Colonial Cuenca & Cajas National Park

10 Jan

Whilst travelling we’ve come to appreciate the saying ‘Variety is the spice of life’. We want to experience as many different things as possible whilst being away but we’ve found it’s also necessary to mix up the order we do things so there is a greater contrast between places or activities and a positive feeling when you arrive somewhere new. If you simply spend two months at the beach, the sea, sun and sand can start to lose its appeal but by spending a week at the beach, followed by some time in the mountains and a few days in the city, you then start craving the beach again, making it all the more special when you return there. So, after an incredible ten days in the Galapagos surrounded by beautiful nature and exotic wildlife, we were looking forward to city life and charming colonial Cuenca was to be the spot.

Set in the rolling hills of Ecuador’s Southern Highlands and situated on the shores of crystal clear Rio Tomebamba, Cuenca has a population of 450,000 – with the warmth and friendliness of a small town but the facilities and culture of a large city.

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The historic centre is really captivating with its cobblestone streets opening on to grand plazas and white-washed buildings with terracotta tiled roofs. The city’s elevation at 2,530 metres means the air is fresh but along with a stable and predominantly sunny climate, this offers perfect weather for sauntering between sights and stopping frequently at cool cafes for fresh coffee.

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Not content with just one cathedral, Cuenca has two on its main plaza. The plainer and slightly understated old cathedral which dates from 1557 sits across from the handsome and flamboyant new cathedral with its striking large blue domes which can be seen from all over the city.

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Around the corner a colourful and fragrant flower market run by indigenous local ladies gathers in front of a small, colonial church and is a magnet for photographers.

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There is a growing ex-pat community in Cuenca which we found works very favourably for the humble traveller by enhancing the local arts scene, bringing good quality international cuisine to the area, raising the standard of accommodation (we stayed at cosy and central La Casa Cuencana) and increasing demand for welcoming bars and micro-breweries.

We enjoyed a relaxed afternoon walk along the Northern bank of the river Tomebamba which is bordered by fancy, historic mansions and offers fine views of the surrounding hills. We were fascinated to see local women washing their clothes in the river and then placing a colourful patchwork of clothes on the rocks to dry in the sun.

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Along the river we discovered Cuenca’s most important museum, ‘Banco Central Pumapungo’. We don’t usually go crazy over museums but the name alone grabbed our attention and we’d heard they had an excellent display of Ecuador’s different ethnological groups, including a mind-boggling (literally) exhibit of shrunken heads from one of the Amazon region’s many tribes.

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From the museum gardens we were also able to explore a small collection of ruins and some pretty botanical gardens growing abundant native flowers and fruits.

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Also situated in the gardens was a genuine and popular Belgian waffle house run by a guy from Belgium who visited Cuenca ten years ago and fell in love with the city and his Ecuadorian wife, who was now expecting his first child. We over-indulged on freshly cooked waffles, large scoops of vanilla ice-cream, fresh strawberries and lashings of maple syrup. We’d died and gone to heaven in Belgium!

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Whilst in Cuenca we learnt that the ‘Panama Hat’ actually comes from Ecuador and not Panama. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the hat was exported through Panama after becoming popular amongst European and American merchant sailors – hence the misconception – however, anyone in the know will tell you that the correct name is a toquilla straw hat or a ‘Monticristi’, named after Ecuador’s most famous hat making coastal town. Cuenca is also an important centre for the hat trade and a number of old-fashioned stores in the town centre welcome tourists to browse, try on and hopefully purchase these hats. We spent a fun time window shopping and even though we learnt that the finest (and most expensive – up to $500 USD) of these hats are woven so tightly that they could be folded small enough to pass though a man’s wedding ring, we decided that our backpacks were already too full to make a purchase.

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A simple 40 minute bus ride (only 30 kilometres away), ‘Parque Nacional Cajas’ makes a brilliant day trip from Cuenca offering hiking opportunities in a lake studded, moor-like area. In an effort to increase tourism, the Ecuadorian government have announced that all national parks (excluding the Galapagos unfortunately) should be free to enter, so parks such as Cajas, which used to charge $10 USD per person entrance, have become a fabulous bargain.

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Depending on how long you want to hike, there are several colour-coded and easy to follow day walks from the park headquarters. Any overnight hikes need to be made with an accompanying guide. We picked a four-hour circular walk which took us around lakes, through woodland and to high vantage points.

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The park is at a higher altitude than Cuenca and when we were there the wind made it feel very fresh so we were pleased we’d brought our jackets and pulled them tightly around us. It could have been an Autumnal day walking in the Yorkshire Dales!

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The lakes looked grey, cold and uninviting but every now and then, the sun’s rays would penetrate through the clouds and the lakes would come alive, shimmering with aquamarine depths and fringed with golden reeds.

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Craggy mountains rose and fell all around us and spiky plants dotted the landscape adding to the wild feeling of the park. In some areas small wooden bridges and strategically placed planks of wood covered boggy ground and in others we needed to hop and straddle our way over muddy paths as best we could to avoid soggy toes.

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The small wooded areas featured trees like we’d found in Northern Peru on the Santa Cruz trek outside Huaraz – the orange-brown trees bending in sculpture-like formations with thin layers of dry bark peeling away like tissue paper.

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The park was very peaceful and we walked for some time without seeing another person, making it feel like we had the whole place to ourselves. Despite the wind, the lakes were like glass with reflections of the mountains appearing on their surface. The only ripples caused were by ducks and wildfowl who must have thought they’d hit the jackpot in this park.

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Back in Cuenca early that evening we indulged in hot showers, smart clothes (well, as smart as it gets for backpackers) and headed out for tasty Mexican food and a glass of wine. Ahh, the simple things in life!

Our city time had really hit the spot. We’d recharged our batteries, indulged in a few home comforts and luxuries that weren’t always easy to find on the road, we’d eaten well, and we’d enjoyed a big dose of fine architecture and culture. We were ready to move on and looking forward to the next contrasting destination.

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