New Cuenca tourist routes showcase the city’s traditions, crafts and history

May 1, 2017

Text and photos by John Keeble

Cuenca and its surrounding areas are rich in history, culture, crafts and scenery – now the city’s tourism board has developed a series of tour routes to widen visitor appeal and boost traditional businesses.

Tourism board researcher Felipe Cordoso on tour.

The project already has extensive options but the board’s researcher and writer, Felipe Cardoso, is adding more in a program that stretches years into the future. A primary aim is to draw together the traditional skills of the area with the needs of visitors and residents of today.

In some instances, visiting these traditional craft centres using machinery and techniques of the past is like walking through living museums.

“We are creating new tourism opportunities and ways to help people develop their projects through tourism,” said Cardoso during two days of tours to show local journalists and photographers the routes. “We need to recover our local cultural identities – the human values in our traditions.

Signs help visitors find attractions.

“The introduction of these tourist routes is successful but we still need more people to know about them; not just tourists but also local people.

“The individuals and businesses we choose to participate are ready to offer a tourism service, and we are encouraging many others to improve their skills so that they can appeal to tourists. This is a long process.”

In developing eco-tourism, the board has been able to widen visitor appeal, encourage new income opportunities for local people, and enable traditional businesses to increase levels of business with extra turnover and innovations like workshops for those who want to learn their skills. In addition, the quintessential Cuenca – the architecture and the history – is being given a boost with routes linking buildings and museums.

In the city, the Crafts In Cuenca route includes the Encalada workshop, run by the 70-year-old José Encalada and his two sons Juán and Iván. While the business was always profitable, relatively few people knew about it. Today, half of its business comes from tourism, classes and workshops. “The effect of tourism is very positive; it has helped us to build the business,” said  Juán Encalada.

Tour routes offer many of photographic opportunities.

On the San Joaquin and Yanuncay River route, huge differences have been achieved with printed details being made available and roadside signs installed. Narcisa Gutiérrez, owner of Sustag organic gardens, which specialises in medicinal plants, commented: “This route has helped a lot to maintain my business. It brings tourists and they buy or contribute a donation. I am very thankful.”

Nearer Cuenca on the same route is Mama Michi’s traditional restaurant. The owner, Mercedes Saguay, said: “Before the tourism help, no one knew about us and it was very difficult to make a living from the restaurant. Now many people know about us and they come, especially at weekends. Mostly they are Ecuadorians but some are foreigners.”

The routes are detailed in beautifully-designed colour brochures in Spanish, English and sometimes French. They are available free from tourist points like the iTur office located on the south side of Calle Mariscal Sucre, next to the Cuenca municipal building, opposite Parque Calderon.

 

Gristmills & Bread Route

One of the most striking businesses open for you to visit is the chocoholic’s dream … Industrial Fátima Chocolate Mill, which first opened its doors in 1942 and which today still uses traditional methods with a little help from modern-day gas. Visitors can tour the mill buy chocolate goods or make a small donation to be shown the processes.

Breadmaking includes visiting the historic sites of Todos Santos Patrimonial Complex, a traditional wood-fired oven bakery and El Pan de las Villarcís bakery.

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Crafts in Cuenca

This route is endlessly fascinating, with skills from the past and the products of today. Visitors are welcomed into most to see how the goods are crafted.

The Encalada family members take visitors through the processes for producing pottery items ranging from everyday pots to pieces of art. It is the only place in the city which produces black ceramics. The mill and potter’s wheel are completely manual and, despite an electric oven being purchased, the old brick oven is still used. Classes and workshops are offered.

Other craft attractions on this route include Eduardo Segovia’s ceramic art workshop, award-winning Andrea Tello’s jewellery gallery, the Mama Quilla silversmith shop, and the House of the Hat municipal museum.

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Juán (left) and José Encalada: from the clay they stand on to the ceremics they hold.

 

San Joaquín and Yanuncay River Route

This is the route for nature, crafts and food. On this route you will find scenic beauty, a cure for your health blips, one of the most beautiful flowers in the world, a chocoholic’s paradise, organic fruit and vegetables and, for the hardy, wild adventure.

One of the most fascinating attractions is Sustag organic gardens where Narcisa Gutiérrez specialises in growing medicinal plants. She will tell you about each plant and flower, including the beautiful Flower of the Day, and how they can be used for such health issues as insomnia, gastric problems and nervous complaints. She may even offer you some of her delicious herbal tea. The gardens have been in her family for 80 years.

Attractions on the route include Cuadruco organic farm, the Don Gerardo basket weaving centre, Yanuncay ecological museum, Sustag organic gardens and nursery with 250 different species of plants, and spectacular views culminating in the Soldadas where local guides will lead hikes to lakes and the headwaters of the Yanuncay river. There are many traditional restaurants all along the route.

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Cuenca Museum Route

If you want to know how lucky you are to live today, visit the wonderful History Society of Medicine’s museum. Inspect at close quarters all the things you would rather not have to endure – instruments, medicines, equipment.

Also on the route are: the University Archaeological Museum, which rotates its collection of 4,500 pieces of metal, stone and ceramic artefacts; the house-museum dedicated to Cuenca poet and leader Remigio Crespo; the Cañari Identity museum; the Museum of Popular Arts of America; and the Pumapungo Museum and Ancestral Park.

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The French Route

Some of the best-known buildings and squares in and around El Centro have French connections. This route includes Miguel Leon square, better known as San Sebastian, which was designed in the style of a Versailles garden; Abdon Calderon park, in the heart of El Centro, is surrounded by elegant buildings in the French style; and the Office of the Mayor of Cuenca.

Mayor’s office during Independence Day celebrations.

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