Loja Stories and Tips

Day 6 - Voiceless Panama's (Cuenca)

Cathedral of Immaculate Concepcion - Cuenca Photo, Cuenca, Ecuador

After the best nights sleep in a long, long time and a breakfast fit for kings at El Pavon Real (Calle Gran Columbia 8-33, Tel: 846678), which for the first time since coming to South America I got to taste one of my favourite foods, bacon, although it didn't quite live up to the quality back home, it was time to partake it a day's worth of sightseeing around the city, which isn't that much of a hard job considering how compact the old colonial centre is.

Museums for me, although full of interesting artifacts and information, quickly lose my interest. Not through any fault of their own, but it seems I am just not a museum type of person, with my maximum interest threshold reached after a pathetic two hours. It was therefore a bold move to make Museo de Banco Central (Calle Larga, Mon-Fri 9am-6pm, Sat 9am-1pm, $3 entry) the first port of call, a fifteen minute walk from the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. The museum comes complete with its own set of Incan ruins, Parque Ecologica de Pumpaungo, housing remains of Tomebamba, the Incan's most powerful northern city of their once powerful empire. The entrance ticket to the museum gains you entry to both. As to be expected, seeing a huge collection of religious art and old money stock soon had me in a bout of uncontrollable yawns. Add to this enough old pottery scraps to put both Royal Dolton and Wedgwood out of business and I was already dreaming of walking through the exit. Luckily the museum saves its best display until last, a look at the remarkable diversity of Ecuador's population and the different tribes that constitute to this. From the Manabi on the coast to the naked Huaorani in the jungle, there must be a good thirty different tribes represented here with a mass of information to boot, although only the Shuar tribe, the highlight of the display, complete with a collection of human shrunken heads for me the best part had their displays in English as well as Spanish.

From avidly reading every last word of the information on the subject of shrinking heads, it does sound quite a grotesque operation, having to take all the bones out of the face in a drawn-out process. Gladly, due to Ecuadorian law, this tradition is virtually a thing of the past, although it does allow for the head of sloth’s to be used in place of a human's. Not really fair when you consider even a crawling baby could outpace a sloth for speed if the need arose.

After a quick walk around the disappointing Incan ruins, consisting of reconstructed walls reaching no higher than my knees it was time to continue with the rest of the days sightseeing extravaganza, albeit slightly delayed after finding the best piece of technology since arriving in Ecuador; a change machine. Having change in Ecuador is always a problem, and not having the right money often leads to niggling little arguments with people who see this as the perfect opportunity to short change you. Nine times out of ten, you win the argument, even if it means jumping on a moving bus to retrieve $0.50 (yes, I know I can get a little carried away from time to time!), but such confrontations start to where you down. This must be why I pumped $50 into this heavenly equipment. With enough change jangling to alert every pick-pocket in the country I really should have known better.

There are enough churches in Cuenca to last anyone a good days viewing if they want a detailed inspection, but if a quick look inside and out, a photo or two is all you desire, then they can easily be covered in a couple of hours at the very most, including Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, Catederal Vieja, Iglesia San Alfonso, Iglesia El Carmen, Iglesia Santo Domingo, Iglesia San Sebastian and San Blas. That evening, looking back over the church photos I’d taken, I was already confused to which was which, all of them blurring together into one big horrible nightmare!

Located outside of almost every church in Cuenca is a procession of homeless, beggars, and cripples, who groan to you for a few cents. Trying to avoid their looks of self-pity and their groping hands is more difficult than I imagine trying to avoid Michael Barrymore's hotspots was during his heyday. It's impossible not to feel sorry for them all, but giving to one would mean wanting to give to all. You do wonder if they might have a little more good fortune by actually entering the churches and participating in a spot of praying and repenting, instead of relying solely on a few cents of charity every day to survive. A harsh existence for sure.

With the afternoon in full swing and ample time to spare, it meant a spot of souvenir buying could be indulged in. The amount of souvenirs already in my possession is already enough to compete with the very best in Otavalo, but seeing Cuenca is famous for the Panama hat, something my collection failed to contain, it was rude not to at least look. This was news to me as I always though Panama hats were from Panama. Within the city of Cuenca there are a number of factories who open their doors and charge a nice entrance fee to show you in great detail the delightful ways how a Panama hat is made. Not having a budget for this and not sure how appealing it sounded, a visit to the nearby Alberto Pulla, located in the city centre on Calle Tarqui 6-91 was deemed a better option.

Alberto Pulla is a legend in the world of Panama hats and is famous throughout the world, making these hats for over seventy years, since the age of six. He is known as the 'voiceless panama', as under circumstance unbeknown to myself his voice is non-existent, with hawk eyes and a good lip-reading ability needed in order to communicate. Not the easiest job in the world if your Spanish skills are as bad as mine. After looking at his downstairs factory, where the majority of hats made are for the local indigenous population, who scowl at the word panama, you are taking upstairs to a smaller workshop, with a vast array of internationally accepted panamas on offer. Upon buying one he quickly rolls it up, sticks it in a lightweight wooden box and writes your very own message from the great man himself. I don't think many people in the world get such a personal gift like this from one of the worlds most famous and prestigious Panama hat makers!

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