Shrunken Heads Found in Cuenca

A collection of shrunken heads rests alongside one of Cuenca’s main thoroughfares. They lie in state at the Pumapungo Museum and Archaeological Park, a beautiful edifice housing exhibits of early Ecuadorian  history. Pumapungo means door of the puma.

The museum has over 5000 exhibits with rooms devoted to art displays ranging from the Baroque to the contemporary. In 2019, the museum exhibited 37 works by Salvador Dali, his first presentation in Ecuador. Traveling exhibits also occur regularly. In addition to art, there is a collection of 5,000 cassettes of film and musical performances.

Out in the “backyard” is the Archaeological Park of about 10 acres filled with the ruins of the northern capitol of the Inca civilization. The Incas captured the area originally known as Tumebamba from the Cañari tribe in the 1400s. About 1525, an epidemic wiped out many Incas, and the remains of the city were destroyed by the Inca’s civil war. Much of the ruins lie buried beneath the city of Cuenca, except for those making up the Archaeological Park.

The Spanish arrived in the 16th Century and used many of the ruined stones to build their own homes and churches. Those stones exist today throughout the city. The Central Bank of Ecuador acquired the ruined property in 1981 and began to recover the old city of Tumebamba. The city sat upon a high hill and down its sides. The Inca, a highly religious people, held beliefs of a heaven, earth, and hell. An Inca had only to look up to see a heaven above the clouds while living hill top. Down the side of the hill was the entrance to the underworld, a long tunnel which served as a mausoleum, seen today behind a locked gate.

The bottom of the hill served as the agricultural  grounds, where today there are about 10,400 different species of plants. There is a large pie-shaped birdhouse with each piece of the pie housing a native bird which was prized by the Incas. A pond collects the mountain water and distributes it along a 590.5 foot aqueduct the Incas used to irrigate their crops. Midway, there is a ritual bath built out into the shape of the Southern Cross.

Like Cuenca itself, the archaeological park is a UNESCO-supported site, open daily at no charge. This is one of Cuenca’s must-visit sites.

Fact: Spanish settlement began in 1557
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Is Cuenca Safe?

Among the largest cities in Ecuador, Cuenca is considered the safest. Petty theft and vandalism do exist, though. Unfortunately, crime is up from last year. This may be due to the conditions left by Covid-19.

Cuenca’s population is roughly half a million. The growing number of crimes in Cuenca this year are 5 domestic abuse incidents resulting in death, and other violent deaths numbering 21. These murders log in at almost 6 per 100,000 people. This compares favorably with the murder rate in the United States. Search out any major US city and you will find the rates much higher.

So, is Cuenca safe? Well, yes and no. Based on the numbers just cited, the answer is yes. However, smaller crimes do exist. As you would in any city, you must be cautious and observing wherever you are. Physical and verbal attacks are low; attacks based on religion, gender, nationality and skin color are particularly low. Because of these low crime rates, Cuenca has a safety rating of 78 during the day and a moderate 45 at night.

Large crimes are usually drug related. Drugs passing through Ecuador are far more prevalent than drugs originating in Ecuador. If you are not involved in the drug scene here, you will be relatively safe. The good news is Ecuador’s national government has made drug trafficking one of its major priorities. The bad news is the country simply doesn’t have enough personnel or money to adequately enforce this priority.

Cuenca, on the other hand, is working hard to keep its city even safer. The locals have always been the focal point for providing safety by the police. Since tourism is a large element in the makeup of Cuenca, a newly instituted team of 31 multilingual tourism police have been put into place. Twenty-nine of these are on duty every day, focusing on the tourist locales.

Most of these officers are on foot, which allows tourists to easily approach them for any help they need. They have even been known to climb the steps the the Cathedral tower to protect any tourists there. Some officers have been given bicycles for greater mobility and wider coverage. These officers are on duty 7 days a week. “I believe this program will expand,” said Fernando Aguirre Cordero, former  local province governor and politician. “The idea is to have more police officers. This is the best way to make tourists to feel safe as they travel around the country, including Cuenca.”

Fact: Ecuador is the only country in the world named after a geographical feature (the Equator)
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We’re at the Top

We made it up all those steps! Now we’re at Calle Larga (Long Street). If we head left for about 3 blocks and turn right, we can take an angled street up to the heart of El Centro and arrive at Parque Calderon. This square block park was modeled on Versailles and once hosted bull fights. It is like a wagon wheel with spokes radiating to the edges. Always a busy place, people mill about, sit on benches and people watch. A few vendors have their wares on carts.

The buildings around the park show off the history of Cuenca. On one side is the Old Cathedral, now an historical museum. It was constructed in 1557 over some Inca ruins. A pipe organ proudly sits on an upper balcony and was reached (no longer by the public) via a circular staircase. I’ve been told that this organ hasn’t sounded in 100 years. What a shame.

