With a few days in hand before my camera’s rejuvenated once more – fingers crossed – I figured I’d take a break from the saddle and hop on the bus to Cuenca.
Travelling by bus is quick. Just three back-to-back, badly dubbed movies later, I emerged in the country’s third largest metropolis. And from the impression I gleaned during my brief visit, it’s by far its coolest: a city where well-preserved colonial architecture meets a vibrant arts and music scene.
In hindsight I think I’d have ridden this way, via the Sierra rather than El Oriente, especially now that I’ve discovered what looks to be an awesome, dirt rollercoaster of a route between Cuenca and Loja. I was tempted to strip the bike down and ride it anyway, in a lightweight, bikepacking style. But the persistent rain has yet to let up, so grudgingly, it will have to be stored in the memory banks for another time…
Instead, I contented myself with I wandering around the city sin bici. Being a Sunday, the streets were near deserted and the shutters pulled down, revealing cool shop typography and some creative street art.
Of course, I miss not having my camera. The Apple iTouch/Instagram combo does a pretty good job at capturing the moment if you’re ok with heavily processed pictures. The camera in the iPhones is considerably better quality though, and would make a great backup to a mirrorless or DSLR – perfect for discreetly snapping shots around town.
Cuenca, a city of cobbled backstreets…
It dates back to the 16th century, with a dramatic skyline of rotundas and steeples.
Artwork in one of the cool cat cafes.
This particular hangout doubled up as a hostel. In the evening, it was packed with young Cuencan hipsters.
A flyer for a fledgling bike messenger company.
Interesting typography abounds in Ecuador – note the way the scissors form the P of peluqueria (hairdresser), and the M of moderna.
It’s all about modernity – even when it comes to baking bread.
Another hairdresser. Another decorated shutter.
Cuenca is resplendent in austere colonial architecture. Previously an Incan settlement by the name of Tomebamba, many of the original stones were recycled by the Spanish in its construction.
It’s also the place to come for all your millinery needs. In fact, what is mistakenly known as the Panama hat – made from the plaited leaves of the toquilla straw plant - is actually a product of Ecuador. The name was blurred in translation when the hats were exported to Spain via Panama – where they went on to became popular amongst the Panama Canal’s construction workers.
Napping on the job. Various little stalls sell snacks, my favourites being the balls of panela-covered popcorn and bags of fried, wafer-thin plantanes.
Must go to the dentist soon. Looks like it will have to be Peru.
Street art off the Plaza Central.
This hamgurger symbol popped up all over town. Made me hungry. Omnipresent papas fritas, served with tomato sauce and mayonaise, is another good street food staple, at 50c a portion.
Cuenca has a flight of creatively decorated, Parisian-like steps leading down to the Tomebamba River.
More steps, more funky characters.
A splash of colour. Open sided buses – chivas- are a common sight around southern Ecuador’s country roads.
Equally colourful, neon fruit juices are popular in the markets. This grassy brew claims all kinds of nutritional benefits.
The striations on this example made it particularly picture-worthy, as YoungJoo – who I shared a dorm with – demonstrates.
Mixed with carrot and orange, it sure tasted healthy. I skipped the raw quails eggs, a popular local supplement.
The need to know bit:
Digicam, on Calle Mariscal la Mar and Coronel Talbot, had a decent selection of lens filters (I’d broken my 77mm) and digital DSLRs and lenses.
There’s a whole bunch of high end bike shops behind the university, particularly along Remigio Cresp Tamariz. Like Mybike, which is a Trek dealer. On the same street, there’s a Cube dealer and Specialized dealer, all of which stocked 29er tyres, or can get them in pretty quick.