By Jim Ferri
On our trip through Ecuador a few weeks ago, we spent a few days in Cuenca, high in the Andes in the southern part of the country. It turned out to be a really 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 we wished we could have stayed a lot longer.
We had booked our stay at the Mansión Alcázar Boutique Hotel, an incredible small 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 in the center, which is flanked by couches and chairs, as well as a baby grand piano and harp off to the side, with antiques all about. The whole place oozes intimacy and historic elegance, and when we got to our room 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. 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 felt as if I had stepped back in time. I found the entire lobby-courtyard lit only by candles.
An hour or so later we went to the restaurant, and found that half of it was 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.
Then, after we were seated just three or four minutes, 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.
The next morning we set off about the city and soon found ourselves admiring beautiful buildings, an interesting mix of French and Spanish-Colonial styles. Cecilia, our guide, explained that a century ago the French style was the rage here and that many decorative items, such as the ornamental tin on the ceiling and some walls, were imported 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. In fact, she told us, the first motorcar in Cuenca was disassembled on the coast and brought in piece by piece.
Later on, as we were walking along the street in an area Cecilia referred to as the “indigenous section,” we found buildings only one story tall and completely devoid of windows. From the street short narrow hallways led into very small courtyards 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.
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 stuff. 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 passing through this place of the city where practically every block was dedicated to a different type of business.
We stopped in a little embroidery shop and watched the woman and her husband do embroidery on clothes. One of the things she was most proud of, she happily showed us, was embroidery she did on children’s clothes for the Pase del Niño Viajero, the children’s traveling Christmas-Eve pageant, considered to be the best in Ecuador.
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, which was strikingly different from the other city squares we had come upon. 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 can relax all through the day.
The “jewel of the town,” Cecilia called it. Right there in the heart of Ecuador’s little jewel in the Andes.
If you go:
Mansión Alcázar Boutique Hotel
Calle Simón Bolívar 12-55 y Tarqui
Cuenca – Ecuador
Tel: 593 7 2 823889