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Travel and Photography by Burt and Evelyn Johnson

First Cuenca Art Walk

Last night was the first official Art Walk in Cuenca. We had these in California when we lived there, and it was always interesting to browse through the artist's open studios.  The California ones were open to any artist that wished to participate, and frankly some of the art was not very good...

This Cuenca Art Walk was a very pleasant surprise in contrast.  The art ranged from good to excellent, and showed just what a range of fantastic artists exist in Cuenca (plus some surrounding communities, where some artists drove in from).  The only disappointment was that all 40 venues were only open for 3 hours, from 5PM until 8PM.  There was so much to see that it was impossible to visit them all in that amount of time.

We only visited half the 40 locations ourselves, because of the restricted time.  I am only showing a tiny portion of a very few of my favorite pieces in this blog. With over 500 photos taken between a friend (David Owen) and ourselves that night, this would be a record setting blog entry if I attempted to show a larger sampling.

If you would like a copy of the full catalog, listing all the venues and artists, you can download it here.

Most exhibits were attended by the artist, so we had a chance to talk (albeit briefly, because of the number of spaces to cover) with many of them.  One artist was unable to attend in person, so he had his partner represent him, while he attended via Skype (lower middle image above).

As we were walking between studios, these mimes approached us, asking for a donation for a local orphanage. This is a fairly common activity for High School kids to reach out and do community service, while practicing their theater skills.  We gave a small donation, and they were eager to pose for our cameras.

International Day of Older Persons 2015

[Post by Evelyn]

It seems like there's a celebration in Cuenca every week, and today was no different.

When Burt was walking to Spanish class this morning, he was surprised to see people "pushing" several wheel chairs down from El Centro to Otorongo Plaza. Because the street was so steep, the drivers were actually in front holding back the wheel chairs from going too fast. Even with the car traffic backed up with the wheel chair traffic, not a single car honked.

Tents had been set up for a large event, and bus loads of indigenous were coming into town, many carrying and waving yellow balloons, to celebrate International Seniors Day. We very seldom see wheel chairs or walkers in Cuenca, due to the steep hills and poor sidewalk conditions. There were more in the plaza today than we had seen in total over the past 3 years.

And I have never seen such enthusiasm for tossing inflated rubber balls and hula hoops, as the staff were encouraging seniors to stay active.

We learned afterwards that  the United Nations had designated October 1st as the "National Day of Older Persons".  Cuenca's Ministry of Economic and Social Inclusion has programs for seniors through October 8th.

Shuar Tour Plus Car Breakdown (Secúa)

On our final full day in the Secúa area, Evelyn wanted to get more experience with the Shuar community (who were known for their process for shrinking heads as recently as the 1950's), so Gabriel arranged for a more in-depth visit with another family.  This family was far more remote than the one we visited on the first day. After an hour drive by 4 wheel drive across unpaved roads, we were dropped off in the middle of nowhere. There was a guide with horses for us to go the rest of the way, because the car could go no further.

We then rode horseback for another hour, across impossibly rutted roads with the horse sinking up past his knees in mud (do horses have knees?). In some parts, there was no road at all.  After an hour, we got off the horses -- because it became too steep for even them to go further!  The last part on foot was only a couple hundred meters to the family's two room hut, and we were finally there.  We were greeted by the patrician, who explained in passable English that he wanted to build a Shuar experience destination for visitors to come, but that not much was in place yet, not even the compost outhouses (we used the nearest tree as needed). 

The rest of the family was dressed in their best blue dresses for the gringos that had come for a few hours.  We were first painted with traditional face styles.  Next we went on a surprisingly arduous hike through the rain forest, down to the river.  The hike had several places that were essentially vertical for 3 or 4 meters (10+ feet), requiring small footholds and grasping on protruding tree trunks and branches.  We then had to scramble back up the same route, back to their home.

The tour was to include fishing.  However, when we got to the river, one member of the tribe went upstream, out of sight, and caught a small trout via spear fishing.  We did not really fish at all, and his fishing was done entirely out of sight from us, so we had little more than a rest on a rock on the river.  When I gave feedback that he should at least be doing this in our vision, so we could see how it was done, the leader clearly had no idea why I would want that.  They have some work to do on their "experience" yet, including learning that many older gringos would not have survived a hike of that nature at all.

The "experience" was also to include a lunch.  We were served a thin broth with a small piece of chicken bone in it... and that was all.  Though not obese by any stretch, the family was clearly well enough fed that they must have eaten far more than we were offered.  Overall, I am afraid that I cannot recommend this portion of the trip, and think the first day's quick meet-and-greet was actually the better alternative.