Let’s cross the square to the New Cathedral. Ground for this active cathedral was broken in 1885 and the building completed in 1975. Due to an  architect’s structural error, the towers are truncated, as they can not hold any more weight. However, three giant domes in striking blue and white glazed Czechoslovakian tile hover over the cathedral and have become the city’s visual apex. Inside, the profusion of gold on the baldacchino glares against my camera. Gold has been mined here since the days of the Incas. To my dismay, this cathedral lacks a pipe organ.

Crossing to another corner, we will find my favorite building, the Palace of Justice or the old courthouse, constructed in classic French architectural style. It was originally built for the University of Azuay, Cuenca’s province. Today, it is used as an educational school for the legal profession. There is an art exhibition on the first floor, but if we walk up to the second and third floors, we will see that this building is designed around an open courtyard, gaping to the elements in one section. I hope you will be as dazzled by this interior as I have been.

Wandering around El Centro, we will see a number of plazas. Cuenca has not skimped on open spaces, be they plazas or parks. Near the square is the Plaza de las Flores (Flower Mart), overflowing with beautiful fresh flowers. We can choose from prearranged bouquets or create our own. Let’s go a little further to the Plaza de San Francisco where the traditional Latin town name is spelled out in large letters. It is customary to have your picture taken in front of the letters, and if I have to do it, so will you. Around this plaza are many vendors, selling clothing, household goods, ceramics, ironwork, chinaware, rugs, and the list goes on. The scene is colorful with the Cathedral towers looming over.

If we have the time, we can just wander up and down the cobblestone, one- way streets and view all the little stores and restaurants. You will be amazed at how many of these hole-in-the-wall stores exist and, with so many, how they all stay in business. Maybe we’ll take this walk another day.

Fact: For a flavor of El Centro: 18 minutes
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Paradise Found

Contrary to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, paradise can be found in Cuenca’s largest park. Parque El Paradiso is a respite from the noisy city while still being in the city. My friend Chong and I visited the park one busy Saturday. [Chong is a friend of Frédéric whose apartment I subleased when I arrived in Cuenca and who has been kind enough to show me around the city.] Cuenca created this park in 2003 along the Yanuncay River where it joins the Tomebamba River. The park comprises nearly 40 acres and more than 300 eucalyptus trees, in addition to willows and flowers.

Water from the Tomebamba River has created a lagoon of slightly over 3-1/2 acres, and where there is water, there are ducks, geese, and migratory birds. At a depth of about six feet, the lagoon has in pre-Covid days welcomed the use of small pedal boats for pleasure. May they return.

Back on land, there are slightly less than 2 miles of ecological trails, flanked by vendors selling ice cream, other food, and various gadgets. Like many of Cuenca’s smaller parks, Paradiso is no exception to having exercise equipment for adults and children, with courts and plazas for other games. I was amused and impressed with a setup of roads and traffic lights on which children could drive bumper-like cars and learn the rules of the road. It was great fun to watch.

The expanse of open land lends itself to games of various sorts. On the weekends, numerous teams play futbol (soccer); on my visit, I saw some teenagers playing with an actual football. I could not figure out the large space covered with upright stakes. Chong asked and learned that the area was set aside for regrowth. When achieved, the stakes will undoubtedly be moved to the current playing fields.

Museum of the Arts of Fire

On the way to the park, we happened upon a plaza that housed a large Asian-looking building. It seemed out of place for the area. Chong told me it was the Museum of the Arts of Fire, otherwise known as the Firecracker Museum. Latin people love noise, but it never occurred to me that they would enshrine it. That museum might be worth a visit another day.

Fact: Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
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Variety is the Norm in Ecuador

Cuenca, Ecuador in the Azuay Province (“rain that falls from the sky”) has an area of 3200 square miles and is full of contrasts. Temperatures, elevations, insects, snakes, and rainfall are a few of these contrasts. Elevations of the Andes Mountains range from over 15,000 feet to 1,000 feet.

Cuenca is considered to have spring-like temperatures year around. If you drive an hour outside Cuenca, you can find frost and occasionally snow. Daytime temperatures in August (winter) can hover around 66ºF while in February (summer) may be around 78ºF, though 90ºF does occur. Night time temperatures can range from low 40sF to the 50sF, though below freezing has been experienced in some areas. Rainfall throughout the area can average 100 inches a year to less than 8 inches.

Some areas of the Province will have an abundance of insect life while other areas (such as Cuenca) have minimal invasion of insects. In outlying areas, a dozen varieties of snakes, poisonous or not, may be encountered. There are areas of the Province with an abundant insect life and areas with nearly no insets. A dozen varieties of snakes, poisonous or not, also exist within the Province. Rainfall can average 100 inches a year to less than eight inches.

One aspect of Ecuador which doesn’t vary widely is the makeup of its people. A recent census revealed 90% of Ecuadorians are Mestizo, a term used to describe people who are descendants from people of two or more ethnic groups. Originally this meant white European and Native American, but today is generally used to describe people of different cultures. This sometimes carries a racist meaning.

