Cuenca: The City in the Clouds

Cuenca: The City in the Clouds

Du Xinxin


As the fields and plantations fade away, the drive to Cuenca begins to wind its way up the mountain.

Initially, the fog is not large, as if a green gauze, but soon thick enough to swallow the highway. My eyes were wide open as I stared ahead, and Harvey, the guide, was still eating potato chips and driving. The car kept climbing, and a sea of green rolling hills occasionally appeared. Mountain after mountain, a mountain peak in a square shape stands on top of the mountains, and occasionally a rock juts out, but is not dangerous. This area is already the southern slope of the northern end of the Andes, and Cuenca, the third largest city in Ecuador, is in a valley on the other side of the mountain.

As we climbed, clouds began to wander across the mountains. Finally, we climbed above the clouds to the entrance of Cajas National Park, located at the top of the mountain. This place is more than 3600 meters above sea level, the sky is clear, the vegetation is no longer dense, and the tree species are completely different. The park is described as 285 square kilometers through high mountains, evergreen cloud forests and hundreds of lakes. Wildlife such as Andean condors, great hummingbirds and raccoons (Coatis) inhabit the area, but only a few dozen square kilometers are accessible to humans. The temperate mountains to such high altitude, the great hummingbirds cannot be seen at all. Although the area of Ecuador is small, the landscape and climate are diverse, and it actually has 18% of the birds and 10% of the species on earth. No wonder our university biology teachers often come to Ecuador to study.

Follow the wooden passage down the hill. The clouds were dark and the lake at the foot was dark gray. The brown thatch grasses rolled over the mountain, those withered needles not only against the wind and cold, but also to protect the tundra green and soft. Shortly after the line, you can see a trickle of water, this place is a subtropical high-altitude mountains, little rain and no snow all year round, those thin streams all rely on the tundra vegetation to cover. This is already above the tree line, but because it is close to the equator, a kind of tree can still grow. Locals call it the "paper tree", whose bark is as thin as paper and grows on all fours. The tundra is home to a variety of carnivorous plants that are gray-green and furry to the touch. A long plant with small, succulent leaves resembles a long-handled brush with small orange flowers at the top. Some Indian healing plants, one of which resembles the Mormon tea common in western North America. I had already seen those evergreen plants with red fruits, and the first time I saw them was on a hike along the Inca Trail in Peru.

In its heyday, the Inca Empire had established a well-connected road, and a section of the ancient road passed through this area. The section I hiked was from Cusco to Machu Picchu, but it was only a thousandth of the route. Before the Spanish colonization, there were no cattle, horses, dogs or other domestic animals on the South American continent, and the transmission of goods and information was done on foot by human beings. From Cusco, the capital of the Inca Empire, to Cuenca, it was about 2,000 kilometers, and if an expedited chicken mail was delivered, the deliverer could reach it in 8 days by running long distance in relay! At that time, besides hunting, the Incas' main animal protein came from the Dutch pigs that people today keep as pets. It is said that Peruvians also ate cute camels and sheep. Considering the Incas' lack of protein, it is even more incredible that they had that kind of stamina and physique. In a sense, South America's lack of Eurasian livestock has really affected its recent history. Horses could greatly enhance combat power, and cattle freed up labor for agricultural production, but ancient empires, even in their heyday, had to devote large numbers of people to farming and thus had no time to develop anything else. Interested readers can read the story of Pizarro's conquest of Peru and the relevant summary in the book Guns, Germs and Steel.

The altitude kept dropping after leaving the national park. Along the way, the mountain scenery was pale and green, and when we saw the red tiled houses and banana trees, we also saw the city of Cuenca.


The full name of Cuenca means "the basin where four rivers flow together. The four rivers are Tomebam-ba, Yanuncay, Tarqui and Machangara, three of which originate in the Cajas National Park. Cuenca is the third largest city after Guayaquil and Quito, and its old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Passing by the Tome Bamba River, the meadows along the river are lush and the flowers and trees are sparse. Although close to the equator, the climate is pleasant due to the altitude of 2560 meters, and it is said that Cuenca has the most perfect climate on earth. When you enter the city, you will see only narrow streets and stone roads, with streets crisscrossing each other. However, when you look far away from any street, the end is a green hillside. It is said that in the early years some wealthy local families liked to go to France, a move that greatly influenced the local architectural style. Churches of various styles, Spanish-style houses with arcades in front, pure white, beige, brick red, goose yellow and blue, and the red roofs of the dwellings and the domed spires of the churches form a skyline of great beauty. Square, fountain, flower market ...... roses, carnations, azaleas, lilies, sunflowers ...... basket vendors are sometimes seen on the street, mostly indigenous women, selling mostly fruit. The women, baskets and fruits are all clean and well taken care of. This place is surprisingly clean, the demeanor of pedestrians shows a high level of culture and education, and obesity is apparently lower than in Guayaquil. I am told that Cuenca has three universities and that university professors earn $6,000 a month, slightly more than the president, while no government employee is allowed to earn more than the president's maximum salary.