The next day we stopped by the local Sucúa mercado for a quick look at what an Amazonian native market was like.  It was pretty much the same as our mercado in Cuenca, albeit much smaller.

The person we had arranged this trip with just disappeared the night before. No word to anyone. Gone. Seems he decided he had to be back in Cuenca for some other business, but never bothered to tell anyone -- including our driver.  Fortunately, he left his driver behind, so we had a car to get back to Cuenca... or so we thought.

We had noticed a bad noise in the car for the entire trip.  Sounded like a transmission problem to me.  Sure enough, part way back to Cuenca, the car suddenly started smoking seriously bad. Pulled over to the side, and there was transmission fluid leaking onto the road.  A Good Samaritan stopped (we were out of cell phone range), and drove Gabriel (our driver) back to the town we had just passed.  Several hours later, the car had been driven (very slowly, and downhill) back to a mechanic in town.  More hours passed and they determined that it needed parts that could not be gotten for at least another day.

We ended up having to pay another $80 to the garage mechanic to drive us home.  An unexpected and undesired additional cost and delay.  But what the heck, this is Ecuador -- where everything is possible and nothing is for sure!

Turn Left At The Cow (Puyo)

On the fifth day of our road trip to the Amazon (aka Oriente), we decided to take an unplanned side trip to Puyo, about a two hour drive north of Sucúa, where we spent the first few days.  We had wanted to visit the monkey refuge known as Fundación Los Monos Selva y Vida a couple years ago, but got rained out.  We weren't exactly sure what to expect, but it had sounded interesting, and things were a bit slow in Sucúa, so off we went.

As we arrived in Puyo, we asked directions for how to reach "Los Monos."  We were told to take a specific road out of town, and then "turn left at the cows."  Huh?? We kept getting the same directions though, so headed out and hoped for the best.  Sure enough, a couple miles out of town, there was a statue of a cow and calf (see photo top left above), that was at the intersection we were supposed to turn left at!

What we found was a fairly large refuge / conservation / research / zoo with various monkeys and a few other animals from South America.  There were maybe half a dozen monkeys roaming free, while the others were in large cages.  Unfortunately, we got there fairly late in the day, so could only spend an hour before they closed.  Some day, we may make it back and spend longer.  It might even be interesting to volunteer for awhile, as they do thrive on volunteers -- if only it were closer to Cuenca...

We also went to a bird refuge -- Parque Real, a bird zoo in Puyo that houses approximately 500 birds from around the world.  $1 got us entrance to a very well maintained private zoo that was opened in 2001 by a couple of Puyo collectors.  Interestingly, it is now illegal for anyone to own a caged or pet bird in Ecuador, but it appears this couple convinced authorities to allow them to keep what they had created prior to the ban.

Back in Macas, we decided to go a zoo that we had heard about.  We caught a bus from Sucúa to Macas, where we watched people using an informal ride sharing program. Cars and taxis would pull up to the curb, indicate how many seats they had, and someone (or more) from the bus line would run over and jump in. We were told cost $1 to share a ride to Macas.  The bus was only $1.15, which is how we got there.

We then took a taxi out to the zoo. It turned out there were two private zoos, and the driver suggested what he considered the better and larger.  When we arrived, we discovered it was actually a small private zoo. It consisted of no more than 20 cages, none of which was really in very good condition.  It was interesting to see the tigrillo (upper middle images above) and a single leopard. They then gave me a boa constrictor to hold (left middle above), and a couple of other small animals.  45 minutes and we were ready to leave though...


Lost In The Jungle (Sucúa)

Last week we spent a few days in the Amazon, called the Oriente by Ecuadorians.  We had wanted a little time in warmer weather (Cuenca has been pretty cold all of August), so when a local tour operator said he wanted to do an exploratory trip and was looking for two people to join him, we jumped at the chance.  We started in Sucúa, a sleepy little village about 15 minutes drive South of Macas.

When I was a kid in Cub Scouts, I was told that if I was ever lost in a forest, I could look at the moss on the trees to help me get out.  I was told that it mostly grows on the North side of the tree, so I could always know which way North was. (Being 7 years old, they did not discuss Southern Hemisphere being opposite.)  One of the highlights of Sucúa is a botanical park, which we visited.  Turns out it is really just a walk in the forest.  Looking at the trees, I was reminding of that Cub Scout lesson, and realized if I tried to use it here, I would get totally lost -- on the Equator, moss grows on all sides (since the sun is directly overhead all year).

The other major stop we made in the town of Asunción, where we visited with a Shuar native family just outside of town. The kids did a ceremonial dance, and the men took us on a short hike to a waterfall, where they performed more rituals.

