Cuenca, Ecuador

The city of Cuenca — in full, Santa Ana de los cuatro ríos de Cuenca — is in the highlands of Ecuador at about 2,500 meters above sea level, with a population of about 400,000. The centre of the city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Trust site due to its many historical buildings.

The Spanish settlement of Cuenca was founded in 1557 by the explorer Gil Ramírez Dávalos. Andrés Hurtado de Mendoza, then Viceroy of Peru, had commissioned the founding and ordered the city named after his home town of Cuenca, Spain. It was founded well after other major Spanish settlements in the region, such as Quito (1534), Guayaquil (1538), and Loja (1548). Cuenca's population and importance grew steadily during the colonial era. It reached the peak of its importance in the first years of Ecuador's independence.

Landmarks

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Arriving at dusk in Cuenca, we needed to find the Forum Hotel in the one way system in the city centre. Having got there, the hotel porter came with me to park the car - I was not planning on using the car for the next three days, so it could snooze quietly in the parking lot.

The Forum Hotel was the owners original colonial family house, that has now been converted by them to a small hotel. Like most town centre colonial houses, it has a narrow road frontage, but a long depth, and hence internal courtyards (2 here in this building). The follow on from this is that rooms are lit by daylight from the courtyards, and not from the outside. I was happy with this arrangement, but I appreciate that some may find it difficult to get used to.

Our bedroom was very comfortable and warm. A nightly turn-down also delivers a hot water bottle. The only problem we had was the un-nerving creak whenever you walked across the wooden floor - a problem with an old building that would probably be impossible to resolve. No sneaking off to the loo during the night here!

The breakfast was very good, and you can get things like eggs and pancakes cooked to order. We ate dinner in the Brasserie/restaurant for the 3 nights. After looking around the area, we failed to find a better venue, and we were very satisfied with both the service and the quality of the food here. The restaurant/bar area is a sort of all things to all men area, and I was not impressed by the TV screen over the bar which staff watched: this did not help the ambiance of the area.

The restaurant and bar staff were very courteous and helpful. The reception chap did his job but never more. There is obviously an owner or manager, but in a 3 day stay we did not see him. It really needed a "presence" of some sort. We enjoyed our stay here and would recommend the hotel.

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Museum of Aboriginal Cultures is a fascinating museum located in a modest colonial house on Calle Larga, opposite Iglesia Todo Santos. The museum exhibits more than 5,000 specimens, with thousands more in storage. Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes, or Museum of Aboriginal Culture, is not your typical roadside attraction. Despite the fact that it's relatively small and privately owned, many consider it one of Ecuador's best archeology museums.They specialise in presenting information about Ecuador's indigenous people. Ecuador's indigenous people had been residing in the Andes, Amazon Basin and lowlands long before colonialists even knew South America existed. Today they still retain their ancient languages as well as their unique culture. The aborigines believe they form a part of the environment and feel it is important to live harmoniously with the natural world. Sadly society today has placed many pressures on these people, with industrialization and the destruction of the environment. This has already led to the loss of the Zaparo and Tetete tribes. Interestingly today 45% of Ecuador's population is made up of indigenous groups who also provide 75% of the country's foods on their farms. The culture of Ecuador's aborigines is rich and filled with fascinating rituals, tales and customs.

Operated by La Fundacion Cultural Cordero, the museum displays the private collection of Juan Cordero Iñiguez, historian, professor, former provincial governor and former director of Cuenca's Banco Central Museum. "My father has researched Ecuador's pre-history all of his life. He taught the subject in universities and has written many books and articles about it," says Cordero's daughter, Carmen Lucia Cordero, who is director of the museum. "This museum is his personal passion and his mission and that is what makes the exhibits so good."

There are a number of exhibits, particularly pre-Columbian artifacts. Over 5000 archaeological discoveries are stored at the museum. These items include fossils, ceramics, lithic objects, handicrafts and artworks. The paleontological displays guide you through the various eras in the lives of the aborigine people. The collection is divided into 13 display areas, organized chronologically and by the region where the artifacts were produced. Particularly notable is the high quality of the artifacts, many of them intact, and the intricacy of design. I can only conclude that they have come from tombs. Many of the pieces are representations of bird and animal life, while representation of human figures often show a sense of humour. Facial features of many of the human figurines are highly stylised.

