Cuenca a century ago: Good weather, ‘dreamy loafing’ and meeting the locals in the ‘untracked wilderness’

May 6, 2016 | 2 comments

Editor’s note: Ever wonder what Cuenca was like a 100 years ago? The following is an excerpt from Vagabonding Down the Andes by Harry A. Franck. Published in 1917, the book is a travelogue of the author’s 1913 journey, mostly by foot, from Panama to Buenos Aires. The following describes Franck’s visit to Cuenca, in which he seems to appreciate it for the option of “dreamy loafing.” Franck, a U.S. businessman in the off season, was one of the world’s most celebrated adventure writers a century ago.

By Harry A. Franck

As susceptible Don Giovanni falls under the succeeding spells of every pretty face, each blotting out those that went before, so the traveler down the backbone of South America frequently concludes that he has found at last the climate copied from the Garden of Eden.

Such a spot is Cuenca, dimming by comparison the latest rival, Quito, and I find in my notes of the exuberant first day there the assertion: “Of all the earth, as far as I know it, Cuenca has the most perfect climate.” Always cool enough to be mildly invigorating to mind and body, yet never cold, it is unexcelled as a place for dreamy loafing. The sunshine vastly exceeds the shadow, and its situation is peerless – not in the scenery of its surrounding mountains, which are distant and low, but in the rich fertility of this great vale of Paucarbamba (“Flowery Plain”), as the Cañaris called it.

Parque Calderon 100 years ago, looking east down Sucre.

Parque Calderon 100 years ago.

Cuenca has no fitting excuse for not being one of the richest agricultural cities on earth. Yet, its only “hotels” are dirty little Indian eating houses without sleeping accommodations and the traveler must fall on the prehistoric system of hunting up a friend’s friend. For once, this round-about method brought handsome results; lodging with a highly cultured family with no scent of the public hostelry about it. My front door opened on a vista across the patio and the long market plaza, usually shimmering with Indians and clashing colors, to the blue hills and strip of Dresden-china sky to the west; and it is only fair to the Andes to mention that this extraordinary family had erected in a black patio a well-appointed lavoratory, stoutly padlocked against the Indians of the household.

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Sunday on Rio Tomebamba.

Sunday on Rio Tomebamba.

The Montesinos brothers, sons of a former governor of Azuay Province, were lawyers as well as professors in Cuenca’s colegio, leaders in the intellectual life of the city, excellent examples of the best grade of “interandino.” One was a teacher of French and English, which did not seriously mean that he could speak either of the tongues. In 1899 this bookish, somewhat effeminate man had started a revolution against the Alfaro government in the person of General Franco, a blood-thirsty mulatto from Esmeraldas, who had been made governor of Azuay. It proved unsuccessful and instigator had been forced to fly to the Oriente jungle and live for months among the head-hunting Jivaros Indians.

I had hesitated to believe my own convictions on certain conditions in Ecuador, but this frank and outspoken native outdid anything I might have said. His attitude was in striking contrast to the belligerent “pride” of Latin American governments and their led mobs and self-seeking politicians. To him, the thrice-loved “patriotism” of his hot-tempered fellows was rubbish. What he wanted was an efficient government and a chance to live a free life, whether he remained a subject of the particular strip of Ecuador, or of gigantic “Yanqui land” so many seemed to fancy imminent.

New cathedral under construction.

Cuenca’s new cathedral under construction.

He asserted that the police of Cuenca were its worst criminals; all thieves and ruffians who could not be openly convicted of crimes were sentenced to serve as policemen, he opined. Except in the collecting of taxes and as a place of reward for its henchmen, the central government of Ecuador leaves Cuenca and the south of the country virtually abandoned and, that tendency, so general in Latin American countries, for the more distant parts to break away and form a free, or at least autonomous, state is marked. The region labors under a thousand petty annoyances. For instance, Quito has a parcel post service with the outside world but Cuenca has none, nor any money-order system, and about one piece of mail in three ever reaches an address in the capital of Azuay. A package mailed from abroad to a Cuencano lies in Guayaquil until the addressee appears in person, or appoints a lawyer to lay claim to it to pay the fees and grease the wheels of the legal and illegal formalities necessary to set it on its way to its destination.

To our modern notions, Cuenca is not much of a city; yet, here in the almost untracked wilderness it seems enormous. So rarely do strangers visit it that, large as it is and in spite of my entirely conventional appearance, I could barely pause in the street without all work in the vicinity ceasing and crowd gathering about me. Hungry to behold a new face as the crew of a windjammer that has gazed only upon themselves during long months at sea, their attitude seemed to say, “We can work tomorrow but there is no certainty that we can have the pleasure of looking at a stranger again.”

It is hard for Americans, with their wide outlook and accustomed to the complicated existence of our large cities, to realize the narrowness of life in these placid, old adobe towns hidden in the Andes. Virtually cut off from the outside world, the Cuencanos are a peculiarly bookish people. “We do not know,” said Montesinos, “that there are places on the globe where men live in freedom and decency, except from books.” Yet, in spite of being rather uncertain of their dignity, like all isolated peoples, the educated classes were well-meaning, as simpaticos, as any I met in Latin America.

Two things only were necessary to join the upper caste in Cuenca – a white collar and visiting cards. The former, above a patched hand-me-down, was more effective than a new $100 suit worn with a flannel shirt; and the man who has his name printed on bits of cardboard, to exchange with regal courtesy and profound bows with every upper-class acquaintance, is instantly accepted as of gente decente origin. Indeed, visiting cards should be as fixed a part of every Andean traveler’s equipment as heavy books.

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