We walked towards the CathedraloftheImmaculateConception and saw the three blue vaults from afar. Built in the 19th century, this church is not old, but it is the most striking landmark in Cuenca because of its blend of architectural styles. Cuenca is one of the most Catholic cities in South America, with a municipal motto: "First God, then you". The local culture is conservative, religious and "right". It is said that a Cuenca man sent his daughter to college in the United States, and a few months later, he asked a friend who had gone to the United States to visit her, and the friend came back and said, "I have bad news for you. Your daughter has turned into a ......" His words were just overshadowed by the noise of a truck at this point. The father replied, "That's terrible, I raised her right, put her in the right school, what did I do wrong?" "Sadly," the man continued, "I was shocked to find her prostituting herself. "The father was greatly relieved to hear: "I thought you said she had become a Protestant. "The first three letters of the English words "Protestant" and "Prostitute" are both Pro, and the father was initially nervous just hearing the first three letters. What is their political correctness.

The balconies of homes are filled with flowers, and the streets here are not only a bit like Cusco, Peru, but also a high altitude mountain town, but most of the buildings in the old town of Cusco are painted blue, which is beautiful, but also a bit pretentious. The air is thin and so is the water vapor in the high altitude area, but this is a subtropical area where the trillium is in full bloom and the horse chestnut, which cannot grow in the Rocky Mountains, has grown into a wall of trees. Walk past that wall of trees and down the stairs to the Tome Bamba River. Along the river's edge, weeping willows brush the surface, and a bush of roses peeks out from the pink walls of homes on the river. The delicate skin of the locals and the soft grass along the river made me forget that I was in the highlands.

It was difficult to get enough vegetables at the restaurant, so we walked to the supermarket to buy vegetables. The supermarkets here are similar to Guayaquil in that they are mainly department stores and the vegetables are placed at the end of the store and are not very fresh. Then we found the farmers' market, where the fruits and vegetables were very fresh and the variety was dazzling. The second floor sells all kinds of soups and fresh juices, and a huge glass of freshly squeezed juice costs only 50 cents. There are several straw hat stalls in the market, and many surrounding villages weave straw hats, the main raw material of which is agave, and the world-famous Panama straw hat was originally produced in Ecuador.

Wandering around the old town, I saw an English bookstore and walked in. The store sells mostly used books in English, and the owner is named Marvin. The owner's name was Marvin. When we talked, we learned that he was from Denver. I know that some Americans go abroad, the first choice is Costa Rica, Marvin also lived there for a while, because they do not like the hot and humid climate to move here to settle. The English-speaking community in this area is nearly 5,000 strong. Marvin says housing and health insurance are fairly inexpensive, "The monthly cost of health insurance is $76. I had my hip bone replaced here, and the surgery went very well, and I only had to pay $65 out of pocket." After saying goodbye to Marvin, I met another pair of retirees from the U.S. in Old Town who warmly invited me to sit in their home. The couple had not reached retirement age but had to retire due to illness and chose this place mainly because the health insurance was much lower than that in the United States. They also said that senior citizens in Ecuador have discounts for air travel. I could see that they were very happy with their life.


The tourist train in Ecuador runs from Quito to Guayaquil, and the trip is four days. Many travelers choose to take the most thrilling section, which starts from Alausi, a small town northwest of Cuenca.

We left early in the morning to catch the 11 o'clock sightseeing train. Shortly after leaving town, we passed through the town of A-zogues, the capital of the province of Azuay, Cuenca, and Azogues is already the capital of the province of Kanal. This small country actually has 22 administrative provinces, and it is estimated that a province is about the size of a county in the United States. I think the establishment of so many administrative regions is related to its geographical complexity, and people living in geographically complex areas tend to be isolated from the outside world and self-contained. The central government basically does not have much influence on the local residents, and the residents have no centripetal force on the central government.

