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



Giving Back While Shrunken Heads Abound!

We began our 2nd day of shooting by visiting a small school in one of the poor barrios on the outskirts of Quito. The Fundacion Honor de la Vida (Foundation for the Honor of Life) School’s mission is to work with poor children from even more difficult backgrounds (an addicted parent, an abusive situation, etc.). The school is solely supported through private grants and donations and serves a few hundred poor and special needs children.

The Kids from The Foundation For The Honor of Life

Because school supplies are always in short supply, we brought along pencils, sharpeners and erasers, as well as Punk Outlaw and Afro Latino stickers which were a big hit. I spent about 30 minutes teaching them some basic English words and to my surprise, a couple of them actually knew some  of the words already. To my further surprise, I really enjoyed teaching these kids. Though I come from a family of teachers, I’ve never considered the profession seriously myself (I hear you need something called “patience”), nonetheless we made it through 20 or so basic English words like “hello” “goodbye” mother, “Father” etc and the kids really seemed to comprehend.

Afterwards the kids were all over us, hugging us and hanging on to us as they asked us questions all at the same time, like how to translate their names into English, or the meaning of certain English words along with some pretty personal questions like our age, family status, etc.  This was by far my most rewarding time in the trip so far.

Next, Bernardo, the owner of the Folklore Hotel where we were staying, picked us up and took us on a tour of Mitad del Mundo (or Middle of the World). Bernardo acted as our Driver/PR guide/Fixer and Guide and handily got our admission to almost all the area attractions waived. Gracias to Bernardo and the fine Folklore Hotel, a good budget accommodation in a great location in Quito that is a step above a hostel but not like staying at some multi national chain (we were not compensated in any way for that endorsement).

Mitad del Mundo

The very touristy Mitad Del Mundo is the one that you see in all the brochures and tour books. However, it is not the actual center of the world. Thanks to GPS technology, we now know the French, who first established this as the center of the world with a latitude of 0 x 0 degrees in the 1700s were off by a few meters. Still pretty impressive given their instrumentation back in the day and the site is still very much worth visiting, especially if you happen to hit it on the weekend when there is folkloric dancing and traditional musical entertainment.

But to me the most impressive was the much smaller but wildly popular museum just down the road, the Museum Intinan.  Our guide, Javier, was a charming, English speaking young cat who also happened to play drums in a punk band so we hit it off immediately. Javier showed us how the water drains differently just a few feet each side of the equator.  If I remember correctly, when to the north it drains clockwise, to the south counter clockwise and directly over it flows straight down. A truly a fascinating demonstration.

With Javier from the musuem

The museum also had an impressive collection of fake and actual shrunken heads that were fascinating. The practice of shrinking the heads of noteworthy enemies when they were killed and important members of the tribe after they died was outlawed just over 60 years ago in Ecuador.

Actual Shrunken Head - Over 200 years old

After the museum we hit up some pre-Inca ruins which were close by and afforded an incredible view of the valley below. I always get chills when I visit Indigenous ruins (even when it’s not windy and cold). I could just imagine the local indigenous tribe defending themselves against rival tribes who were foolish or brave enough to try and climb the hill to attack.

Shooting from the Inca Ruins

We made it to the La Virgen del Panecillo on Panecillo Hill just in time for sunset and to grab some pretty incredible pics and video of the towering statue, which can be spotted on the hill over the old city from miles around.

La Virgen del Panecillo

For dinner, we grabbed some local street food at one of the nearby parks, which judging by the crowd is a very popular spot for locals. I can understand why. The food was incredible. I tried Menudo (the soup, not the Puerto Rican boy band), Tripe (intestines) and a couple of other items full of mystery meats. My hat is off to anyone that can make intestines taste good enough for me to eat.

Later that night I had an interview with a local punk band El Junta at Plaza Foch. The guys were super cool and invited me to a punk show but I was exhausted and we had a big day trip planned to Otavalo the next day so I had to pass.

Ecuador's "El Junta"

Working with the poor school children in Quito was a great start to a great day. I have to admit, things in Quito seems to be looking up, but I’m looking forward to getting out of the big city to some of the more traditional small pueblos of Ecuador.