Saturday, November 20, 2010




I know, I know.  I did promise six parts but hey! It was all I could do to keep Cuenca’s delights down to this.  To compound the problem I keep reading other Cuenca enthusiasts blogs discovering places we missed.  I’ll just have to come back.

It’s dark now, let’s say its Friday night and you’re having trouble getting home by car or taxi.  The streets are thronged bumper to bumper.   The young are heading  to the nightclub scene,  families are shopping in the modern supermarkets.  The fruit and vegetable Mercado’s are closing for the night. We sit in the taxi advancing inch by inch through the traffic, but for our heavy shopping bags of ingredients for tonight’s meal we would hop out and walk.

If the current fiesta or celebration is Corpus Christi the night will be filled with colour and smoke as effigies are burned in the streets.

Above in the sky I sight a globo, a lighted balloon like a large candle set aloft somewhere down by the airport.  More follow to challenge the twinkling stars in the night sky.  The first of the loud fire cracker bombs resound with a deafening bang, some I swear are lit by next door neighbours on the other unseen side of high walls, they sound so close.

 Depending what occasion it is the bomb launchers are celebrating these amateur missiles will continue exploding for some time.   At a dollar a cracker, handily supplied on a stick in the local markets, they’re cheap enough to buy in bulk. I was tempted to buy the lot and corner my own ‘not for re-sale’ stockpile.  But then I’d be called a spoil sport.

As night falls I mull over the events of this day and all the days we spent here and I consider yet again the qualities of Cuenca, and there are so many.  Until I’m suddenly hit with the revelation that not only is this a clean city, a colourful one, even a happy community, I suddenly realise it is above all a polite city, people are well mannered.  

There is a  quiet dignity in Cuenca’s communal bearing and I wonder is it to a large extent due to the strong combination of family and religion.  

Religion plays a huge part in the daily life of Cuenca.  You have only to visit the Churches; on a Sunday or saints day; they are packed, standing room only.  Living as I do in a country where the sombre black habits of Catholic nuns have been replaced by conventional dress and where in fact religious orders have rapidly decreased it was a surprise to see the vast numbers of black garbed nuns going about their business in the streets of Cuenca.

To see them enmasse at a joint school parade through Cuenca streets took me very quickly back to childhood and carefree days in convent schools. To see the nuns so obviously enjoying their students prowess on stilts warmed my heart.  

That same dignity is evident in the elderly,  their backs bowed by a lifetime carrying heavy loads, faces moulded by generations of history. 

We came across this gracious old lady on the track beside Ingapirca, the 500 year old Incan ruins roughly two hours by road from Cuenca.  No doubt her trek along this country road to a neighbours house was a daily affair.  Her age?  I could hazard only a hazy guess, late eighties, perhaps early nineties, but I bet those legs of hers have quite a few years life left in them yet.

I can only surmise she is taking the kettle to be filled with perhaps her daily meal, or even milk.  Or maybe the daily jaunt is primarily a chance to gossip and chat with old friends..

My mind jumps back and forth between this day and all the other days we’ve spent roaming this small but exquisite part of South America.  Above all I will remember the children,  their wide eyed enjoyment of life, the close bond between all members of the family.

I snapped this pretty young Cañar girl with her younger sister gazing enviously through a barrier to other youngsters frolicking and skylarking in a local swimming pool.

Were the sisters visitors from out of town, was this a rare sight of bare bodies in a communal swimming pool; were they envious and wishing to be part of the fun?

In this next collage of Ecuador’s children the top two boys sit wide eyed, enthralled with a mariachi band and prancing puppets;  while the little charmers I snapped, bottom right,  in the mountain town of Chordeleg had inched bit by sneaky bit into a video shop to watch a Disney fantasy unfolding on a DVD player..

The budding artist with other pupils from a convent school had taken over Cuenca’s central park to showcase their work in progress.

The little beauty in the bright blue top shared an outdoor table with us in the township of Banos under the shadow of the brilliant blue church.  Youngest daughter of the stall owner, she watched us closely for the entire meal, eyes never wavering, and despite constant coaxing refused to crack a smile.

My reluctant traveller is a finicky eater, he dislikes eating out at even the best of venues. But in Ecuador he sampled the fare at several outdoor stalls and I enjoyed watching the slow realisation creep over his face.  Hey this food is really good!

So despite our dining companions poker face we all hoed into the freshly roasted pig on a spit with crispy baked potato and declared them pretty good tucker.

