Gentle Cuenca – our last stop in South America

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12-24 March 2014.
From Don’s Journal: Wednesday March 12, 2014. So finally we’ve arrived in Cuenca, a place to stop and recuperate from the intensity of our Amazonia adventure and our Galapagos cruise. Time to slow down and stop all the doing for a while. Time to stroll around the streets of Cuenca and enjoy the sights of this beautiful city. Time to get sane again, and to get healthy again.

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The Cuenca area has been inhabited since 8000 BC. A settlement by the Cañari people, dating back to 500 BC, was known as Guapondeleg, meaning ‘land as big as heaven’. I can imagine the early nomads in their soft hide clothing, carrying spears and herding llama, choosing this place: a beautiful expansive valley surrounded by mountains, and lush with the plentiful water of four rivers flowing through it. Land as big as heaven indeed.

Less than fifty years before the Spanish invasion, the Inca, after a protracted struggle, conquered the Cañari and changed the town’s name first to Tomebamba then to Pumapungo, and developed it into a regional capital that rivaled the Inca capital of Cusco in its magnificence. Spanish occupation came in the late 1500’s and the name was changed again, to Cuenca, after the city in Spain.

If you google Cuenca, Ecuador you will find more than half of the first page devoted to links dealing with real estate and expat retirement. Cuenca offers low cost living, good health care, natural beauty, a mild climate, and loads of cultural opportunities. Approximately five to ten thousand US and Canadian expats live there along with about half a million Ecuadorians.

We arrived in Cuenca after three weeks exploring Buenos Aires, three weeks dashing like mad things all over Patagonia, two weeks travelling by bus through the Atacama desert in Chile, a three-day overland trip across the high Andes in Bolivia, three weeks exploring the Cusco-Machu Picchu area, a week in Lima, nine days exploring the Amazon jungle, nearly two weeks attending a major dance and music festival in Puno, Peru, a week in Quito, and just over a week snorkeling and hiking in the Galapagos. This six-month jaunt involved eight major altitude changes, up and down, resulting in low energy and lack of stamina every time we went up again. We were exhausted. We didn’t really know just how exhausted we were – that came later in Cyprus when it all caught up with us – but we did know we didn’t want to go out and explore all that much. We settled into our apartment and found our way to the local markets and grocery stores.

Slowly we ventured out and began exploring the Spanish colonial core of the town: elegant buildings from a bygone era, riverside pathways, and open squares with graceful gardens. It is, justifiably, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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One day we walked some way out of the central core, across the Pan American Highway, and up the stairs, all 440 of them, to see the view of Cuenca from the village of Turi,

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and on another day we visited the beautiful Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the hallmark symbol of the city with its unique blue and white tiled domes.

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We visited the Museo Banco Central with its fabulous life-size dioramas of traditional village life and its collection of shrunken heads, and then continued on into the gardens, and the ruins of the Inca city of Pumapungo. We did not find the ruins in any way remarkable, but then we’d been spoilt by having visited the best of the Inca ruins in and around Cusco and at Machu Picchu.

There’s an aviary in the gardens next to Pumapungo with many exotic birds, and a pond that’s home to some geese with faces only a mother could love.

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Walking home from the gardens we happened upon some traditional dancing in the square near our favourite supermarket. Of course we happened upon traditional dancing; I think we draw it to us like a magnet wherever we go. And the peoples of South America, especially the peoples of the Andes, have a rich and abundant tradition of music and dancing that has survived and thrived through hundreds of years. Any excuse will do for a festival, any excuse for dressing up and dancing. I have no idea of the purpose of this particular celebration but I’m glad I got to see it.

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Wandering all through the town, in various places, we discovered some fabulous street art (what’s the meaning of it all?),

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a huge flock of pigeons in one of the squares,

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and a unique shop dummy.

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My sister Julie got me looking at shop dummies. She has been photographing them all over the world putting together a portfolio showing the insidious dominance of the fashion industry’s ideal of female beauty – always and only tall, thin, blond, blue-eyed and Caucasian, no matter the country. Andean (and Indian) women could not be further from this ‘ideal’ and yet I saw blond, blue-eyed shop dummies in both South America and India. Don’t they make black-haired brown-skinned shop dummies? Probably not.

The local market, spilling out onto the street.

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On a bright shining sunny day, the heat intense, the sun relentless, she was sitting all morning selling vegetables and she forgot her hat. No matter. A lettuce leaf serves just as well.

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Roaming fruit vendors

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Although we explored the town, and did a couple of day trips out of town, Cuenca was very much a rest stop for us. We’d been travelling hard for six months and neither of us had much energy left. Plus we’d been flung, once again, from sea level in the Galapagos to 2500 metres in Cuenca, so were feeling the altitude. It was our last stop in South America and we were pretty much travelled out. Gentle Cuenca was the perfect place to be.

Next post: The Inca ruins of Inga Pirca, and the Cañari market.






© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – not just a travel blog, 2010-2014.

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