Story and photos by Susanna Starr
The charming Spanish colonial town of Cuenca, Ecuador is small and intimate with a variety of hotels ranging from upscale boutique like Mansion Alcazar to comfortable posadas with a number of long term rentals also available. The central square or zocolo is carefully maintained and often serves as a meeting place for appointments. The market is typically that of markets almost everywhere in Latin American countries, bright and colorful. Here you can find women in their typical fedora-like hats with embroidered blouses and full skirts, either buying or selling flowers, fruits and vegetables. On the streets you might encounter a man with his goats selling fresh goat milk as you wait for it. At a height of almost 8,500 feet, the mountains still loom majestically in the background at heights of more than 12,000 feet.
Four rivers run through the city with fresh water rushing down from the high altitude of the mountains of the Andes where the ancient Inca made their home thousands of years ago. It is reputed to be some of the best natural water in the world, clean and virtually unpolluted. Cuenca has been designated a World Heritage City and its people are very proud of that. Everywhere there are places to dump both organic and inorganic trash and the streets are mostly litter free. Exercise is very much evident in the jogging, bicycling and walking, including up and down the various staircases of more than 90 steep steps leading up and down from the old part of the city.
There are several museums, especially noteworthy is the Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes. This particular museum houses 5,000 pieces of archeological finds including an ancient scull and several shrunken heads in addition to examples of primitive pottery beautifully rendered and preserved. There is also a fine display of decorative metal jewelry. The entry is very beautifully landscaped with an outstanding variety of blooming orchids in this city known for its flowers.
One of the fun parts of travel is the discovery, all on your own, of memorable dining experiences. Although guide books and concierge folks and just plain acquaintances often have wonderful recommendations, there’s something very special about coming across a restaurant completely unknown to you and leaving with the feeling that you’ve just had a memorable experience.
We were coming back from a long walk along the verdant river banks of the Tomebamba River when we decided it was time to start finding a place to eat. It was mid-afternoon, the time for the main meal in Cuenca, as in most of Latin America, where people are used to breaking up their day, enjoying a long leisurely lunch before resuming their work schedules.
Although much of Cuenca, especially the historic district on the other side of the river and up a level (91 steps up, more or less, but who’s counting?), dates back many centuries. The side of the river we were walking along was more recently being developed. We passed the modern University of Cuenca and found ourselves at a small, beautifully designed complex of individual boutique shops as well as the gallery that handled the work of noted Ecuador potter and painter, Edward Vega.
We stopped into each one, enjoying new takes on traditional woven garments, making them up-scale and chic rather than the traditional ethnic textiles seen in the markets. The shop that represented the Vega work was also filled with the work of other Ecuadorian artisans from the area, contemporary in design, but using natural organic materials. One of the shops featured small and charming clay figures and beautifully hand painted, brightly colored soaps made by the young owner’s wife.
Up the broad staircase, we were led to a small outdoor patio of the restaurant we had decided to try, Vino y Olivo. It was neat and comfortable with nothing unusual in its décor, but we found it to be a memorable dining experience. Being spoiled with the strong Ecuadorian coffee we had quickly gotten accustomed to, we first ordered a cup of coffee which immediately fulfilled all our coffee expectations.
Then for the food… Because I’m a light eater, tapas were my choice. I had some wonderful prawns which were fresh and sweet, served in a tasty garlic sauce. My partner had a chicken dish prepared with a different type of delicious garlic sauce cooked in olive oil with onion and tomatoes. Its simple but appealing presentation, served by a waiter who was amiable and attentive helped set the mood, but the bottom line, as with all good restaurants, was the quality of the food. An accompanying wine and delicious dessert completed this dining experience.
Across the river and up the 91 steps to the old part of the city, crossing one street, and heading toward the main part of the city, just half a block up from the steps, is the tiny café called Bananas.
The food at Bananas was freshly prepared and the portions ample. We started out every morning with wonderful, rich bodied Ecuadorian coffee. I have mine with milk or cream, and in this case, the milk that was served was always hot, as is traditional in Latino countries. My partner drinks his dark and we understood why they called it “tinta” which is Spanish for “ink.” It was absolutely wonderful! Along with the coffee came a basket of either freshly baked croissants or rolls, with butter and jams.
Always, there was a choice of liquados, (fruit drinks) made with fresh papaya, banana, orange or other tropical fruits, or a plate of sliced fruit if that’s what you preferred. This was the continental breakfast and quite satisfactory if you weren’t planning on walking the city streets for hours. For that you required something a little more substantial, so we added a vegetable omelet which was made with 4 eggs and enough to share and feel completely satisfied.
Although the food was well prepared and fresh, as well as ample, it was the experience of going to Bananas every morning that made it memorable. We started out each day by feeling that we were with friends who were delighted that we had dropped in to visit and their wide smiles welcomed us with warmth and friendliness. After the first day or so, they knew exactly what our preferences were and before we could put in our order, they were at the table with hot coffee, served to each of us as we liked it.
At first I thought that Fabi was the owner as she was the one who sat down and talked with us initially. We later found out the actual owner was her stunning daughter, Alix, a young beautiful woman of 30 or so. This was her first venture into the café business and her hope and dream was to expand and have a larger, more extensive restaurant, one with a cappuccino machine that would turn out more exotic versions of their fabulous coffee as well as one that would include serving dinner.
The last in the trio of warm and beautiful women was Glenda, another knock-out beauty whose flashing smile lit up the small space. She wasn’t just someone who worked there, but someone who obviously cared as much for the clients as Alix and Fabi. Each of the three women treated each person who came in personally. Their welcome made breakfast a time of real exchange as well as enjoying the home cooked food and rich coffee. We came away feeling that, although years might pass before we see them again, if ever, they would still be our friends.
Whatever you decide to do or wherever you decide to stay or eat, this small, charming city of Cuenca is worth the visit.
UNESCO World Heritage listing
Susanna Starr is a travel writer, entrepreneur, photographer, speaker and artist. She holds a degree in philosophy from Stony Brook State University of New York. She is the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Assn.’s Regional Membership coordinator (RMC)) for Oaxaca & Mexican Caribbean, Mexico and a board member of the Travel Writers Association. Susanna has over twenty years experience in the hospitality business as owner of Rancho Encantado, an eco-resort and spa in Mexico. She lives in Northern New Mexico. Susanna is the author of the book: Fifty and Beyond: New Beginnings in Health and Well-Being published by Paloma Blanca Press. Recent publications include: Soul of Travel Magazine (online); snaptwig.com; Yourlifeisatrip.com & Global Writes. Her website is www.SusannaStarr.com.