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17 Dec 2011

Cuenca, Ecuador, in the heart of the volcano (Part Two)

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December 17, 2011 Category: Travel Posted by:

By Renée S. Gordon


The Pan American Highway, a system of roads that runs 29,800-miles from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, is the longest in the world. The idea for the road was put forth at the Fifth International Conference of American States in 1923 but the proposal stalled until the 1930s. It was completed in 1963.


The Ecuador portion, “Troncal de la Sierra,” is the country’s major highway and is designated E-35. Unlike the coastal routes in some other South American countries Ecuador’s road is primarily inland and links many of the main cities and villages. There are day trips from Quito or you can head south and drive to Cuenca. Many visitors opt to fly, if your time is limited this is the best choice, but the drive will give you a real taste of the country. It should be noted that a segment of the highway is a toll road.


Otavalo is 60-miles north of Quito and is the site of one of the most wonderful indigenous markets in Ecuador. The market predates the Incas and the Otavaleños sell their handcrafted goods daily in the square with an especially large market on Saturdays. This is a great place to purchase souvenirs and take photos of the Otavaleños in traditional garb.


After experiencing the market, the next stop is Peguche, a village famous for textile weaving and making of traditional instruments. Several touring musical groups make their home here and there is a factory of musical instruments that is accessible with an organized tour.


Spain granted huge estates to the important families in Ecuador during the colonial period. These families instituted a land ownership system in which the “hacienda” provided housing and food to the native people in return for their labor. When the system was dismantled many, families kept some land and the main house and now offer these historic buildings to travelers as fine lodgings and gourmet dining establishments.


La Hosteria Hacienda Pinsaqui was originally built in 1790 and, after an earthquake in 1867, lovingly reconstructed. There are 30 suites, each one different but all with luxurious amenities and antique furnishings. Simone Bolivar stayed there, in Suite #1, on his trips during the war for independence and much of the room remains original.


The 300-year old historic garden blooms all year and includes the remains of a watchtower. Pinsaqui, “the house between the rivers,” was a 16,000-acre estate and from the 20-ft tower the owner could watch his fields.


The hacienda offers a full range of outdoor activities including horseback riding and theraputic massage, and the on-site restaurant presents some of the finest cuisine in the country. A stay in La Hosteria Hacienda Pinsaqui is an unforgettable and affordable experience at $139.00 per night for two.


The French Academy of Sciences launched the French Geodosic Mission, in 1735, to determine whether or not the Earth was a perfect sphere or bulged at the center. One team went to Lapland and the other team was sent to the Viceroyalty of Peru. Legend says that the name Ecuador was a result of this expedition because the party grew tired of writing Viceroyalty of Peru and referred to the area as Ecuador because of its position on the equator, the imaginary that separates the northern and southern hemispheres. Ecuador was chosen because other areas on the equator were less accessible. Their measurements are the foundation of the current metric system.


There are two areas that commemorate the mission and the equatorial line. The more elaborate of the two, the Middle of the World Monument, Mitad del Mundo, is actually misplaced. The monument consists of a walkway lined with busts of the expedition members leading to a100-ft. stone trapezoid crowned with a brass globe replicating the Earth’s position.


A multi-level ethnological museum is inside the monument and it provides a wonderful overview of the regions and cultures of the country. There are several dioramas devoted to the 2 distinct cultures of Afro-Ecuadorians.


Approximately 650-ft south of the Mitad del Mundo is the Museo Intinan located by GPS on the Equatorial Line of latitude zero degrees zero minutes and zero seconds. The complex is a museum that features Ecuadorian culture and crafts as well as providing photo ops with one foot in each hemisphere. On a guided tour, visitors learn that all the constellations are visible here, day and night are always equal and you can participate in scientific experiments.


An interesting part of the tour is a visit to the area that illustrates the lifestyle of people in the Amazon. Several real shrunken heads are on view and we are informed that, when shrunken, your head is about the size of your fist.


Close by Intinan is one of Ecuador’s most interesting hotel-restaurants, El Crater. The building is perched on the edge of the only inhabited crater in the world with awesome panoramic views. The restaurant serves international cuisine and it and each of the luxury suites looks out over the geo-botanical preserved region. This is a must do.


Cuenca is 275-miles from Quito but it too is an ancient and historic city laid out in the formal orthogonal plan designated by the Spanish king. It is built on 3 levels, 4 rivers cross the city and it is 2,500-miles above sea level. The city was called Tomebamba when the Incas took it in 1480, and under Spanish rule, in 1557, it became Santa Ana de los Rios de Cuenca. On December 1, 1999, the intact historical center of the city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Walking tours of the city begin at the 1806 Casa de la Posados, the oldest house in the city. The house was used as an inn for voyagers who came to trade here. The house has original tiles, shutters and a mural on the wall between the first and second floors.


San Sebastian Church was constructed using typical Spanish architectural elements. A huge cross outside the church replicates the ones that stood at the entrance to the city to awe the indigenous people. Natives were sometimes punished on the site.


The Municipal Museum of Modern Art is situated inside the 1880s Temperance House, a colonial rehab facility for the wealthy. The museum features art exhibits and is a prime example of colonial architecture.


Cuenca’s Old and New Cathedrals are both historic wonders. The Old Cathedral, Church of el Sagrario, was built in 1560 using stones from the ruins of Tomebamba in the walls and foundations. This church was only for the Spanish. An artistic highlight is the tableau of life-sized figures of Christ and the Apostles.


The Cathedral of the Inmaculada Conception, the New Cathedral, was built from 1884-1974 in Renaissance, Gothic and Romanic styles. The cathedral is one of the largest in South America because the bishop wanted a cathedral “as big as his faith.” Two important items in the interior are the gold-flake covered altarpiece and a swarthy skinned Christ figure.


Ecuador’s most notable export is the Panama hat. Yes it is made in Ecuador and is only referred to as a Panama hat because they were exported for workers constructing the Panama Canal. Some form of the hat dates back to pre-colonial Ecuador. The best place to learn the history of the hat and watch them being handcrafted, is Homero Ortega P. and Hijos. The hats made here are sold worldwide and can cost as much as $3000. Several of the rich and famous have purchased hats here and you too can shop on the premises.


There are several outstanding day trips from Cuenca that will round out your fantastic Ecuador excursion.


Chordeleg a pre-Incan town 30-miles from Cuenca is the most significant craft center in the region. The plaza, José Maria Vargas, contains a Monument to the Artisans.


San Bartolome is a historic Spanish town established near the gold mines. It is known as the “guitar village” because musicians visit the craftsmen here to have guitars made. The instruments are beautiful and are crafted for you for $120-$350. Special notice should be taken of the traditional houses with tile and small iron figures on the roofs.


Piedra de Agua Hot Springs and Thermal Bath located in Banos de Cuenca was carved out of the volcanic stone. This completely unique facility offers thermal-volcanic services including massage caves, mud pool, and underground termas. Clients pay one fee for a day of complete services, a mere $30.00.


Cuenca has a full range of accommodations but if you are looking a first class historic place to stay is Hotel Posada del Angel. This restored colonial building is a short walk from the city center and stays include full breakfast and WIFI.


Ecuador is exciting, historic, culturally rich and affordable. You will love the middle of the world.


I wish you smooth travels!



“1000 Places to See Before You Die” by Patricia Schultz is a perfect gift for active or armchair travelers. Each destination is listed with full descriptive information. You can choose a place to visit or reminisce about places you have been.

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