We venture outside of town to visit the workshop of José Jiménez, perhaps the most famous weaver in Ecuador. He and his wife Ana produce beautiful shawls from yarn colored with natural dyes, as well as intricate embroidered ones, several of them adorning Selma Hayak's neck in the movie Frida. The pieces they produce are in high–end shops around the country, or you can buy them in a shop next to where they do the weaving for very reasonable prices.
After a day of grabbing market snacks, we're ready for a real lunch and pull into the gates of Hacienda Uzhupud to dine in their Restaurant Doña Eulalia. They're prepared for our appetites, serving up the traditional filling foods this country is known for. I plow through locra potato and cheese soup, an empanada, hominy, more potatoes, and a pork cutlet as big as my plate. Then comes dessert...
This hacienda is only about 45 minutes from Cuenca, but tourists come here to live the rural life for a while. They can milk the cows, pick up the morning eggs to be used in their omelet, or ride horses around the ranch. Of course there's a nice swimming pool and well–equipped rooms when it's time to hand those farming duties back to the workers.
We return to the city on a highway that was shut down for a year after a collapsing mountain caused a massive landslide in 1993 that dammed up the river. The flooding destroyed more than 1,000 homes and created what was temporarily the largest lake in Ecuador. Then after the water eventually broke through 33 days later, there was more damage downstream.
Into the Wilds of Cajas National Park
It would be a shame to visit Cuenca without exploring the striking countryside that lies a short drive from the city. Some of the city's drinking water comes from the least populated areas, including stunning Cajas National Park. Looking more like Patagonia than Ecuador's better–known spine of volcanoes, this park ranges from around 3,000 to 4,200 meters (more than 13,000 feet). My light jacket isn't cutting it as the wind howls past us at the lookout point, a panorama of jagged peaks and a lake with one rowboat on it at the base.
Here at Laguna Toreado, only 92 visitors a day are allowed to pass the checkpoint and venture down to the lakes' waters, with a maximum of 20 at a time in a group. There is a network of trails through the park and if it weren't for the lack of layers I have with me, I'd be aching to go explore these valleys carved out by ancient glaciers. The visitors' center highlights the animals that make their home here, including rabbits, pumas, jaguars, and falcons.
After a trout lunch at Dos Chorreras with a warm beverage, we finally warm back up in a big way at the Piedra de Agua hot springs in Cuenca's suburb of Baños. "Which is the hottest pool?" I ask the attendant and I head straight there, taking advantage of Ecuador's thermal activity just below the surface.
The last artisan stop is at the pottery shop of José Encalada in Cuenca. He has been making brown pots and his signature black pottery since 1962 and is still actively cranking out new pieces on a regular basis. The black pottery is not made from black clay, but rather is colored with charcoal dust and glazed. Many of his pieces adorn local hotels, restaurants, and haciendas.
I've seen a good overview of what the Cuenca region offers on this three–day tour, but as any of the local expatriates will tell you, after years they're still discovering new gems. Because my LAN Airlines flight changed gates in Quito at the last minute and I didn't hear the announcement in Spanish, I arrived on a later flight and missed the first stop on my group's tour: the Homer Ortega hat factory. They may be called Panama hats, but they're made by skilled reed weavers in Ecuador and in this factory that is also a museum, you can learn about the whole process. I don't think I'll be retiring in Cuenca since I have a home abroad elsewhere, but I've got the hat factory on my list as the first stop the next time I visit this enchanting destination.
If you go:
The best hotel in Cuenca is Mansion Alcazar in the historic center. For a large hotel with lots of facilities check into Oro Verde and for a horseback riding hacienda experience, look into the cozy Hosteria Caballo Campana just outside of the city. For more information on the area, see the Cuenca Tourism site. To book a tour, the company with the most experience is Metropolitan Touring.
Story and photos by Timothy Scott.