Story by Barbara Angelakis
Photos by Manos Angelakis
Cuenca in Ecuador
The four hour drive from sea level Guayaquil to Cuenca, elevation 8,300 feet, painted a variable and verdant portrait of the terrain that makes Ecuador such a unique destination. Uneventful, except for the torrential rains that followed us out of Guayaquil and battered our car as the smooth, well-paved, horizontal road, gave way to steep torturous curves and dense fog. I marveled at the skill of our driver who negotiated the road effortlessly… most likely by rote, since it was impossible to see clearly past the windshield. When we finally reached the Andes Mountains – from the Quichua word Anti which means “where the sun rises” - we rose above the fog to reveal a beautiful blue sky peppered with fluffy white clouds. The hot, humid coastal weather had given way to cool, crisp, thin air and rich vibrant vistas.
My first thought descending into Cuenca was “what a charming town” and as we proceeded towards Parque Calderon, the central square, my feeling that Cuenca was a delightful old-world, Spanish colonial city was confirmed. UNESCO declared the historical center of Cuenca a World Heritage Asset and a stroll though the main square and surrounding streets is a walk though 450 years of history.
Colonnaded buildings painted in pastel colors, cobblestone streets, red-tile roofs, and decorated Cathedral cupolas outlined against the clear blue sky, are hallmarks. Walking around the old town and popping into churches, exhibits and museums randomly, is a delightful way to enjoy the city, although not to be missed is the Museo del Banco Central. There are plenty of parks to rest in; restaurants to dine in; shops to spend money in; and stunning architecture to be captivated by.
Santa Ana de los Cuatro Rios de Cuenca, commonly referred to as Cuenca, is the third largest city in Ecuador and the capital of Azuay province. Although the town was officially “founded” in 1557 it was in actuality built over the Inca city of Tomebamba - homeland of Inca Huayna-Cápac - second largest city in the Inca Empire after Cuzco, Peru. A hundred years earlier, the Inca had conquered the Cañari Indian nation, the original inhabitants of the area, and constructed their city over the Cañari city of Guapondelig, which translated means “plains as vast as the sky”. Evidence suggests the beautiful valley surrounded by mountains and sporting perfect year- round weather was settled as early as 300 CE.
Cuenca is a retiree’s paradise in competition with Mexico’s San Miguel De Allende for number #1 desirable retirement community. Incentives include the U.S. dollar as the monetary medium of Ecuador; use of 110 voltage; time zones are the same as in the U.S.; and English is widely spoken. Currently, expats represent only a small percentage of the population but their community is growing rapidly both in the old town and in the new neighborhoods dangling off the steep hills. This is mostly due to the favorable cost of living, availability of social services [medical and institutions of higher learning] and spectacular natural environment. Furthermore, Cuenca is close to the Equator so year- long there is an equal 12 hours of light and darkness; spring-like temperatures averaging 70/75 degrees; and abundant sunshine. The mild rainy season insures lush, green foliage and flowers of such magnificence they are exported all over the world. Not surprising that Cuenca has attracted a large art community which adds a cultural component to the lively handicraft tradition that has existed in this valley for hundreds of years.
The Ecuadorian traditional straw hat became known as the “Panama” hat when President Theodore Roosevelt wore one on a trip to Panama during construction of the canal. It became popularized as the Panama hat, a label that stands to this day. Hand-woven out of the straw of the toquilla plant, the hat is washed, blocked, dyed, and finished, in a labor intensive process. There are several good producers – tours through museum workshops in Cuenca are readily available – but the backbone of weaving production is in a flourishing countryside cottage industry.
In addition to the elegant embroidery; hand-knit sweaters; and gold or silver filigree jewelry; ceramics have been elevated to an art form and you will find finely crafted works decorating walls as frequently as paintings do.
Just a short ride out of Cuenca, on a well-paved road that passes through delectable scenery, is the most significant archeological complex in Ecuador. At an altitude well above 10,000 feet, lies the Inca ruin of Ingapirca. It is believed that the Inca built their complex over the earlier Cañaris Indian settlement because the circular formation is Cañaris but the stone construction of temples, buildings and pathways - along with the trademark trapezoidal windows and doors - is all Inca. At the Temple of the Sun and Moon I allowed my imagination to run wild and could almost see the white-gowned vestal virgins – beautiful young maidens aged 11 to 22 – facing the priests in their colorful robes decorated with gold and jade jewelry. I closed my eyes and pictured the sun bouncing off the solid gold sacred animal totems resting in niches around the walls illuminating the faces of the girls. I imagined them expressing gratitude for the blessings bestowed by the Sun God and Moon Goddess with a dance that begun by linking arms and moving in a slow circle that slowly grew more frenzied until they were consumed by ecstasy… too many Hollywood films? Well… it could have happened that way and even if it didn’t it was a satisfying vision and a lovely way to end our visit to Cuenca.
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