El Barranco – Cuenca’s Most Interesting Neighborhood in Ecuador’s Renaissance City

With a vibe and cultural scene reminiscent of Florence, Italy, Cuenca continues to reap tourism awards as a hot new destination in South America. The city is investing heavily in infrastructure with a new tram line opening soon, but with all this positive press the streets are still mostly filled with Cuencanos (people of Cuenca) going about their daily lives.  Masses of flag-led tour groups are unheard of, as are masses of tourists in general.  We have been in Cuenca for five weeks and have never felt the crush of tourist season descending upon us.Parque de San Sebastian_001The city does a wonderful job supporting its craftspeople who still use traditional, made by hand, methods to create exceptional pieces in jewelry, textile, ceramic, wrought-iron, tin and copper workshops located across the city.  Toquilla straw weavers in the villages around Cuenca who carry unfinished sacks of Panama Hats into the city’s sombrero (hat) factories also need to be included into this group.  There are also several traditional felt hat tallerias (workshops) that cater to the indigenous women who live in the rural areas around Cuenca. The fine arts scene is also well represented with galleries and artists’ studios often next to traditional crafts workshops. To get the broadest experience of this vibrant arts and crafts community a tour through Cuenca’s most interesting neighborhood, El Barranco (the cliffs), and along its busiest street Calle Larga, is a must.  The colonial buildings that front Calle Larga back onto the cliff which overlooks Rio Tomebamba and the newer southern part of Cuenca. Wide stairs in several parts lead down to Paseo 3 de Noviembre, a shaded pedestrian walkway and bike path that follows the river for several miles.Coronel Guillermo Talbot Stairs_001This route actually starts several blocks west of Calle Larga at Cuenca’s Museo de Arte Moderno (Museum of Modern Art) across from Parque de San Sebastian which has a large fountain and several nice places to eat. Casa Azul, which has rare sidewalk tables that face the quiet plaza, and Tienda Café are good choices.  Most of the workshops won’t have business signs over their doors or street numbers, might open by ten, but will reliably close between one and three for lunch.

Just around the corner from the Museo Municpal de Arte Moderno at 7-49 Coronel Guillermo Talbot is the unimposing metal embossing workshop of Carlos Bustos. With his workbench by the door to take advantage of the daylight and his finished pieces hanging behind him, he works until the sun sets.  Still keeping the traditions of his family alive he offers embossed decorative pieces which can be traditional or whimsical.  At the end of the street a mural-lined staircase will take you down to the Rio Tomebamba; instead make a left onto Presidente Cordova and then veer right at the Y in the road onto Bajada del Valo. A few doors down is the felt hat Sombrereria of Camilo M.  Hanging from his walls are dozens of white felt hats in various stages of completion with name of the person who ordered it pinned into the brim.  Ask permission to take photos and you will be greeted with a smile.  Just past the hat maker,  Plazoleta Cruz del Vado merges with Mirador del Barranco.  This small plaza has several whimsical sculptures, largest of which depicts the traditional festival game Palo Ensebado (the teaching stick – climbing a greased pole) and a religious cross which celebrates the founding of Cuenca in 1557.

Walking along this scenic overlook, open doors reveal artists’ studios and Casa Museo La Condamine, a museum/antique store that houses an interesting menagerie of long forgotten Cuenca furnishings and antiquities.  Next door to them is the Prohibido Centro Cultural, an alternative museum that displays sculptures and art that could have been inspirational for your worst nightmare or an award winning sci-fi/horror film, depending on how you look at things.  It has a café. Further along the balustrade, musical chords waft from an instrument maker’s workshop, drawing you in, as the craftspeople test their work . Stairs from this scenic overlook lead down to Calle la Condamine and several coppersmiths.

