Story by Barbara Penny Angelakis
Photography by Manos Angelakis and Barbara Penny Angelakis
Ecuador: Above The Clouds
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 pouring rain 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, even thought it was almost impossible to see 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.
As we continued to climb higher, the road became increasingly winding; to such a degree that I was being tossed from side to side during the peregrination. Ascending the mountains we entered the El Cajas National Park in Azuay Province at a staggering height of 14,700 plus feet above sea level. At the side of the road Xavier Montezuma, Project Coordinator from the Cuenca Tourist Board, and our guide extraordinaire, was waiting to lead us the rest of the way into Cuenca. We paused to acclimatize ourselves to the altitude and to have lunch at a rustic inn, Dos Chorreras Hacienda. www.doschorreras.com The inn, located at the base of a rock face with waterfalls gushing out of the mountainside, provided a habitat for farm-raised trout, a specialty of their restaurant. The home-made potato soup, yucca fries and cheese flan along with the trout prepared as you like it, made for a delicious respite from the journey.
When we descended into Cuenca, my first thought was “what a charming town” and as we preceded towards Parque Calderon, the central square, my confirmation that indeed Cuenca was a delightful old world, Spanish colonial city, continued to build. UNESCO declared the historical center of Cueca 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 of this charming town. 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 to 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 area had been settled as early as 500A.D, but situated as it is in a beautiful valley surrounded by mountains and sporting perfect year- round weather, the city was destined to be conquered yet again.
Cuenca is a retiree’s paradise in contention 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 climbing up the steep hills with awesome views over the city. 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 daily an equal 12 hours of light and 12 hours of 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 was invented here and 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 the countryside, in a highly developed 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. The art community has literally “taken to the hills” in neighborhoods with spectacular views overlooking the basin of the city. One such artist well worth visiting is the E. Vega Ceramic studio and shop.
The historical center is the place to be when exploring Cuenca and its environments and the two choice hotels are the Mansion Alcāzar (11 rooms, 3 suites) and Hotel Santa Lucia (20 rooms). Both are mansions, circa mid 1800’s, that have been converted into luxurious boutique hotels with enclosed interior courtyards in the Spanish style. Mansion Alcāzar is currently undergoing an expansion at the rear of the building in the area just past the exquisite glass-enclosed breakfast room and outdoor garden. www.mansionalcazar.com www.santaluciahotel.com
Just a short ride out of Cuenca, on a well-paved road that passes through delectable scenery of mountains rising above fertile green valleys with well-tended farms, 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 ruin 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 picture the white-gowned vestal virgins – beautiful young maidens aged 11 to 22 – facing the priests in their colorful robes and gold and jade jewelry, paying homage to the sun on the summer and winter solstice. I closed my eyes and pictured the sun bouncing off the solid gold sacred animal totems resting in niches carved out of the walls as it illuminated the faces of the girls arranged in a semi-circle facing the alter. I imagined that the earlier libation given the girls has sensitized them to the light (blessing) bestowed by the Sun God and they expressed their gratitude in a dance that begun initially by linking arms and moving in a slow circle but slowly growing more frenzied until they and the audience are consumed by ecstasy… too many Hollywood films? Well… it could have happened that way and even if it didn’t it was a lovely vision.
Afterwards we had lunch at the charming Posada Ingapirca lodge and restaurant just minutes from the ruins and with a beautiful view over the surrounding countryside. www.grupo-santaana.net
And so ends my journey in Cuenca and on to Quito and more adventures in Ecuador.
If you go:
Ecuador information and contacts
AeroGal for international and domestic flights
© June 2010 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.