Travelling along the Central Sierra, the North-South mountain chain in the heart of Ecuador, I’d visited Quito, the capital and the National Parks Cotopaxi and Antisana, staying at local Haciendas and riding between the volcanoes along quinoa fields and rose farms. Just under an hour’s flight from Quito is the Andean city, Cuenca, known for its beautiful setting amid many peaks, Spanish colonial architecture, and a thriving local culture where the colourfully dressed Canari Indians still maintain traditions from centuries ago. Hoping to find the Peruvian town Cuzco’s Ecuadorian counterpart, I’d set out to explore Cuenca.
While both towns have a similar history, they were Amerindian folks subjugated by the Spanish conquerors 400 years ago, the difference is that the Ecuadorian tribes were not unified by the mighty Inca Empire beforehand. Each of these tribes retained their language cultural variations, and they are far less keen to pose for tourists’ photos. Wandering through their markets and villages was a richer, more remote, and a far more authentic experience.
A slice of history
With rich earnings from exporting quinine extracted from the rain forests, the Spanish built a charming town influenced by the southern European architecture. The old town’s squares and streets are replete with colourful, painted facades with decorative ironwork and balconies laden with plants. La Immaculada, started in 1880, is the main Cathedral, a truly spectacular structure clad in red bricks and sweeping arches that dominate the skyline of the town’s heart. We could have been in in the Mediterranean, except for the bowler hat wearing, double braided ladies clad in screaming bright fuchsia, red and green skirts and fringed shawls going about their business, speaking quechua and selling roasted guinea pig and chicha, the local tipple.
Ancient traditions are still alive as I found out in the local food market where ladies brought their children to be doctored by shamans. I was nudged in front of an elderly woman who smacked me with her broom of herbs, rolled a raw egg all over, then sprayed a vile liquid on my face- through her mouth, and told my guide that I was now cured of the “stress” I was harbouring.
We walked the main streets and back alleys of the town, drove along the Tomebamba River lined with gorgeous houses and stopped at Turi, a lookout point from where the entire valley was visible, surrounded by mountains. Homero Ortega, the Panama hat factory and museum was enlightening (these palm fiber hats were always made in Ecuador, just sold in Panama). The Andean hill folks rarely travel; coming here to glimpse them in their world is a rare treat. We owe much to them, especially the discovery of corn, potatoes and tomatoes. And now quinoa, the high protein grain that has taken the world by storm.
Pleasant Weather, Picturesqe views
Cuenca’s cafes and restaurants were oddly teeming with retired Americans for a good reason. They’ve made Cuenca their home. More than any other city on the continent, Americans, as a part of a growing trend, are attracted to Cuenca’s pleasant weather, picturesque views, medical services and good value for money. Besides, Ecuador has amazingly open arms. It is the only country in South America that does not require a visa on an Indian passport.