Ecuador’s Cuenca, a city of 300,000, sits in what passes for a valley in the Andes: It is 8,200 feet above sea level and flanked by still higher mountains.
It carries the legacy of Spanish occupation in its lovely Old Town, now a Unesco World Heritage Site.
And it is renowned as the home of the Panama hat — yes, the Panama hat. Tourism centers on the Old Town, of course, and the starting point for sightseers must be the central Plaza Calderon, which underwent a six-month restoration, completed in 2002.
The most appealing building here is the 16th century Old Cathedral which was also restored, but for use as a cultural space.
Its replacement as a house of worship is the New Cathedral across the square. Built between 1885 and 1960, it is less appealing on the outside, but there is plenty to appreciate on the inside, including a prodigious application of gold above the altar. In some design elements, it reflects local pre-Hispanic culture: stained-glass windows featuring Andean people, the sun (worshipped by the Incas) and the moon (worshipped by the indigenous people who got here before the Incas).
After these de rigueur viewings, it is time to walk the streets of the Old Town. Restoration projects have produced a particularly charming outcome for visitors, the creation of boutique hotels that are tourist attractions themselves.
The two-story, family-owned Santa Lucia was built as a private home in 1859 and debuted as a hotel in 2002 at the completion of an award-winning restoration that preserved the character of the original. Its 20 rooms surround a central patio, which is now the setting for the Trattoria, one of two Santa Lucia eateries (per room, including breakfast: $65-$100). The Carvallo, with 30 suites, is a beautifully refurbished 1917 home with an entry atrium showing off wooden balustrades on the second and third floors; at the back, a second courtyard is surrounded by more rooms (per room, including breakfast: from $50).
A restoration across the street produced the very popular Cafe Eucalyptus, which serves more than 60 tapas items, averaging only a few dollars each. The Hotel Victoria, is one of the Old Town’s “hanging houses.” These are huge homes built on bluffs overlooking the Tomebamba River. The Victoria dates from the 17th century and was recently converted to a hotel (per room, including breakfast: from $35).
These blufftop homes seem to spill down the side of the riverbank, as well; therefore, to get to the restaurant at the Victoria, we entered the building at city-street level and walked downstairs. As we ate in Victoria’s El Jardin, where a big glass windows afforded grand views of the city across the river (three-course meal: $15-$20, without drinks; choosing lobster bumps the price up).
Finally, the best of the hotel conversions, tour operators say, is the 19th century Mansion Alcazar, which in 2001 debuted its antiques-filled drawing room and 14 rooms positioned around the traditional courtyard (per room, including breakfast and English tea: $65-$155).
Services charges and taxes of 22% are added to all hotel rates, as well as to restaurant bills, eliminating the need for tipping.
Shopping choices vary: Cuenca’s Thursday fair offers plenty of Andean handicrafts, not to mention a chance to look over medicinal drugs brought in from Ecuador’s rain forest.
But, for something quite different, visit the workshop/gallery/store of ceramic artist Eduardo Vega to choose from colorful works in traditional and modern styles.
The best-known local industry is hat making. Teddy Roosevelt dubbed these Ecuadorian toppers “Panama hats” after seeing them on construction workers at the Panama Canal site.
Although the hats originated in the jungle and are still made in Ecuadorian villages, Cuenca is home to the big factories, and the Homero Ortega P. & Hijos factory is the biggest exporter. Travelers can tour the facility (call ahead for an appointment), or skip the factory tour and drop in at the Homero Ortega hat shop.
There are other Cuenca hat factories plus numerous shops in Cuenca and elsewhere in Ecuador for buying this local specialty.
The hats come in many styles and colors. The prices (based on a survey in the capital Quito, as well) cover an astonishing range, from $10 to something in four figures. The variation reflects the quality of the fiber and the weave, and the very finest hats can be rolled into tubes without damage to their underlying shape.
Finally, a couple of other, good-news tidbits deserving noting:
Travel to Ecuador is considered long-haul, but there is no jetlag because the country is in the same time zone as the U.S. East Coast; there is a one-hour time difference in summer because the U.S. has Daylight Savings Time, but a country on the Equator does not need it. And there’s no need to change money. A few years ago, Ecuador adopted the U.S. dollar as its national currency, too.
The author, Nadine Godwin, is editor at large for Travel Weekly, the nation’s largest travel trade newspaper.