I could ramble on giving dozens, hundreds more reasons why Cuenca is so special.  You will just have to take my word for it.  But I should tell you I’m not alone; in  its April 2010 edition,  the prestigious International Living Magazine declared Cuenca the world’s number one choice as a retirement haven.  I’m not surprised.

Had my reluctant traveller and myself not been of such advanced years, we too may have joined the exodus to Ecuador.  I’m afraid though its a bit too late in life to learn Spanish, and we've left it far too late to tramp the Cajas.

 But right now I’m beginning to yawn, it’s been a long, long, day,  three months long to be exact.  Like every other night I’ve spent here I am plum tuckered out, and so is my reluctant traveller.

This has been probably the longest period of time I have spent in the one overseas location.  It has been both an education and a revelation, and an experience I would recommend to anyone.  We have grown close to the Ecuadoran people, to Cuenca’s people.  They have been unfailingly polite and patient with us.  Struggling to understand our abysmal attempts at Spanish, filling in the yawning gaps with smiles and laughter.

God only knows the true meaning of the many words I managed to mangle.  Next time I promise to swat up before I arrive, correct numbers and pronunciation might have been a help.

Inevitably we face the end of all our days in this paradise.  All too soon our visit has come to an end;  though not without a few hair raising twists I’ve written about in other separate stories.  Like all visits to family members settled in lands far from home we brace ourselves for the inevitable tears.

Our time here has satisfied our curiosity, assured us our youngsters  chosen path is not a hasty or ill conceived whim.   Mind you these children of ours, daughter and husband, are no longer youngsters, in fact they are fast approaching middle age.  They are the brave new face of world travel and immigration.  For them a place to call home need not be dictated by birth but instead by a system of global selection, a process of elimination and informed choice.

My daughter and her husband have chosen wisely.  Their beautiful house restored to its former glory,  their lives filled with friends and customers who have become friends. With a taste of nostalgia for the birthplace they left behind they have named their venture Kookaburra Cafe and Accommodation.

I envy them their courage and their new life.



Wednesday, November 17, 2010



The plan is to break down three months travel into a one day 24 hour time frame. It’s proving to be a tight squeeze.

Entry into and out of Cuenca, by road, involves high mountain travel.  There is no way to avoid it.  And who would want to;  to view even a tiny part of the great Andes is a mind blowing experience and one I wouldn’t have missed for all the tea in China.

Having said that it would be remiss of me not to mention that at times such unavoidable travel is not for the squeamish or faint hearted.  

Living in Cuenca reminded me just a little of Hobart in Tasmania and its particular relationship with the ever sentinel Mt Wellington.  Locals there speak constantly of the mountain looming above them. Looks like snow today, or, there’s rain coming in. 

Mind you Mt Wellington in comparison to the Cajas and the Andes in particular is like comparing failed attempts at  meringue  to a cordon bleu chef’s many layered confection of glorious  peaks.  One is minuscule, the other colossal.

In Cuenca the talk is all about the Cajas, pronounced Cahars, the nearby National Park of over 28,000 hectares, of 270 lakes and lagoons and 4450 metres above sea level;  the source of Cuenca’s rivers, the Tomebamba and four others that tumble and rush all the way to the legendary Amazon.  When it rains in the Cajas you can see the clouds shrouding the mountains, if you picnic up there in the national park you take gloves and extra warm clothes.

Son in law Chris is a keen outdoors man, an orienteer,  he loves nothing more than to tramp for hours in the rugged wilderness.

His idea of fun is to slog through boggy tundra like undergrowth, climb rocky outcrops, his reward the breath taking views  of  pristine terrain untouched by human hand.

Son-in-law Chris

Cajas photos  by Jesse Lewis, Biologist with an Ecuadoran conservation project.

 My particular interaction with the Cajas was less intense.  A necessary car journey up and over the mountains and down to the coast at Guayaquil.  On that trip after less than 30 minutes climbing ever higher we came across free ranging llamas grazing by the side of the road.  A far cry from the wandering kangaroos of home.  

The next photograph clearly shows why I say the drive from Cuenca to Guayaquil is not for the faint hearted.  It's steeply downhill most of the way. Fortunately we had the services of a skilled driver and new model vehicle, plus the added advantage of perfect weather. 

