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12-24 March 2014. To the northwest of Cuenca, past the town of Azogues, is the village of Biblían. High on a hill, overlooking Biblían sits a gorgeous fairytale palace, visible for miles.

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It’s actually the Sanctuario de la Virgen del Rocio. Local legend has it that a priest’s prayer for rain was granted and so he built a small shrine to the Virgen del Rocio. The neo-Gothic church, built in the 1940’s right into the cliff face around the shrine, is a place of devotion for the faithful.

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Travelling on we came to something a little more prosaic: a whole roasted pig. It’s a sight commonly seen throughout the highlands of Ecuador. Although ‘hornado’ (roast pork) is one of the staple dishes of the Ecuadorian diet, it is the roasted skin that’s eaten in this case. You can see the pig has lost its skin all down its left side. I wonder if the meat is eaten later?

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The Cañari have inhabited the southern highlands of Ecuador for more than 3000 years. Historically they were one of the most important tribes in the region and Cuenca was their capital or main city for hundreds of years. They were a powerful tribe with fine skills in weaving, agriculture, pottery, and working with gold and silver. They lost to the Inca after a long-fought and bitter struggle, and later sided with the Spanish against the Inca. In the end, as we all know, the Spanish prevailed over all.

The majority of people are now of mixed race, but the culture and traditions are still maintained by a small number of indigenous Cañari (known as indigenas). Today most of the Cañari are farmers living in or near small remote villages. The town of Cañar has a population of about 10,000 and on Sunday, market day, everyone descends on the town for the important business of buying, selling and socializing. I sometimes suspect that the socializing, and strengthening of community ties, is the most important aspect of market days the world over.

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We always seek out the local markets. Some of them are obviously set up for tourists, and for us have only a passing interest, in part because I suppose we feel a kind of low-grade guilt or discomfort at only looking, and in part because we feel uncomfortable with the sales pitch and pressure. At these markets we are interested in the beautiful and unique and often inventive crafts for sale though we never want to buy (except gifts occasionally). The quality of work is frequently incredibly good, and I don’t mean good considering they are made in third world countries. I mean good compared to anything in the world. Our experience of handmade crafts all throughout South America is that they often show an extraordinary quality. (The textiles of Otavalo come to mind). There are many cheap made-for-tourists knock-offs of course, but much very fine quality work can also be found.

Our favourite markets are the markets where the local population goes to shop, where the vendors come from miles around bringing their produce for sale, where you can see a man with a small grinder making flour right on the street,

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where livestock, from guinea pigs to goats, from rabbits to cattle, is for sale,

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where everyone gathers from the villages to connect and socialize, where the ordinary life of the people of the area happens before your eyes, where nothing is arranged for tourists and where everything goes on in exactly the same way as it has done for hundreds of years (except now they have motor vehicles and cell phones). Such is the Sunday market in Cañar. I think we were the only tourists there, and were afforded a sweet glimpse into the lives of the Cañari.

We enter from the corner of the main street and plunge straight into the crowd excited by the vibrant and purposeful atmosphere. There is a buoyant spirit of reconnection and friendship. At the same time the real purpose of the day, the buying and selling, pervades everything. All around us are goods and people: sacks and sacks of flours, grains and legumes where we first enter,

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and behind that ropes and hardware for all purposes, and in another area fruits and vegetables. We plunge in to the melee.

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The market covers several blocks and we wander for hours taking it all in.

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We come to a large crowd gathered around an open-sided tent. Sitting behind a somewhat dilapidated model of the human body, a man speaks extensively and persuasively about the body, pointing to various parts of it, and to the potions he has. His audience listens attentively, seemingly spellbound. He encourages me to take photos. I do wish I could have understood him. He may have been a travelling ‘snake-oil’ charlatan. Or he may have been selling genuine natural remedies.

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Those of you who have been following our South American journey know how important, and ubiquitous, hats are to the people of the Andes. Fedoras are to be found everywhere, stovepipes are not uncommon, and the Cholas of Bolivia have turned bowler hats into a jaunty fashion statement of national pride. Many wear straw hats, and in Ecuador at least, have them refurbished by painting them to make them last longer. I must also mention Panama hats, which are not from Panama at all, but are exclusively an Ecuadorian creation.

With grateful thanks to Judy Blankenship and her friend Ed Holmes, I managed to acquire some information about the white Cañari hats. White felt hats are not unique to the Cañari, but the shape and style seen here are. They are made over a form, and are delivered to market undecorated. The purchaser (usually women) then decorates the hat with ribbons, rosettes and tassels.

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Sometimes, though not always, unmarried young women use long white ribbons to indicate that they are single. Men, women and children from about two years of age all wear the hats as protection from sun, rain and cold. There is a hat maker in the small town of Pelileo, and others in the bigger centres of Quito and Otavalo. Apparently they guard closely their hat-making secrets.

Shopping and visiting complete, people wait in line for the bus. Of course, except for their clothing it could be people waiting for a bus almost anywhere in the world.

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Close by the town of Cañar are the ancient Cañari and Inca ruins of Inga Pirca. Surrounded by hills, and near the Cañar River, it was originally constructed by the Cañari as a fortress and a place of worship. The round temple indicates the moon worship of the Cañari, rather than the more angular structures of the Inca for sun worship. With the defeat of the Cañari by the Inca, it was converted to a Temple of the Sun, and is situated so as to catch the sun’s rays on the solstices and equinoxes.

After the defeat of the Cañari and the establishment of Tomebamba (now Cuenca) as the regional capital, the unpopular Inca needed outposts to defend themselves against the restive and discontented local population so the fortress of Inga Pirca (meaning simply Inca walls) was expanded and used for this purpose.

It doesn’t have the grandeur of other Inca sites we visited such as Machu Picchu and Pisac. Hard to get excited about it really. There was supposed to be an English-speaking guide, which might have helped, but none were available so we wandered around until it started raining and then we went home. I remember way back in the post about Rome I wrote that we don’t really give a toss about the ancient Romans and their empire and so the Forums and Palatine Hill were a little ho hum. Inga Pirca was like that for us. We were travelled out, saturated. If you’re truly into Inca ruins and haven’t yet seen Machu Picchu, Pisac, Cusco, and the other ruins in that area, you’ll probably love it. And it certainly does have a dignity and beauty of its own.

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Next post: Galapagos revisited. Kenny and Anna from Taiwan, who we met on the Galapagos cruise, have kindly given us permission to share their exquisite photos.






All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.