No trip to Ecuador is truly complete without a visit to our favorite city, Cuenca. The flight there is the coolest because you fly right down an avenue of volcanoes. The plane flies so closely over some of them that you feel as though you could reach right out and touch them, or better yet, see into them. Cuenca is 275 miles south of Quito and is Ecuador’s 3rd largest city. It has cobblestone streets and various colonial-era churches, plazas and buildings. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site since much of the city’s colonial architecture remains intact. Cuenca was the 2nd largest city in the Inca empire, after Cusco in Peru. The foundations of the former Inca palaces became foundations for the city’s churches and government buildings. Before the Incas (1400’s) the Cañari people had lived here for centuries. They were the first inhabitants of Cuenca, building a city here around A.D. 500, called Guapondeleg. After the Incas conquered them in 1480, the city became Tomebamba, the name of one of the rivers which run through the city. Pizzaro and the Spanish conquered the Incas in 1534, and the city of Santa Ana de los Cuarto Rios de Cuenca was founded in 1557.
We checked into our hotel, The Orquidea, and took off to the Parque Calderon (the most beautiful in all of Ecuador, we think) to people watch and eat ice cream. One of the things we love about Cuenca is her friendly people and great food. Everyone on the street speaks to you, and with a smile. We contacted our dear friend Julio Montesinos, a very talented painter, who arranged a private showng of some of his new work. Donnie bought two paintings to complement his growing art collection. The next day we decided to see the little-known Cañari ruins found 30 kilometers from Cuenca called Cojitambo. We stopped a cab to ask if he could drive us there. He said it would be cheaper to take a van. So he took us to the bus/van stop. We found out the van would take us to other areas which we had already visited, and would only take us to the base of Cojitambo. The ruins are situated at 10,000 ft. Our cab driver tried to negotiate a fare with a 4-wheel drive vehicle, but it was too expensive. Finally, he said he had never seen (or heard of, for that matter) the ruins and would just take us there himself. He was looking forward to the trip right along with us. This is yet another example of why we love Cuenca. The city-dwellers love their town so much, and want to share that love with newcomers.
The drive north to the ruins was on a great road (All the rich folks we have talked to simply hate their president, but we have seen truly major improvements in the roads and infrastructure in this country. Could their hatred have anything to do with the fact that they now have to pay their full taxes, which are then used to improve services for the entire populace?) and naturally the vistas were stunning. One thing which seemed a little ajar to us was there seem to be many new gated communities for retiring gringos. Most don’t seem to learn the language or immerse themselves in the culture, which hurts the feelings of the locals. The expats don’t, as a general rule, bring the best of what our culture has to offer.
As we continued on our way, we saw a huge mountain towering over everything around it and going straight up. We soon came to realize the ruins were to be found on this mountain. As we pulled off the main road, we hit what is best described as a goat path. After about 1/2 mile, it got better, then turned into a great road. As we ascended, the view became more and more dramatic. Finally we reached the small community of Cojitambo and asked directions. We were told to keep on going to the very top. The higher we ascended, the less oxygen there was, and the car started coughing and sputtering. Finally, with the car now in first gear, it could climb no further. So we got out and started our climb. We stopped often, first to catch our breath, and second to become yet more breathless by the fantastic view. We were at the highest spot in the entire area and the world was there at our feet. We finally reached the peak of the ruins, with a 360 degree panorama. To the south we could see the entire city of Cuenca, to the east the town of Azogues, to the west the way to the coast, and to the north, Cajas (The Boxes), a national park with over 20,000 lakes. (Yes, that is the correct number. Cajas is a story all its own, but will have to wait for another year). The person in our group who was the most blown away was our driver. He was amazed by the entire experience and loved the fresh air. Cojitambo was built by the Cañari as a defensive fort. They could
see for about a hundred miles in any direction, so it was impossible to sneak up on them.We spent a while hiking around and enjoying the view. There are few places left in the world which give a sense of wonder. This place seemed to us to be very spiritual as well as being physically stunning. If there is any place everyone needs to visit in Ecuador (before it is discovered by too many tourists) this is it. We had the place to ourselves. It definitely is not on the tourist radar yet, as no one in Cuenca seemed to have heard of it. Good. Best kept secret.
The next morning Ruthi and I took a yoga class with Ximena Montesinos, one of Julio’s daughters. It was great to stretch out our muscles after our day of hiking. After class, Ximena showed us her studio and apartment. The apartment has several bedrooms (she rents out some of them, which pays her rent for the whole place), and a rooftop terrace with lots of plants and flowers, and a great view of the city as the terrace is on the 5th floor. Next time you’re in Cuenca needing a yoga class, she is there Mondays and Wednesdays, 9:00 A.M., and teaches a couple of 6:00 P.M. classes, 3rd floor above Cafe Austria. (Tell her we sent you).
That afternoon we visited the Indigenous Museum where 5,000 artifacts are housed, covering the history of Cuenca, going back 5,000 years. One of Rankin’s favorite things there was a skull with 2 front teeth sporting gold inlays. They were pretty cool, but obviously they were completely decorative. Surely, this guy impressed many a female with his flashy smile. Yes, men were showing off even then.
Our last day in Cuenca, we took a city tour on a double-decker bus. We climbed high above the city to a beautiful church, Mirador de Turi. Here you could see all of Cuenca before you. In Spanish, Cuenca means river basin and four separate rivers run through the city, all of which you can see on this tour. We also visited a barrio where everyone works as blacksmiths. They make these beautiful crosses surrounded by birds, animals, etc. These are placed on top of all of the roofs in this area. Ruthi wants one next time around (But, with crazy weight restrictions, we have to be very careful what we do or do not purchase). We ended up back at Parque Calderon where the double-decker affords a great view of the beautiful Catedral Viejo (Old Cathedral). It is the oldest structure in the city. It was build in 1557 with stones from the nearby Inca ruins of Pumapungo. Also viewed from this vantage point is the Catedral Nueva (New Cathedral), which was started in 1885 and took 80 years to complete. Two massive blue domes are distinctive and visible from various areas around the city. This is the largest church in Ecuador. There is live music nearly every night in the park. Our favorite group featured a young kid of about 9, who sang (with abandon and with real talent!) and played a mouth organ, accompanied by his father and older brother. Hey, this kid may have only known one song, but he belted it right out. When his repertoire expands, you should be seeing him on “Ecuador Has Talent”.
It was with great sadness that we packed to depart Cuenca. We left with many memories of old and new friends, great meals and fabulous ice cream. These memories will have to hold us until we return next year.
Rankin and Ruthi