Rounding the corner onto Calle Larga is like returning from the Amazon to New York City. It’s tenfold busier, with the Mercado 10 de Agosto (Cuenca’s central market) accounting for most of the activity in the first block.  This a great short detour to get some exotic fruits or fresh bread and rolls from the numerous panaderias that surround it.  Diagonally across the street is the Museum del Sombrero de Paja Toquilla (free), a still operating panama hat factory where you can watch the manufacturing process and try on the finished product.  They have a lovely rooftop café, the only one in Cuenca, that overlooks the Rio Tomebamba and park below.  They offer you a free cup of coffee when you purchase a hat.  From the rooftop here you can see the jewelry workshop and store of Andrea Tello on Av 12 de Abril across the river. One of Cuenca’s finest silversmiths, having created filigree masterpieces that are in museum collections around the world, she earned the UNESCO Award of Excellence in Handicrafts in 2010.  Just a few doors away is the wide alley Bajada del Padron where you will find the workshop of an ironsmith who makes Pucara, a symbol given as a gift to bring good fortune and prosperity. The sculpture incorporates the Christian cross with images of the Sun and Moon to honor Pachamama.

Continuing east along Calle Larga you will cross the intersection of Benigno Malo. For the next several blocks the restaurant choices are tremendous, with options for Arab and Indian cooking to gourmet Ecuadorian cuisine and everything else in between.  El Mercado and El Jardin offer fine dinning experiences that are very enjoyable. For a more casual environment try Goza Espresso Bar which has outside table facing a small park. The lower level of Museo Remigio Crespo Toral (free) offers the Café del Museo, which is truly an oasis of calm in this bustling city, has terraced outside dining that looks over the lush greenery along the Rio Tomebamba and Paseo 3 de Noviembre. The museum itself is worth exploring to see how Cuenca’s gentry lived at the end of the 19th century.  Or you can head to the Wunderbar Café on the Francisco Sojos Jaramillo stairway that leads to the Centro Interamericano de Artes Populares (CIDAP – free) which offers changing, monthly craft exhibits.

Back on Calle Larga the Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes looks unimpressive from its entrance, but the museum upstairs has an enthralling collection of 8,000 indigenous artifacts that spans 15,000 years and 20 pre-Columbian cultures, stone-age to bronze-age. Downstairs there is a very good, no-pressure gift store with excellent pricing. Next door is the fascinating studio of metal sculptor Julio Machado who creates hummingbirds and other animals in bronze and aluminum.  Stay straight on Calle Larga when you come to the fork in the road at Todos los Santos Church; this will lead you to a store front painter’s studio where his favorite subject seems to be the church you just passed.

At the end of Calle Large at what once was the Inca city of Tomebamba, its terraced gardens still home to grazing llama, now stands Museo Pumapungo (free), one of Ecuador’s finest museums. The first floor offers changing contemporary art exhibits as well as a fascinating collection of artifacts discovered on site here. Upstairs features exhibits which represent all of Ecuador’s diverse cultural groups and their historic way of life.  Topping it off, there is an unusual exhibit of shrunken heads, tzantzas, along with how-do instructions in Spanish and English from the Shuar people of the Amazon.

Across the river from the Museo Pumapungo is Las Herrerias, the street of the iron forges, where several workshops create utilitarian and decorative works; to locate the workshops, just follow the sounds of hammers striking anvils. Plaza del Herrero, at the end of the street, has a very interesting monumental sculpture dedicated to the ironworkers who helped build Cuenca.  Be sure to try Tortilla de Choclo, a scrumptious corn pancake that is pan-fried on large griddles along the street in this neighborhood.

Artisans not in the Barranco neighborhood, but definitely worth the effort to visit, are ceramicist Eduardo Vega (internationally recognized for his decorative arts.) His workshop and home are a short walk downhill from the Mirador de Turi. Located on the new tram-line that runs through the historic potters’ Barrio Convencio Del 45, at 2-90 Mariscal Lamar, is the traditional, ceramic workshop of Jose Encalada where he and his son Ivan still form every piece using a potter’s kick-wheel. A few blocks over on Vega Munoz is the contemporary, ceramic studio of Eduardo Segovia where he creates whimsical decorative pieces influenced by South American traditions. Closer to the historic central part of Cuenca is the Mama Quilla silversmith shop on Luis Cordero. Here, Harley-riding Ernesto creates fine filigree pieces that reflect the cultures of the Andes.

We enjoyed walking through El Barranco, and specifically Calle Larga.  The route we suggest here provides a wonderful overview of life and art in Cuenca.

