Monday, December 14, 2009

Ecuador, Day 7

The Church of El Carmen de la Asuncion in Cuenca.

As usual in Quito, car alarms woke me up at around six a.m., despite the fact that I downloaded to iTunes an hour-long “white noise” application and set it on repeat all night. It took me a while to get going, but at a little after seven I made it downstairs for my free breakfast – fresh fruit (a few pieces of cut cantaloupe), cantaloupe juice, coffee, and bread with cheese.

Today was cantaloupe day, apparently.

Since I had time to kill before heading to the airport for my flight to Cuenca, I decided to see if I could find a painting exhibition in what I thought was the culture center near the Plaza Grande. However, upon entering the building and finding most of its wings closed or cordoned off, I decided just to explore the building more, as the architecture was quite stunning.

From the second floor of the Metropolitan Cultural Center.

I hadn’t taken but a few steps into one of the building’s courtyards before an old man approached me speaking English. Nearly begging me to let him guide me through the building, he hooked my arm and began pulling me inside before I could tell him no thanks, or explain that I had to return to my hotel in ten minutes to check out and get a taxi to the airport.

He proceeded to take me on a fifteen-minute tour of the building, which was interesting, and a ten-minute tour of El Ronda, which is a famous neighborhood nearby that I hadn’t explored during my stay in Quito.

Church of El Sagrario.

From the rooftop of the Cultural Center.

As he was explaining things to me, he told me that he had lived in Cleveland and San Diego, where he’d worked as a teacher for a number of years. He returned to Quito in retirement, and he gave tours on his own “just for fun.” As we were walking back from El Rondo, I checked my wallet to see if I had any small change to give him – I was thinking $3, but I only had a $5 bill. So, feeling generous, and thinking he’d be pleased with the amount, I handed it to him, wished him and his family a Merry Christmas, and told him I had to leave. But he hooked my arm again and asked me for more. “For my grandchildren,” he said. “I want to buy them candy.” I was a little taken aback by this, and by the fact that he wouldn’t let go of my arm. He repeated, “A few more dollars. Why not give me ten?” I said no as politely as I could, and when he asked me why not I told him I didn’t have small change and that $5 was enough for his tour. He told me to change my money at any of the banks along the street, but I said no again, and then he tried to pull me into a jewelry shop and said they’d do it for me because I was a foreigner. He was relentless! I was getting angry at this point, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I just shut my trap and kept walking, ignoring his continued pleas for more money. For someone who’d lived in the States for almost twenty years, as he’d said, I was surprised he’d take this approach with me.

In the end, he stopped following me and I decided that, since I wouldn’t have much time for lunch before arriving in Cuenca, I’d get something to go at a local sandwich shop.

I ended up wandering into Cafeteria Carmita, at N3-437 Venezuela Street.

Cafeteria Carmita.

It's mostly just a hole in the wall, with a very stubborn, but otherwise nice, waitress who calls all the shots.

I decided to have a “mixed sandwich” (
sanduche mixto, which was ham and cheese) and told the woman working there that I’d take it with me rather than eat there. Of course, she brought out a grilled ham and cheese on a plate, and when I explained to her again that I wanted to take it with me, another man in the restaurant who spoke a bit of English intervened and conveyed to her what I’d already made clear, I’m pretty sure, in Spanish.

“She says you should eat it here,” he told me, then took my hand, shook it, and said his name was Jaime.

Mucho gusto, Jaime. But I want to take it with me. I told her that when I ordered.”

The woman said something in Spanish, and appeared to be put out.

“She says you have to eat it here.”

“I have to?”

“Yes. You can’t take it out of the door.”

What else could I do? Even though I wasn’t very hungry I sat down and ate what she’d brought out to me. It was only $1.50, and it wasn’t very good.

Meh, it was okay. I can't really complain since it was only $1.50. But seriously, where are the veggies?

After that I returned to my hotel, discovered that they hadn’t done the laundry I’d given them four days ago, and waited another half hour for them to do a rush job and then hand me over a pile of damp clothes. I checked out, relieved to be going somewhere else – Cuenca.

At the airport, which I made it to much easier than I’d made it to the bus station, my flight was, as usual, delayed by a little over an hour. I was worried that I’d lose a full day in Cuenca, but I arrived in plenty of time to walk through what felt like half the city. And I got there just in time for a three-hour power cut, which is always fun.

