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Destination Ecuador

Cuenca in Three Steps

Text and photos: Julia Henríquez

Although the morning was cold and cloudy, the colors of the historic center of Cuenca illuminated everything. We arrived full of expectations. Since we had fallen in love with Ecuador town by town, we were certain that Cuenca would not disappoint. So we disregarded the dampness and cold, and decided to start walking toward the center to get a sense of the environment and find the things we absolutely could not miss.

With buildings virtually intact from the 19th century, pre-Inca ruins, and modern buildings, Cuenca reveals how it evolved year after year until it was molded into the interesting city it is today. For good reason it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999; it features plazas, churches, and buildings displaying a diversity of styles: colonial, neocolonial, baroque, neoclassical French, and the local eclectic and republican style of Cuenca, which when mixed together result in a new and unique style of its own.

For the Cañari —an indigenous ethnic group predating the Incas, who inhabited the area from around 500 A.D. — Cuenca was known as Guapondelig, meaning “a plain as wide as the sky.” The city underwent a drastic change in 1490 when the Incas invaded. They not only changed the name to Tomebamba but also tried to change the group’s entire lifestyle. The Cañari opposed this and fought for decades to regain their autonomy. And so the civil war of the Incas and the Spanish invasion surprised them. It’s not hard to imagine why the Cañari joined with the Spaniards without realizing that these new invaders would destroy all vestiges of the traditions the Cañari had so dearly defended. Even before the founding of the new city, which came to be called Santa Ana de los Ríos de Cuenca, the Cañari had already become Christianized.

This story lives on beyond the history books; the interesting thing in Cuenca is that its history comes to life in its ancient temples and cobblestone streets, and around the corners of its colonial walls, where you encounter people dressed in colorful ponchos and straw hats that literally seem to have stepped out of another time.

The city rests on a system of four terraces bathed by several currents of water. To get a full view we walk to the Tomebamba River, where the Cañari women of folklore would wash their clothes while the men fought in the war. From here you can see the domes and crosses that point towards the Ecuadoran skies, and you can also experience the history, nature, and street art of the place.

We watched the sunset in Barranco while the river ran beneath our feet. This landform, which divides the second and third terraces, is also the border between historic and modern Cuenca. Here we saw how the night glimmered with colors and was invaded with modern Andean music, in which flutes and violins joined in perfect synchrony. We couldn’t resist for long and before we knew it we were dancing to the rhythm of the people of Cuenca.

The next day, Cuenca was a quiet city that moved to the sway of the wind. It was Monday and upon finding all the museums closed, we boarded the typical double-decker tourist bus at the Abdón Calderón Park. Although this is not the best way to fully soak up a place, the truth is that when you’re traveling, time is of the essence and this tool, with information always available, gives you a little taste of everything.

That’s how we had a new panoramic view and admired a certain balance between the colonial air that predominates and the republican style, to which the majority of the buildings from the Gran Colombia era belong.

A highlight from this tour was the Biennial House of Cuenca, which was carefully restored to recreate the European ideal of beauty from the early part of the last century. José Alvarado, the homeowner, built the house inspired by the style prevailing in France at that time. In the 1930s he added another part, this time under the influence of neoclassicism, in which he tried to reproduce the façade of a house he had seen in the City of Light.

We saw churches and cupolas, colors and architecture, and the great Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. We crossed the Tomebamba River again and ended up at the Mirador de Turi, which gave us a spectacular view while we ate delicious local dishes from the hundreds of stands that offer a complete culinary experience.

When we climbed down from the lookout and also the bus, we once again experienced Cuenca from ground level. Then we returned to the park to see close up the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (called the “new Cathedral” in contrast to the Church of the Sagrario, called the “old” one), with its imposing Gothic Renaissance style and three domes. Inspired by St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, it has become an important architectural attraction; it took ninety years to build! And since 1975, when it was completed, it has received thousands of believers and tourists who become captivated by its magnificence. In the same park is the old cathedral, dating back to 1567. Reconstructed and remodeled several times, it was finally converted into the Museum of Religious Art and houses invaluable treasures.

Walking here is a unique experience that allows you to get to know people. That’s how we came across the Flower Market as we ambled along without any particular plan. National Geographic magazine has listed it as one of the ten most notable outdoor flower markets in the world. The magazine highlighted its variety of flowers, but we also noticed here, as all over Ecuador, how extremely friendly and welcoming the people are.

We left the last day in Cuenca open for seeing another side of the city and we found it. Cuenca is known for its artistic and cultural trendiness, a characteristic we saw when we entered the Alcaldía de Cuenca, its City Hall building. Built in 1929 by the architect Luis Donoso Barba (also architect of the University of Cuenca, among other buildings), it was the site of the Azuay Bank until 1999. It has an eclectic neoclassical style; its façade is covered in ivory and instead of a patio, inside it has wide hallways that connect the various rooms. This Cuenca gem became the Mayor’s Office in 2002. Since then it has had an exhibition area on the ground floor open to the public, perfect for delighting the eyes and allowing people to admire the brushstrokes of the most renowned local artists.

This wasn’t our only experience with the art in Cuenca. The city is filled with sculptures, paintings, graffiti, and museums that immerse the visitor in a journey of senses and sensations. The Paja Toquilla Museum, for example, tells the history of the legendary hat known to the world as the “Panama hat,” but which is actually made 100% in Ecuador. The museum is on Calle Larga, where you’ll also find the Remigio Crespo Toral Museum (patrimonial house of the city and location of the Municipal Archive of the History of Cuenca), the CIDAP (Inter-American Center of Popular Art), the Museum of Aboriginal Cultures, and the Manuel Agustín Landívar Museum (next to the Cañari, Incan, and Spanish ruins of Todos los Santos), and the Pumapungo Museum, with archeological exhibits in addition to 19th century religious art, ethnography, and coin displays.

We returned to the historic center and stopped in front of buildings such as the Supreme Court of Justice, the old University of Cuenca, the Benigno Malo school, and the churches of San Sebastián and San Blas: examples of mixtures of times, visions, and tastes that make up part of the city’s cultural heritage. Meanwhile, we found another unexpected treasure: La Casa de las Palomas, headquarters for the Institute of Cultural Heritage. Restored after being passed from hand to hand, its murals, which give it its name, are outstanding. Joaquín Rendón Araujo painted the murals between 1908 and 1912, and their bucolic scenes combine with the pastel colors of the walls and ceilings. When the artist and owner died in 1917, the house fell into disrepair until the Regional Directorate of the National Institute of Culture acquired it in 1987. Gustavo Rodas restored it with the goal of having it look once again like it did in its early years.

Visiting La Casa de las Palomas is like entering one of Alice in Wonderland’s dreams. Its wooden doors and pastel colors enveloped us, and floor-by-floor, we enjoyed its paintings. Our footsteps sounded rhythmically, and the further we got, the more surreal it became. The stairs got increasingly steeper and more wandering, creaking like in a horror movie. We got lost in this atmosphere for a while and later found ourselves at a lookout point, where we took one last look at the city and with a click of our heels, returned to the hotel.

There, recalling the words of Dorothy, “There’s no place like home,” with a bit of nostalgia and, as always, with the promise to return, we said goodbye during a beautiful night in the plaza. We left Cuenca like we’ve left so many other destinations in Ecuador: in love.