After a lovely breakfast at hostel Huasi Quñi we explored the peaceful, genteel streets of Cuenca, a laid-back Andean city in Southern Ecuador. Wandering along the fast-flowing Rio Tomebamba, we came to an impressive statue of the Inca ruler Huayna Capac. From here we made our way to the ruins of Pumapungo, the Inca settlement which preceded Hispanic Cuenca. Walking amongst the polished stone ruins of temples, administrative centres and barracks, it was apparent that Pumapungo was once a key settlement in the Incan empire.
The attached museum shed further light on the history of the site and also had several excellent exhibits on pre-Incan Ecuadorean tribes and cultures. These ranged from coastal fishing tribes and colourful Otovalans (whose vibrant markets draw major crowds today) to the terrifying Shuar tribe of the Ecuadorean jungle.
The Shuar successfully resisted Spanish rule for centuries and were infamous for ritually shrinking the heads of their enemies. For the Shuar, collecting your enemy’s head in this way ensured control over his soul and property (including his wives and daughters – lovely). The museum housed several shrunken heads, along with a notice reassuring visitors that today this ritual is only carried out on (presumably bewildered) sloths.
Image courtesy of google
After lunch we strolled through the handsome Parqué Calderon, bordered in one side by the whitewashed ‘Old Cathedral’ and on the other by the colossal red-brick ‘New Cathedral’. After paying a small fee, we were able to climb on to the roof of the latter building, admiring its huge tiled domes and the spectacular views over the city (fun fact – Cuenca means ‘bowl’, the city so-named for sitting in a valley basin).
On a bus tour of the city, our conductor pointed out Cuenca’s 52 churches (clearly a religious lot) and the growing neighbourhood of immigrants from Europe and the US, referred to by locals as ‘Gringolandia’. The tour concluded with an incredible view out over the city from the promontory of ‘Mirador de Turis’.
On Friday we visited Parque Nacional Cajas (Quechua for ‘cold’), a beautiful, bleak habitat of mountains, lakes and rivers sitting between 3000 – 4500 metres above sea level. The park’s 270 lakes supply 60% of Cuenca’s drinking water, and apart from an eccentric German beer enthusiast (whose abandoned brewery is slowly collapsing by a pristine lake) has never been inhabited by humans.
Our guide, Milton, explained how Europeans introduced trout, pines and eucalyptus to the region, threatening the unique ecosystem. Animals here include condors, weasels, rabbits and (rarely seen) pumas. Plant life here has adapted to the altitude, with whole forests of Polylepis (paper trees – actually a type of rose bush) thriving by the lakes. Brugmansia grows plentifully here, from whose flowers Scopolamine is derived. Known as ‘Devil’s Breath’, this drug has been used in muggings throughout South America, supposedly rendering victims dumbly compliant with their attackers.
Driving on, we reached the Páramo, an alpine tundra at over 4000 metres where clouds drape over the landscape. The soil here retains a huge amount of water; plants have evolved to thrive in these unique conditions. Jumping on the rubbery moss, the ground bobbled disconcertingly underfoot like a giant water bed. Descending through an ancient paper-tree forest (many trees here are over 1000 years old), the gnarled and twisted maze of branches felt distinctly Tolkien-esque. After a lunch of local(ish) trout we returned to Cuenca.
On Sunday we visited Nariz del Diablo railway station, en route enjoying sensational views of mountain peaks poking through the clouds. The railway was built in the 1890s to transport goods between the coast and the interior of the country, which until then had been hugely impeded by the Andean mountains. As an example of engineering prowess and sheer bloody-mindedness it is unparalleled, the track winding down the sheer mountain face via a series of switchbacks to the valley below. Dozens of elderly German tourists craned their necks to marvel at the engineering, cooing softly with each twist and turn.
Our final destination was Ingapirca, one of the most important Incan sites in Ecuador. As the mighty Inca moved north, they met the moon-worshipping Cañari tribe, who proved formidable adversaries. The resourceful Inca instead incorporated the Cañari into the empire diplomatically and an Inca temple of the sun was added to the moon temple at Ingapirca.
After Huayna Capac’s death (likely from smallpox), his sons fought a devastating civil war for control of the empire. The Cañari chose the losing side and were punished horribly for it by the son, Atahualpa; supposedly he decimated the tribe, tearing their ‘traitorous hearts’ from their bodies. When the Spanish arrived soon afterwards, the surviving Cañari were only too eager to join them in overthrowing Atahualpa. Pumapungo and Ingapirca were left in ruins, forgotten until their rediscovery in the 20th century.
That evening we relaxed in Cuenca, savouring the chilled Andean vibe one last time before setting off for the hot, busy coastal city of Guayaquil.