Wednesday, November 17, 2010

CUENCA 7 – TRAVEL BEYOND THE CITY LIMITS

CUENCA THROUGH AN AUSSIE GRINGO’S EYES

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.



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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.
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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.
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NEXT: CUENCA 8 - AFTER DARK - END OF MANY PERFECT DAYS


Robyn Mortimer