Saturday, July 22, 2017

Ecuador - Cuenca and Loja

Anna's entry:


-- The City

We arrived in Cuenca early in the morning after a long night spent at the Quito International Airport and another short flight from there.  After our adventure in the Galapagos Islands and all the Utopia-like living there, we had to get back into a street-smart mode - we knew the mainland Ecuador would likely be quite different.  We loaded our backpacks, and walked two kilometers to the city center.  Our walk took us through streets congested with traffic, crowds, food stalls, then narrow sidewalks with potholes and street fruit-sellers, then squares with markets, churches and beggars, and eventually we made it to our previously booked hotel in the city center.  And, what a pleasant surprise it was! 

Our hotel turned out to be a former colonial villa over-looking a grand cathedral and a cobble-stone square.  We had not one, but a two-level spacious suite with wooden floors, stairs and window shutters from the 18th century!  We also had modern conveniences - a satellite TV and fast WiFi - and the price was quite reasonable - about $25 a night.  We originally planned to be in Cuenca for about 5 days, but we ended up spending 11 days here (including Christmas, New Year's and all the quirky street parades and festivities which would be described below). A good part of our time, we seemed to be the only guests in that villa, which was great!  The local family running this place were quite mellow and easy going, and we even were given an access to the family kitchen (though we used it very little as the food on mainland Ecuador was shockingly cheap and good).
The city's architecture was beautiful - it had a clearly European style (the result of Spanish colonization) with gorgeous and colourful buildings, squares, bell towers, courtyards, and walking around was quite pleasant.  I had read and heard about various travel warnings, but using common sense, we had absolutely no issues with any of it.   

 -- The Markets

We've always enjoyed the local markets - not the ones designed for tourists, but the real ones - where the sounds, smells, and colours merge into one esoteric insight into a local soul.  Besides, it is a fantastic place for people watching, and usually provides an interesting photographic opportunity.  We explored Cuenca's markets on several occasions - from pigs' heads to shamanistic herbs,  from woven baskets to devilish masks, from sumptuous fruits to hearty meals, from hand-made empanadas to home-made indigenous cheeses - those are just a few examples...  We tried all kinds of local (inexpensive and delicious) fruits, fresh cheeses (made out of sheep milk), savory pastries, corn pancakes (made right in front of you on a hot skillet), hearty (cheap and tasty) lunches, yogurt and fruit shakes - we would ask locals to point us out to their favourite stall seller, and they usually did it with eager enthusiasm.  One of our most enjoyed market activities was watching shamanistic rituals.  There would be several stalls set up filled with various herbs, liquids, eggs, etc.  Sometimes, a long queue of customers consisting of women, men, children, and even families would develop to wait for their turn to be seen by a shaman (in this case all shamans were women).  Shaman would position their customers on a chair, then brush and slap them with a large herbal bouquet, then spit a couple of liquids on them (that they would put in their mouth from various bottles); then an egg would be rolled on a person's body, which would be later cracked open and spilled into a plastic bag for further examination - somehow, the egg seemed like the major instrument for figuring out how to fix whatever-was-wrong with a customer; and the process would go on and on and on for with dozens of customers -  This is when I noticed that shamans liked ice-cream too - during their break they would always send someone to get an ice-cream cone for them and would consume it with a great pleasure.  Naturally (like in so many other countries we have encountered by now), all shamans were skillful charismatic entrepreneurs; or should we call them clever business-driven local "therapists"?  In either case, it was quite entertaining to watch the interactions happening live right in front of us.