All the way up the mountain, every valley along the way was inhabited by people. The green hillsides are scattered with yellow and red homes. Towns were connected to towns, each with at least one church, and the churches were built on the highest part of the town. St. Francis of Assisi Church, Our Lady of the Clouds Church, and Our Lady of Chaulau ...... are like our Goddess of Mercy. Our Lady of the Clouds or Our Lady of Pilgrimage are all different incarnations of the Virgin Mary, and the different incarnations of Our Lady have their own followers, some of whom make special pilgrimages here. The churches in South America are more smoky and the statues of the Virgin Mary are very native. In Brazil, I saw a Madonna dressed as an Indian, and a Madonna in a wide-brimmed hat and cloak placed in front of the driver's seat of a cab, holding a baby Jesus in indigenous clothing. Learning that my son had stayed at the Pope's summer palace on an academic visit to the Vatican Observatory in the 1980s and had met Pope Paul II more than once, Harvey, the guide, said, "A local child who had his head touched by Paul II was considered a good luck charm, and if they knew you had met the Pope, people would clamor to shake your hand."

Continue north on Highway 35 and the higher you go, the greener the grass becomes. Cows of different colors roam the meadows, farmers' wives milk by the roadside, tin milk cans sit by the side of the road, and a car just drove by to collect the fresh milk, which apparently comes every day. The cows here are obviously happier than those on the cattle farm, and the milk probably tastes better. Most of the houses along the road are red-tiled and yellow-walled, with views not unlike those of Switzerland, and the residents seem to be living in stable affluence. This road is a section of the Pan-American Highway, which in theory goes all the way north to Alaska. At the beginning of the Spanish colonization of South America, the road began in the Colombian coastal town of Cartagena and then extended along the Andes in the highlands, and the Pan-American Highway was basically built along the same old road.

In the distance, there was a white haze in the nest of mountains, that was the water mist we saw when we went from Guayaquil to Cuenca. This water mist comes from the Pacific Ocean and gradually drifts up to the east, and by evening it reaches this area. The fog is almost every day in the foggy forest area, it doesn't matter if it is dry or rainy season. I remember that the vegetation in the Namibian desert also survives on the ocean fog, and the vegetation nourishes animals such as antelopes. After passing through the foggy forest area, the valley was brown again.

With half an hour to go to Alaussi, traffic started to build up ahead. The road was sparsely traveled, was there an accident? The traffic was slow and 20 minutes passed. Harvey went forward to check and returned that it was the people of Alaussi who were demonstrating.

On previous visits to Lima and Buenos Aires, we have encountered demonstrations, but we did not expect to encounter demonstrations in such an isolated place. The police car cleared the way for us to catch the tourist train, but we were still unable to get past the march. Finally, the whole car abandoned the car and walked through the parade, then took another car to the train station. After entering the carriage, we started waiting again and waited for all the passengers to arrive and the train whistle to depart.

As soon as we drove out of the town, we immediately climbed up high. Amidst the gray and shades of brown, cacti grew to several meters tall, and thick agave could not be held by two people. The long roots of the carnivorous plants hanging from the cliff walls are astonishing in their tenacity of life. It is said that after the rainy season, a million flowers will sway and surge in the mountains.

The mountain is treacherous, standing in the carriage can barely see the line of river at the bottom of the mountain. Although the area of Ecuador is similar to Guangxi, with only 280,000 square kilometers, there are high mountains, oceans, tropical rainforests and archipelagos. The straight-line distance from Guayaquil to Quito is only 270 kilometers, but it takes a day to drive on the highway. The terrain is complicated, and it is difficult to use the number of kilometers as the time parameter of the trip.

Before 1908, Ecuador only had railroads along the coastline, and in 1895, President Eloy Alfaro decided to extend the coastal railroad to eventually connect Guayaquil and Quito. However, from the estuarine city to 3,000 meters above sea level, that meant an average rise of 10 meters per kilometer, the most challenging of which was the section we rode. In June 1908, the railroad was finally opened to traffic. In the following decades, the railroad was the main line of transportation in Ecuador, and after the 1990s, the railroad gradually declined due to the opening of the highway, and in recent years it has been used only for sightseeing.

Nearing the Devil's Nose, the mountain was a sheer wall and the train was running on a circuitous track, as Weitmer, a German who rode the train in the 1930s, recalled: "We climbed higher, and as the train went up the steep slope, we sometimes saw the same view from the window six or seven times below. At one point the train suddenly stopped at the edge of a cliff and then began to rush backwards into the valley. I thought it was going to be thrown into the abyss below. Suddenly it stopped and then moved forward again with a jolt. After several such abrupt stops forward and backward, the conductor saw my pale face and explained that everything was fine and that we were passing through the devil's nose." After several trips in and out, we too finally made it down to the bottom. The crowd got off the train to take pictures with the Devil's Nose and to watch the indigenous people sing and dance at the station. The station had railroad maps and instructions posted on the wall, and I remembered that a similar track had been built at Badaling in Beijing, but it didn't seem to claim to be, "one of the most wonderful and courageous projects in the world." The other day I was looking through a magazine that had amusingly placed Quito's pre-colonial art museum alongside the Louvre, the Hermitage, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.


