Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ecuador, Day 8

A painted wall announcing entry to the city.

Cuenca, perhaps unfairly, is starting to appear to me as a city that doesn’t function correctly. This has to do in part with the power outages that no one seems to know when will start or end, and in part with the fact that many museums and stores that say they’re open aren’t – even when their doors are open, there’s often a gate pulled across and locked, and then no answers the bell when I ring it – and the fact that the wi-fi café I’m in right now doesn’t have wi-fi today (though it does have electricity). And why don’t stores, restaurants, and hotels have any change on hand? Just an hour ago I was blown away when I bought a bottle of water and the storekeeper frowned at the dollar bill I handed her and said she didn’t have change. This is true everywhere. Someone, somewhere, is hoarding all of Ecuador’s small bills and change. Despite these small problems, Cuenca is an interesting city, beautiful in many parts, with its history palpable on almost every street.

I woke up today at five, though I’m not sure why, and couldn’t back to sleep. So at around seven-thirty I headed out to find breakfast somewhere. However, three of the places I tried to find, which were supposed to open at eight, either weren’t where they were supposed to be or simply didn’t open when I expected them to. It took me an hour of wandering around to find some place that offered breakfast. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the only place open was El Cantaro, on the Parque Calderon.

I think I might have eaten my map if this place hadn't been open.

I was the only customer there when I entered, though a couple followed me in a few minutes later.

Inside of El Cantaro.

With the advice of the waiter, who I told I wanted something more or less Ecuadorian – he was pushing the American breakfast on me – I ordered one empanadas de verde (a fried pastry filled with plantain), one quimbolito (a sweet tamale consisting of flour, eggs, cheese, and raisins), and a moca, café con chocolate (self-evident, I think).

I preferred the quimbolito to the empanada. I haven't had much luck with empanadas...

The quimbolito was excellent – I’m really getting hooked on these – but the empanadas were a little bit on the brickish and greasy side, and the plantains inside had no taste at all. The food was only a combined $1.80, and the mocha, which was excellent, too, was only $1.20. It was a great deal for breakfast, and it filled me up all morning.

After breakfast I headed to a travel agency to arrange a tour either to Parque Nacional Cajas or Ingapirca. I couldn’t get a tour today unless I wanted to pay over $100 for a private guide and driver, so I opted for a “shared tour” tomorrow morning to the National Park. It was $40, plus entrance fees to the park, and I get a hostal pickup at 8:20 a.m. I get free water, free lunch, and the free use of duck hunting boots in case it’s particularly muddy in the park.

When I left the tour agency I decided to look for the Ruinas de Todos Santos, which are along the Tomebamba River. Unfortunately, I walked about a mile in the wrong direction before I realized what I’d done, so I had to backtrack and walk about a mile again from my original starting point, at which time I came across a huge university parade.

I hung back to let them pass over the bridge I wanted to cross, but once I realized that the parade was never-ending I waited for a breach and darted through it. As soon as I got back on the river walk, I saw a severed, rotting bull’s head – no idea why – and in another few minutes I had to dodge a barrage of stones that students were throwing in my direction from across the river – again, no idea why (I don’t really think they were aiming at me).

After these small distractions were behind me, I enjoyed the river walk even more than I did yesterday. The homes along the river are beautiful, and there are also a number of interesting-looking restaurants, discos, and cafes – none were open, of course – while on the other side of the river a more urban landscape opened up.

I finally made it to Ruinas de Todos Santos and took a few photos from the street.

