Flying into Cuenca, Ecuador is quite dramatic. It’s not only due to the mountains and valleys all about you, but because the pilot has to shoehorn the plane down a single narrow runway between houses that are less than 100 feet off your wingtips. Welcome to the Andes.
We had traveled to Cuenca because I had heard a lot of good things about this little jewel of a city that’s set 7,000+ feet up in the Andes. And it was because of that altitude — we live at sea level in the US — we thought it best to spend the first of our three days here taking a car tour outside the city through the surrounding Gualaceo Valley to get acclimated.
We were met at the airport by Cecelia, our guide, and we immediately set out into the countryside to see how the local people weave the shawls that are so popular in the area. We drove on a road that paralleled the Pan-American Highway, getting a taste of local life. Along the way we passed indigenous people, many in colorful clothes and wearing the customary fedors, either walking or waiting at bus stops, as well as several roadside stands where large pigs on spits were being carved for the motorists that stopped by for a quick bite to eat.
It wasn’t long before we got to our first destination, an old farmhouse on the side of the road where it was obvious the family had a good side business going, demonstrating local weaving techniques to the tourists brought in by tour guides. That wasn’t a put-off for us, even when a busload of tourists wandered in, because the demonstration was so interesting and the woman and her family so engaging.
She took us out back and showed us how they made their dyes from a little insect and other materials, and how they created the yarn from plant fibers. We climbed the rickety stairs on the exterior of the little wooden building and watched her teenage son making a shawl on an old loom. He proudly told me that his mother new all of the intricate knots by heart. It was all surprisingly interesting.
We got on our way as the other tourists wandered about the little room where shawls were piled on the table, not only because neither my wife or I had any need for one, but because Cecilia also wanted to show us the orchid farm that was further on. The farm turned out to be much more interesting than we had ever expected.
It was a non-descript from the outside, the kind of place I likely would never have stopped at if I was just driving by. I guess I had been think there would be flower fields, but the entire complex was contained in a series of small greenhouses.
In the first greenhouse we entered we found 15,000 bottles lying on their sides (oddly enough, all recycled whiskey bottles), each with 50-70 miniscule plants being cultivated and nurtured inside. Our guide, a local man with a fedora, explained the entire process as he led us through different greenhouses. The “farm” turned out to be a place that developed new orchid varieties for sale to growers who came here from all over the world. Anyone can visit here; the cost of the tour is $5.
Orchids, as we soon realized, are big business. I remember back in the mid-1970s being told by an orchid expert that there were then 3,000 or so varieities of the plant in the world at that time. Today there are more than 30,000 species and the farm was working with 14,700 of them.
It was a fascinating afternoon for us, not only for going to two places we likely never would have considered, but also because along the way we got a look at a slice of local life we never would have found otherwise.