Becoming Cuenca

Explore Beyond the Usual and Typical Places

Mar 15, 2023

“Adventure is allowing the unexpected to happen to you. Exploration is experiencing what you have not experienced before. How can there be any adventure, any exploration, if you let somebody else – above all, a travel bureau – arrange everything before-hand?” ~Richard Aldington

While many of you reading my blog have the adventuring spirit, the quote by the twentieth century English writer from his 1929 book, “Death of a Hero,” is to encourage you look beyond where you have been.

And beyond where everyone else goes.

There are so many blogs and so many vlogs that tout the typical spots in Cuenca to see. How many more times does one have to see a recommendation for La Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción de Cuenca? Getting tired of everyone saying you have to get flowers at Plaza de las Flores?  Or how about one has to go to Mirador de Turi?

You should do all of this, but there is a whole world just outside the city limits of Cuenca. That includes the Cajas mountains, which is my first photo for this post. That is the sun poking through the clouds as it was setting the other day. Please note that I do not computer enhance my photos so that is what I saw from the rooftop of my departamento (condo).

The Cajas mountains are a beautiful place to explore. I would say that a vast majority of visitors and expats living here head to Cajas National Park. And why not? It is an easy drive from Cuenca. There is a lot to experience in the 285.4 square kilometers / 110.2 square miles park. And that includes Tres Cruces, which is 4,146 meters / 13,602 feet above sea level.

Remember what Aldington said? He said, “Exploration is experiencing what you have not experienced before.” It is why I am suggesting that instead of going north to the national park or to Gualaceo and Chordeleg, head south to go where many expats and visitors have never ventured.

It is why Sole Riquetti de Gould, the owner of La Yunta Restaurante (Ave 1 de Mayo y Ave. Las Americas) takes her customers to the southern part of the Cajas mountains. Though she grew up in Cuenca, Sole was always going to her grandparents’ farm in Nabón (about 65 km. / 40 miles south of Cuenca).

The other day, Sole told our tour group that her daytrip tours are not to the touristy and trendy areas. She was responding to a question if she took people to the Inca ruins and archeological site, Ingapirca (in Cañar province). Because Ingapirca is the largest archeological Inca complex in Ecuador and it being about 90 minutes from Cuenca, many tour operators take their clients there.

Exactly a year ago, Joanna and I were part of Sole’s tour group that made the 70 km. / 45 miles trek to the Nabón canton. After crossing the continental divide on the Pan-American Highway, at over 3,000 meters / 10,000 feet above sea level, our tour bus turned right down a narrow dirt road, to Laguna Curiquingue.

It is named after the Curiquingue, which is in the falcon family and resembles the vulture because of its naked face. It was considered to be sacred by the Incas. The bird’s feathers were used for the crowns of Inca royalty.

The mountain lake covers part of the road that connected Nabón with Girón.  A landslide that occurred about a decade ago caused the damming of at least two rivers in the area, giving rise to the formation of the large lagoon or lake. At least 500 meters / 1,600 feet of the “highway” that connected the Nabón and Girón cantons is now under water.

The Azuay province town of Nabón has approximately 300 colonial houses built of adobe and with beautiful wooden balconies held up by wooden posts, used originally to hitch one’s horse to. There was nothing better than Joanna and I, with our friends, walking through its cobbled streets.

Nabón was full of life as students were headed to their homes for the mid-day break. I think one of the girls caught me with my camera and blew me a kiss. It was a busy block with food being sold, meals being eaten, to cows on their way to the farm.

Up until Sole’s tour a year ago, I had never heard of or seen an Indian Fantail Pigeon. And as far as I could tell, no one in our March 2022 tour group had seen one either.

Our tour group bus went straight east from the town of Nabón to get to Laura’s Casa y Arte. Well… An Indian Fantail Pigeon would have, but we took a very winding dirt road for four kilometers, that followed a river most of the way, to the top of a mountain.

All of us were enthralled with the dozens of the domestic fancy pigeon that has a record of being in Spain as early as 1150 CE. This breed, and other varieties of domesticated pigeons, all are descendants of the Feral or Wild Rock Pigeon. It goes without saying that it is one of the most popular varieties of the fantail pigeon group.

The Indian Fantail pigeon breed is used for exhibition and ornamental purposes. There is no doubt that is what María Graciela Vintimilla had in mind for our tour group and many others before us. It is a pretty long-lived bird, with a lifespan that is long as 20 years.

“The power of a waterfall is nothing but a lot of drips working together.” ~Unknown

La Cascada El Chorro or La Cascada Girón does not have the fame of Niagara, Victoria, or Iguazú, but it is beautiful, nonetheless.

Located 45 minutes southwest of our home, the waterfall drops almost 70 meters / 230 feet. And the temperature of the water is a chilly 4°C / 39°F (That is why Joanna and yours truly did not go across the upper bridge).

