In one of the old houses on La Condamine, which are gradually being restored, a local artist with a bizarre but very creative mind has undertaken a restoration very different in style. Yes, the old house (dating from 1810) has retained its traditional layout, with small rooms leading off open courtyards. But the décor in those rooms would I am sure shock the original inhabitants, although if you go with an open mind you will be intrigued and entertained.
You must knock for entry (apart from when one of the regular music events is going on) and will be charged just $.50. Believe me, it’s worth it! The whole house is a shrine to the macabre. There are skulls, coffins and tombstones; religious imagery with more than a twist; designs inspired by tattoos, heavy metal music and black magic; even a guillotine! And if you want to use the bathroom facilities (and you must!) you will find yourself washing your hands in water that flows from the “private parts” of an appropriate sculpture – a goddess for the men and an impish creature for the women.
As you can imagine we spent quite some time looking around and taking photos, but after a while took our seats with Wilson in the small open courtyard where we had a coffee. The artist’s wife sat with us and was stringing flowers as she chatted, preparing them for their afternoon visit to the family graves as part of the Day of the Dead celebrations. We wanted to treat Wilson to coffee but she said his was on the house, so we paid $3 for our own two. Definitely something worth doing when in Cuenca if you want a change from the more conventional sights – and if, as Wilson put it, you are not easily offended!
I believe they are open Monday – Friday 9.00 – 21.00, Saturday 9.00 – 23.00 and Sunday 9.00 – 14.00
We finished our tour with Wilson by walking some more interesting streets, peering into a few shops and ending up, a lot later than intended (by mutual agreement!) in the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, which we had already seen and which I have already described. So this is the last of my tips about the sights we visited with him during a long and fascinating morning.
Next tip: the Museo de Los Conceptos
This little square is perched on a ledge above the Rio Tomebamba on the southern edge of the colonial city. There are good views from here over the more modern city on the other side of the river. Its main feature is a cross, called the Cruz del Vado, which is protected by a six-sided structure. This cross was erected as a symbol of protection for travellers who had to cross the waters of Tomebamba River.
Next to the cross is an interesting modern sculpture depicting the Ecuadorean version of the traditional greasy pole contest (photo two). Women in local dress watch as two young men try to climb up to where a selection of pots, pans and other household objects dangle above their heads – such very practical prizes!
This square is located in one of the most traditional neighbourhoods of the city (at the southern end of Calle Juan Montalvo, four blocks west of the Parque Calderón). Houses near here are for the most part less ornate than near the centre and some are run down and in need of restoration. Others though have been smartened up, and several have the traditional roof tile decorations to protect the inhabitants from evil spirits (see photo four for an example). It’s an interesting area to explore and I was pleased Wilson had brought us here as it wasn’t a part of the city I’d read about at all.
And nearby was an even more intriguing place. Wilson asked if we were easily offended, which seemed an odd question, but we assured him that we were not, so he proposed stopping for coffee in a rather different sort of café, Prohibido Centro Cultural
Cajas National Park is situated just west of Cuenca. The park has an area of 285 sq km and it lies between an altitude of 3100 - 4450 metres. Most of the park consists of Páramo, a high grassland ecosystem, with rugged mountains and over 250 lakes. There are also a few small forests with Quinoa trees (Polylepis) and in the lover part of the park, at Laguna Llaviucu, there is a humid cloud forest. Within the park there are 19 plant species endemic to Cajas.
In the end of 1990s llamas were reintroduced to the park. The chance to see them is much larger than the chance to see other larger animals present in the national park like the Spectacled Bear, Puma and Oncillas. There are also many different bird species in the park, among others hummingbirds, toucans and Condors.
The views over the mountains, valleys and lakes are stunning, that is if you can see it. Cajas is a very wet and foggy place so sometimes, or actually very often, visibility is not so good. The driest months are between August and January, but also then it can often rain. As Cajas National Park is situated at a very high altitude it can also be very cold. At night temperatures can drop below freezing. So bring many layers.
At many places in the park remnants of the old Incan highway, and tambos (way stations), can be seen. The name Cajas probably comes from the Quichua word caxas, which means cold.
There are three main recreational areas in the national park, Laguna Llaviucu, Laguna Cucheros and Laguna Toreadora. They all lie quite close to the Cuenca - Guayaquil road, which passes through the park. At all these places you will find signed trails of different length. At Laguna Toreadora there is an info centre where you can pay the admission for the national park, and get a free map over the area. If you plan to go further into the park you must register at one of the control stations. Besides hiking you can fish trout at some places and go bird watching in the park.
I visited on a guided day tour from Cuenca and I was very happy that we were lucky with the weather (before that sunny day it had rained for two weeks). Laguna Toreadora is situated 34km from Cuenca and as the visitor centre lies just next to the highway it is easy to go there on your own by public transportation.
You can see more photos and tips on my Cajas National Park page.
I decided to go on an organised daytrip to Cajas National Park from Cuenca. It is possible to take a public bus to some visitor sites in the park (the Cuenca - Guayaquil road passes through the area), but as I didn’t have a good map and I knew that it is often wet and foggy in the national park, with low visibility , I thought it was better to go with a guide and a group if I wanted to do some hiking.
I had read good recommendations about Expediciones Apullacta before coming to Cuenca, and as they were situated in the building opposite the hotel where I stayed I went there to book the tour, one day ahead. The daytrip was $40 (July 2011).
I was picked up at the hotel at 8 in the morning and then we went to pick up some other tourists. We were 10 tourists in the group in total. Before leaving Cuenca we went to pick up rubber-boots for everyone as it was very wet along the paths in the national park. Our guide, Martin, told us we were very lucky with the weather as every day during the last two weeks had been rainy and foggy, but this day was sunny with blue sky. Yes, we were lucky, it was a very nice day!
