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Cuenca, Ecuador, in “The Heart of the Volcano”


This is the second part of a series about visiting Ecuador. To read part one, visit Quito, Ecuador, in “The Land of Eternal Spring.”

The Pan American Highway, the world’s longest road system, runs 29,800 miles from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.

The Ecuador portion, “Troncal de la Sierra,” commonly called E-35, is the country’s major highway. E-35 is primarily inland and links many of the main cities and villages. From Quito, you can drive north to Otavalo or south toward Cuenca. Many visitors opt to fly, but the drive gives 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 market 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. There is also a factory of musical instruments that is accessible with an organized tour. Several touring musical groups make their home here.

La Hosteria Hacienda Pinsaqui was originally built in 1790 and, after an earthquake in 1867, lovingly reconstructed. During the colonial period, Spain granted huge estates called “haciendas” to the important families in Ecuador. 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.

Pinsaqui offers 30 suites, each one different but all with luxurious amenities and antique furnishings.

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 foot tower the owner could watch his fields.

The hacienda offers a full range of 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 per night for two.

The French Academy of Sciences launched the French Geodosic Mission, in 1735, to determine whether 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 resulted from 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.

Two areas 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 a 100-ft. stone trapezoid crowned with a brass globe replicating the Earth’s position.

A multi-level ethnological museum is inside the monument, providing a wonderful overview of the regions and cultures of the country. Several dioramas are devoted to the two distinct cultures of Afro-Ecuadorians.

Approximately 650 feet 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, and day and night are always equal; they can also 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 display and visitors 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 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 three levels, around four rivers, 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. The intact historical center of the city is 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 Romantic 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. Though it is made in Ecuador, it is referred to as a Panama hat because they were exported for workers constructing the Panama Canal. Some forms of the hat date 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.

Several outstanding day trips from Cuenca 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 custom 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 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.

Cuenca has a full range of accommodations, but 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 Wi-fi.

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