Enroute to Macas, we stopped at a small park that consisted of statues of Ecuadorian historic leaders. Each small town had a statue in the center of a roundabout, signifying something related to the city.  Oddly, the signs announcing the city limits actually had a temperature printed right along with population and elevation.  Apparently, the temperature is pretty consistent in this area?

Macas has a huge statue of Mary on a hill overlooking the city.  The road is dirt and difficult to travel, but we got to the top, which allowed a nice panorama of the city below.

We had to divert around part of the downtown area of Macas, because some protesters had taken over the governor's office and barricaded the streets.  There were lots of police in the area, but they let the protesters alone, standing by only in case of violence.  This protest was independent of the National Strike of a few days before (see earlier blog posts on the strike in Cuenca).  Here, they were unhappy that a road had not been completed between two villages -- apparently because the needed environmental impact studies had not been done.

An unexpected find were some of the best beef and fusion restaurants in Ecuador. If you go to Sucúa, be sure to check out Roncos, whose owners were formerly from New York, and  know what "medium rare" means. We heard that the beef was better in the Oriente, and we had the most tender filet mignon ever.  The fusion flavors of Dulce Carbon were scrumptious, however our favorite place was Chocoberry, where we treated ourselves to their large bowl of fresh fruit topped with yogurt every day. And for lunch, be sure to check out the traditional meal called "Ayampaco", which are goodies baked in a leaf, at the restaurant, Asadero Chelita.

National Strike — Cuenca Style

Ecuadorian president Correa has had an unprecedented 84% approval rating in his country until recently.  He has improved education on many fronts, reduced crime in every category, improved infrastructure, and generally been a very positive, and thus popular, president.  With his political party having an overwhelming majority in Congress, he can push through almost any new law he wishes.  Unfortunately, he is also seen as brash and egocentric, and has often been accused of feeling that he alone, knows what is best for the country.  As a result, he tried to push through several unpopular laws earlier this year, and his popularity has fallen below 50% for the first time since he was elected in 2007.

For the past couple weeks, some groups have warned there would be general strike today. This would centered in the three largest cities of Quito, Guayaquil, and here in Cuenca. Protests have always been peaceful in the past few years in Cuenca, so I decided to go see for myself.

What I observed was a peaceful march through the streets of Cuenca Centro.  While protesters carried banners and shouted slogans, police maintained a loose barricade to clear all traffic on their route, and to assure that no trouble occurred. Though there were reports of small problems after dark, I did not witness any trouble at all.

Parque Calderon is in the center of Cuenca Centro, and is always an active place.  Today, the government set up booths from apparently every ministry in the government, where people could get information on what help the government could provide. The "Cocinas de Induccion" booth in the middle-left image above, was giving people information on how to convert their kitchen cook tops from propane to electricity, and explaining the subsidies that are available to help the poor make the change.  Other booths were similarly helping Ecudorians understand the importance of their environment, how the new 911 system works, and even teaching children to play chess.  There was also a stage on the corner of the park for musicians, but there weren't any playing in the couple of hours I spent there.

Hornado, or roasted pig, is a favorite Ecuadorian lunch meal, and booths were set up for that too.  People crowded the food booths, where I had a large pig lunch with more food than I could eat -- for $3.00.  There were also some teenage boys practicing break-dancing in the rotunda. Parents took turns handing their children to the mounted police (lower right image), so they could take photographs of their kids on horseback.

Overall, the atmosphere was more like a festival than a protest, which is clearly what the government wanted to project.

Here is a short clip showing the marchers going down a street in Centro.

[Recipe] Tuscan Chicken

We eat a lot of chicken in Ecuador.  It is cheap, plentiful, and can be used in so many dishes that it becomes the go-to meal, both for quickie "what do I make tonight?" meals and for guests.  This is a recipe I first saw in The Wanderlust Kitchen web site, and have slightly modified for our tastes and the high altitude here in Cuenca.

We made it tonight for some Ecuadorian guests, and it was a hit with them as much as it has become a home favorite.  Best to serve over rice, or as our friends suggested, with bread.

Tuscan Chicken
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 4
A one pot chicken meal that can be made in large batches. Left-overs are still delicious the next day.
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 1 lb chicken breast and/or thighs, skinless boneless
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • ½ tsp thyme
  • ½ white onion, diced
  • 1 jalapeno, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 12 oz mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 cup stewed tomatoes
  • 1 (15 oz) can Red Beans, drained
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Cook chicken in a large skillet, browning for 3 minutes on each side.
  2. Remove chicken and set aside.
  3. Melt the butter in the pan. Add the sliced mushrooms and sauté. Remove from the pan and set aside.
  4. Add the onion and jalepenos and sauté for 3 minutes. Add the garlic, and stewed tomatoes. Sauté for 2 more minutes. Stir in the spices, beans, and sugar.
  5. Transfer the chicken back to the pan and spoon some of the sauce over top of the chicken. Cook, covered, on the stove top until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce is bubbling, about ten minutes. Return the mushrooms to the pan.
  6. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.
  7. Serve hot with rice or bread.


