On 2nd November each year Cuenca, like the rest of Ecuador, celebrates the Feast of All Souls or Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), and a day later on the 3rd it marks the anniversary of its independence from Spain. The two events form one merged celebration, and when, as in 2013, they fall at a weekend, the city really takes on party mood. We arrived here on Friday 1st to find the Parque Calderón full of locals watching the All Saints Day procession which wound slowly round two sides of the square. We hadn’t at that point learned of the independence festivities so were a little puzzled by the floats that seemed to depict periods in the city’s history, but when we picked up a leaflet called “Viva Cuenca” later in the day, all became clear.
Viva Cuenca – long live Cuenca – is the cultural festival that the city stages on and around this time, with live music in the streets, art exhibitions, dancing and much more. As well as this parade we enjoyed part of a festival celebrating the cultures of all the Latin American countries, with dancers from Cuba and Argentina, among others, and stalls selling alpaca scarves from Peru and wood carvings from the Brazilian Amazonia (see the photos in my Rio Tomebamba tip). We hadn’t planned it, but we were lucky to be in the city at this special time and to be able to join in some of the fun.
Next tip: Cuenca’s old Cathedral, El Sagrario
The Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead is commemorated in Ecuador as in many South and Central American countries, although not to the same extent as in Mexico perhaps. Its observance is strongest among the native people, the Kichwa, and especially so here in Cuenca. The festival falls on 2nd November, which was during our visit to the city, and we saw lots of stalls, mainly near the Iglesia del Carmen, selling these typical decorations in white and purple which people were buying to decorate the graves of their relatives when they visited them for the celebrations. It is the custom to pay these relatives a visit on this day, much as you would if they were still alive – take them a gift, enjoy a meal (usually a family picnic on or next to the grave) and maybe play some favourite music while reminiscing about days gone by.
One element of the festival that is peculiar to Ecuador is the consumption on and around the festival time of colada morada and guagua de pan. The former is a thick drink (or some would say a thin porridge) made from purple maize and Andean blackberries, flavoured with cinnamon and other spices and served hot. The guagua de pan that typically accompanies it is a (usually sweet) loaf shaped to look like a swaddled baby. Guagua means baby or small child in the native language, Quechua, and pan means bread in Spanish, demonstrating the dual nature of the origins of the custom, mixing native and Roman Catholic beliefs. I tried colada morada in The Coffeetree café and rather liked it, but as I’d earlier had a rather large lunch I didn’t order the accompanying guagua de pan.
Next tip: traditional dress in Cuenca
If you have been elsewhere in Ecuador before arriving in Cuenca you will have seen plenty of people, especially women, wearing the often-colourful traditional costumes. And here is no exception, but if you look carefully you will notice the differences between the dress here and, for example, in and around Otavalo. One of these differences is in how the women here wear their hair – in two plaits instead of the single thick one of Quito or the unplaited pony tail of Otavalo. Hats here are made of straw, rather than felt, and skirts are not the sombre black of Otavalo but brightly coloured, often in velvet, and edged with colourful, even sparkling embroidery using sequins and metallic threads. We saw some of these skirts for sale in the shops – their shape is simple, just a tube of fabric, with several rows of gathers at the top and a ribbon to tie them on. They are also shorter than we saw elsewhere, being mostly worn knee length.
The women in my main photo and photo two, buying Day of the Dead mementoes near the Carmen de la Asuncion church, have the traditional straw hat and double plait, but are otherwise in quite modern clothing. But the two in my third photo, taken just outside the same church, are in the full traditional dress, as are the little girls in photo four, who were on their way to the procession in the Parque Calderón when I snapped this picture.
Next tip: a city tour
In many accounts I read of visits to Cuenca, here on VT or elsewhere, a trip to a “Panama” hat factory was mentioned, so I was quite pleased that one was included in our tour with Wilson, despite being concerned that it might prove to be little more than a sales pitch aimed at persuading us to buy one. As it turned out it was a very informative visit and with only a little pressure to buy – which we resisted, more or less!
