Often skipped over as people rush south to Peru, Cuenca is the small cousin of Quito though retains a charm that is in some ways missing from the bigger city.
Checking in at the Hotel Check Inn to our street side double room for a few nights, backpacks exploded over the room as we dumped them all over the ground. The Check Inn is based around a central courtyard with a top floor kitchen, which was sparse, though the view from the top floor balcony makes up for it. The adjacent room houses a large flat screen TV with satellite (football!) and good WiFi.
Cuenca’s main draw has to be the Cathedral with its clay coloured façade topped by contrasting blue domes, a beautiful photo opportunity. Grand doorway entrances lead you inside though unfortunately for us the church was closed each time we visited.
Leaving disappointed we headed for site number two, the Museum of Modern Art (Museo de Arte Moderno) only to find that this too was closed, strike two. Coming to the afternoon we decide a beer is in order and leg it over to Andean Brew Pub only to find that, yep, it was closed until 4pm (on a Saturday!). Three strikes and we almost called it a day, though not without one last ditch effort to visit a brew pub.
Lucky for us the Jodoco Belgian Brewpub was open! Hooray! Located in the Parque San Sebastian, the outdoor patio area is complimented by the white washed San Sebastian church, with an empty morrish style fountain as a center piece. Opting for the 8% Belgian Style Amber, the second fermentation of which take place in the bottle, it’s more Lambic with it’s tart taste. Yet it’s sure to quench any thirst against the Pilsner which can only be described as urine flavoured drab.
Unsuccessful with churches, brew pubs, museums, pretty much everything so far, we headed for something more sinister. Prohibido Centro Cultural is part coffee shop, part art gallery, part your worst nightmare. With a more than Gothic overture we encounter skull and bones chandeliers, babies in coffins sunk into the grated floor and even male and female pissing sink taps, yep straight out of the genital area!!
They even have a dress up area where some weird shit is hanging off a rack for you to play around with. Encouragement to post the photos back to them is voiced by management. All in all a quirky place not to be missed in Cuenca.
Next door there’s a quaint antique style store and Laura’s Antiques and Curiosities (think vintage kitsch set in a 19th century house), though coming from the dark side it felt a little Cinderella so we jacked it and headed to the Baranco Panama Hat Museum (BPHM).
Sarah’s lifelong accessory wish is for a real Panama and for years Matt’s been putting up with
I’m going to buy a Panama Hat, did you know they’re not even made in Panama?
No they’re actually made in Ecuador. The day had finally come where Matt could lay this one to rest and never need to humour Sarah with it again. Super touristy the (BPHM) is heaving with gringos, though the service is very personable with great attention and courtesy paid to each customer.
Laid out be for us are five rows of tables, each having different styles in the same colours.
I’m never getting out of here
Matt voices. Ignoring him, Sarah takes a left into the ‘Premium’ hat collection room as Matt’s left counting dollar bills in his head. Surprisingly none of the hats in here cost over the $40 mark and the difference in quality is obvious. Further on from these rooms are the hat presses where you can have the brim and top molded to your satisfaction and a bench down the far end will trim your new hat with a ribbon of you taste. Finally ringing up the till the friendly family member strikes up a pleasant conversation. Soon enough Matt’s behind the counter making friends.
In need of food? The nearby San Francisco Market has an upstairs section full of restaurants and a lower level full of fresh produce. Wanting to take the opportunity to cook our own lunch and dinner, we snacked on fresh shrimp ceviche before grabbing everything we needed on ground level.
Strolling the stalls we were on the lookout for some chicken breasts for dinner, but seemed to come by anything but. Amongst the rows and rows of butcher stalls you could buy chickens feet, sheep heads, cows tongues, guinea pigs, whole pigs and everything in between. Finally hunting out what we needed, we retired back to the hotels top floor kitchen where we were stoked to find we’d been given a free chickens foot. Whipping up home made burgers and a huge salad (many meals in this part of the Americas lack veggies), we enjoyed lunch on the patio with vistas of Cuenca sprawled in front of us.