The headwaters of El Río Chorro are a sight to behold. It is worth the 10-to-15-minute hike up the steep path to 2,516 meters / 8,255 feet above sea level to see the waterfall.

Sole told us that as a kid she would take the intraprovincial bus from Cuenca to the town of Girón. From the town center, she would walk 45 minutes uphill to the waterfalls. Now, she goes with her tour groups on a small bus directly to the parking lot for the waterfalls.

If you want to see the upper portion at 3,109 meters / 10,200 feet above sea level, it will take two hours in one direction. Needless to say, our group passed on that.

During the rainy season, the area is famous for the wild mushrooms that grow near the waterfalls. Local shamans used them in the rituals for spiritual cleaning.

Though I did not see any mushrooms, I saw some gorgeous Bromeliads thriving in the trees above the falling water. And the lushness from the rain made it a heavenly place to be among the clouds.

They say that this waterfall, located in the southern portion of the Cajas mountains, is enchanted by spirits and when visitors arrive at the top, a mist is created, and it begins to rain and does not stop until visitors leave the place. It is said that the water of this set of waterfalls purifies the body and the spirit.

I do know that everyone in our tour group was refreshed after experiencing this gorgeous waterfall.

Of course, the mountain trout we had at the restaurant just below certainly helped…

“Since life is short and the world is wide, the sooner you start exploring it, the better.” ~Simon Raven

Add Laguna de Busa to that list. Because of Sole, Joanna and I got to experience a beautiful alpine lake in the southern Cajas mountains, that is just 90 minutes south from our home.

Located in southern Azuay province at 9,104 feet / 2,775 meters above sea level, it felt like we were in another world.

It is hard to describe the peaceful, serene, and rejuvenating setting as our group of friends and new friends walked around this alpine lake.

As we started our journey, the clouds quickly closed in around us. We were literally walking in the clouds. The rain came down very lightly… almost misty-like.

That is when I stated to the group that I felt I was walking in Olympic National Park, in Washington state. Several people said that I was spot on with my analogy.

Laguna de Busa is an incredible place with more than 30 species of flowers, making it a natural and stunningly beautiful paradise. All sorts of plants were thriving at this high elevation that one would normally see 8,000 feet lower than we were.

In the fog were several Andean Coots (Fulica ardesiaca). At first, I thought they were ducks. Although it swims like a duck, the Andean Coot does not have webbed feet like a duck. Instead, each one of the coot’s long toes has broad lobes of skin that help it kick through the water.

Misty Dawn Seidel said, “Having your head in the clouds is not a bad thing… as long as you take advantage of the inspiration you find while you’re there.”

The inspiration was all around us. When we first arrived at the lake in the San Fernando canton (The town of San Fernando was founded in May 1562), the top of the 3,600 meters / 11,811 mountain next to Laguna de Busa was shrouded in clouds.

It dropped to where we were. It was hard to see a cow in a nearby pasture as well as a fish sculpture on the nearby hill. As a matter of fact, many in the group did not see the fish in the highlands fog.

As we walked, we all admired the lushness of the woods that surrounded the lake. The ferns were a delightful sight juxtaposed against the nearby bright red flowers.

At the water’s edge, every rain drop clinged to the thick bed of reeds. I stood there for several minutes, letting the group go ahead as I stared to admire the clear, sparkling water drops.

“We shall not cease from exploration, And the end of all our exploring, Will be to arrive where we started, And know the place for the first time.” ~T.S. Eliot

In 2016, La Yunta started doing day tours as supplemental income. Sole told me, “We began with garden tours. It was very popular, so I started doing tours to Nabón.”

The Covid pandemic put a two year halt to her special tours, but now her popular specialized tours are taking people to interesting and beautiful places that are in Azuay province, but not on every tour group’s itinerary.

Besides what I have shown you, Sole just took a group to San Bartolome and Quingeo. She said, “San Bartolome is a small town known as the land of guitars and apples.” I would add that generations of families have made beautiful handcrafted guitars in that town.

After the musical experience, they went to Quingeo, a parish where time seems to have stopped. Its narrow alleys are flanked by historic adobe houses that welcome one to this quaint town.

Later this month, Sole will take explorative types to the Yurak Allpa animal rescue center, where Alberto will show his fantastic work and efforts to help animals. Later that day, they will see a great horse show, Spanish dancing and traditional dancing performed by the Sumak Pakarina dance group.

I can pretty much guarantee going with Sole will be something unique and fulfilling for you. And I should add that all of her tours begin with a delicious and relaxing breakfast at her restaurant.

Joanna and I can’t thank Sole enough for making our journeys with her memorable ones.

A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

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Salud, mi amigos.


Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.