Cuenca: More Shrunken Heads, Panama Hats and Goth!

Cuenca is Ecuador’s 3rd largest city with around 500,000 residents. A lot of foreigners retire here because you don’t need a car (taxis are cheap), the weather is temperate (warmer than Quito but not as warm as Guayaquil) and it’ a cleaner city than most in Ecuador. In fact this historic town has a pretty impressive recycling program with a company called EMAC working in partnership with the local government.

While we were in town, EMAC was throwing a little celebration and had information booths set up in one of the main plazas. After our conversation in Baños with the guys from La Casa Verde, we were even more curious about recycling and environmental conservation efforts in Ecuador, so we interviewed the President and a few key staff of EMAC who filled us in.

Through the event they were hoping to provide education about recycling efforts in Cuenca, fully aware that without the residents’ cooperation, their best efforts would be futile. I was pleased to hear that plastic bottles were recyclable in Cuenca. We had been drinking a lot of bottled water and I was feeling a tad guilty. I had been trying to figure out another solution to drinking clean, potable water while on the road.

Later we took some footage of the wonderful, Colonial sites and historical architecture along Cuenca’s cobblestone streets.

Then we headed over to the PumaPungo Museum to see the impressive Inca Ruins, the only ones I’ve witnessed inside the city limits of a major city. The site had been partially restored by the museum and is definitely worth a visit if you find yourself in Cuenca.

PumaPungo Museum Exhibit of an Inca Princess

Our guide, Pablo, spoke English and filled me in on the fascinating culture and history of the Pre-Inca and Inca civilization. This particular site was where the Inca Princesses lived and had 11 servants each (all male). The garden was reproduced to look exactly like the Garden might have looked back in the Inca days with over 400 different species of plants.

Much of the food raised went to the birds in the sanctuary the museum runs where they rescue birds that have been injured or are retrieved by the police from people who try to illegally export these rare birds as illegal pets to places like the U.S. and Europe.

Later we visited the museum’s impressive archeology section which displayed some of the items recovered from the site.

Solid Gold Ornament Recovered from the Inca Ruins


We also saw their exhibit of shrunken heads. They gave me a DVD on them and I can’t wait to hear and see more about this fascinating practice which was just outlawed on humans in Ecuador in the 1960s!

After the museum we headed over to the Panamanian Hat Factory and Store, Homero Ortega. Most people don’t realize the ubiquitous and famous Panama hat actually originated in Ecuador. It got its confusing and misleading moniker during the building of the Panama Canal when then U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt wore one while visiting the canal and its popularity soared.

At the Homero Ortega Store you can see the Panama hats being woven

Even though the hat originates in Ecuador (Montecristo and Cuenca) people still confuse the hat with Panama, the port where the hat was exported back in the day and the name has stuck.

Cuenca has a large number of people who depend on the Panama Hat industry as they normally weave in their homes and then bring the hats to the Homero Ortega Company to be finished. The process is pretty cool to see first hand, which you can do at the factory. It can take as little as 2 days for some hats that might retail at $20 or as much as 6-8 months for hats that might retail as much as $1,000-$1,500 U.S. The difference is the quality of the weaving, as the more expensive hats have a more fine straw material which takes a long time to weave and requires more material.

Alicia Ortega S. is the founder’s granddaughter and current President of the company and she and her staff could not have been more gracious to us. They even gave us each a Panama hat as a souvenir. Incredible generosity and a great segment for the show.

With Homero Ortega's Granddaughter and President Alicia

After that we pretty much called it a wrap. But I had one more shoot I wanted to do so I went along to this Gothic store called “Godos” close to our hotel to get a little info n the punk/metal and gothic scene in Cuenca for my side project “Punktology”.

At "Godos" the Goth store in Cuenca

The owner’s were super cool. They let me have free run of the place and filled me in on the local metal and goth scene. In Cuenca it is really big it turns out which also helps explain all the teens and kids I saw running around town wearing black.

Godos' Goth Store Prop

Cuenca is a really cool town. It’s big enough to have most of what you might want (it has an international airport) yet small enough that traffic and getting around isn’t an issue and it felt safe, even at night, in the old town. Of Course all the old precautions should be followed anywhere when traveling (don’t walk alone at night; don’t wear expensive jewelry, etc.). But all in all, I heartily recommend Cuenca as a safe, friendly and interesting destination.

Downtown Cuenca at night


Ecuador South America

Up the Devil’s Nose in Alausí, Ecuador

After a stopover for lunch in Riobamba, we arrived in the small town of Alausí, about 4 hours by bus from Baños. The bus ride from Riobamba to Alausí was made much more entertaining when I made friends with Lupe, a little 4 year old Ecuadorian girl who was fascinated by my camera. I never saw her parents but she said her father was a few rows back.

