11.06.2014 - 15.06.2014 17 °C
Cuenca was absolutely beautiful, and we'd go so far as to say it's the most beautiful city we've been to on this trip yet.
It was a long 8 hour bus ride to get there from Baños, but this time we had the opportunity to go by day, which was safer and gave us the chance to see more of the Ecuardorian countryside. What a very beautiful country this is. It was a spellbinding journey through the highlands with unbelievable views around every bend. I was snapping away like a good 'un!
Most were taken quickly through the bus window so they're not the best of shots, but they give you some idea of the fabulous scenery Ecuador has to offer.
Ecuador's highest volcano, Chimborazo - a perfect cone-shaped snow-capped volcano
An example of many out in the sticks houses/shops we saw along the way
Much of the time we were higher than the mountain clouds!
We were pretty tired when the bus rolled in to Cuenca, but our hotel proved to be an absolute treat when we checked in. It had only opened 2 months ago and we guessed that's why it was still priced within our budget, because oh lordy... the place was gorgeous. By far the nicest hotel on our travels, really attentive staff, crisp white linen, a stunning exterior and lobby... and a knock on the door each evening with a small dessert and hot water bottle. Can you believe all for £34 a night! It's also the first place we've seen on booking.com with a 10/10 score.
The windows of our room
To do Cuenca any justice it's all about the photos, so this is a picture heavy blog... but I'll tell a couple of stories in between.
The new cathedral - completed in 1975 with work having started in 1885 - is the focal point of Cuenca's main plaza
The interior of the cathedral is already peeling away
The massive sky-blue domes of the cathedral
Walking around Cuenca was such a pleasure. We stumbled across impressive church after church, tucked away cafes and bars, ornate buildings and jasmine-filled squares. It was hard not to fall in love with the place. It was like wandering around a European city without the crowds.
Men crowded around an electrical shop to watch the World Cup
Cuenca is Ecuador's third largest city, but compared to Quito and Guayaquil it certainly doesn't feel like it. The Spanish founded Cuenca in 1557 and to this day it retains the atmosphere of a traditional Andean town. It was recognised by UNESCO as a World Hertitage Site in 1996.
Just a few streets away from the main sights and not all the buildings look so smart
Some of the detail on the buildings was simply stunning
We whiled away a couple of hours in one of Cuenca's main museums - Museo Pumapungo. A large part of the museum is dedicated to recreating dwellings from a number of Ecuador's indiginous cultures.
The most notable exhibit was a few shrunken human heads - a practice once carried out by the Shuar people of the jungle but is now illegal under Ecuardian law (they can still do it to sloths apparently).
I'm not sure what I expected - perhaps something very shrivelled and bearing little resemblance to a human - but it was quite shocking to see how perfect they were. The detail preserved was amazing - they would have been recognisable for anyone who once knew the 'head owner' - just roughly a quarter of the size of a usual human head. Their mouths had been sewn up to prevent evil words from passing their lips... and the tiny decapitated heads were displayed on sticks. It was all a bit macabre... but utterly fascinating. I was peering at one for ages, almost willing it to open an eye!
I couldn't help but think it was a really whack way to end up... to have your head shrunk, stuck on a stick and preserved forever and a day behind glass, for us normal-headed beings to gawp at.
Traditional and modern dress
One of Cuenca's cute olde-worlde shops
Getting a trim in the barber's... at least he didn't leave as a meat pie!
I'm not sure what was more alarming - the barber's chair or the suggested hairstyles on the wall
Cuencos have a very sweet tooth - there's a plethlora of bakeries and cake shops. Another reason to love Cuenca!
Barranco - Cuenca's famous retailer of Panama hats, which actually originate from Ecuador. I bought the one second from the right, third row
Cuenca's modern art gallery was a strange experience. It had obviously been a convent or monastry in a former life due to its layout and, as a result, it felt a bit like wandering around an institution of sorts. The art wasn't up to much but it was an interesting place to visit all the same.
A binary corridor - I loved this!
Another huge plus for Cuenca is that it's considered very safe for tourists - there's a large North American expat community here. We have no idea if the presence of the expat community makes it safer or whether it was always safe which is what attracted the gringos here in the first place. Either way, it was great to enjoy the city at night without feeling on edge or paranoid - something which can't be said of Quito.
Travelling is all about new experiences eh? So we decided to do something a bit different for our last night. Once a week (and only on Saturdays) an expat father and son open up their home as a restaurant called Joe's Secret Garden. It's not the best secret seeing as it's rated #3 on TripAdvisor, but we loved the concept and thought it might be quite memorable. Unfortunately it did mean we missed the second half of England's first World Cup game.
Having watched the first half we thought we might be turning up a bit late but, to steal Ant's line, we were roughly 20 years too early. We arrived to a roomful of retired North Americans (and probably a few Canadians thrown in too), most of whom seemed to know each other. Talk about sore thumbs. But we found our situation quite funny and decided it would definitely be something different. As it turns out we had a pleasant enough evening, we were seated on a table of 6 and sat next to an interesting couple who made for good conversation. Turns out their daughter lives in the UK so we had some common ground to break the ice.
They also told us a story about our hosts, Joe and Joseph. Back in the day, Joseph decided to help out a lesbian couple by donating his sperm so they could have a child. When the child was old enough, he wanted to find his father. Joe and Joseph hit it off instantly and became very close, so much so that Joe left the States to join his father in Ecuador, and between them they now run this 'secret' restaurant for 100-odd diners every weekend.
We must have been cause for a certain amount of novelty as, whilst waiting for a cab at the end of the night, a half-sozzled expat said "so, young people, what brings you here?"... and after a quick reply, we were then mistaken for being Australians (as is often the case with Americans, although I've never understood why, sport).
It was a funny old night, we're glad we tried it... it wasn't amazing but it wasn't a car crash of an evening either.
All in all Cuenca was a brilliant way to end our time in Ecuador. If you come to this country Cuenca should definitely not be missed, it was a real highlight of our time here.