But not all our excursions were in the scary category.  Around Cuenca itself there is a network of roads that take you up and through the lesser foothills of the giant Andes.  These foothills are themselves in anyone’s language high mountains and in any direction, within a few hours travel time of Azuay’s capital, they reveal a plethora of colourful villages and towns.

Semi rural life amid steeply grassed slopes. The further we travelled the more remote the communities became. In Australia we’re used to wide open spaces, usually dry and dusty with farms and outback stations described in the thousands of acres.  Here we saw only the occasional livestock and small plots intensively farmed.

The national costume worn with aplomb by the Cañar women is the norm for them, even in the country, their everyday wear.  In Cuenca there are retail shops specialising in the pleated skirts the women wear, their shawls and of course their distinctive hats. The shops do a roaring trade.

Skirt styles and colours are many and varied, but always the skirt is pleated.  And while the shawls may sometimes be a fashion statement they are mainly used as a useful carrying tool. A swift arrangement of fabric, a tight knot.  Small children or a load of produce niftily tied on their back.


And everywhere we went there was a church, always in the centre of the community, freshly painted, a masterpiece of beauty and especially on Sundays packed with worshippers.  They say in Cuenca alone there are 52 churches, one for every Sunday in the year.  I managed to see perhaps 15 or so.

This blue church in the thermal springs town of Banos on the outskirts of Cuenca is just one of the many extraordinary churches in Cuenca.  We visited on a Sunday morning when there was standing room only for the congregation.

I particularly liked the way stalls were grouped outside the church waiting for the service to end and worshippers to flood out.  Stalls selling everything from cakes and sweets to pigs on spits, fruit and vegetables and flowers and produce.  

It gave the act of attending Sunday Mass a deeper more integral meaning, instead of racing home the community mingled chatting, exchanging news.

This church in Chordeleg, a town some hours distant from Cuenca, dominates the small town square and park, its design, despite the colour, reminiscent of a Bavarian chocolate box.

Buses are South America’s lifeline.  Cuenca has hundreds and for not much more than a dollar you can enjoy an afternoon driving through Cuenca’s rural suburbs and nearby towns.  Bus services are frequent, as you can see, one arriving in the outlying township of Banos, the other departing, with plenty more at various stages along the way.

Buses are well patronised by locals, in peak hours packed to the hilt.  On longer trips its not unusual to have a travelling salesmen walking up and down the aisle pitching a particular product with either a TV show playing on a small screen or salsa music emanating from loud speakers.  Thankfully though that doesn’t occur on every bus.

In another direction on the way to Chordeleg we pass through the market town of Gualaceo sharing the Santa Barbara River crossing with an assortment of livestock and pedestrians by way of the covered bridge .  Our visit coincides with the weekend animal market, farmers buying and selling livestock. 

On the same road to Chordeleg we came across this little touch of rural humour.

I imagine the bovine in this series of snaps is well used to the track from farm house to field and the dangers lurking on the busy road. She knows full well the nursery rhyme we all learn from an early age.

 A novel twist on the basic rule of looking to the left and then to the right,  though we reverse the order in Australia to make sure we never, never get run over.  If the cow could talk I’m sure she would agree.  Cautious lady though, she does her own double check just in case.

More distant treks revealed orchid farms and ancient ruins, thermal springs and small markets, Ekat weavers and ladies weaving the special straw for the preliminary stages of the Panama Hats.  

As an Australian gringo I could never tire of the ever changing scene.  For me the wonder of it all is  how completely unspoiled this particular part of Ecuador really is.

And just to show how very proud Cuenca is of it’s reputed 52 churches I couldn’t resist including just a few of the winning cards in this deck I found in a souvenir shop. 

In  my estimation the churches all came up trumps, especially with the accumulated result making perfect if kitschy gifts to take home.


Robyn Mortimer

Thursday, November 11, 2010



Cuenca is a paradise for happy snappers – I can’t believe I took so many.  In this age of digital cameras and instant images I can only say ‘Eat your heart out Mr Kodak!’

The faces of Cuenca are striking, Cañar, Incan, the influence of Spain, all evident in their flashing eyes, friendly smiles. 

The Ecuadoran people are not an affluent society but they are a proud one. Their Canaris history can be traced back to the cave dwellers of 8060BC. Their culture has survived invasion by the Incas and by the Spaniards.  They have enjoyed life’s dizzy heights of wealth and power and weathered its tragic lows.

