Cuenca’s crafts: from Panama hats to blacksmiths

On December 1, 1999, Cuenca was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in recognition of the culture, handicrafts and handmade goods produced here.

CIDAP, the Inter-American Center for Handicrafts, is an international institution created to promote and safeguard Cuenca’s crafts and folk art. CIDAP is housed in this magnificent mansion, which like all museums in Cuenca, is free to the public.

While it is mainly men who dominate the world of leatherwork, woodwork, wrought iron and metalwork, the exhibits in CIDAP featured the handwork of women artists – basketry, embroidery, jewellery, ceramics and weaving.

A number of artist bios were featured, along with examples of their work. Eulalia Cardenas, has more than 45 years of experience in embroidery, beginning with her own workshop at age 16. She currently owns the workshop “Maku Artesania” and over the years has taken many courses and taught her skills.

One of Eulalia’s pieces on display.

Maryuri Anapa, a highly skilled basketmaker, leads a cooperative of 17 Chachi women from areas in and around Cuenca, to make baskets from different fibres found in the region.

Basket designs typical of the co-operative’s work.

I could devote this entire blog posting to the rest of the exhibits; the variety and quality of handcrafts to be found in Cuenca is staggering, and it is painful to not be able to buy things as we go along.

Beautiful quality, unique design, really affordable prices, and none of it really possible to consider as we travel about with our small backpacks.

A final look at CIDAP, a work of art in itself. Besides the polished banisters, inlaid wooden floors and tiled foyer, there was this magnificent creation – a metal chandelier that appears to be strung with elaborately-wrought earrings.

You have all heard of the Panama hat, that egregiously-misnamed headwear that has had its roots in Ecuador for centuries and been in serious production for export since the early 19th century. Back then, many South American products were funnelled through Panama for distribution to North America, Asia and Europe. They became known as “Panama” hats and that name stuck when President Teddy Roosevelt was spotted wearing one during his inspection of the Panama canal.

Cuenca is a centre for making Panama hats, with stores and workshops all over town. They are woven from toquilla straw, a fibre which comes from the coast, and quality is determined by the tightness of the weave. The finest quality Montecristi hats run in the several hundreds of dollars (and more), but it is possible to buy a good quality hat for between $50 and $65.

There is even a museum dedicated to the Panama hat, but aside from a few dioramas, it is less of a museum and more of a workshop and display room.

With the Panama hat such a visible symbol of Ecuadorian craftsmanship, an ad hoc campaign is underway to change the name to “Ecuador hat”, as depicted by this mural.

Hat-adverse though I am, I tried on a couple, and I have to admit – they do up your fashion game.

Cuenca’s crafts and trades have strong roots in identity and culture. One area that really typifies that identity is the Las Herrerias neighbourhood, one of the most traditional in Cuenca. It used to be on the edge of town, with over 50 blacksmiths working out of their shops.

Those blacksmiths are largely gone now, as the city grew and horse and buggies disappeared. They have been replaced by metalworkers; those shops now producing metal gates, wrought iron and decorative work.

Plaza del Herrera sits in the heart of the neighbourhood; a broad square anchored on one end by “El Vulcan” – the God of fire and metal. Rising from a volcano is a blacksmith, raising his anvil in honour of all metalworkers past and present. This impressive sculpture, by Helmont Hilenkan, surrounded by small ponds, and “rivers” of tile, was begun in 1995 and finished a year later.

At the other end of the plaza lies a small forest of cement blocks, each of them with a plaque naming the benefactors who funded this important project.

El Vado is another traditional neighbourhood in Cuenca that has its roots in workshops and trades. It used to be considered a derelict, dangerous neighbourhood; one to be hurried through in daylight and avoided at night. About 25 years ago, the residents had had enough and a campaign was underway to refurbish the area.

The first step was to tear down the public washrooms which had been the site of drug deals and prostitution. Abandoned homes were remodelled and the scenic Plazoleta del Vado, which overlooks the city, became a showcase for art and music.

Today, it is a beautiful area to stroll through, admire the views, the murals and this famous sculpture, the Palo Encebado, or Greased Pole. This depicts a festival custom of climbing a greased pole to try and retrieve a prize from the top.

In an effort to climb the pole. the second boy is pulling down the top boy’s pants, much to the horror of the scandalized folks below.

One end of Plazoleta del Vado.

The shops and cafes that now line the Plaza.

Neat and tidy little workshops are part of the refurbished El Vado neighbourhood.

A very modern interpretation of the blacksmithing trade. Julio Manchado, whose favourite theme is the hummingbird, elevates the craft.

In 2013, Cuenca sanctioned street art, working with over 60 artists in an effort to accept the inevitable and at least encourage a higher quality. Cuenca delivers in spades; almost every corner brings another creative feast for the eyes.

Mosaic tiled wall in front of painted mural.

Life imitating art. Mural on the wall by the Mercado.

Not sure of the message here, but loved the artwork.

The subversive message here is impossible to miss.

Architecture in Cuenca is endlessly fascinating and diverse; a mix of Incan, Spanish Colonial and Republican. You will find everything from low adobe cottages to multi-storey, highly designed and decorated structures.

