We have traveled to Quito so many times in the past year that it is easy to breeze through customs and we are at our hotel in no time. We are hopeful that tomorrow will be clear. Our flight to Cuenca does not leave until 6:30pm. We have the whole day and want to visit Teleferico, a cable car attraction that gives visitors a breath-taking view of the city and surrounding mountains.
We are not disappointed. The day is sunny and bright, with a clear view of the snow-capped peaks. We are the first to arrive at the base of the mountain. There is no line and we hop on the first cable car available.
It is a long way to the top: Quito sits at 9,000 ft. The base of the park is at 10,000 and by the time we exit we are 12,500 ft above sea level. It is hard to breathe at this altitude but the view is spectacular. We can see all of the surrounding peaks: Cotopaxi, Antisana and Cayambe.
We hike up the hill. The Cruz Loma crater, part of a still-active volcano, is three miles further along the steep path. Horses are available for hire but TG chooses to wait while I hike for another twenty minutes.
The volcano is no closer and the thin air makes me short of breath. I turn back. A family has stopped along the side of the path. I say “Es difícil respirar.” It is difficult to breathe. “Sí.”
It is a short, one-hour flight to Cuenca and we can see the mountains clearly from the plane window. Even from this height they are massive. We collect our bags and arrive at the Hostel Chordeleg by 8pm. This will be our home for the next six days. We walk to the main square for dinner.
If you travel to Ecuador for peace and quiet, you will be sorely disappointed. It is many wonderful things but it is never quiet. The streets are crowded and bustling, with every car beeping its horn as often as possible. Street vendors loudly hawk their wares and fireworks ka-boom at all hours of the day and night.
We are awakened by sunshine pouring through the slits in the wooden shutters and the sounds of traffic on the street below. We walk south, towards the river. The city is still waking and the stalls in the square are not yet open for business. The market, however, appears to have been bustling for hours.
We wander through aisle after aisle of produce: mountains of bananas, mangos, strawberries. The meat counters overflowing with slabs of thick red meat, piles of plucked yellow chickens, and cakes of white lard. A pig hangs from a steel hook. We are astounded at the variety of it all.
Upstairs we share a table with another couple while we drink our coffee. The people-watching is incredible and we try to be discreet as we take our photos. The upstairs vendors sell cooked foods: beans, corn, and sheets of chocolate. Later we will learn that city women buy their beans pre-cooked to avoid the long soaking process. And the chocolate sheets are bitter: you must add sugar and milk to make hot cocoa. But for now we are content to just sit and soak it all in.
The afternoon has grown warm. Before we left home the forecast for Cuenca was overcast, drizzly and 60’s. We brought long-sleeves and down vests. But it is sunny and in the 80’s. We return to the hotel to cool off and plan the week. There is a tour company across the street and we sign up for a day hike in the Cajas National Park tomorrow and a city tour on Wednesday morning.
The bus picks us up at 8:00am. Cajas National Park sits just outside of Cuenca. The highest elevation is 14,000 ft, at the continental divide. Even though it is only 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean, all waters east of this point flow across the continent of South America to the Atlantic Ocean. The national park land was formed during the ice age by glaciers moving across the mountains. There are over 320 lakes in the region along with beautiful “paper” tree forests, whose bark is so thin the Incas used it for paper. The micro-climate is called a cloud forest because of all the vegetation that grows at this altitude.
We did not know what to expect. The tour operator said a “short walk through the hills.” We hike, some of it quite arduous, for three hours. But are rewarded with one incredible view after another. The guide warns us to stay with him. It is easy to stray off the path and lose your way. Every year people are lost on the mountain after dark and die from hypothermia. It is sunny and warm again today but at this altitude once the sun sets temperatures will drop quickly.
Ten miles later, we finally arrive back at the bus. We are taken for a traditional Andean lunch: potato soup and fried trout. The soup is delicious. The trout is presented with head and eyes fried along with the rest. We are no longer hungry.
Our guide, Juan Carlos, meets us promptly at 9:00am. He takes us to the Homero Ortega panama hat factory.
Cuenca is the birthplace of the panama hat and we learn much on this tour. Hats are still made as they have been for centuries: by hand. Local craftswomen deliver the hats to the factory where they are sorted by quality. The finer the straw, the better the weave, more expensive the hat. Each hat goes through a process of bleaching, pressing, and shaping before it is ready to be sold.
The factory walls are lined with photos of celebrities: Sean Connery, Johnny Depp, Bruce Willis, and Julia Roberts have all worn Homero Ortega hats. This is the largest exporter of panama hats in Cuenca: they export over 600,000 annually.
After the tour we drive across town and up the hill for a view of the city. Cuenca is very red – the clay used for much of the building materials and tiled roofs is from the local hillsides. We stop at Eduardo Vega’s studio. He is the premiere ceramicist in Ecuador and I instantly recognize his work. I purchased some of his pieces the last time I was in Quito.