In need of dessert Tuto Freddo, located on Parque Abdon Calderon, did the job of fulfilling the sweet tooth craving. You’ll find this is one of, if not, the best place for a huge array of ice cream delights and the place is ALWAYS packed.
Cuenca has a third microbrewery in town, the ever fun and full La Compania. Taking our place amongst the beer paraphernalia, we try the Amber Ale (not bad) and a Nitro Stout (a little lacking in malt for our liking and more Guinness like). Entertained by a great music selection we spend the evening chatting away with an English couple from our our London digs, Brixton. The beauty of this craft beer pub is the lack of gringo craft beer inflated prices. A good place at the right price (just don’t forget you ID).
Day two (yes we fit that much into day one), we took a stroll back to the bus station passing a small market selling tacky crap and cookware. Picking up a small llama for the Christmas tree we first attempted to catch a bus to the station, fail. The curbside’s a lawless space were elbows and shoving are the norm and old ladies reign supreme due to years of throwing limbs into poor bloke’s appendages. We walked.
Tickets booked for the dash across the Peruvian border, it was going to be a long night on the way to Piura. Eating lunch at the restaurants adjacent we can highly recommend you NOT eat there. After first trying to rip us off by over charging, they instead got us on the portion size, noticeably less compared to everyone else.
Searching for open churches again (failing of course) we take to photographing the streets on our way under the Puente Roto, a bridge that abruptly ends in the middle of nowhere, to the Bird Sanctuary beneath the Pumapungo ruins. Walk up to the hilltop ruins past the local resident llamas and there’s a view over the botanical gardens, small though pretty.
Walking back to town feeling weary from a long day, we duck into the Eucalyptus Café for a coffee. At $3 a pop it’d want to be the best ever. Lucky it was passable. The real draw for this place is the interior. Covered in wood paneling with the upper floor overlooking a small stage, it regularly hosts band nights that are popular with locals and tourists alike. An Asian based (Thai and Indian) menu comes highly recommended, even if tourist prices are charged.
Next morning following a 30 minute search for milk at 7:30 on a Sunday morning, we’re glad to find greeting card shops (of all places) open and stocking milk. Great, also need to send baby Jesus a Happy Sunday card, two birds with one stone. After a home cooked breakfast (you have no idea how good it is to sometimes cook your own breakfast – 6 eggs, fresh tomato, cucumber, not dripping in oil, no bread) and a banana smoothie we venture out to a town where we’d heard from one of the well known guide books you can see people making Panama hats.
Whilst the drive is scenic the town isn’t and there wasn’t a Panama hat in site. What we found was a traditional food market full of fabulously dressed locals, women carrying baskets of corn, rice, fruit and vegetables with a few carrying bundles of white straw with which to make hats. Yet we saw nobody actually making them. Other than that there’s a small blue domed church and some strange metal statues on stilts in the park opposite.
Boarding a bus back to Cuenca, by now we’d realised the guys who take your money on South American buses are experts at remembering who’s paid, who hasn’t, where you got on, where you’re getting off and how much change everybody is due, all without breaking a sweat.
Thankful that the Check Inn Hotel let us hang out until our 10pm bus departed, we finally boarded and got some sleep, not knowing what the Ecuador/Peru boarder may present.
For more Flickr photos click here for our Ecuador album.
- On the bus coming into Cuenca, a lady started moving around the bus a little erratically in the dark, it’s obvious somethings awry. Sure enough the police soon have the bus pulled over and the poor lady’s had her phone stolen. Let this be a warning. We’ve travelled from Colombia south feeling pretty safe, though this goes to show that even the locals are not immune from theft.
- Also it was pleasant to see that the taxis in Cuenca are now metered, a trip from the Terminal Terestre to our hotel in the town centre cost $1.50.