After a week in the Galapagos, my dad and I spent an extra night on Santa Cruz island in Puerto Ayora and then took a flight back to Guayaquil. Nothing much to report there as we only really saw the airport and the food court at a nearby mall. We had a final cocktail together and then he headed off to amateur radio land in Ohio.
My next stop was Cuenca, a city that lies about 2,500m above sea level, its historical centre listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Trust site. It was a five-hour bus ride with an automatic door between the driver and the passengers that said: “Más vale perder un minuto en la vida que perder la vida en un minuto.” Better to lose a minute of your life than your life in a minute. I would have to agree with that.
I stayed at the Cofradía de Monje, the Brotherhood of the Monk, in a gorgeous building located across from the new cathedral. Right next door was the Casa de la Mujer, its corridors full of craft stalls, unfortunately most of them closed. In fact, I found as I wandered the streets of Cuenca that many shops were closed, though it was a Tuesday. I stopped off at the Café Austria and had an “antibiótico natural” smoothie and a chicken fajita. Yum. Next to me, a group of American professors were discussing the ethnography of the locals. One of them proudly described how she had only paid $3 instead of $4 for a taxi through town at night, a true sign of a local.
The Museo del Banco Central is located in the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West and is free to the public. The ground floor housed an interesting exhibit on the overall history of Ecuador, with explanations in Spanish and Quechua, at times English and Braille. There was also a temporary photo exhibition on the Paso del Niño, a parade to celebrate the birth of Jesus on 24th December, during which cultural traditions come together with children dressing up as angels, bull fighters, and Santa Claus.
The Museo del Sombrero has a huge Panama hat on the front, it’s hard to miss. Inside is a small but informative museum where the guide took us through the process of weaving, moulding, and ironing the hats. Most importantly, he explained that these are NOT, in fact, Panama hats. Produced in Ecuador as early as the 17th century, these straw hats went via the Panama Canal before being exported worldwide, picking up the name ‘Panama hats’ since they lacked any ‘Made in Ecuador’ marking to communicate their true origin. Their correct name, according to our guide, is ‘sombreros de paja toquilla’, after the name of the plant used to make them.
The museum is housed in the Rafael Paredes hat shop and there is a huge range to choose from once you’ve been convinced of their authenticity on the tour. First you must identify your size. Mine is XXL – tengo una cabeza grande but I knew that already. Next is the quality: standard, semi-fino, fino. The cost can range from $28 to $2,000 – the former takes two days for the women to weave, the latter several months, due to the fine nature of the fibres. The colour: natural or bleached to blanco. The style: a classic Panama shape, something with a larger brim for the beach, or something smaller for city life. And finally embellishments: the standard black ribbon or something more unique?
After a lot of thought, I chose a Fedora model with a smaller brim, in size XXL of course, white, semi-fino, with a teal ribbon and brim. Though I must not have spent enough as my hat lost its shape after just a few days, even though I carried it carefully in my small rucksack. Harumph.