Standing by the fountain in Cuenca’s main square, looking past the central statue at the imposing cathedral flanked by grand archways, you could easily fall into the trap of thinking Cuenca is yet another colonial masterpiece – all pose and no party.
It turns out, though, that Cuenca’s reputation as a party town goes way back. Back in 1895, fabled fiestas were fuelled by a local rich woman who’d fill the main square’s fountain with alcohol. Nowadays the students from the city’s four universities do their best to carry on the tradition with clubs and bars offering all kinds of music from folklorica to reggaeton. Whilst the town square has its fair share of entertainment, with a bandstand offering nightly entertainment ranging from break dancing to brass bands, you have to know where to look to find the bigger parties. Most of the action begins at the Calle Largo (the long road that runs parallel with the river, and extends out toward the Universidad de Cuenca campus.
You can tell from the obvious investment in churches that Cuenca is also a very religious city. Of course there were the familiar grand Spanish style buildings, but alongside them also impressive Moorish and German style churches looking pristine with huge amounts of marble, all imported from Italy.
Cuenca still maintains strong Andean roots, however. Walking through the market on Calle Larga, we saw how the different beliefs are intertwined. Amidst the fresh fruit and veg stalls we watched Limpia (literally ‘cleansing’) ceremonies being performed. To cure diseases of the soul, the healer (importantly wearing red) beats the patient with a special mix of herbs and flowers, sprays them with blessed water (sometimes from a bottle, sometimes by spitting). The diagnosis involves rolling an egg around the body of the patient, then cracking it into a cup of water to read a health profile.
At other stalls, we saw perfumes and soaps to help students do well in exams, to end ‘undesired’ romances before a wedding, and to help people fall in love (seguirme-seguirme, or ‘follow me follow me’). We also spotted lots of people wearing wrist bands – again importantly red to protect against maladies of the soul.
We began our culinary exploration of Cuenca upstairs in the same market. Some stalls offered menus del dia, usually consisting of chicken with rice, and others were dedicated to fresh juices and local drinks. We went for tomate de arbol (tree tomatoes), in favour of malta con huevo (malt beer with an egg cracked in it sounds more like a rugby team dare than a tasty drink). One corner of the market is dedicated to ‘hornado’, lines of roasted hogs carved up for hungry lunchtime visitors. Another corner was dedicated to chocolate, huge marbled slabs of the stuff.
Having had pretty much no knowledge or expectation of Ecuadorian food, it turned out to be a really nice surprise. The staples are nothing fancy, just combinations that again and again proved to be right up our calle. Our favourites were seco de pollo (chicken stew with lentils), churrasco (fried beef, eggs and potatoes with avocado, tomato and rice), locro de papa (potato soup with avocado and cheese) and llapingachos (fried potato and cheese pancakes). Fresh juices are drunk more often than water here, at just $1 for a tall glass you can see why. Canelazo, a hot cinnamon rum drink was another good find that tasted like the gluhwein at German Christmas markets.
Between the fresh herbs in the market and the smell of freshly baked bread on most corners (sometimes seemingly even when a bakery was nowhere in sight), following our noses was a good way to explore Cuenca. This approach led us to the flower market next to the cathedral. We were pretty impressed by the explosions of colour at this award-winning flower market when we wandered around on our own, but learnt a lot more when we returned the next day on a free walking tour.
The tour, run by students, started from the Seminario San Luis courtyard just off the main square. The courtyard is a great photo spot for the impressive brown brick arches of the cathedral and its blue tiled domes, but duck through the door in the far corner and you’re in a second courtyard with the same view plus a beautiful manicured garden. This set the scene for the rest of the tour; we’d wandered past a few of the spots the day before but now saw extra details and heard the back stories.
It was on our second visit to the flower market that we understood more about the juice seller at the side. This stall sells only agua de pitimas, a juice made with plants and flowers that Cuencanos drink to absolve themselves of sins or if they need an extra boost of good luck.
We’d seen countless Cuencana ladies walking around town in traditional dress; leather loafers, a full knee-length skirt (usually in vibrant pink, green, or purple), a woollen cardigan, two long hair braids topped off with a Panama hat – which are in fact originally from Ecuador rather than Panama. On the walking tour we discovered how the cream and white hats stayed so pristine. At the top of the steps down to Calle 3 Noviembre is a Panama hat cleaner, the walls lined with the freshly cleaned hats, each pinned with the owner’s name ready for collection.
We left Cuenca the same way we arrived; by bus from Guayquil. On the way there, the thick fog had given us precisely zero view, but on the way back the skies were clearer and we could appreciate our 4,000m elevation much more as we drove over the Andes with clouds drifting below us.