Wednesday, October 28, 2015

When In Cuenca - Part 1

28 October 2015

On Monday, we drove from Baños to Cuenca along the Pan Americana, the Pan American Highway.  We took a shortcut from Baños to Riobamba (isn't that a great name?), though it turned out that had we gone in the opposite direction, to Puyo again, it would have been several hours shorter.  As it was, the 300+ km trip (about 240 miles?) took us nearly 8 hours.

Our route took us on a new section of highway, then an old section of highway (as in, the local road that ran through all the towns), and then on the Pan Americana, which in some places looks like a multi-lane highway, but in other areas is just the single-lane main road that connects all the towns.  

And of course, the road climbed up and down mountains, wound around the sides of other mountains, zigzagging through valleys or hanging on cliffs above ravines.

Some areas were beautiful and sunny, others filled with fog or high enough we were in the clouds.  Really, we were driving along at some 8,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level!  (2,500 to 3,300 meters)

It was interesting to see rural Ecuador.  We passed through tiny towns, maybe a few shops gathered along the highway, with a café or small restaurant, a small general store, not always even a school or a gas station!

Along the way, there'd be farms, with men and women working in the fields.  The farms are on flat land as well as sheer slopes, crazy inclines that seemed as if the people would fall off, never mind growing any crops!  

And the clothes!  This area seemed to feature brightly colored skirts with contrasting embroidery for the women, often cobalt blue, bright yellow, lipstick red, or neon purple.  Sweaters were in another contrasting color, and a shawl or wrap would be in a third color - all bright and cheerful in the dark, grey, drizzly mountains.  

What really amazed me is that women were working on the farms in these clothes!  Really, they were wearing velvet and alpaca in these gorgeous rainbow colors, with the intricate embroidery, while bent over hoeing the dirt, tossing aside rocks, or digging up potatoes!  To me, the clothes looked fancy, like dress clothes, for special occasions!  But for these women, well, this is just what they wear, no big deal!  I just was so surprised they didn't have darker or more worn clothing for farming.  (Or maybe they just stay cleaner than I manage to!)

Then there was the pig town.  No idea what the name of the town was, but several cafés or restaurants featured whole roasted pig, hanging outside the restaurant.  I guess people would come up and buy whatever chunk of roasted pork they wanted.  It smelled wonderful but looked a little gruesome; we had to wait for the traffic light to change, and counted five of these roasted pigs hanging around.  (I don't know where these are stored at night.  Out of reach of dogs and cats, though.)

We finally reached Cuenca, our destination.  Cuenca is an old colonial city, home of a gorgeous cathedral, and the workshops where true Panama hats are made.

We couldn't figure out how to find our hostal (a small hotel), having arrived after sunset.  We stopped at a strip mall, and Richard managed to find a wonderful man who asked one of his employees to ride with us and show us the way.  (We hope her home was nearby!)  We stayed at a great place in the old city, a small hotel that has been in the family some 100 or so years: 

Anyway, we spent time walking around Cuenca (pronounced KWEN-kah), just absorbing the history and ambience.  Cuenca is at an altitude of about 8300 ft (2600-2700 meters), so I started the day with my coca leaf tea.  The Spanish built beautiful edifices with the usual balconies and embellishments, and incredible churches as well as the huge cathedral that dominates the old part of the city.

As I said, Cuenca is home to the Panama hat industry.  I know, we all think of these hats as being made in Panama.  No, they're actually named Panama hats because the workers digging the Panama Canal wore these hats to protect them from the sun - that's where the name comes from.  They've always been made in Ecuador, and are stamped "Made in Ecuador" in the inside.

The have HUNDREDS of hats!  Maybe even thousands!  All styles, from the original sunhat to a more streamlined fedora, all in the woven reed that is so light and perfect for hot sunny weather.  Some are in the natural beige color, some are bleached almost white, some are dyed in all sorts of colors, from hot pink to bright orange to deep purple or black.

There are also styles for women as well as men.  And my personal favorite, the crocheted hats!  The reed is crocheted for a softer style hat, which travels well because it can be crushed, or folded and rolled, for easier packing.  

So, well, what can I say - when in Cuenca, buy a Panama hat.  I tried one on, liked the fit, loved the look, and I even had the chance to select the ribbon I wanted.  One of the women who sews the ribbons discussed this with me, I settled on a white-bordered black ribbon, because it looked "muy elegante" (which turns out to be real Spanish, not just me sticking a Spanish ending on an English word). 

The indigenous people in this part of Ecuador wear either the usual wool fedora-type hat, or Panama hats in the shape of the usual wool hats - I thought that was really interesting, to see women in the embroidered skirts and sweaters or shawls, with a jaunty Panama derby or fedora!

Also, the museum/ workshop has a coffee shop upstairs, which has a great view across the city!  Cuenca is divided by several rivers, and the river seen from their overlook is bordered by beautiful trees and paths through almost a garden-like park.  There were various flowing trees - this is early summer here - as well as weeping willows.  It looked like a lovely place to walk, bicycle, or have a picnic.  But we were there for the hats, so only looked for a bit and then moved on.

It was great fun, I had an almost custom-made Panama hat that will pack and travel well, all for under $20.  Richard also found a hat for himself.  We had a great time.

Cuenca also was in full guagua fever!  Guaguas are the bread babies that are baked for 2 November, the Day of the Deceased.  It seemed as if every bakery had guaguas, some filled with jam or cheese, some plain.  

The guaguas fascinate me - I can't figure out if they're somehow symbolic of sacrifices (going back to Incan times), or our ancestors, or what.  They usually are decorated smiling, but then we eat them - sort of like chocolate Santas, right?  And then all kinds of squiggles and designs and decorations - are these symbolic too?  Ancient runes maybe?  (Who knows?)

My afternoon snack was a guagua, with arms and legs, who was served with hot "morada colada" - the local blackberry, but more like a thick sauce than a juice.  One is supposed to dip the guagua into the morada colada and then eat it.  I tried it that way, and the taste is a great combination - but I really don't like the texture of wet bread, so I just ate my guagua and drank my colada.  (Hot blackberry sauce is actually quite tasty!)

Last two photos - we saw what we think might be a new group of police being sworn in, or certified, or something like that.  I liked the red jackets in front of the collection of flags.  But then, well, I have NO clue what the guy just to the left of the middle is doing.  Stretching?  Police dancing?  He was just so funny!

And the map shows our route - pretty amazing, to drive through the Andes!

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