I started off walking several blocks to the Parque Calderon, which is the main plaza in Cuenca, though there are several plazas in the city.

Parque Calderon.

There are a number of excellent examples of Spanish colonial architecture, though the New Cathedral (Catedral de la Immaculada Concepcion) was built in 1885. It is gigantic, and the inside is as impressive as the outside, which isn’t always the case, I find, in old cathedrals.

New Cathedral.

Front doors of the New Cathedral.

Religious objects for sale outside of the New Cathedral.

Across the street is the Old Cathedral (El Sagrario), which was constructed in 1557 but is in use now only as a museum and recital hall. For one dollar you can wander through the building and view whatever exhibition is being held.

The Old Cathedral.

It was hot out, and I was thirsty, and when I came across a cute little French café beside the Old Cathedral I went inside.

Rather than order something that would quench my thirst, however, I succumbed to temptation and ordered a glass of chocolate-banana milk and a chocolate crepe.

It seems that I'm off the strictly-Ecuadorian-food diet.

Not that that's a bad thing...

Yes, I’m bad. I’m very bad when it comes to midday sweets. But I’m traveling now and all rules are out the window. And besides, my chocolate-banana milk and chocolate crepe were excellent, and only $3.50. Can’t beat that, right? The couple running the café were very nice, too, and apologetic about the lack of electricity. (How’d they make the crepe, I wonder?)

Cozy interior. No better place to hang out when there's no electricity.

Sucré Salé Café is at Luis Cordero 8-74, between Sucre and Bolivar streets. Tel: 284-5181.

From there I continued walking through the city.

There was a really nice flower market outside of this sanctuary.

I came across a number of churches and cathedrals and plazas, and eventually found myself at the Museum of Modern Art, which is across the street from the Church of San Sebastian. However, they had no exhibits running and the only thing I could see was the courtyard, which was a letdown.

Museum of Modern Art. But where was the art?

The Church of San Sebastian is in an interesting little neighborhood.

I continued on toward the Tomebamba River, which runs along a beautiful little river walk that’s sandwiched in between the river itself and grassy slopes and cliffs.

Water makes any city more tranquil.

It’s really lovely, though I stopped walking along it and climbed up a stone stairs when I almost stumbled upon a young man relieving himself just barely off the path – he wasn’t doing the kind of thing you could easily overlook, mind you, which is why I chose not to continue…

The river from the terrace of my hostal.

The city was completely dark by the time I went out for dinner. I was going to go to a restaurant just a block away from where I’m staying, however the owner of my hotel told me not to eat there – ay caramba, they serve Columbian food – and recommended a local restaurant that was on my list of places to go in Cuenca -- Raymipampa. Walking through the pitch black streets was eerie but interesting, and Raymipampa had a generator going that made its interior nearly the only thing lit up in the Parque Calderon.

This place is as cool as its name: Raymipampa.

The electricity came back on about five minutes after I arrived, at which point I was already tucking into the “plato tipical” that I’d ordered. It was very good, and had a number of items I’m still not familiar with: maize mixed with eggs, potato and cheese pancakes (llapingachos), thin cooked pork, chorizo, and a salad with avocado.

Another battle with a huge amount of very rich food. I won!

All of this, and it was a lot, for just $6. My Club Beer was another $1. The restaurant itself has a lot of atmosphere, and caters not just to tourists but also to a local crowd, many of whom seem to be regulars. I highly recommend this for anyone coming to Cuenca.

There are lots of young people selling bead jewelry and other small crafts outside the restaurant.

Raymipampa is located at Benigno Malo 8-59 between Bolivar and Sucre streets. Tel: 283-4159 or 283-4619. Email:

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  1. what an annoying old man, he just couldn't stop with the hassling! Thank goodness he gave up in the end. Funny how the lady wouldn't let you take your sandwhich to go, i mean, if it was a real plate of cooked food then i understand, but a sandwich? LOL. Cuenca looks like a lovely city though

  2. Anjelikuh: He really was annoying. He probably asked me to go to a bank so I could give him more money about eight times. And yeah, I'm not sure why the woman wasn't willing to slip the sandwich into a plastic bag or wrap it in a napkin or something. Traveling can be really weird sometimes, even in the most minor of interactions, but weird can also be good -- in retrospect, anyway. And yes, Cuenca is a lovely place. In fact, Ecuador has really blown me away with its beauty. Thanks for your comments!