[Recipe] Coconut Balls

Coconut Balls

I read lots of food blogs, and often come up with recipe ideas from them.  I usually make a recipe three or four times before I decide I have it tweaked to my satisfaction, and certainly before I decide it is delicious enough, and easy enough, for adding to my blog.  In the last several months, I have started following a young couple with particular interest.  They create some of the most interesting -- and usually easy -- recipes I have seen for awhile.  Many of those I end up using essentially unchanged, because they work so well.

The web site is PinchOfYum.  If you like to cook, you really should start following this couple.  Today's recipe comes from them, with only a few small changes.  I have made this as appetizers for a couple of parties at our house recently, and it has been a huge hit.  It will start being a standard we take to pot luck dinners in the future now too.

[Recipe] Coconut Balls
Recipe type: Appetizer
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 12
  • 2½ cups flaked coconut
  • ¼ cup coconut oil, melted
  • ¼ cup honey
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • a pinch of salt
  • 4 ounces white or dark fountain chocolate for topping
  1. Pulse the coconut in a blender or food processor until they are small shreds. Set aside about ¼ cup of the mixture.
  2. Mix the coconut oil, honey, vanilla, and salt. Stir in the coconut from step one.
  3. Form the mixture into small balls by squeezing until a ball forms. There will be a little bit of excess oil - that's okay.
  4. Once you have the balls formed, refrigerate for 1 hour or so until they are firm. Remove from refrigerator, and improve shape of each ball, as they are now firmer and more easily formed.
  5. Heat a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the coconut and stir constantly for a few minutes until the coconut is lightly browned.
  6. Melt the chocolate for a minute or so in the microwave. Stir it until it's smooth. Dip each coconut ball in the chocolate and remove, letting excess chocolate drip off. Place on baking sheet and top with the toasted coconut from step five.
  7. Refrigerate to set the chocolate.


Cañar Mercado and Biblián Church

After going to the Cañar animal market, we went into town to the main mercado for some people watching. According to Alberto (our driver for the day), most of the younger generation left the city to find work in the United States or Spain, so you mostly find older Cañari people in this town of 225,000. On Sundays, Cañar comes to life with several markets, from the indoor central mercado to the smaller potato market.

Every local mercado in Ecuador is interesting, and this one in Cañar was no different.

After leaving the Cañar mercado, and having lunch, we traveled to Biblián, on our way back to Cuenca.  Biblián is the capital city of the Cañar canton of Ecuador, with a population a little over 20,000.  According to Alberto (our driver for the day), most of the original inhabitants of this city have left the country, a statement supported by Wikipedia.

Our last stop of the day was at the Santuario de la Virgen del Rocío. This church sits high on a hill overlooking the city.  You must then climb a series of very steep steps up to the church itself, giving you a tremendous overview of the valley city below.  This is very close to Incapirca, an Inca ruins that is a popular tourist stop.  We were the only gringos visiting the church though, being out of the way, and less known.

Cañar People and Murals

Yesterday we went to the Cañar animal market, and I created the first part of the report of that trip, talking about the various animals for sale.  Today I want to show some of the people that were there at the market.

Top left above is Alberto, Evelyn's art instructor and our driver for the day.  Middle-left is Maite, his wife, and one of my cooking instructors.  The others are people attending the market, either to sell their animals, or to purchase them.

Babysitters are rare in Ecuador, as are strollers.  When mothers go about their business, they bring their children with them.  If they are young enough, they are typically tied in a cloth and strapped to the mother's back.  Though you will occasionally see fathers with older children in tow, it is almost always the mother that carries the infants until they are old enough to walk on their own.

Along the periphery of the main animal market were vendors selling dry goods and food.  Some put a meager assortment of goods on a small tarp.  Others just draped their ropes out in a colorful array, so that those who bought a new animal could properly lead their purchase away.  One woman (lower left) just piled hundreds of shoes on the back of her car, while one enterprising man (upper right) emptied a large van onto tables and had a loudspeaker blasting his sales pitch for all to hear.  The vendor bottom-center above was selling wooden plows.  They don't look like they would last very long in plowing fields, but he had plenty of people asking about them, and I saw at least two sales.

As we were driving out of town, we came across a long stretch with interesting murals.  I have posted a couple of blogs about the murals in Cuenca, so thought I would show that they exist in other towns of Ecuador too.

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