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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Savant

The Cuenca Diaries

Updated: Dec 12, 2020


Walking the main area of Cuenca, I was happy to find a city that wasn't obnoxious, but instead was beautiful and fairly tranquil. The main plaza was filled with people and the large cathedral was one of the most beautiful I've yet been in. It was monstrously large and one of the more impressive from this trip.

When I first walked into the back of the cathedral, a strong incense seemed to be in the air... until I realized the foggy mist was, in fact, aerosol spray paint and fumes. To my right a man had been spray painting an entire Christmas display dark green. I have no idea how many spray cans it took, but I can tell you the people in the back of the cathedral were seeing heavenly things far more than those at the front of the church.

Outside, the afternoon was sunny, clear and paint fume free. It felt good to walk around.

I wandered here and there while the day slipped away, spotting some white boxes piled on the floor of a small chapel. As I peered in, a woman and her two daughters came up next to me. The lady spoke to me in English and said that evening there would be a "festival of lights" just as they had in Villa de Leyva, Colombia. I thanked her and told her I had been there just a couple of weeks before. She said she had never been, but today was her birthday and she had come to visit from Quito since the celebration coincided with her birthday weekend.

True to her words, as darkness fell young people began lining the streets and plazas with the candle containers. Here and there, folks began to light the candles and let their children stare, fascinated with the flickering flames. It was a beautiful sight and as I walked the streets in the cool air, the crowds grew and grew until the streets were shoulder to shoulder with people.

I wandered into a smaller church that seemed to be the center of the festivities and watched in silence as the evening message was spoken, listening to the squeaks of the old wooden floors as tourists snuck in to try and take photos.

Outside, the festival continued as the city painted itself in Christmas lights and the glow of countless cell phones on the crowded streets.

The next day I located a new hotel a few blocks away, that was a bit cheaper and advertised free parking. Though it was only a couple of blocks away, the one-way streets and repairs turned it into a 15 minute ride. Unfortunately I discovered that there was absolutely no parking on the street in front of the hotel to be able to check in. In addition the road was a major thoroughfare and trying to even stop proved almost impossible. I looped several blocks twice trying to find the combination of a gap in the traffic so I could try to get up onto the curb. Buses and cars don't give a crap here.

The stars aligned and I was able to get onto the sidewalk without getting hit or dumping the bike. After checking in, I asked the girl where the free parking was, and she indicated for me just to pull the bike into the lobby. First of all the lobby was very tiny, and secondly, there was a large step up into the hallway from the sidewalk. I finally got to use my camping duffel bag for the first time of the trip, using it as a ramp to get the bike in. It was quite a bit of maneuvering on the sidewalk to avoid having to try to back into the traffic and take a run at it. Lots of gentle clutch burning and I finally got the bike into the hallway to the lobby where she then indicated to continue into the dining room. I finally got the bike in and the cases off, rolling it back into a gap between dining tables before moving into my new accommodations.

I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening on the streets again, looking for images. I walked to the Pumapungo museum, an interesting place featuring the ethnology of many of the tribes in Ecuador.

One of the displays featured real shrunken heads from the Amazonian tribes, somewhat macabre and fascinating. Outside the museum, a walkway lead to Incan ruins and the park, complete with llamas and an area with birds on display. Both the museum and park were very impressive and worth every penny, which amounted to none. The museum and park were free.

True to my childish inner self, I found the heads fascinating...

Outside, the walkway led to preserved Incan ruins in their original layout, with an original garden location and a small park with an aviary.

One thing I never knew was that the Incans had sloped roof dwellings with brick style walls

After walking the streets, I had a small meal while the sun set. Stepping out of the café onto a dark side street, a small procession of people passed in the darkness. They were dressed in robes and religious attire and I walked around the corner with them to the front of the massive cathedral.

I stood on the steps like Jethro, near the cardinal and officials while the band played and the statue they'd carried in the procession arrived.

It was a solemn affair and as I watched the officers lifting the statue to carry into the Cathedral, I was suddenly engulfed in a white blur and had no idea what was happening, until I realized that from above, thousands of rose petals were pouring off the roof onto the statue, the Cardinal and the few of us standing with them.

