Santa Bárbara Valley
A popular day excursion from Cuenca is to the craft villages of Gualaceo, Chordeleg and Sigsig which are situated a short distance apart in this valley carved out by the Santa Bárbara river which runs from south to north to the east of Cuenca. Buses from Cuenca run north towards Azogues before turning south-east. The journey takes about 40 minutes to Gualaceo. A more adventurous, alternative route is via San Bartolomé, a picturesque village high up in the hills where wooden musical instruments are made. The road climbs due east from Cuenca and descends sharply to cross the river between Chordeleg and Sigsig. Some buses from Sigsig return this way, making it a nice round trip.
Despite the sleeply feel and simple attire of the people, this market town doesn’t feel poor. Maybe it is due to the Cuencanos who have weekend homes nearby, or maybe the money sent back from family living in Spain. There isn’t that much to do in Gualaceo. The central square has attractive trees and plants and is lined with attractive low buildings with wooden balconies. The tourist office on the north side is helpful and has a lot of information. The church on the south side is large and humble. Adjacent to it is the large market square where there seems to be a large fruit and veg market every day of the week.
East of town there is a park and paths either side of the river which make a pleasant place to walk and relax. You can sometimes see women washing their clothes on the banks.
You can’t actually see any craft activity or even buy much in Gualaceo. If you want to see macanas (shawls) being woven you could organise a trip to Bulcay or Bulzhun which are a few kilometres north. A side road south leads to San Juan where some families weave Panama hats. The tourist office can give you information on organising a community stay here. (From San Juan the road also connects with San Bartolomé).
About a kilometre north of town you can is an orchid-growing facility established by a company called Ecuagénera. They have more than 3500 orchids and for $3 you can take a very interesting tour of their greenhouses and learn about some of the different species and how they cultivate them.
This village, 3km south of Gualaceo, is dominated by shops selling gold and silver filigree jewellery with a sideline in textiles and pictures painted onto metal. The quality of the gold has apparently declined – nowadays it’s mixed with silver, so it’s worth shopping around, checking what you buy carefully and haggling. The central square is quite large and a nice place to sit if you need a break from jewellery. There is a hotel and a couple of restaurants.
This is the final village you could visit in the valley is about 25km south of Gualaceo. It’s a pleasant drive but you find much going on in Sígsig unless it is Sunday when the market is on. You should be able to see some women weaving hats – they do it on the move here and in Chordeleg. There are also some archaeological sites nearby (the helpful tourist office in Chordeleg has more information). Beyond Sígsig a road goes down to Gualaquiza in the Oriente. I took a bus up from there to Cuenca in 2001 and remember that it was a very scenic but long journey.
On the road north of Gualaceo there are a couple of turnings taking you north-east along the Paute valley where there is a hydro-electric dam which provides a lot of the national electricity supply. In late 2009 a lack of rain and water in the river led to power cuts across Ecuador. A new dam has been built upstream at Mazar to help overcome the problem of the river bed silting up.
The town of Paute is quite nice. There is a good place to stay called the Hostería Uzhupud. It is sometimes booked up for events.
The road stretches on through a few other villages, past the dams and all the way down to the Oriente.
Cajas National Park
This park protects an area of páramo, rocks and lakes in a wide area to the west of Cuenca. The most direct road to Guayaquil (ENLACE A3j) runs through the park so it is fairly easy to get to the administration centre at Laguna Toreadora by bus. You can also jump off at other points along the road where treks are signposted.
At weekends locals head into the park to fish for trout and go rock climbing. Agencies can also organise bike riding and birdwatching in the area. At the admin centre you can get a fairly good map (with paths marked for treks lasting from a few hours to multi-day) and wildlife guide. Ecuadorians and foreign residents pay $2, foreign visitors pay $10 to enter the park.
The weather in Cajas is notoriously bad. It usually rains in the afternoon and can get very cold at night. The driest months are August and September. Paths can get quite waterlogged.
A short journey into the south-east suburbs of Cuenca will bring you to the thermal baths or baños. The residential development here (as in much of Ecuador) seems scattered and disorganised and unfinished (many of the streets are not paved and are just a collection of muddy potholes). We were diverted off the main road and had to find our way around a diversion which seemed incredibly complicated on the way there – hopefully this is a very temporary situation while they fix the main road. The hills rise up behind to cut off the sprawl). The frontage of the blue church is visible from some distance away, but you will arrive at the baths before it.
We went to the baths at Hostería Durán. There are two options – a more exclusive complex with Turkish bath which costs $4.50 and the general pools which cost $2.50. I couldn’t see much different in the number or class of people in each complex but maybe this is important for Cuencanos. Note they charge anyone who wants to come in and not swim (there is no spectator price) although I can’t believe they enforced this on the indigenous women who sat steadfastly at the side of the pool in their hats and shawls. The pools were clean and popular and moderately warm, but not much more than most indoor swimming pools in Britain I have used. This means it is possible to have quite a pleasant swim if it isn’t too busy.
There are some small Cañari/ Inca ruins on a hill above this village, 21km north-west of Cuenca and 20 minutes west of Azogues. Some of the material found has been dated from 500 BC. Entry to the site is $5. To get here take a bus to Deleg.
If you continue on to this small town you will find a pleasant lake situated in gentle rolling countryside.
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