Home > Ecuador > Gualaceo, a handicrafts haven in Ecuador’s southern Andes, Part One

Gualaceo, a handicrafts haven in Ecuador’s southern Andes, Part One

It is amazingly quiet in downtown Cuenca this early Sunday morning…. Silence is only broken by an awesome concert of church bells, announcing the beginning of religious services.  I look out the window of my room on the charming boutique hotel and what I see is the unique skyline of Cuenca, a World Heritage City, dotted with dozens of domes and church bell-towers, its narrow cobble-stoned streets and the unique colonial architecture of its historic centre.  The southern Andean city of Ecuador was considered some years ago as a “hidden treasure”. Presently, it is one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions. The city and its neighboring valleys are currently rated among some of the best places for quality retirement “havens”.

After breakfast, I join Eulalia and Felipe and hop onto the comfortable van which will take us east of the beautiful “city of the four rivers”….  The paved road takes us past the city’s main water treating plant, one of modern technology and high-standard ecological features. To our left, we start getting sights of the Paute River. The landscape is bucolic and the verdant fields offer new variations of that trademark of Ecuadorian Andes scenery: terraced fields where maize, wheat and a host of vegetables are grown, the ancestral style. The winding road provides us with alternated views of the river and its green surroundings, with others of rocky mountain slopes to the south.

Just thirty minutes later we arrive in Gualaceo, a picturesque town, nestled on a near-subtropical valley, crossed by the Santa Barbara River. The first element to become a quick “eye-catcher” is the lively colors and designs of the costumes worn by the indigenous women of the area.  The ample, knee-high skirts, boast bright tones of yellow, orange, crimson and violet, beautifully hand-embroidered along the lower circle of the garment.  Their shawls are also full of color and they proudly wear the white straw hats, characteristic of the area. The city prepares for market day and an affluence of local and international tourist, attracted by the natural beauty of the zone, plus the many handicrafts which are lovingly hand-made in Gualaceo and its surroundings.

Our first stop is at a “macanas” atelier and shop, where we can admire the neat work being made by the local women.  The macanas are beautiful shawls which, being a daily element of the local women’s wardrobe; can reach the heights of a superior class garment which can give an urban lady a touch of class and distinction, for the quality of the materials (normally sheep’s wool and or cotton); along with the unique Pre-Columbian designs and the fantastically well combined colors. Right next door is another workshop, this time of the ancestral “Ikat” knits, particularly ladies’ dresses, which have become symbols of maximum elegance.  Some of these garments, particularly night gowns, can be sold at exclusive stores in New York and other grand cities worldwide, for four-digit sums.

Going past the lively main square with its traditional post-card town church; city hall and nicely trimmed park; we find now a new workshop where, again mostly women, perform an ancestral art: the hand-embroidery of blouses, skirts, table-cloths; duvets and a variety of objects; bearing a combination of impressive designs, drawn on paper and replicated at artisanal looms, where fine threads of varied color create, more than handicrafts, objects of art, whether flowers, birds or Pre-Columbian designs, which add value to the already attractive pieces.  A short stop at a local eatery gives us the chance to taste some of the sweet delicacies of the zone, such as the “suspiros”, small chunks of snow-white meringue, and the egg-white covered “roscas”, doughnut-type pastry, accompanied by a local herbal tea.  There is still much more to see on this handicrafts haven of Ecuador, so we will tell you about it on the next edition…….

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