Thursday, April 5, 2012

In the Land of Panama Hats

The bus from Quito to Cuenca surprised us by arriving early, which normally would be good, except that instead of arriving at 7 am it got in at 5:30 am and thus was still dark outside. So we had to hang out at the terminal until we thought our hostel would be open to let us in. Turns out that didn’t really matter since the hostel, El Capitolio, didn’t have our reservation. They sent us to a second hostel with the same name that, likewise, had no reservation and thus sent us to a third hostel, again with the same name. The third one didn’t have a reservation either, but upon showing them my confirmation, they begrudgingly allowed us to stay at our lower pre-approved rate. We weren’t entirely sure whose error it was, but despite walking all over town at 7:30 am, we ended up in a nicer hotel for a low price.

We decided to start off our visit with a bus tour of the city. We normally don’t opt for touristy things like double-decker bus tours, but this one was only $5 and had hardly anyone on it, so we decided to give it a try, and we were happy we did. We started in the main square, surprisingly not dedicated to Simon Bolivar, where the old austere cathedral and the new awe-inspiring cathedral stand. The new cathedral has a famous brick and marble façade with three blue ceramic domes that are instantly recognizable from anywhere in the city and sort of give it an Arabic look. After the square, the bus did a few loops downtown passing a dozen cathedrals, some important museums we took note of and best of all, street after street of beautiful, ornate, “republican” style buildings designed by French architects. The top of the bus was the perfect spot to admire the flower-laden balconies and intricate marble work of the houses of the rich. The city had a completely non-colonial feel which was so refreshing and regal.

New cathedral
Ornate building on the park in the "republican" style
The bus also drove along one of Cuenca’s four rivers, the Tomebamba, which is a pleasantly landscaped river-walk park that separates the old and new sides of town. The new side, although clearly modern, has been constructed mostly in brick to keep with the red-roof tile color scheme of the rest of town, a design technique that actually lends coherence and unity to the city that we haven’t seen elsewhere. Along the river are several layers of historic buildings, unfortunately mostly semi-abandoned, but a few with hotels, cafes and restaurants. We ended up walking down there later and saw a lot of potential. They are in the midst of redoing the sidewalk, so when that’s done, it should spur some redevelopment given that the river is already one of the cleanest we’ve seen in Latin America in a big city.

Hanging out by the river
The only stop on the bus tour was at the top of a mountain overlook called Turí, clearly a spot the rich now dominate with mansions taking in the views. There is a church at the top and a shrine, as well as some artisan and snack shops. The view was pleasant and peaceful, we could see the whole of Cuenca tucked in a bowl of bright green hills with lines of trees snaking their way across the city where the rivers passed. Near the top is the workshop and home of Eduardo Vega, a well-known local ceramicist who in addition to producing lovely Ecuadorian themed household items, also has some huge public art pieces and tiled murals across Ecuador. We got to meet him briefly, but didn’t see much we liked in his shop except things we knew we couldn’t safely get home.

At Turí, overlooking the city
Ceramic mural at Vega's workshop
On the way back to town between almost getting taken out by low hanging electric wires, we drove down the “food street” so called for its many vendors selling typical lunch of roast pig and guinea pig with kernels of hominy, fried mashed potato balls (llapingachos) and other sides. Although we didn’t have time to stop then, we ended up finding a similar scene in a local market and after a free sample of the roast pork, were hooked into sitting down for a full lunch. The pork was tender, the llapingachos creamy, and the hominy crunchy, all smothered in pork juices – a-maz-ing! The adorable chatty woman serving us invited us to take pictures, mistaking Nolan for a Latino and us for newlyweds, aww!

Whole roast pig and our lovely host
The bus tour was a good introduction to the city and helped us get our bearings, but there was plenty more to see and explore in the following days.

Cuenca is the Ecuadorian center of Panama hat creation and distribution. Although the hats originated in the coastal areas where the toquilla straw to make them grows, during an economic downturn Cuencanos turned to artisans from the coast to learn the craft. The Cuencanos were quick learners and soon perfected the art, with women doing the weaving and men doing the shaping and ironing that required more strength. The hats became known as Panama hats during the construction of the canal when they became a popular clothing item due to their light weight and sun protection.

Depending on quality, the hats can take from a few days to almost a year to complete. The finest ones have straw that is as thin as string and is so finely woven it looks and feels like fabric and no light can pass through it. These can cost up to $1,500 dollars and take extreme skill to make. All hats, no matter the quality go through a process of weaving, washing, dying, drying and then ironing/pressing and finishing. We were able to visit a factory in the city that has been around for almost 100 years where we saw the process, met the current owner of the family run business and Nolan bought a new hat. The Panama hat culture is integral to the identity and economy of the Cuenca area and although you don’t see as many people walking the streets with them as you used to, they are still a world renowned symbol of style and class.

Hats drying after different dying processes
Stacked hats pressed and ready for brim finishing
Cuenca also has a unique history due to its location. It was originally inhabited by a native people who thrived before the Inca civilization eventually conquered them. Cuenca was an important spot in the middle of the Inca empire, and was the birthplace of Huayna Capac, the father of legendary Inca leader Atahualpa. Later of course, the Spanish conquered the Inca and then proceeded to build a neoclassic city, so three layers of history exist. At the free museum and archaeological site of the Banco Central, we were able to see the ruins of ceremonial sites, houses and terraced farmlands that served both previous native populations and view some artifacts such as ceramics, clothing and old colonial money.

Us with the ruins of terraced farming land in the background
Our last day in Cuenca was Palm Sunday which was a perfect time to just relax and enjoy the street life and culture of a holiday. We found the flower market where dozens of men and women were weaving intricate palm frond designs and selling dozens of different bouquets that included everything from roses and carnations to rosemary and medicinal plants! We popped into the cathedral only to be overwhelmed with incense and loud music before heading over to the still-abuzz fruit/veg market. We found a great Australian owned café for lunch and wandered along the river in the afternoon, snapping shots of the building and the remnants of a bridge, the other half of which was swept away in a flood in 1950. Although Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador, it felt more like a small town to us, and while we spied a few ex-pats, international tourism seems to have largely passed over the town, making it a lovely place to get in touch with the real Ecuadorian spirit. We liked it so much, we could see ourselves coming back in the not-so-distant future…

Woman weaving palm fronds and selling flowers
Nolan on the half bridge

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