Till later,

Craig & Donna

The Best Trip Ever

Our friends have asked frequently, “What’s been your best holiday?” and now Yellow Zebra Safari is asking the same question.  For a chance to win a Tanzanian Safari, they are asking entrants to write a travelblog about their best trip ever and submit it by October 31st.

My best trip ever has to be the one we are currently on.  Roughly two years ago, out of the clear blue, one evening my wife floated the idea that she was thinking of retiring soon. I had been downsized several years earlier and had found a second career as a USPS mailman, delivering junk mail and mountains of Amazon packages through terrible weather, while deftly avoiding ferocious Pomeranians.  The idea struck home. Okay! But, what would we do?

As a pair of seasoned citizens, we are not the typical demographic for a gap year/round the world trip, though our community is growing. We sold most of our belongings, put the rest into storage and hit the road. I write this from Olon, Ecuador, where we are practicing slow travel, a two-year journey around the world with the best travel partner, my wife.IMG_7856IMG_7404We’ve been on the road for more than 100 days now; previously, our longest trip was just shy of three weeks, with carry-on luggage only.  So, we felt fully prepared to tackle this challenge (insert wink here.)  Needless to say, there is a learning curve, but we have the right mind set.  In late October, we move north to Guatemala, followed by a cruise to Cuba. The first part of 2019 will see us in Europe, and after that, who knows? We’ve discussed heading to South Africa, then working our way north and through East Africa, trying to have as many big game safari experiences as possible.  This has been a dream of mine since I unwrapped my first National Geographic magazine and was enthralled by the spectacular images of the great migration across the Serengeti.  Winning this Tanzanian Safari experience by Yellow Zebra Safari would make this dream a reality.

Our earlier adventures have prepped us for mishaps. At a filling station in France, I put gasoline into the rental car’s diesel engine; in Italy, we were trapped in a parking area when our token would not raise the automatic exit gate; we have experienced canceled flights and missed connections which resulted in airport overnights on hard floors.  Trips to Peru, Mexico, Guatemala, Fiji, Turkey and Morocco have broadened our perspective; we view the world as global citizens, and take seriously our responsibilities as travelers and stewards of the planet.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

The first sentence of this quote from Mark Twain is the one most widely known.  We think the second line is more relevant today, since we really do share commonality with people the world over.


We are currently in the midst of our best holiday ever, a life changing/lifestyle change that will create lasting memories.

Great adventures to all,


One Hundred Days on the Road

Time has passed so quickly, with our days full of adventure and exploring, and it is difficult to believe we’ve been away from home for one hundred days already.  The month of July was spent driving down the East Coast of the US, visiting friends and family and having a great time. Our first three weeks in Ecuador were packed with activity.  Quito, the Galapagos Islands and driving south to Cuenca along the Pan-American Highway, also known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes, filled our itinerary.

Arriving in Cuenca, we set up home for five weeks in a lovely studio apartment, for under $500 per month, that had a large rooftop deck with tremendous views over the Rio Tomebamba. We immersed ourselves in the neighborhood; it was a delight to shop in the city’s central market for exotic fruits, (pitacaya is our favorite,) from the Amazon region, plentiful and pricey, or for locally grown vegetables which were so inexpensive.  Every city block seemed to have multiple panaderias, bakeries, that offered extremely inexpensive and delicous baked goods. A dozen roses usually cost four dollars. Alternately, a large, American style supermarket had prices that rivaled those around our old home in Pennsylvania.  Cuenca was full of the ubiquitous yellow taxis.  For under two dollars we could travel to the far reaches of this sprawling city.

Adapting to our surroundings in a new country, we noticed that the sun sets quickly here with practically no twilight period. We are also adjusting to the concept of long-term travel and retirement itself – what our expectations should be on a daily basis.  24/7 together is a new concept for a previously working couple. We have often asked each other which day of the week it is.  Every day does not need to be nor can it be an adventure.  We enjoyed chilling on the rooftop, reading and writing.  Alternately, we wandered through different parts of the city taking advantage of the many free public museums scattered about.