My little friend Lupe

I am still amazed by the independence little children in Ecuador seem to have. I can’t tell you how many times I saw young kids, sometimes as young as 4 or 5 walking by themselves by the side of a busy highway.  Contrast that with the U.S. where I swear I’ve seen kids the same age being pushed in strollers in Manhattan!

I didn’t complain when Lupe came up to share the ride with me. She was cute as a button and I taught her a few basic English words before she eventually got bored with me and my camera and she went over to our producer’s (Renzo) side of the bus, where she promptly fell asleep. She was still sleeping when we got off at Alausí, so I slipped a piece of candy in her little folded arms so that she’d have a sweet surprise when she woke up.  I’m such a big old softy when it comes to kids, especially cute little Ecuadorian kids. Simply the cutest.

Alausí Resident

Alausí has a big indigenous influence and despite having the famous “Nariz del Diablo” or “Devil’s Nose Train” station it didn’t seem to have a lot of tourist infrastructure to speak of.

That being said, the people were friendly and the food at the local Chifa (Chinese restaurant) across the street from our hotel was good. You can get a good sense of Alausí in about 2 hours walking around town and if the altitude isn’t kicking your butt too bad, a great view of the city can be had from the lookout with the large San Pedro monument which towers over the town.

At the San Pedro Monument Overlooking the City

We woke up early to take the 1st Devil’s Nose Train which was scheduled to depart at 8AM and arrive back in town at 10:30AM.  Since we didn’t have tickets (the ticket office was closed when we arrived the day before) , we had to wake up really early to buy our tickets at 7AM at the ticket office. Buying tickets was by far the worst part of the train trip, it took 45 minutes and we were the 2nd group of people in line. Maybe there “system was down”, but it killed any chance of us getting breakfast (and me, my much needed coffee fix) beforehand.

The Devil’s Nose Train is probably one of the most famous and infamous tourist sites in Ecuador. If you research on the web or guidebooks before you go, you’ll get an amazing amount of outdated, misinformation. This stems from the fact that the train used to depart from Riobamba for a much more grueling all day train ride and not that long ago, tourists could ride on top of the cars. Of course, this is dangerous and eventually someone died so that no longer is allowed. A round trip train ride from Alausí is only 2.5 hours and that includes a 50 minute stop in the town of Sibambe for lunch.

View from the train

As of this writing, the train currently runs from Alausí 3 times a day (8A, 11A, 1PM) Tuesday-Sundays and the cost is $20 U.S. per adult. You can buy tickets at the ticket office in Alausí or at the old train station in Riobamba before you get there. Evidently weekends and holidays are pretty packed so you’re advised to get your tickets as early as possible.

You’ll also get mixed reviews about the train ride itself, some saying it’s a tourist trap and that the views are just as great by bus. Not so. The train ride overlooks cliffs and valleys in a way no bus ever could (or that you would want) and because the speed is slower (and the ride smoother) it’s much easier to get video or photos and appreciate the beautiful surrounding landscape.

In front of the aptly named "Devil's Nose" formation

The train was built in 1901 and many people died building it and when you take the ride you understand why. The terrain is precarious. I can’t imagine the amount of manpower needed to build around the mountains at that time. At times the train is so close to the side of a mountain that if you stick your hand outside the train car, you’ll lose it.

There are two types of train cars. Buses that are retrofitted to ride on  train tracks and the kind we thankfully took, which are refurbished train cars from back in the heyday of the route when it was used for transportation and not just a diversion for tourists.

When we arrived in Sibambe we were welcomed with folkloric dancers and surprise, surprise you could buy souvenirs from the local artisans. We also toured the museum and had a light lunch before we headed back.

Folkloric dancing in Sibambe

The train ride is not that adrenaline pumping excitement you’ll get in Baños from some of the adventure sports and I admit I was disappointed we couldn’t ride on the roof, but the views are stunning nonetheless and it’s really a good way to feel like what travel was like in these parts not that long ago. If you have the time and are in the area, I wholeheartedly recommend the ride.

We hopped on a bus to Cuenca (another 4 hours) and realized when we arrived that we had left our tripod (valued at $250 U.S.) on the train.  Getting it back proved to be an adventure but Marcos the manager of the Train was so cool and eager to help us out. We wired him some fare money to put it on a bus to Cuenca and we got it back the next day. Big gracias to Jose Luis (our guide who found the tripod and turned it in) and Marcos for their help.

Below is a small video clip to give you some idea of what the train ride was like.