Every Sunday, droves of people (citizens and foreigners alike) head for the hills that lay east of Cuenca, Ecuador. The local buses are at their fullest this day each week because the passengers want to catch the markets that take center stage in the craft villages scattered along the riverbanks, tucked away in the highlands of the area. The most frequented towns on market day are Gualaceo, Chordeleg, and Sigsig. Chasing bargains and beautiful vistas, many travelers stop by all three communities during the course of a single day. Last December, I, along with a team consisting of a pair of familiar faces, completed the aforementioned trifecta.
Two days before Christmas, my friends and I met our former TESOL classmate from Quito who arrived at Cuenca’s bus terminal with her visiting gringo family. Liz’s studious father, Greg, had read up on the nearby Sunday markets and wanted to find out if his guidebook matched what he was about to see. We all boarded a bursting, Gualaceo-bound bus just after 9:00 A.M.
About an hour later, we rolled into sunny Gualaceo, which rests on the river of the same name. Wanting to see the area’s largest indigenous market, the six of us proceeded to the central plaza as soon as our feet touched the ground. Andrew and the “Lizzes” (as he called them), explored the enormous market, stopping by countless wooden stands, which sold a vast selection of food, crafts, clothes and household items. I, too, wandered through the green and yellow-covered maze, taking pictures and taken aback by the outstanding variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Everything looked delicious. After getting our fill (some of us with bitter chocolate, others with yucca) of the market, we meandered through the streets until we reached the western banks of the Gualaceo River.
We ignored the short-lived, Spanglish taunts of a group of young men while snapping photos of the wide water body, along with the families who were playing or washing their clothes in it. Liz, her family, Andrew and I then backtracked towards the town’s station, where we immediately hopped onto a bus with Chordeleg on our minds.
Although not much time had actually passed, it seemed like an eternity before we arrived at our next destination because of the boiling interior of the bus and its windows that refused to open. Peeling our bodies from our seats, the six of us stepped off the mobile sauna, onto the gray cobblestones of Chordeleg’s mild main square. At this point, we split up.
Set on Chordeleg’s renowned silver, Team Liz ventured on their own to browse the village’s abundant jewelry shops, while Andrew and I roamed the calming streets with eyes peeled, taking snapshots of whatever caught our attention. We eventually discovered the town market and relayed the (text) message to the Lizzes, who soon joined us inside the semi-covered edifice to see what goods were up for bartering.
As I curiously walked down the active aisles, I noticed such things as a pig slowly roasting on a rack, countless tables weighed down by fruits and vegetables, a plethora of meats, duds dangling from strings and non-camera shy vendors who were unafraid to wave at my lens. Several pictures later, we split into our smaller groups once again to tour the rest of the quiet community.
While Liz and her family continued to window-shop, Andrew and I found the so-called archaeological site on Chordeleg’s northern end – we think. Despite large signs that indicated the location of the historical area, we were confused because we couldn’t see anything besides a few rows of crops and a lonely black cow lying next to them. Nevertheless, we pressed on, hiking well above the hillside site until we reached a knoll that overlooked the salmon-roofed mountain settlement. Not only could Andrew and I see the entire municipality, but also distant Gualaceo and the innumerable white cottages that dotted the verdant valley. The view was spectacular, to say the least. The two of us took many photos of our wide-ranging surroundings, walked by a loud, yet hardly intimidating black pup, and answered a phone call from Liz requesting our presence.
Having made our way back into the heart of the community, Andrew and I reunited with the Lizzes to grab lunch at a corner bakery on the southern edge of town. Famished and carb-crazy, all of us but Andrew thoroughly picked apart a small amassment of rolls, buns and bonbons. We then decided that there was no choice but to complete the last leg of the tour. And so, the six of us returned to Chordeleg’s main plaza, waited for a few minutes, and climbed aboard a bulging bus headed for the smallest market on our agenda.
On one hand, the subsequent ride was better than the previous because a few of the windows were open, keeping us from sweating and providing an extraordinary view of the magnificent countryside. The snaking rivers, endless skies, far-ranging green hills and the tiny dwellings that peppered them were truly awe-inspiring.
On the other hand, this drive was worse because Andrew, Greg, Liz, Catherine, and I (Laura was able to sit down) had to stand due to a lack of unoccupied seats. Clenching the metal bars overhead, we held on tight as the bus weaved its way through the sierra, throwing us from side to side in the center aisle. For about 20 minutes, the five of us were flung back and forth in the vehicle’s walkway before it pulled into the village known for making Panama hats.
Sigsig, howbeit, had a gift-giving event in the town center rather than its famous sombreros. In fact, every kid in the community must have stood in the long, twisting lines waiting to see what the Ecuadorian Santa Claus on stage was going to give them for Christmas. We observed this ceremony for a few minutes and then began our quest for Panama hats.
Looking for the prized head wear, our team walked to the periphery of the overcast pueblo, which was smaller than its aforesaid counterparts. While taking pictures of course, we ambled along the gloomy municipality’s streets for the next half hour or so, failing to find anything apart from a few sombreros resting atop a pickup. Deciding that we must have gone at a bad time, we ceased our pursuit of the Panama hats and bought a half-dozen bus tickets back to the capital of the Azuay Province.
As the coach roared its way westward through the mountains, we suddenly felt what the day trip had taken out of us. Despite crying babies, rowdy boys and indigenous women leaning on me, I, along with most of my group fell asleep during the 1½ hour stretch back to Cuenca. In addition to this, catching shuteye was somewhat rare for me because I usually don’t doze on buses, especially since the previous occurrence was rather embarrassing.
At least on this occasion, I wasn’t awoken by a young Gualacean woman sitting in the window seat, urging me to get up so she could exit our nearly empty bus parked at the Cuenca terminal. It was just an old Ecuadorian man across the aisle from me, whistling sharply at the driver to drop him off in the outskirts of Cuenca that opened my eyes this time.
In truth, I have always found Ecuadorian transportation to be full of surprises – many unpleasant. Visiting that trio of unique towns, however, made the ever-bustling, often uncomfortable bus rides all worthwhile.