The dining out options in Cuenca covered the full spectrum from mom and pop holes-in-the-wall offering the plate of the day, plata del dia, where for $3.50 you received a very good three course lunch, to fine gourmet dining that reasonably ran about $50.00 for two with wine, dessert and coffee in a beautiful restaurant.IMG_5271One of our favorite snacks was Tortilla de Choclo, eighty cents, a corn pancake that was grilled on a large ceramic plate, curbside, as you waited.  Often, coffee and dessert cost more than lunch itself.

There were some difficulties with our new environment.  Mainly we had trouble acclimating to Cuenca’s 8,500ft altitude.  This was surprising because we spent the better part of two weeks driving through the Andes Mountain Range at heights exceeding 10,000ft and surely thought Cuenca’s setting would be easier on us.  Donna required a visit to the emergency room of a local private hospital one Sunday morning after feeling dizzy for too long.  After checking that her vitals were okay the doctor wrote a prescription for Dramamine to treat the effects of altitude sickness.  A week’s supply of the drug cost $2.40. Our forty-five minutes in the emergency room cost thirty-two dollars.

A long weekend, a vacation from our vacation, took us to Vilcabamba, a small town in Ecuador’s southern Andes.  A reputation as “the valley of longevity,” with mineral rich mountain water and crisp air, has attracted a diverse international expat population of aging hippies.  It was ten degrees warmer there, which was a nice reprieve from the chilly days and nights in Cuenca.  At Hosteria Izhcayluma, a wonderful and very affordable eco-lodge/spa, we indulged in deep tissue massages that lasted for ninety minutes and cost all of $24.00 each.  Feeling adventurous I chose to go on what I thought would be a leisurely five-hour horseback ride through the surrounding mountains.  The brochure advertised “gallop with our horses.” Thinking this was hyperbole I signed on.  From the moment we all mounted our horses we galloped out of the stables, through Vilcabamba, into the mountains and back.  I walked liked a saddle-sore cowboy for a week after that.IMG_4354-2One of the reasons we chose Cuenca for our first short term rental was so that I could take advantage of their dental tourism offerings. I had put off getting things done in the states because of what I thought were excessive cost, even with insurance.  I am extremely pleased with the dental care that I received at Finding Health in Ecuador. Tooth extraction – $35.00, cavity – $25.00, two-tooth bridge – $250.00.  Our premise that we could live abroad more economically than living back in the states is so far holding true.IMG_8596-2Currently we are in Olon, a rustic beach town on Ecuador’s southern Pacific coast with a wide, flat sandy beach that stretches for nearly five miles without a high-rise to been seen. It’s off season, mostly cloudy, but the water is still warm, perfect conditions for the handful of surfers and us.  Fishermen still launch skiffs through the surf from the beach, and fathers can be seen taking their kids to school on the handlebars of their motorcycles, gently splashing through the incoming tide.  Our rent for the month of October is $730.00 with breakfast included!

By ten o’clock each evening the streets are empty.  From our apartment at night we can hear the waves crashing onto the beach, along with roosters crowing – they start at one in the morning, seemingly on a campaign to discourage tourism – and dogs barking to each other. There is no traffic in this tiny four block square village.  Everyone walks in the middle of the road, roosters, dogs and cats included.  Every day pushcart vendors wheel their offerings of fruit, eggs, cheese, clothing, kitchen supplies, etc. through town, each peddler singing out a different sales pitch.

For a change of scenery, we took a day cruise out of Puerto Lopez to Isla de la Plata, an uninhabited island which is part of Machalilla National Park.  It is also referred to as the “budget Galapagos.”  Fifty dollars per person included shuttle transportation, boat ride, snorkeling gear, lunch, a three-hour hike with a licensed guide to view nesting birds and most importantly the chance to see humpback whales.

At the outdoor fish market, two kilos of fresh large shrimp set us back six dollars.  Several doors down at a little house with the barbeque out front, two plates of fresh grilled fish with a beer cost five dollars for dinner.  For a tiny place, this village has a surprising number of eateries, most of them created by northern European surfers who fell in love with the waves here and never left. Cotinga’s might be the only restaurant in Ecuador where you can get home-made borscht, prepared by Olga a Russian expat.

The only thing Olon really needs is a French inspired chef whose specialty is Coq au Vin.  Roosters, you’ve been warned!