Our first stop was at Laguna Llaviucu where we did a walk along the shores of the lake for about 40 minutes. Then we drove higher up in the park to the viewpoint at Tres Cruces. From there we drove back down for a few minutes and were then dropped at the beginning of a path . We hiked along the path to Laguna Toreadora and Bosque Quinoa, a hike taking around 2h. From Toreadora we drove down to a restaurant in the valley where we got trout for lunch, a late lunch. We were back in Cuenca around 5 o’clock.
More information about the daytrip and the places we visited will soon be added to my Cajas National Park page.
This church is on a hill above the town of Biblian.
In the late 1800s there was a major drought in the area. There was no rain for two years, and the plants and animals were dying. The local people decided to carry a little statue of the Virgin of the Dew through town as they prayed for rain. It rained that night, and they promised to build a church in her honor.
I wouldn't make a special trip only to see this church, but it is on the road to Ingapirca from Cuenca and makes an interesting stop on the way.
Gualaceo lies in a fertile valley at an elevation of 2300 meters and is surrounded by amazingly green mountains where rivers are flowing peacefully among rich vegetation. It is also known as the garden of Azuay. There is a wonderful Orchid Garden which I think is private but can be visited. It is a small town totally full of traditional features. It has kept some colonial architectural elements as well as some typical ecuadorian characteristics. There are plenty of artefacts, furniture, panama hats, shoes and clothes. If you get hungry you can taste the local dishes . A good place to eat is the central market which is clean and tidy! Try the famous tortillas and the roasted pork. Don't forget to ask for its crispy mouth watering skin called “cascarita”. Its delicious!!! It is also known for the best fruit and vegetable quality. Every Saturday and Sunday there is an open market in the central square.
In March the Peach Festival (Fiesta de Durazno) gives locals a chance to celebrate with street parties and peach-tasting.
It's advisable to rent a motorbike to ride along the banks of Gualaceo river and around the narrow streets with the old colonial houses. The view from the river wooden bridges is unforgettable!
Parador Turistico is a nice place to breathe fresh air in the mild pleasant climate of the town
Spaniards were in Gualaceo even before they were in Cuenca.
Go by bus or taxi (2$US) to the Bus station and then take a bus for an hour ride to Gualaceo or any other bus going that way. Ask at the station. Buses to Gualaceo run every hour.
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Chordeleg, just 5 kilometers away from Gualaceo, is a pre-Incan town where important archaeological objects can be found. You can either walk there or take a local bus, if you haven't already rented a motorbike to see Gualaceo. It's a very picturesque village with lovely old terraced houses with terracotta roofs. The village has wonderful views of the valley as it is built on the slope of the mountain. It is packed with art craft shops especially pottery and jewelery mostly gold, which is a tradition here and has been so from very old times. Prices are much better than Cuenca but be sure that the quality of gold you are buying is worthy of the money you are paying. There is also an ethnographic museum in the square and an open market in the main square on Sundays.
The imposing Sancuario de la Virgen del Rocio is built on a hill overlooking the village of Biblian. The neo-Gothic church is impressive with its spires and turrets although a bit extravagant, which comes to contrast to the indigence of the village people. Anyway, the view of the whole valley from the church is amazing, compensating for the strenuous climb of the many steps.
The story goes back to 1892 when the lack of rain brought the villagers to despair. They carried an image of the Virgin up the hill and prayed . The miraculous rain came and a wooden chapel was built on this spot. Later the impressive church replaced it which was finished in 1941.
Biblian is one of the ghost cities of the region as many men have emigrated to the USA leaving women and children to their destiny. Some send money back to them, others have come back to build a “modern” house not at all fitting the environment but a lot have disappeared for ever...
As with all South American colonial gems, the great joy is wandering around Cuenca and stumbling on great old buildings that you won't find in any guidebook. I'd like to say it's fun finding information about them on the Internet when you get home but seek as you may and you shall not likely find. In fact, there doesn't seem to be a lot of information about the "big attraction" churches let alone these little wonders. Still, they are pretty to look at and after all their main purpose are as places of worship. And in a religious town like Cuenca, they are used extensively for that.
This fascinating museum is situated on the South bank of the river, on Avenida 12 de Abril, and is open on weekdays from 9 to 12 and 1:30 to 5. The handsome building which houses the exhibit is an old hospital (next door to a far-from-modern functioning hospital) which was in use from 1861 to 1977.
Built around a pleasant courtyard, the former hospital is restored, and obsolete medical equipment is displayed along with brief explanations. In addition to machines and various benches and tables, you will also see some mummified remains - the stuff of nightmares.
Depending on your mood, this place will strike you as macabre or as a testimony to medical inventiveness. It reminded me of the (fictional) abandoned maternity ward in "The Boys from Brazil."
The curator is the most gracious, interesting and welcoming lady. A donation of $1 is expected.
I had a wonderful time there, counting my blessings and remembering the hospitals of my childhood. I took some more photos, and you can find them in a travelogue below.
On the Road in between Cuenca and Guayaquil, just outside the city limits of Cuenca, is the Cajas National Park.
This park is known for its lakes - hundreds of them - and its harsh terrain.
There are several hiking trails throughout the park, and it is possible to camp in the park. A two day trip is all that is required to go all the way across - just be sure to bring your maps!!!
There are many tour operators in Cuenca that will suit you up with gear, drop you off at the drop off location, guide you, and pick ypu up at the pick up location.
Just be prepared for the cold nights!!!