The factory we visited was one of the most respected in the city, Homero Ortega & Sons. The visit started with some history, and an explanation of the name, Panama hat. Everyone in Ecuador will tell you that the hats come not from that Central American country, but from Ecuador – and a specific part of the country, near the coast, where the toquilla plant, from whose straw they are made, grows. The reason for the misleading name comes from the fact that, like many other 19th and early 20th century goods from South America, the hats were shipped via Panama to be exported to Europe, America and even as far as Asia. They were popularised by President Roosevelt who wore one when he visited the Panama Canal during its construction – thus probably also contributing to the adoption of the name, Panama, for the hats.
Wilson told us all this and more as we studied the photos in the first of the three rooms at the factory that make up what they slightly grandly call “The Magic of the Hat” Museum. In the second room we learned about the process of making a hat, only part of which happens here at the factory. The hats are first woven by local women, working at home in the villages outside the city. They are delivered to the factory where they are examined and graded. Homero Ortega buy only the best of the examples sent to them, so those that don’t make the grade will be sold instead in local shops at rather lower prices. Those that are selected are graded according to the weave (more strands of straw to the inch gives a finer quality hat) and sent back out of the factory, this time to specialist hat-shapers, usually men, who trim and neaten the edges and shape the hat on a mould. When they come back to the factory for the second time they are bleached, dyed, reshaped and given their final trim. They are then ready to be sold – here in the factory’s shop, through specialist outlets or sent all over the world. The best hats fetch huge sums – some over $1,000! We were shown photos of many famous people wearing Homero Ortega hats, including film stars, politicians and pop singers.
From the little museum we went into the working part of the factory, but unfortunately as it was a holiday weekend very few people were at work and we could only see the machinery (very simple and unchanged for generations) and have an explanation of how things were done.
The museum and factory are open Monday to Friday: 8:00 - 12:30 and 2:30 – 5:30, and Saturday: 8:30 – 12:30.
From here we went on to the inevitable shop, subject of my next tip
Leaving the Plaza San Sebastián by its south eastern corner Wilson led us down a street of small traditional houses, far less grand than most of those nearer the centre of the old city around the Parque Calderón. This is Coronel Guillermo Talbot and in one of the houses on the west side a traditional craftsman, working in tin, has his workshop. Wilson took us in to meet him. It was a fascinating place, the walls covered with examples of his craft and his tools laid out on the small table where he worked – tools he has clearly been using for decades. He proudly showed us his newspaper cuttings with several articles from local papers in which he has featured. Wilson acted as translator as he explained that sadly his son, like most younger people, has no interest in following in his footsteps and the craft of engraving in tin as he does it is dying out.
I could have made this a shopping tip, as of course all his work is for sale, but I’m sure you could come and visit just to see the work. Probably though, like us, you will feel that you want to make at least a small purchase to acknowledge his time and support him – and as a memento of the visit. We bought two of the pretty tin stars that he makes, to give as Christmas tree ornaments to my family. If you want something more than this there are photo frames, larger ornaments and pictures, many (but not all) of a religious theme. We paid $6 for each of our stars, which is at the lower end of the prices. If buying a more expensive item you may want to haggle but we didn’t as we were mainly buying to thank him and haggling seemed to go against that somewhat!
Next tip: the Plaza del Cruz del Vado
The Tomebamba river flows through the city of Cuenca and its banks are a great place to take a stroll. Besides the quaint riverside houses and tree covered paths, the banks are a good place to have a peek into local traditional life as many locals still lay out their clothes on the banks of the river to dry. This has been a Cuenca tradition for centuries.
As with most towns, natural water is always a big attraction. Cuenca doesn’t have a big lake nor is it a seaside resort but it does have a swiftly running river that is a great respite from the city center though it’s only a few steps away. Literally, you have to go down some steps to get to it but its well worth the effort. It feels like you’re not even in the city anymore and is a great place to relax. It’s what the locals do, you should try it too.