By Jim Ferri
Cuenca, Ecuador isn’t known by most travelers. Perhaps that’s why it remains unique.
High in the Andes in the southern part of Ecuador, it’s a special place, a mid-16th-century city of culture not overrun by busloads of tourists. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its people so welcoming I’d go back in a heartbeat.
And I suspect I’m not the only one who loves the place since it has also attracted a large American expat population.
Cuenca’s Mansión Alcázar
My wife and I went to Cuenca as an aside on a trip to the Galapagos.
We booked a stay at the Mansión Alcázar, a small boutique hotel right in the old part of town. Unknowingly to us it was the beautifully restored home of the late Ecuadorian President Luis Cordero and is considered by some to be the most beautiful hotel in the country.
Most of the Alcázar’s 14 rooms, both on the ground level and the balcony above, face into the former interior courtyard where there’s a small fountain flanked by couches and chairs, as well as a baby grand piano and harp off to the side.
There are antiques all about, and the whole place oozes intimacy and historic elegance. When we arrived, we were ushered to our room where we found a four-poster bed with rose petals strewn on and about it.
By some quirk of travel-fate we found we had the run of the place since we were the only guests that evening.
An Incredible Evening
My wife wanted to finish her book so I headed out to wander about the area and when I returned an hour or so later I found the entire lobby-courtyard lit only by candles. I felt I had stepped back in time.
An hour or so later we went to the hotel’s restaurant and found that half of it was in a small glass-enclosed arboretum that sat only 14 people. We opted to dine there – what hedonist wouldn’t after the candlelight- and rose-pedal treatment — and found a brazier of glowing coals warding off the slight chill in the evening air.
We were at our table only three or four minutes when a maid came to our table and asked if we’d like to have our bed turned down, and hot water bottles put under the covers. We were only halfway through reading the gourmet menu and already feeling like the King and Queen of Cuenca, Ecuador.
Heading to the Markets and Orchid Farm
Cecilia, our guide, took us all about the area around Cuenca. One day we visited an orchid farm, which turned out to be much more interesting than my wife and I had ever expected.
Today there are more than 30,000 species of orchids and the farm was working with 14,700 of them, developing new varieties for sale to growers who came here from all over the world. Anyone can visit it; the cost of the tour is $5.
She also took us to visit the market at Gualaceo, an hour-or-so drive outside of town, where many locals come from the surrounding villages to sell their goods, both vegetables and handmade products. It was an interesting market, a riot of color with the locals in their Panama hats and brightly colored garb. It was also much more authentic than the better-known market at Otavalo , which has become known a tourist trap.
We also visited the downtown market in Cuenca, which is a totally different experience, and where I, the non-adventurous eater of the duo, had roasted guinea pig, a popular local dish. It tasted exactly like chicken.
A Mix of Styles
The next morning as we continued to explore Cuenca, Ecuador we found ourselves intrigued by the city’s beautiful buildings, an interesting mix of French and Spanish-Colonial styles. Cecilia, our guide, explained that when the French style was the rage here a century ago many people order decorative items, such as the ornamental tin on the ceiling and some walls, from France.
But it all came at a price — since there was a lack of roads at the time everything had to be carried across the 13,000-foot mountain range on the backs of the indigenous people, a journey that took anywhere from 15 days to three months. Even the first motorcar in Cuenca had to be disassembled on the coast and brought in piece by piece.
Cuenca’s “Indigenous Section”
Later on, as we were walking along the street in the “indigenous section,” as Cecilia called it, we found buildings only one story tall and completely devoid of windows. From the street, short, narrow hallways led into very small courtyards that were surrounded by small, windowless rooms in which different families lived.
We poked our heads into one of the hallways and asked if we might enter and a woman and her teenage grandson invited us in. We were soon chatting with them and learned that the house was over 400 years old and that the woman had inherited it from her grandmother. When she learned we were Americans she proudly told us she had two children living in New York.
Touring the South Side
We soon continued down the street through this south side of the city, and found ourselves ambling through an artsy area, where we stopped in one little shop that was filled with an incredible amount of interesting things.
A few minutes later we were walking through the “barbershop area,” as Cecilia called it, then through an area filled with Panama hat-shops, which catered only to the locals, and then into the “embroidery area.” It was fascinating walking about a city where many blocks were dedicated to different businesses, just as they were in medieval times.
A half-hour or so later we stopped in a little embroidery shop and watched the woman and her husband embroider various clothing. One of the things she was most proud of, she happily showed us, was her embroidery on children’s clothes for the Pase del Niño Viajero, the children’s traveling Christmas-Eve pageant, considered to be the best in Ecuador.
Cuenca’s Unique Cathedral
That afternoon we went over to the Cathedral, an enormous structure and the fifth largest in Latin America.
A local artist created much of the stained glass in it, and we were fascinated by how he integrated so many of the local influences into his work. Over one altar, the Virgin was wearing a shawl of the type seen all over the country. Another panel incorporated the sun and the moon, a nod to the original indigenous people. Still another depicted native women praying.
Some other panels, which accentuated the Gothic elements of the building, were imported from Belgian. A third set was brought from Germany.
We left the cathedral and crossed the street into the main square of the city. It was done in a French design, not Spanish, and was beautifully laid out with benches along the walkways, and flowers and trees all around, a place where people could relax all through the day.
It was a surprise since it was so strikingly different from Cuenca’s other city squares.
It was apropos, we decided, since Cuenca, Ecuador itself is so different from most other South American cities.
If you go:
Mansión Alcázar Boutique Hotel
Calle Simón Bolívar 12-55 y Tarqui
Cuenca – Ecuador
Tel: 593 7 2 823889