The sound of trumpets, trombones, and snare drums is getting louder and louder…we roll over in bed. Then a crescendo hits like it’s pounding at our hotel door. There is no sleeping through this–Cuenca is calling. We threw a jacket over our pajamas and chased after the music. We followed a brass band of dapper gentleman in fedoras and sports coats until the music started coming from every direction. Multiple bands were acting as the town alarm clock and servants of the lord to get people to the Cathedral. We asked one of the flower vendors lining the church square, “Que pasa?” Still arranging her bouquet of roses, “This is the 14th and final day of the Virgen del Carmen festival,” she replied in Spanish, “but these things happen all the time.” Just another day in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Cuenca…famed for its colonial architecture, abundance of churches, and rich traditions. From the moment of our first brass-band wake up call, we could feel the artistic pulse of the city and would spend the next four days falling in love with its unique rhythm.
Part of what shaped our love for old and new in Cuenca was our lodging. We stayed in a modern and funky Airbnb (more on that later) and also the historic-home-turned-hotel, Casa del Aguila (remember if you are booking online, always do a quick search for hotel discounts at RetailMeNot & ChameleonJohn). Built in 1802, the hotel has kept the traditional Spanish courtyard plan, adobe walls, stick roof, and has been enhanced with frescoes and furnishings to reflect the era with a twist. Our bed didn’t have a headboard but rather a trompe l’oeil painting of a four-poster. The co-owner did all the decorative paintings himself which made the whole place feel bespoke and personal.
We picked up a map for a self-guided walking tour called “Rutas Patramoniales” and used it as rough guide to meander around the city. The Tomebamba river is the divide between the old and new town, and where the historic mansions meet trendy bars. City rivers tend to be kind of grungy but Cuenca is at the confluence of four rivers in the Amazon watershed and fast moving with lush foliage and pretty rock formations. Fun Fact: Cuenca translates to bowl or basin.
It would take a literal year of Sunday masses to visit all 52 churches in Cuenca but we cut to the beauties at the top of the list, like the stunning Iglesia Santo Domingo, the 16th-century Old Cathedral, and the “New” Cathedral with its emblematic blue domes.
Just when we thought we saw the last of the Virgen del Carmen festival, a full-fledged parade came right at us. The streets were packed with religious floats and a procession of pristinely dressed people from military to nuns to indigenous groups. Our favorite float was the white veil from the Virgin of Carmen, which billowed the length of a city block and hundreds of people marched beneath it.
We popped into the city’s main food market, Mercado 10 de Augusto, for a late lunch. We chose Comedor de Ely because of its prime location to discreetly watch the curanderas, or traditional healers, take on patients by hitting them with bundles of herbs, spitting sacred water, and lots of other mysterious treatments that had people lining up around the block. Turns out, this chicken platter with fresh beet salad, beans, and avocado was one of our favorite dishes in Ecuador and for a mere $2.
We liked Cuenca so much we decided to extend our stay with the best Airbnb–ever. We saw the apartment listing (which looked like an Architectural Digest spread) with a room available for $18 a night. Seemed too good to be true…but too cheap not to try. Turns out it was even better than the photos. This beautifully decorated three-story penthouse with private roof deck had the best possible view of the Cathedral domes and the coolest host. Sara was a former architect and director of international disaster relief for Habitat Humanity, living in Haiti, Vietnam, India, among others. All the global art and antiques in her space had a story, and we loved hearing about her collection, travels, and humanitarian efforts over breakfast and nightcaps on the roof.
As we started to get away from the main plazas and into little neighborhoods, we noticed more and more artful graffiti. Cuenca is also a big university town and you can feel its youthful energy wherever you go.
Ecuador is famous for its “Panama Hats.” This woven straw-woven hat has been a staple in Ecuador for hundreds of years, but its name was coined when it was sent to the Panama Canal for international distribution. There are number of Panama Hat factories and museums in Cuenca (it’s worth visiting the Museo del Sombero) but our favorite part was stumbling upon the Sombereria Camilo M. repair shop and chatting with the hat master and his family.
If not a Panama hat, what did we buy as Cuenca souvenir? A 75-year old mule saddle. Yes, it’s a totally unpractical thing to purchase when you have to carry it everywhere for two weeks—without the help of a donkey—but the old wooden seat, leather stirrups, metal fittings, and woven straps were worth the two-cubic feet it took up in Mike’s bag. Plus, we had such a good laugh with the shopkeeper about our plans to transport it: Taking riding lessons, buying an ass, and taking six months to ride it home.
Cuenca is a special place. At first we thought it was for the architecture and landscape, but as we spent time there…we realized it’s the people that make it shine.