The Cordero collection serves another important mission, dispelling the common notion that the Incas represented the high-water mark of creativity in early Latin American. "What we discover is that the civilizations that preceded the Inca, in both Ecuador and Peru, were highly advanced and that the Incan empire inherited much of what we credit to them."

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A walk further out of town takes you to one of Ecuador's largest museums. Museo Pumapungo del Ministerio de Cultura is housed on three floors in a large wing of the Central Bank. It displays modern art downstairs. While upstairs there is a comprehensive voyage through Ecuador's diverse indigenous cultures, with animated dioramas and reconstructions of typical houses, including Afro-Ecuadorians from Esmeraldas province, the cowboy-like montubios (coastal farmers) of the western lowlands, several rainforest groups and all major highland groups.

You sign in at the front desk, where you leave your bag and are instructed not to take photographs or to step over the yellow tape in front of the exhibits (which sets off a recording and draws security).

There is also the Archaeological Park surrounding the museum, where you can walk through the extensive ruins of buildings believed to be part the old Incan city of Tomebamba. Thanks to the Spanish conquistadors who carted off most of the stone to build Cuenca, there’s not much left.

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We walked round the city, then took the open top bus. You can see why Cuenca has World Heritage status, but it would be wrong to imagine that all of Cuenca was architecturally wonderful, much of it is not, and many of the good buildings need money spent on them to stop them decaying further. But it does have a delightful selection of fine colonial buildings, and was worth the three day stay we spent here.

Walking is hard work and we needed a cafe to pause and recover. Only a few metres from the main square in Cuenca, Parque Calderon, we found Cafe del Parque. Nice cafes were difficult to find, so once we found Cafe del Parque we used it a number of times It is a light, modern cafe cum restaurant set in a historic building. We enjoyed their tapas, which were freshly and well cooked, with the prawns being particularly good. They offer a selection of Batidas (fruit drinks) that are very good as well.

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The city, in common with many tourist cities across the world, offers open top hop on/off open top bus tours, and Cuenca is no exception. The 24 hour fare meant that we used it one afternoon and then the next morning. It turned out that you did not hop on or off at will. It rumbled round the city, then out to the mirador and heights at Turi, where it stopped for 45 minutes, before heading back to town. One of the tourist shops at Turi had a come-on for the bus passengers of a free drink, a Canelazo,- it was warm and was drunk with or without a local strong alcohol. Chris did in fact buy a couple of things here. The buses we had each day were different designs, with the one the first day having a lovely wooden interior downstairs.

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Sunday morning, and everything in Cuenca is closed, but the hotel receptionist found out for us that the Panama hat factory would be open for a few hours. Turned out that the owner of our hotel was the grand-daughter of the founder of the hat factory, and we met her in the factory that morning. A longish walk out of town to get to the Homero Ortega factory. The factory was normally closed on Sunday, but we were lucky that they had it open for a group. Happily too, there was no guide to show us round, so we could wander at our own pace round the museum.

As in all attractions, you end in the shop. And here I bought a $100 Panama hat. Not only was it a genuine Panama hat from the best maker in Ecuador, but I was also buying the story to go with it. Chris was tempted by a (more expensive) woollen cape, and clutching our purchases, we walked back into town. The owner felt we should have taken a taxi, but I did not feel threatened by the locality.

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Another unplanned purchase was a designer plate from the Vega Ceramica. The colours that Eduardo Vega uses are bright, modern and pleasing. As a bonus, the man himself was there, and Chris is posing with him above. The modern plate that we bought survived the journey home, and now is awaiting wall mounting

So early in the morning, after 3 nights in Cuenca, we set off for the 4 hour drive to Guayaquil. This proved to be a bit of an adventure. The main road out of Cuenca was blocked by roadworks, and the diversions were not marked. After several stops to ask the way, we finally thought we were on the right road, but just to make sure asked a passing local. Passing locals in this part of the country were a bit thin on the ground, and it turned out to be a lady leading a cow on a long rope - anyway she was able to confirm we were on the right road

It was a spectacular route over mountains and through El Caja National Park, spoilt a bit by low cloud, and the impossibility of being able to stop anywhere safely on the mountain road.

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Some hours later we got to Guayaquil. Returning the Hertz car to the airport should have been a breeze, but it took 2 complete circles of the runway, and asking numerous pedestrians, before we found the very discreet entrance to the airport complex. Like most places in Ecuador, they don't use road signs if they can help it.

A taxi ride from the airport then got us to the port, and Silversea Explorer

Ecuador Holiday