market towns near cuenca: the panama hat trail & the “ruta de las guitarras”

On the Sunday after we arrived in Cuenca, Gustavo Jiménez Morales, the excellent English-speaking tour guide recommended by our Airbnb host, took us in his zippy white car to three market towns (and one town on the Guitar Route) to the southeast of the city. The countryside outside of the city was stunning, with homesteads and patchwork fields etched into the mountainous terrain. On the way, we came across two cholo women cooking cuy (guinea pig) on a spit over a grill. This dish is served throughout the Andes of Ecuador. One woman was rotating the guinea pig over the fire by hand and the other woman was putting another skinned guinea pig on the spit.

A cholo in Ecuador, according to Gustavo, is a synonym for Mestizo, a person of mixed Andean and European heritage, usually a white father and an Aymara or Quechua mother. Though the term can be derogatory in many parts of South America, it can express ethnic pride. They dress colorfully in rich material with several full petticoats, embroidered blouses and hats that vary by locality.

San Bartolomé

Gustavo stopped on a hillside and we saw below the town of San Bartolomé, famous for its handcrafted guitars. It was founded by the Spanish in 1536, 21 years before Cuenca was founded.

I needed a bathroom break so we drove into the town and Gustavo introduced us to Samira who owns Tienda Cecilita in town.  In her backyard was a garden where she picked herbs to brew us a pink healing tea. She had a nice little bathroom in her backyard that we could use, a pen of live guinea pigs, and a small cozy dining room where we enjoyed our tea accompanied by delicados.

Before leaving town, we stopped at a small guitar shop where we saw guitars in production, including small matchboxes of inlay material for the guitars. San Bartolomé is along the “Ruta de las guitarras.”

Sigsig

Our next stop was Sigsig, a small colonial-era indigenous town best known for its Panama hats. Panama hats are misnamed; they actually originate in Ecuador. They came to be called that because they were often traded near the Panama Canal. The straw used to weave hats is from a plant native to Ecuador, similar to the palm with unique qualities. Fan-shaped leaves grow at the end of its long stalks; they are cut while still shoots to be transformed into the raw material for weaving.

For the most part weavers carry out their activities in rural areas and deliver hats in their first stage to the factories or to comisionados (middle men). The azocadoras and the reshapers usually live in urban areas of Cuenca and perform their tasks at home under a “piecework” arrangement. The next stage is performed by women and is known as the azocada (tightening), which consists of tightening the tied-off fibers to keep the weave from coming undone, followed by clipping the excess fibers. Then the hat is washed, whitened (bleached) or dyed, and dried in the sun.

When it has lost its shape and looks like a bell, the craftsman’s hands return it to its original shape; this is compostura (reshaping).  The people who do this are often urban dwellers and work in their own homes.

Mike and I had both read Tom Miller’s The Panama Hat Trail before our trip, so we knew all about the process of making the Panama hats.

In Sigsig we found the Panama hat workshop called La Sigseñita, where we saw the hats in various stages of production. The women’s children were running around playing in the workshop. I bought a white Panama hat and Mike bought a navy blue one; they were $16 each.  Mike and I have the furthest possible difference in the size of our heads: mine is grande and Mike’s is pequeño! 🙂

After our Panama hat excursion, we went to Sigsig’s Sunday market, with colorful stalls of fruits, vegetables, meats and household goods. We ate lunch upstairs: hornado (tender shredded pork carved from a huge roasted pig) with some corn and hominy accompaniments. Mike and I shared a plate; it was tender and delicious, and I’m not generally much of a meat eater.

Chordeleg

Our next stop was Chordeleg, an important jewelry-making center since before the arrival of the Inca. Its specialty is filigree. The town also produced woodcarvings, pottery, textiles and plenty of Panama hats. Chordeleg’s wealth was evident in its neat and clean streets and charming shops.  It has a pretty central park, colorful buildings around the park, and a pretty yellow church. A style of unique dangling earrings hang from the lampposts. I don’t have much interest in fine jewelry, so I bought only a cute pottery wind chime with painted bells.

Gualaceo

Our last stop was the town of Gualaceo, famous for its Ikat weavings, paños (indigo-dyed cotton shawls with intricate macramé fringe), and leatherworks.

The main square in town is picturesque with a fountain, trees shaped like animals, indigenous women painted on tree trunks, and a large church. We stopped in the square for pictures then headed to the factory outside of town, José Jimenez and Ana María Ulloa: The Royal Weavers of Ikat.  We admired the Ikat dyed fibers. The Ikat method requires the fibers to be dyed in bundles before the weaving begins. The slightly blurry finish that’s characteristic of Ikat is prized by fabric connoisseurs. The process is mainly used in Asia, especially Indonesia, and South and Central America.

Return to Cuenca

In the evening back in Cuenca, we went to Parque Calderón where a smooth-voiced man serenaded a small gathering with Ecuadorian tunes. We enjoyed a good dinner at Raymipampa: Desde 1933 una tradición en Cuenca. I ate shrimp served with a special sauce and Mike had Locro de Papas, a typical Ecuadorian potato soup with avocado and cheese.

Here is a video showing some of the live action.

While in Cuenca, we spent 3 1/2 days exploring the city, one day going to the market towns and one day venturing to Parque Nacional Cajas.