At 2pm, we returned to Cuenca from Anlaosi. Soon after we left, the fog came up and the trees and houses appeared and disappeared. A ray of sunlight came through the fog, and in the greenery stood a farmhouse with red tiles and yellow walls. The houses were square and solidly built, with terraces set in front of the houses or on the roofs, some with porches, all in a typical Spanish style. In a country where toilet paper is not provided in public restrooms, these houses are quite good.

However, there was always something wrong with those houses. What's wrong with them? Oh, they were made of the same blue glass used in office buildings. Strange, does the wilderness need this kind of privacy? Reflective glass not only looks small, but also a bit of a thief's light. Harvey seemed to see my curiosity and said, "You noticed the glass, right? Most of the owners of these houses are now in the United States. When they left the country, they thought New York was a country. When they arrived in that "country", they saw the skyscraper window glass and thought that was fashionable. Remittance of money to build a house specified that kind of glass, not necessary, but to show off." I asked, "Don't the homeowners live here?" "Most of them are illegal immigrants who are afraid to leave the U.S. to leave the country and maybe come back later to retire. Knowing that Harvey also had a U.S. green card, I asked him, "How many Ecuadorian immigrants are there in the U.S., including illegal ones?" "About one million." "Ah, so many! I feel that among South American countries, Ecuador is more stable politically and better economically, so how come so many people are running to the U.S.?" "It's mainly because of the dollarization of Ecuador in 1999-2000."

He went on to say that before 1999, Ecuador's currency was the sucre, and that the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar to the sucre was 1:15 in the 1950s, and began to fall sharply in the early 1990s, initially to 1:800, then to 1:3,000 five years later, and to 1:25,000 in January 2000. In order to stabilize the currency, the then president announced the adoption of the U.S. dollar and the abolition of the sucre. abolition of the sucre.

"The adoption of the dollar was the right thing to do." Harvey said, "But something went terribly wrong with the dollarization process. When the exchange was announced, some people didn't exchange in time, and when they wanted to, the banks wouldn't exchange again. Then they agreed to exchange, but they could only give exchange rolls. In this way, some individuals were deprived of their property to the extent of 2.5% of the original value. Protests broke out in the country as a result, and the people surrounded the presidential palace, and the president had to flee by helicopter. The bankers who stole the people's money ran to the United States, and the people who went bankrupt as a result ran to the United States". At that time, the population of Ecuador was just over 10 million, that is, one tenth of the population went to the United States, most of them were illegal immigrants. Harvey pointed to a low stone house and said, "Before, most people lived in that kind of house. After they ran to the United States, they sent money back to build new houses, and the old houses used to be used as barns or tool sheds." Remember that Israel was also developed by foreign exchange when the country was founded. After the independence of South American countries, the political economy was still directly influenced by the major powers, such as the British debt and the great influence of the United Fruit Company of the United States in Guatemala. Considering the civil wars and wars between countries in South America in the post-colonial era and various military coups, Ecuador's currency exchange crisis is already considered a very small disaster and misfortune.

Harvey added, "Now we have free health care and university education and a socialist system, but it's not the same kind of socialist system as in Venezuela, where they are corrupt." "Chavez did well when he started his administration, the resources were the first in Latin America, then it got worse and worse. In fact, even if you do not agree with the United States, there is no need to be anti-American, El Salvador may not agree with the United States, but good relations with the United States, the United States aid more, the people's life is better."

The fog was getting thicker and thicker, and by the time we reached the Inca Wall (In-gapirca), visibility was only a dozen meters. Before the arrival of the Incas, the original inhabitants of this area were the Canal (Ca?ari) people. It is said that their ancestors settled here in 500 B.C. The Incas conquered the natives through war and reconciliation, but the empire was at its end. There are still many Canals in the area, wearing woolen hats that look like tweed hats.

In the thick fog, we wandered through the ruins. Through the moment when the fog lifted a little, I saw that beneath the altar was actually a treacherously deep valley. The mandarins were in full bloom, the flowers mostly white, but here yellow, red and orange, which are said to have psychedelic effects. Although this place is the most important Inca site in Ecuador, the scale and complexity of the building is not at all comparable to Machu Picchu in Peru.

It was nightfall back in Cuenca. The next morning, we took a coach from Cuenca over the mountains back to Guayaquil.

(Recorded on September 28-30, 2019. The author currently lives in Georgia, USA. Main works: "The Ganges: Flowing from this world to the next" and "This one goes to a thousand waters")