-- The Food

With a very rare exception, the best local food is to be found along the streets, markets, family food stalls and hole-in-the-wall eateries frequented by locals where the food is prepared fresh, hot, real, and very cheap.  Our best value lunches (including soup, entree, drink, and sometimes even a small dessert) were all under $2.50  Cuenca was no exception, I loved our culinary adventure in this town sampling all the local flare in various parts of the city - from home-made sheep-milk cheeses wrapped up in banana leaves sold by indigenous sellers sitting on the pavement around markets to deep-fried pan served with sweet fig-molasses-type syrup and sweet strewed beet on top sold by lady carrying them in a woven basket, from savoury humitas stuffed with corn, cheese, chicken, carrots and peas sold at a tiny eatery to hearty soups at the markets filled with rice, corn, egg, pork, potatoes in spicy broth topped with hot sauce.  We tried something different all over town every day, and most all of it was really good!  I came across an expat's recommendation on a bakery in town, which turned out to be the best we've ever encountered.  Being a Russian (by birth) and having grown up in St. Petersburg (Russia), my standards for bakery are quite high (we had quite a bit of French dessert influence and really good quality desserts), and let me tell you - to my biggest surprise, Ecuadorian desserts (later on followed by Peruvian ones) were really excellent!  Needless to say, some gained pounds had to be lost after all the incredible treats.  I dragged Rob from bakery to bakery, attracted to elaborate baked goodies like a moth to a flame.  I just had not had such variety and exposure options since my St. Petersburg days! 
Anyway, here is a VERY short list of new Ecuadorian staples we sampled and liked (though I must admit I enjoyed and "attacked" them a lot more frequently than Rob):
-- pans (made in a ball-shape out of planton (banana) and cheese, and pancake-type made out of corn and quark);
-- soft cheeses made out of sheep-milk (similar to goat-cheese, only with a lot more delicate flavour);
-- sweet blended shake-type drinks similar to Mexcian horchata and Indian mango lassi;
-- fruits (including various varieties of mangoes, bananas, papayas, and passion fruits (new for us) that tasted like a sweet bright flavoured palmar-granite with tender eatable seeds);
-- outstanding soups (of many-many varieties; and again - as a Russian, I can testify those were really-really good!);
-- various ice-creams (including unusual coca-cola falvour, and the traditional coconut variety);
-- toasted corn nuts (locally referred to as tostadas);
-- empanadas (savoury deep-fried or baked pies stuffed with melted cheese, or sometimes various meats);
-- humitas (tomale-type snacks  with corn paste, cheese, and variations of other vegetables wrapped in corn leaves and cooked over hot coals);
-- grilled sweet plantons stuffed with home-made cheese in the center;
-- salchipapas (very popular local junk-food specialty consisting of french-fries topped with cheese, hotdogs pieces and mayo-hot sauce combo - were not our favourite);
-- churros (likely familiar to many - deep fried squeezed dough-sticks topped with cinnamon and sweet condensed milk);
-- AND, another surprise, the BEST pizza tried outside North America - we liked it so much that we made it our New Year's Day special.

-- The Streets

"Walking the streets" was very enjoyable and peaceful (for the most part).  The architecture in many parts of the city was stunning, lots of squares and parks to sit down and people-watch; various activities happening throughout the city - especially, when we happened to be there - during Christmas and New Year's.  We met New Year-s Eve in yet another (new) country for us.  We are used by now to spend traditional holidays in foreign destinations - instead of traditions we grew up with, we celebrate the, in the ways locals do it.  Lots of interesting and unusual traditions to observe and join.  We would come across various over-sized cartoon characters that were available for sale - for later burning (yes, burning).  Lots of decorated dummies and types  - from Homer Simpson to a REALLY BIG statue of Donald Trump, from Spider Man to Bill Clinton, if you could think it, you could probably find it for sale.  During New Year's Eve, the dummies were set on fire (for good luck), and city streets were filled with multiple flames and exploding firecrackers (that often would start car alarms).   There was also another unusual tradition in Cuenca - around New Year's, young guys would dress themselves in women's clothes - specifically, to portray themselves as "widows" in a need of financial help - they would dance in front of cars and people, embrace and hug strangers, dance for them in hopes of receiving some coins, but frequently just for good laughs.  Rob on a number of occasion was chased and embraced by "transvestite widows" - as much as he tried to avoid the unwanted attention, he still had a good portion of exposure and laughs - what can I say, I have a handsome husband with a good sense of humor.  We joined the festivities happening along the streets, danced with locals under an open sky, and were even offered shots of free brandy by a local family living on the same street we were staying at.  We finished our New Year's night on our balcony overlooking the colonial street and a square, watching the fireworks lighting up the starry sky, and enjoying sparkling wine and cakes bought from our favourite local bakery.