It took everyone by surprise, including the soldiers, the Cardinal, officials and myself and everyone's solemnity turned into laughter. I watched as the statue was carried into the church in the procession behind the religious officials and relished my moment in the celebration.

There was a mad rush to gather the rose petals by people in the crowd, stuffing them in pockets and bags for use in some form or fashion.

Chuckling from the once-in-a-lifetime bath of rose petals, I walked back to my hotel brushing stems and petals off my head, my collar and camera bag.

Unfortunately, my new hotel choice was even worse with noise than the previous one. That night I don't think I got any sleep since my room was on the main street and a constant roar of buses, trucks and honking never ended. The next day Michnus messaged me saying they would like to meet me in Ingapirca the following day, the sight of some Incan Ruins about an hour north of Cuenca.

It would be good to see Michnus and Elsebie again, having met them a couple of years previous at MotoHank's place in Dilley. At the time I was living in the Texas Hill country near Medina, and had ridden to Hank's shop to hang out for the day. There sat two almost brand-new Suzuki DR 650s outside his shop when I arrived, and when I walked in I saw a guy mounting tires. When he turned around I immediately recognized him from a ride report about Angola on It was fun meeting Michnus and Elsebie that day. They'd finished their travels across the African continent and had flown from Europe to Texas, where they'd just bought the DRs and were in the process of outfitting them for their North and South Americas travels.

Now, a couple of years later, life had woven a path for a reunion in a foreign country, something I would never have expected.

I dressed in my gear, got the bike turned around in the dining room and started it up, riding out of the dining room as one of the guests in the lobby held the doors open for me. I dropped down the steps and out into the street into a beautiful sunny day and headed North into the mountains. The traffic was reasonable and the drivers were courteous in comparison to some of the other countries. A few miles out of town I passed through areas where whole roasted pigs were on display and, man did they look delicious! We'd agreed to meet around noon, so I didn't have time to stop and sample one, but definitely planned a big lunch on the way back.

I made good time and arrived in the high mountain area around 11, exploring a couple of small villages and killing some time until about noon when I rode on out to the park.

I spotted Michnus and Elsebie's motorcycles parked at the curb and saw them smiling and waving from a small coffee shop. As I got off the bike, three people began talking to me about the bike and Ecuador, stalling me long enough that Michnus and Elsebie walked on over. It was good to see them again.

We bought our park tour tickets and then had a cup coffee to catch up before walking through the ruins. The sunshine had quickly disappeared, replaced with heavy mountain mist.

When it was time for the three of us to head to Cuenca, there was a puddle of oil beneath my bike and my heart sank. I hoped it was coming from my recently replaced oil filter, however that was not the case. The oil was leaking from the joint of the transmission and clutch housing, a bad sign that the engine main seal was leaking. That was a major issue, and usually the clutch would begin slipping as the leak saturated the clutch plate.

We had planned to stop and have some roast pig for a late lunch, but decided that it was more important to get the bike back to Cuenca in case something was about to fail in a major way. I followed them down the mountain. Luckily, my clutch was not slipping and I was thankful, but the slow and certain realization that I had a big problem was difficult to swallow.

Again, my camping duffel saved the day getting the bike back into the hotel. I watched as drops of oil collected on the white polished marble of the dining room beneath the bike and felt my joy of the trip drain away. Aside from engine failure, one of the hardest jobs to do on a boxer engined BMW is to split the motor to replace a $15 seal. It would require almost complete disassembly of the motorcycle, and BMW parts outside of the USA or Europe are few and far between. Finding a qualified mechanic and parts would be a huge problem and likely entail weeks of time. On the bright side, at least the breakdown had occurred in a great town and not in a Peruvian desert 300 miles from anywhere.

Unfortunately, the noise of my hotel was just too much, so I decided I'd move to the hotel where Michnus and Elsebie were staying, further away from the main square than I wanted, but they said it was quiet and had secure parking - in a gated lot and not in the dining room.

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