Today many of their young men make the difficult temporary migration to other countries to seek their fortune; the United States a popular destination.  They send their earnings back to Ecuador, to family left behind, wives, parents, children. We were often stopped in the streets by some of these men, now returned, asking where we came from, in turn telling their stories of life in Miami or perhaps New York.

Or sometimes people stopped simply to ask why we were in their country , and more to the point,  did we like it here.   Some spoke English, happy to converse in a language learned in far away places. 

Others like this lady from Samos was especially pleased that Jenny and Chris could speak her language.

Sometimes a passer-by invited my camera to capture his image, other times I stole the moment delighting in a novel pose, or a beautiful face.


And there were times I had merely to lean out of our first floor window to snap the passing parade,  in this case  a weekend marathon followed some weeks later by a billy cart derby. In each case traffic was briefly brought to a halt in normally busy Calle Larga.

Cuencans are outspoken advocates of their civil rights.  The few demonstrations I observed were loud and emotional; well organised with buses bringing supporters from outlying districts,  but not unruly.  They may have held up traffic for a while, but once speeches were made and heard most dispersed fairly quickly.  I was amused to notice ice cream vendors moving through the crowd, the demonstration quickly becoming a social, finger licking occasion.

 Cuenca youngsters are polite, I rarely saw a tantrum or any gross misbehaviour.  School uniforms are clean and tidy,  the older children project a confidence and awareness of current affairs.  High school and University students do on occasion take to the streets to voice their opinion, as these youngsters did on Calle Larga,  and perhaps this is to be applauded

The contrast between the old and the new in Ecuador is never more evident than along the spine of the high Andes particularly in the cities of Quito and Cuenca where traditional dress is still worn by indigenous ladies.  They have a quiet, dignified quality as they go about their daily business.  But western influence is creeping in as this photograph shows.

I was always fascinated to see these ladies in their traditional pleated skirts, shawls and distinctive hats, either walking the streets selling baskets of fruit, tending market stalls, or even just stopping at a corner to answer a call on their mobile phones.  Modern communication and business practice somehow seemed at odds with their appearance. 

In the photo below this Cañar family had spent a short while in an internet shop touching base with home or perhaps making contact with family members overseas.  They are obviously comfortable with the new hi tech convenience of the  modern world but show no wish to become glamorised in the western style.

I’ve given a great deal of thought about including the next two images.  You see I snapped them without giving fair warning.  My only purpose was to capture their beauty,  the exquisite evidence of family and indigenous pride.   It wasn’t until the women instinctively and immediately moved to shield the small child from my intrusive lens that I realised how they in turn viewed me.

To them I was a foreign devil, a meddler, a stealer of a child’s soul.

Naturally I felt chastened, even ashamed though I tried to justify it to myself.  And still do.

But not all native Cuencans took this view.  The elderly folk in this next shot had been snapped by a friend visiting from Tasmania.  The photograph she took I don’t have, but I do have the memory of what transpired.

As  she clicked the camera Denise raised her eyebrows in invitation or permission and the gentleman smiled and held out his hand.  My friend misinterpreted and delved in her bag for a coin.  

He took the coin and he and his wife turned it over obviously puzzled.  I wondered if they thought it too much, too little, or perhaps they felt insulted.  I asked a man standing next to me could he ask them in Spanish was everything alright?

He did, and then laughed.  The old man hadn’t asked for money, he had merely wanted to know where we were from, but having accepted the coin he and his wife were amazed that someone had given them a shiny gold dollar for nothing.

The photo I took showed them moving off to cross the street, still puzzling over their great good fortune.  Such is the great simplicity and humour of the people of Cuenca.

I wonder though how long their children will continue their adoption and participation of 21st century technology while still retaining the unique appearance and dress of their mothers and grandmothers. Will the same close family ties and traditions endure in the face of relentless attack by fast food, fast information and mind numbing video games?  Will their way of life survive the invasion of tourists?

If only I could eavesdrop on the 22nd Century.


Robyn Mortimer

Monday, November 8, 2010

Cuenca Part 5. AFTER SIESTA


Keeping tabs on Cuenca is tiring work,  so much to see and do.  A quick snooze works wonders, refreshed after 40 winks here I am back on track with more of Cuenca in a day.

Police in Cuenca are ever present but not overly evident.  When power cuts or exceptional traffic upsets the flow they swing into action controlling any backups in the city centre with a system of whistles that seems remarkably effective. 

