For them, we were the ones out of place, two gringos staring at a marred wall. Cuenca’s dichotomy of modern and classical, of conservative and rebellious, so unexpected to us, was an an all too mundane part of life for its citizens. Their love for the city had settled and grown comfortable, the recollection of its charms reserved for special occasions. But we were barely acquainted with this place, learning its quirks and becoming ever more intrigued by each discovery into its complicated nature.
Exhibits outlined Ecuador’s rich and varied cultural makeup, displaying the traditions and garb of the various ethnicities that comprise the country. The detailed skirts and peaked hats of the native women were explained, giving us new-found respect for the artistry and tenacity of the native traditions. It was a stark contrast to our experiences in the American Southwest, where the narrative is generally one of decimation and dissolution and traditions forever lost to the ether. Tribal masks were reminiscent of the artist Basquiat, famous for injecting African themes into his evocative graffiti-inspired style, forging a strange link between three continents with those same threads of universality waiting to be found in the museums of the world.
Ernesto, our host’s brother, had left us with the casual warning after retrieving us from the airport. Now just five days later we were dismissing his advice in order to partake in the festivities of Cuenca’s Independence Day. Cuenca, named for the hometown of Spanish explorer Gil Ramírez Dávalos, was founded in 1557. However, it was not until November 3, 1820 that it would declare its independence from Spain, joining Guayaquil and Quito as one of the capitals of Ecuador’s three provinces. Despite the date exclusively commemorating the independence of Cuenca, as Ecuador’s third largest city, it is a holiday that is celebrated throughout the country.
With so many highs it was difficult to choose favorites. On a different day we might name another place. How does one judge descending into the New River Gorge against wading in the Colorado’s frigid waters on a Glen Canyon beach? What makes learning about the one-armed, explorer, cartographer and general badass John Wesley Powell any less intriguing then witnessing Native American dance? Is the culture of the Puebloan people preserved at Bandelier National Monument any less important than the sculpture gardens at the Nasher Center? Is anything more beautiful than stumbling upon the expansive crater of Valles Caldera at sunset, or watching J look upon the Pacific Ocean for the first time, or having a cool lake to ourselves on a sweltering Texas day?
Take heart, gentle traveler, for there is a way to mindfully take joy in the true national treasures of the United States. The men and women protecting our parks are fighting an uphill battle to protect us from ourselves, and we can help them. Follow the rules posted on the clearly posted signs. They are meant to protect both you and the wildlife. Place trash in proper receptacles. They’re everywhere. Adhere to the trails. The maps are free and comprehensive. Do not try to steal the limited, federally-protected nature. Basically, don’t be terrible.