Juan Carlos drives us back into town. We start our walking tour. We visit the Museum of Modern Art, where we find the hummingbirds and gardens far more interesting than the art.
We walk through the market and Juan explains the various fruits and vegetables. He points to a narrow passage and tells us that is the best place to purchase handicrafts and panama hats. He takes us to the cathedral. Until this point it has been a dominating force in the center of town but we have not gone inside. We stand in awe. He describes in detail the history of this beautiful building, the story of each stained glass window and statue. The church comes alive and we will visit it often during our stay this week.
We visit the flower market where discreetly tucked in one corner is the entrance to the Monestario del Carmen de La Asuncion. There is much mystery surrounding the monastery, home to an order of cloistered nuns. Even the locals tell conflicting stories. We hear somewhere between 16 and 18 nuns, all university graduates who must first serve as a novice for somewhere between two and nine years. Once accepted, they will never leave the monastery and can never be seen again. If they have visitors their faces are covered with a thick veil. They raise money by making various products. Juan Carlos tells us the pigeon jelly (geletina) cured his daughter. We purchase as much of the locion for sore muscles and crema for dry skin as we can carry home.
Today we look for panama hats. Buying the right hat takes patience and stamina. We walk from one store to the next. Nothing speaks to Tall Guy. We end up back at a shop we visited on Monday. I like a blue hat with blue band I find laying on the table. We explain to the clerk what Tall Guy wants: a good-quality weave, black, with narrow (pork-pie) brim, green band, size XL. They can make it. It will take about an hour.
While we wait, we happen upon the Cuenca Zoo. It is no more than a storefront, with cages and tanks full of all manner of strange reptiles and insects. It is fascinating and ever so campy. There are two albino things in a water-filled tank. I am obsessed with finding out what they are. I can hardly believe that they are real. The docent speaks no English. I get (somehow) that they are juveniles as he shows me a photo of an adult. Ah! Definitely some sort of lizard (thing). We turn a corner in the tiny room and are surrounded by snakes including a thick python. Most are sleeping with their heads away from us. But a yellow one dances in front of the glass while we take photos.
I am so mesmerized by the snakes that I almost miss the green iguana sitting on a tree next to my head. He is not in a cage. Up a flight of stairs and I am looking down at a 6 ft crocodile, sharing his pen with a small Galapagos tortoise. The next room is full of slimy snails and spiders. We are happy to escape this strange little place and spill back into the bright sunshine on the street.
Our hats are not yet ready. We are brought upstairs to a balcony with a beautiful view of the city. We wait high above the street and traffic. It is worth it: TG’s hat is exactly what he wanted.
Hats on head, we walk back to the flower market. We did not have time yesterday to take as many photos as we wished. The perfume from the flowers fills the air. We sit in the shade and enjoy the beautiful colors and smells.
Today is Thanksgiving. Someone tells us that a restaurant is serving a traditional American dinner: turkey and all the trimmings. We stop in to confirm. “Yes!” they tell us. “Wonderful,” we say, “we will be back for dinner!” I have the pasta primavera and TG the mixed grill.
We have reservations at the Piedra de Agua thermal hot springs & spa, a short ride outside of Cuenca. We arrive when they open at 9:00am. There is no one else here. We are treated to a 15 minute eucalyptus sauna, followed by cold rinse, and then repeat. We are coated in red mud, baked in the sun, rinsed, coated in blue mud, baked in the sun, and rinsed. We are brought into a small cave. At the bottom on the steps, lit with small candles, is a thermal pool of very hot water. We soak for ten minutes, and jump into a freezing cold bath. We sit for two minutes, gasping for breath, and then repeat the whole process three more times. David, our attendant, asks if we would like a glass of wine. “Si.” After wine, we are encased with only our heads through a round opening at the top of a wooden steam box. A Canadian sitting next to us jokes about the James Bond scene in Thunderball when the box is jammed shut with a mop handle and the steam turned on full. We laugh, nervously.
It is time for our massage. TG is on the other side of the screen from me and we finish at the same time. After lunch it is time to head back to Cuenca. We are utterly relaxed and our skin is baby soft. We were at the spa for six hours and the total cost was only $80 per person.
The office calls and TG must crunch numbers. I go for one last walk around Cuenca. I am drawn to the cathedral, the flower market, and the monastery. I try to absorb everything, not knowing when we will be back.
We have a five hour layover in Quito. We have checked our bags straight through to Miami and have plenty of time to go to the market. We are almost there when a horrible hail storm hits. The hail is the size of gumballs, pounding against the taxi. We dash into the market, seeking cover in the narrow aisles of the stalls. This is awful! It is wet and chilly. We head back to the airport. Traffic is backed up and the streets are flooded. They are shoveling the hail like snow. We are grateful we gave ourselves plenty of time.