 -- The Parades and Festivities

They say that Cuenca's Chistmas parade may be the biggest one in all of Latin America. We had attended a number of various similar festivities around the world, and some local interpretations of 'Christmas' were often strange (and interesting) - Cuenca's version also joined that list.  The not-so-strange part was that it lasted about 7 hours and the local military were in charge of distributing generous portions of local traditional sweet beer-like booze (chica) to all adults and even babies (though I must say that if there was any alcohol in it, it was a very small level).  The stranger part was the nature of street parade participants, costumes and decorations...  It was a crazy combination of Christianity, paganism, animistic ritual dancing, characters from Nutcracker and (what looked like) KKK costumes, stilt-walkers, cars and horses decorated with candies, wine bottles and roasted pigs on top, kids walking goats and sheep on a leash, beauty pageant winners, and a lot of indigenous representation.  We LOVED it!  Taking photos was a true pleasure - all participants were super outgoing and and accepting - even to us (outsiders), they loved to be photographed (though normally, being photographed had to be done pretty discreetly due to some indigenous believes); the parade had really high energy, characters were colourful; mood on the streets were fun; the whole city came really alive.  Needless to day, that parade definitely joined the list of fun vibrant cultural experiences.   Followed by New' Year's festivities a few days later including large dummies (representing anything from cartoon characters to politicians) burning on the streets, firecrackers setting up car alarms, colourful fireworks, joyful dancing on streets and squares - and you got yourself a very nice memorable end of the year to remember. 

-- Side trips 

A trip to Turi included our very first public bus in South America (25 cents) with (the usual and to be expected) at least one passenger transporting young chickens in a box, fantastic panoramic views of the city, valleys, and mountains.  We spent several hours "on top of the world", the views were very impressive - the entire city of Cuenca was below us, and far in a distance we could identify the stately cathedrals that we would normally walk by...  We also made our way to the remainder of ancient Inca ruins - most of the stones had been disassembled by Spanish conquistadors and used for the construction of the city.  That former Inca place had several lamas that were fun to pet and observe.  We also briefly visited several museums - it was very obvious that shaman's rituals and believes are still very present and alive in modern Ecuadorian psyche - museum displays were quite serious about those.  Among somewhat quirky museums were a 'museum of Ecuadorian hat' (which seems to be a major staple of dress code here), and a museum of modern art - housed in a former lunatic asylum.  Walking around the colonial building and former psychiatric wards and creaky stairs was a lot more interesting that the artwork itself.  I also found that some of the art pieces on display would totally fit into that building prior designation - which was a clever idea if deliberately selected.


After 12 enjoyable days in Cuenca, it was time to push on...  We took our very first long-distance bus in South America - four hours of peaceful Andes scenery.  Our bus reached the highest elevation point of 11,000 feet.  Sometimes, clouds were waaaaaaay below us...  The previous night Rob and I got only one hour of sleep, so we got to Loja tired and wired up.  We picked up our backpacks from a Loja bus terminal early in the morning, and walked 2 kilometers to the city center.  We entered the center through the impressive arch gate - it felt a kind of medieval...
We settled in a hotel room at about $6 a night.  The colonial building was a maze of business offices and hotel rooms.  The room was pretty basic, but had a huge window with (likely) original old wooden shutters facing a central street and various shops and cafes along it.  And, when using an outside bathroom in our hotel at night, the Andes mountains and villages could be seen in the distance with their blinking lights and a faint fire smoke coming down to the city.  The hotel location was also excellent - we walked around town's pretty squares, cathedrals, colonial streets and buildings.  I even started having associations with St. Petersburg, Russia (my birth place) - except for palm trees, of course. 
We dedicated a day to trying local food specialties - tamales, humitas, home-made pressed cheese, Ecuadorian brewed coffee, salchipapas, etc.  The town even had one street dedicated to roast chicken stalls served with hearty soup, french-fries, and spicy mayonnaise.  The local market also had a few specialties of its own - cecina de chancha (pork marinated in special herbs, air-dried and then fried) - for Rob; and gigantic puffed-up empanadas de cueso - for me.  Several stalls proudly had roasted pig heads displayed on the counters among other buffet trays filled with vegetables, rice, fried banana chips, puffed up corn, etc.  Waking around market aisles, I also came across a local dessert specialty made out of milk, sugar, peanuts and molasses.  It was sold in sheets cut up in small squares, and it was surprisingly and nostalgically familiar to my Russian childhood treats.  I picked up a couple of bags of those (one of them even made to Peru with me).   
Loja was definitely off-the-tourist radar, and had a laid-back real-person feel to it.  The city center was peaceful and beautiful, especially at night, when the colonial buildings and monuments would be illuminated.  While walking around narrow lanes, we could observe Andes mountains right ahead and above us.  We would see a lot more of those throughout the rest of our South America trip...