Yes there is crime, opportunistic pick pockets do abound but with common sense we never at any time felt threatened.  Having said that though, my reluctant traveller did manage to have some money lifted from his pocket on a bus.  Locals however blamed it on visitors from other South American countries.  As I had found some years ago in Jordan, and later in Tashkent where locals blamed visiting ‘Egypts’ for misdemeanours, here the poor old Peruvians or Columbians take the stick.

 On our usual stroll I came across this policewoman taking a government employee to task for parking on the footpath while unloading plants.  Of course he objects, after all his only consideration is the backup of traffic while unloading.
It wasn't long before passers-by joined in. All could see the drivers point of view except the policewoman who, after lengthy discussion, of course finally won the argument.

   My husband, an Australian and therefore an enthusiastic partaker of fine beer,  has discovered an acceptable local drop available at a nearby grocery outlet and each day he carries his brightly coloured basket up Calle Larga to replenish his supply. 

As he strolls past,  the security guard in the travel centre across the road smiles and waves, the old lady sitting just inside her mini shop frontage gestures an invitation to her browning bananas while the cardboard man staggers by with his load.  By now they are all used to his daily odyssey.

The old lady’s shop is one of the great mysteries of Cuenca.  All day long this elderly lady of indefinable age sits on a stool in the entrance to her very small cluttered and dusty mini shop kept company by an extremely lazy cat. She obviously has regular customers but what they buy I can’t imagine. You can just see the old lady’s yellow baseball cap as she passes the time of day  with two ladies  loaded up with produce from the nearby market to take home. 

The reluctant traveller though is not one of her customers,  he has a brighter, larger more modern shop in mind and he passes by with a nod and smile.  It’s not long before with transaction made he retraces his steps home.  Note the jaunty stride, the heavy basket.

Mission accomplished at the busy  grocery shop of his choice,  my reluctant traveller arrives  home with his daily cache. As daughter Jenny comments ‘There’s no way you can separate an Aussie bloke from his beer’.

     Afternoon is also the time to think about dinner, the nights menu.  Renovation Cuenca style creates huge appetites.

Here we are arriving home, shopping bags full of goodies.  With Jen and Chris heavily involved in their new home’s restoration process we took over the daily cooking, sourcing all our supplies at the constantly busy two level  Mercado 10 de Agosto on Calle Larga just a short stroll from home.  

Central food markets are dotted all over Cuenca; Mercado 9th de Octobre and Ferra Libre just two others.  All are packed with individual stalls bursting with every imaginable delicacy, from home made chocolates to exotic fruits, from fish trucked up from Guayaquil to sides of freshly slaughtered meat lying disconsolately on open benches.

 A small bucket of potatoes is exchanged for a single dollar, the same for a bag of shelled peas or broad beans.  Onions, purple and white displayed minus their outer wrapping, carrots shredded.  Huge mounds of tomatoes and apples, oranges and bananas, an artists palette of colour and substance. A  Mecca for the lazy cook.

Tourists on a tight schedule  seeking the real Ecuador should place a Mercado visit high on their must do list, I guarantee  instant pleasure and hundreds of photos.

Horrified yet perversely compelled I find myself daily wandering through the meat stalls in the Mercado; no part of a cow is wasted, whole heads on display tongues lolling, eyes staring lifeless, axes wielded by men and women alike hacking huge hunks of flesh to hang on display. Apparently no abattoirs in Cuenca. And on the brighter side no flies either.

 I soon learned the meat might look edible, even tasty but for my spoiled Australian taste glands and teeth the steaks and roasting cuts proved impossible to enjoy.  This, for me, would be Cuenca’s only drawback.

The chickens though were a lifesaver, and so too the fish.  Fresh trout from the mountain streams sold at a Saturday organic market appeared on my menu three and four times a week.

At the same market I could have bought guinea pig or cuy as its called in Ecuador, either cooked or ready to prepare. My daughter assured me they were a tasty delicacy, but somehow I couldn’t get my mind around the tiny little clawed paws and the general impression of a mummified carcass.

On one of our walks through the outer suburbs we discovered how eggs were delivered to local shops; on the back of a truck, thousands of them bumping along all day uncovered, nestling neatly in uniform rows on cardboard cartons, driven alternately over conventional  tarmac and cobble stone streets.  I was surprised to see only the one broken egg.  

On the same jaunt we came across this example of high wire electrical spaghetti.

It seems Cuenca has yet to discover health and safety regulations in the work place.

Robyn Mortimer