center or non-residential areas) have to be more safety savvy.
Hello! anybody here?

This is the day that the thieves come out to play or should we say prey? There are less police presence and streets are more desolate. Just a little warning to stay alert on Sunday!

Nothing is open except a few dozen ice cream shops; that's right, ice cream in 10°C (50°F) rainy weather. Sounds appealing...? We start to regret that we stayed for the weekend in Cuenca and firmly decide to leave on Monday. But before we leave, we wander around at night to take some pictures of the brightly illuminated churches. After all, this is one of the reasons why we came to Cuenca in the first place. We say our goodbyes to Sam who's heading to the beach. We are staying in the Andes for a few more weeks; actually, we've been unintentionally following the Andes almost exclusively now for months!

The churches are indeed spectacular
This is the new Cathedral

Doesn't look like a church to me, but still is nice

The rain continues all night, but we get off to an early start in the morning. We want to see at least two of the museums (that were closed on the weekend) and first head to the Museo de Banco Central (also called the Museo Pumapungo del Ministerio de Cultura) - yep, the central bank has a museum that is highly recommended. We want to see the famous shrunken heads that are very rare. The Ecuadorian government has outlawed this practice of head shrinking that the Shuar people in the Amazon practiced decades ago. There are only 5 on display in the whole country, and 4 of them here at the Museo de Banco Central... Bankers are creepy folks, eh?!

A shrunken human head.
the size of a tennis ball
We race through the museum like a whirlwind. We have only 20 minutes before we have to get back to the hotel and fetch our bus to Riobamba. Too bad, the museum is really interesting and has lots of life-size exhibits offering an insight into the lives of the various ethnic groups in Ecuador. We find the shrunken heads and rush back to the Hotel. Halfway back to the hotel, we stop and look at each with a question in our expression. "Why are we racing back?" Humm...we like this town so we decide to stay one more night in Cuenca.

That's the difference between a Tourist and a Traveler. We abruptly turn around and return to the Museo de Banco Central to see the rest of the exhibits. This time we spend well over an hour slowly relishing the 3 floors of exhibits. Julane even manages to sneak a couple of pictures of the shrunken heads – oops: photography is strictly forbidden.
We also discover there are some Inca ruins behind the Central Bank and also an Aviary. Here is the article that we read that brought us here in the first place:

Inside the new Cathedral
Afterwards, it's almost 11am and Cuenca seems different...at last, she has awoken and is bustling about in all her dampened finery.
Now that we stay another day, we can also have lunch at "Di Bacco." This fine Italian restaurant has amazing weekday lunches for only $4.50. That right! Less than 5 buck gets you a starter, a choice of 12 main dishes, an amazing Tiramisu for desert and a fresh fruit juice to wash all that good food down. We love the Almuerzos (lunch specials) in Latin America :-)

Happily fed, we ignore the continuous light rainfall and soak up yet another museum, this time the CIDAP, which like most other Cuenca museums doesn’t even charge an entrance fee. In the late afternoon, we also see that the door to the new cathedral is finally open and step in for a peak. This got to be one of the biggest churches in Ecuador. The inside is huge and has a very open feel – nice.

Cuenca has been a mixed bag for us. The city is very beautiful but on weekends everybody leaves town or stays at home, for tourist there isn't anything to do, especially on a Sunday. On weekdays, it is very happening and a Mecca for museum buffs (Julane) and foodies (both of us). Did we mention that we've been eating ice cream and cakes and pastries ever since we arrived in Ecuador?
There is finally a bit of sunshine...
did anybody say Ice Cream?

The grand finale ...
But we can't leave this place without having one more culinary splurge. So after an amazing Italian lunch we decide on an upscale fusion restaurant called Casa Alonso. We indulge in an prosciutto wrapped pork tenderloin with a lovely warmed green apple/gooseberry/red onion combination marinated in a lush savory chirimoya and taxo sauce all dotted with bits of soft goat cheese. (Julane wants the recipe!), and a filet mignon with a balsamic reduction and gorgonzola topping. Yummy, and guess what we paid for all that bliss: under $30. We really love this country!
dinner at Casa Alonso,  need we say more?

In summary, all the weight that we lost in Peru and Bolivia seems to be "found" again. So don't expect two skinny nomads next month when we end our travels and return to the northern hemisphere again.