Camino de Incas y Cañaris: On the Food Trail from Cuenca

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Photographs: Natalia García

The road from Cuenca to Azogues is sacred. It winds its way through revered land, the mountains of Pachamama and Cojitambo, mythical and ancient sites that are witnesses to the cultural and natural wealth of the area, a landscape full of cultivated fields and plantations. The highway, where the Sibambe-Cuenca railway branch used to run, carrying products from the southern parts of the country to the north, connects the two cities where the Inca and Cañari civilizations developed their most important settlements. It is, also, ideal for a weekend getaway: a place where history, nature and good traditional food are the stars.

Long before feeling hungry, however, our journey begins at the Amaru Biopark, located at km 10½ on the Cuenca-Azogues highway. Amaru is a little more than your typical zoo. The pretty name means ‘snake’ in Kichwa and refers to the reptilian goddess of the Cañari, a symbol that also relates to the water that irrigates the lands of the Andean peoples.

The biopark has a clear mission: to protect nature, communicate the importance of ecological awareness and preserve the Andean flora and fauna through the nature programs it oversees.

The trip itself takes approximately 2 hours from downtown Cuenca. One walks along natural gravel and dirt trails, where you can hope to come across some 120 species of animals, including Andean bears, toads, frogs, eagles, owls, condors, deer, wolves, pumas and snakes.

It’s best to visit early in the morning, wearing comfortable shoes and with plenty of sunblock on. Leaving here is like returning from another world, where the sound of modern civilization begins to sneak back onto the highway. But only 15 minutes’ away, we reach our next stop.

On Calle Quitus, in Nulti (Challuabamba), every Saturday you can find a small “agro-ecological” farmer’s market that sets up at the entrance of the Cuenca Gastronomy Museum. In the market we observe the products that will later be part of the unique and traditional culinary tour this new cultural center offers.

Producers from all over the area arrive and prepare a small, but very colorful, fair where an array of locally-and-organically-grown fruits and vegetables are on display. Here you can find hard-to-find products: the oca potato, the capulí cherry, the endemic sweet potato, turnip and many other ingredients that for centuries were the foundations of Andean nutrition. Before noon, the producers are sold out, but the Cuenca Gastronomy Museum, our main stop on the route, remains open to share the great culinary values and culture of this ancestral and traditional cuisine.

The project was born in the mind of Miguel Urgiles many years ago, but only materialized in early 2019. Miguel’s idea was to create a place where people could meet and interact with the history and wealth of Andean food through an experiential journey, to familiarize visitors with the great culinary melting pot that created modern-day Cuenca’s most iconic dishes.

The three-storey hacienda house where the museum is located takes us through several showrooms that shed light on different themes related to Cuenca’s ancestral culture: from archaeological discoveries to products and artifacts that have been part of the family for four generations, highlighting the different food cultures that have inhabited the area between the provinces of Azuay and Cañar. From the Cañari and Inca settlements to the arrival of the Spaniards, what did they eat? How did they eat? How can we link that culinary heritage to today?

Miguel receives his visitors with a glass of chicha de jora, or agua de pítimas (two classic beverages of the region) and he guides the tours with true passion. The museum then offers a unique culinary experience. Dishes such as the uchucuta, a soup made with grains and zambo squash and seasoned with chili —“the way they spiced things up in ancient times”— or the turnip jaucha, a soup made with a variety of potato known as the minibolona, are some of the unique dishes waiting to be discovered and savored.

Many of these dishes are being lost to modernity. They are only prepared in a very few households where the older generations struggle to keep them alive. Once part of daily menus throughout the Southern Andes, today many are a true rarity, especially taking into account the time it takes to prepare them and the specificity of some of the ingredients they include. That is why Miguel has decided to save them, regarding them as invaluable elements of our Andean heritage. Here, everything is cooked in clay pots above wood-fired hearths, like times past.

The museum also recreates the authentic hacienda house of old. Its garden is overrun with beautiful bougainvilleas, geraniums and san pedros, perfect for enjoying with a delicious glass of Andean capulí. To live the complete experience one can also choose to eat in the nearby meadow, at what they call the “pamba mesa”, a pre-Columbian communal table (although there’s no table), if you choose not to enjoy your lunch at the museum’s main dining room.

The meal comes to a close with a flourish in the main garden, walking or sitting in the shade, enjoying a piping-hot coffee with a traditional dessert, a tiramisu made with máchica flour, while the children play traditional games of yesteryear, like wooden spinning tops, the “elastic” or pica-pica horse — as the afternoon wanes amid the nostalgia and the discovery of a distant past reborn.

Contact
Museo de la Gastronomía Cuencana
+593 92 50 7774
www.museorestaurant.com

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