Many of them have walls that are four or five feet thick, with inner courtyards. I would dearly love to go on a house tour in Cuenca, for for now, here are a couple of examples of what we could see from the outside.

A building of historical significance. Unfortunately, I can’t find more information about it, but the River Tomebamba is lined with similar grand homes that are now re-purposed.

Not all of Cuenca’s architecture is old and historic – the area on the other side of the river is more modern and is where many middle-class families live, including the ex-pat community.

This is where we found ourselves – in an Airbnb in a gated community. Our hosts are warm and welcoming, but between language barriers and good manners, I can’t ask them the question that always pops up when we visit Latin countries. Why are many homes gated, locked, barricaded, razor-wired, and alarmed and electrified as though an armed home invasion would be a likelihood otherwise?

I certainly understand the economic disparity and the potential of theft, which exists anywhere in the world, but this seems so over the top. To enter our home, we had three keys to get past all the gates.

Once in, this was our home in Cuenca – a beautifully designed little casita in their back yard; designed by their architect son.

Phew – long posting and I’ve left out a lot. We have so much to digest about our time in mainland Ecuador, and much like Colombia, we’re leaving with so many experiences to treasure, but so much left unexplored.

Tomorrow we leave for Galapagos; a surreal notion that is a dream trip by anyone’s estimation.

We will be there for 10 days, and after reading various accounts of issues with spotty wifi in places, I’m not sure when my next posting will be. I’ll be back in touch as soon as it is possible.

19 thoughts on “Cuenca’s crafts: from Panama hats to blacksmiths

  1. Thank you, Ginny, for reviving so many wonderful memories of Cuenca – perhaps my favourite place in Latin America. I bought a beautiful Panama hat there in its own special bag, but left it hanging on a bathroom door in the Seattle airport on my return trip. When I realized two minutes later that I was short a piece of luggage…. it was gone. I hope someone has enjoyed wearing it.


    1. Oh my goodness, that is a heartbreaking story. Two minutes later – it is like a horrible analogy about life. I would not be so benevolent!
      Cuenca is such a special place, isn’t it? I’d definitely go back there.


  2. Beautiful collection of artwork!!
    It’s almost too much to absorb it all in one trip!
    Happy travels both of you!
    Love your stories and pixs!!!


  3. Oh Ginny! You really must write a book when you are done travelling. You describe everything so well and such awesome photos. I don’t know how you can’t shop for a bigger suitcase and bring half of what you see home !! What craftsmanship and you really suit that Panama hat. Look forward to Galapagos. I think you’ll find it rather relaxing after what you’ve done.

    Love Lyn


      1. I can’t wait for the Galapagos blog!!! It was one of my favorite trips although we were there in a different season than you. I hope you see the giant Tortoise (highlands of Santa Cruz) & land Iguanas. You will see the Iguana on Cerro Dragon “Dragon Hill”. It’s on the northern coast of Santa Cruz. Perhaps you will be lucky enough to see the flamingos if you walk to the lagoon. I can’t say which island I liked more – they were all so different and the birds so tame. Look for lava tunnels too.
        Love Lyn


  4. So love reading your posts, Ginny. I was in Galapagos last spring and am still in awe. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


    1. Louise, we are here now – half-way through our trip and boarding a ferry today to go to San Cristobal. It’s been incredible. We could come back here again, for sure, as every day is so different and of course the animals are not predictable. Yesterday we were snorkelling and all of our group saw the same things – tons of beautiful fish. One woman saw three sea turtles and a shark.
      We’re so looking forward to the rest of the trip and hopefully our wifi will be better and I’ll get a blog posting out.


  5. You must have been in your element in Cuenca, Ginny, art in all it’s varied forms, almost everywhere you went! How wonderful! Too bad there was no room for the hat!


    1. I’m hoping there will be some beautiful things in Chile, Heather. I plan to find a little room in my backpack, as I am so tired of wearing the same clothes all the time that I think I can “donate” half my bag to make room.


  6. It seems like so many of the crafts (baskets, hats, metalwork) are both decorative and functional, and rooted in the local culture – it’s easy to imagine the shapes and patterns evolving over the years, and maybe being tied to certain towns or neighbourhoods. Have you noticed that in your travels?


    1. I think so – I think there are designs that are typical to certain areas, but there is a similarity among them that make them hard to discern. I imagine there has to be many good reference books out there that would go into great detail about the subtle differences.
      The information given at the folk art museum probably went into that, as well, but it was all in Spanish.


  7. Okay – now I want to go there.  Maybe one day but your wonderful photos and commentary has given me the travel bug which has been absent for a while.




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      1. Just read about the earthquake in Cuenca. We are so happy you were able to enjoy the town before the event. We hope all of the wonderful things that you described for us all are unaffected. Jeanne

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Jeanne, I think just a small part of Cuenca was hit – more damage done in another city. It makes me wonder when an earthquake might hit our west coast – this is something Ecuadorians live with on a regular basis – I can’t imagine.


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