Then I climbed the hill to the entrance, where there’s also a museum, only to find that no one there was going to let me in. There was a sign in the window that said “Abierto” and through the open but gated-shut entrance were posted the open hours: 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. It was 10:30 a.m. As I mentioned above, I rang the bell several times and waited for ten minutes. No one showed up. With nothing else to do about the situation, I headed back to town by a different street. Here I came across the Museum of Popular Art. But here, too, I had no idea what to do about entering. There were two doors to the museum, neither of which was marked, and upon entering each one I was told in rapid-fire Spanish by employees to go in the direction of their pointing fingers. I did, but I still couldn’t find the “popular art” that the museum was supposed to have. I wandered through some mostly empty rooms and then decided just to return to my hostal. The silver lining to this otherwise wasted morning was that I really enjoyed the walk. Again, Cuenca is a very attractive city, but it doesn’t seem to function the way that other cities do…

At around noon I decided to head back toward downtown, where I wanted to eat at Casa de la Mujer.

This is an Indian-run foundation set up to help the Indian community with money earned from a small restaurant, craft booths, and fresh cheese that they make.

I ordered the set lunch ($1.50), which consisted of rice with what appeared to be garbonzo beans, stewed beef, and chopped lettuce; maize; a hearty potato and quince soup; and a glass of tea. It was pretty tasty, and for $1.50 it was a good deal – plus it helps the Indian community, which is a bonus.

There are a number of Indian women selling various things outside the restaurant, which is a big craft-selling area, but one often sees them carrying around fruit and calling out the names and prices of what they're selling.

I didn’t do much else during the afternoon – I was thinking of trying the Ruinas de Todos Santos again, but I decided against it – other than come to Café Austria, which is a block and a half from my hostal.

Hoping to avail myself of their wi-fi, I ordered a fruit salad with yogurt ($3) and a coffee ($1).

As I mentioned earlier, however, their wi-fi is down and they have no idea when it’ll be back up – but definitely not by the time they close at 11 p.m. Oh well.

I ran some errands later in the day, and then at dinnertime none of the four restaurants I’d marked off on my city map were open when they were supposed to be, and they didn’t open, bizarrely, even when I lingered in the general area for twenty minutes. Frustrated, I headed back toward my hostal and decided to have Colombian after all. I’m glad that I did, too, because the restaurant, Café Molienda, is a small, charming place with a patient and friendly owner.

(I say patient because when he told me in Spanish what I had to pay, at first I said, “No thanks,” and then when he repeated it I said, “I don’t understand.” Luckily, two Westerners sitting behind me spoke up and told me to pay $3.70. Jeez. Some days are better than others. This was not a good day for me linguistically. It’s embarrassing to be told that I declined my dinner bill…)

I ordered from a very interesting menu an arepa with a mix of toppings: chicken, beef, beans, and cheese, and I asked for veggies to be included, too.

It wasn’t a huge amount of food, thankfully, though it was enough. I really loved the crunchy corn tortilla on which all the toppings sat, and the meats were satisfyingly stew-like. I also ordered a cinnamon-flavored drink named avena Colombiana that reminded me of Mexican horchata, and it really hit the spot.

Café Molienda is at Honorato Vásquez 6-24. Tel: 282-8710. Open Mon.-Sat. 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Following dinner, I ended up buying a dulce at a small pastry shop, called Centenario, beside the Austria Café on Benigno Malo Street, near the corner of Jaramillo. The woman running it was very nice, and I had no trouble understanding what I owed her – 30 cents.

And in a repeat of yesterday, only more of an inconvenience because of the timing, when I got back to my hotel I discovered that our block was again without electricity. I’d returned only eight minutes after it had gone off, and it wasn’t supposed to be turned back on until ten p.m. at the earliest. I’m writing this with what battery power I have left on my laptop, and trying to think of how to kill the next three hours…

Like I said, in Cuenca nothing seems to function as it should…

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  1. sorry to hear about the empanadas... they're usually delicious though! Try some empanadas with meat (empanada de carne), ham and cheese (jamon y queso), or corn (de choclo). Those 3 are my favs!! Hope the electricity came back soon after.

  2. Anjelikuh: Thanks for your sympathy. :) I took your suggestion and tried an empanada de carne tonight, and it was seriously delicious. And yes, the electricity came back on about 3 hours after it went off. But my big question is, does Poland have a lot of restaurants with empanadas? I'm guessing that you make your own!