The remaining peoples of Ecuador are 5.2% white, 2.5% Indigenous, 2.2% Afro-Ecuadorian, and 0.2% other. In the last 20 years, statistics show the numbers of women have outnumbered men. Though it is more difficult to ascertain figures for the population of Cuenca, it is thought the national figures are quite comparable to Cuencanos.

Cuenca has been called the Athens of South America for a reason. The city is proud of its intellectual tradition as seen in its writers, poets, artists, and philosophers. No other city in South America can compare to this level. There are arts and religious festivals every month of the year. One outstanding festival is the Cuenca International Film Festival (which celebrates 20 years in October of 2022). Other major festivals appear to be in flux due to the Covid pandemic and will undoubtedly be returning. November and December have several festivals which bring out the crowds. Those will be worth exploring.

Fact: Cuenca is one of the oldest cities in the Americas
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Cuenca’s Botanical Garden

Along with the old in Cuenca is the new. Not long ago, there was a large plot of land on the south side of the city at the junction of two of Cuenca’s four rivers – Yanuncay and Tarqui. The site was ripe for development.

The City of Cuenca and nearby University of Azuay developed a project in 2020 resulting in the creation of Jardin Botanico. The Schools of Biology and Environmental Engineering have accepted responsibility for the development of this garden. Both students and faculty are making this into more than a garden. It will also be a research center.

The School of Biology is charged with installing native plants in addition to creating a pollinator garden. The School of Environmental Engineering is establishing a weather station to research the quality of soil and water. Their research will look at nature-based solutions for environmental issues. The garden will serve as a natural living laboratory, to gain knowledge of and solutions to our growing environmental crises.

This garden is in its infancy, but the infrastructures have been put into place. An extensive network of boardwalks was built, travelling along and arching over the planned-for vegetation. The grounds include a pond and waterway, complete with ducks. Next, a series of low-lying buildings were constructed, including an auditorium, cafeteria, administrative offices, and potting sheds.

Botanical gardens grace the other three large cities in Ecuador. Cuenca’s garden will take time to further develop, for plants and trees to grow, and for the citizens to visit. Appreciation will grow along with the vegetation, and Jardin Botanico will take its place among Cuenca’s other must-see important sites.

Fact: Cuenca’s green belt project has given 12 square meters of green space to each citizen
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Outings: Oꟻꟻ Gallery (Oꟻꟻ Arte Contemporáneo)

What’s a lover of French Impressionism doing in a contemporary art gallery? Art is art, and I need to continually expose myself to its new forms. I surprised myself recently when I paid a visit to the Oꟻꟻ Gallery (Oꟻꟻ Arte Contemporáneo) in Cuenca. My friend Michael M. suggested I visit this gallery created by the sister and her husband of a friend of his. She had also reached out to me to offer any help I might need in getting acquainted with Cuenca. It was time for a visit.

Oꟻꟻ Arte Contemporáneo

The gallery is a 5-story contemporary (what else?) building sitting upon a hill top commanding outstanding views of the city. I wandered in unannounced to the first floor which is an unattended  entryway enhanced by several art works. At the end was a stairway (alongside an elevator) curling up to the next floor. There I found several spaces occupied by varied works of art, large and small. Going back to the stairway, I climbed to the next floor and found more exhibits. These works helped break my orderly mind and I found myself gazing with rapture at many of the pieces.

From the Opening Exhibit

I returned to the second floor office and met Karen Kennedy who, with her artist husband Boris Ordoñez, materialized their dream last April of constructing an outstanding venue for contemporary artists. The gallery opened with an overflowing collection of art lovers who had come to view the 160 works of 51 Ecuadorian artists. New exhibitions are continuing with more visual artists represented.

Boris Ordoñez s showing a picture

As the Athens of South America, Cuenca is a hub for the visual arts. A wide variety of spaces are given over to paintings in oils and watercolors, sculptures, solo artists, studios, and other media. The Oꟻꟻ Gallery, Ecuador’s largest, stands out as a mecca for contemporary art, rivalled by none. Yelp gives it a 5 out of 5 rating. A delayed opening due to Covid will result in more ratings to follow. I look forward to returning to this spectacular gallery many times in the future.

Fact: Cuenca is Ecuador’s City of Art
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Ascending on High

Well, it seems that way. From where I’m living in Cuenca, Ecuador, the El Centro (old historic district) is straight up. Come, walk with me as  we head up to El Centro.

I live in a part of Cuenca called El Vergel, a popular area with expats and Ecuadorians. It is composed of commercial and residential buildings. Let’s  start by walking a few blocks of the business district, walking past the ubiquitous MacDonald’s and crossing a 4-lane street. We then arrive at the relatively large Parque de la Madre. This park is busy day and night with individuals, families, and groups. We are likely to see a bunch of young kids playing games or running off their energy. There’s probably an adult exercise group of some sort. We pass by some venders, cross a street to the Tomebamba River. Cuenca has four fast-flowing rivers with walkways alongside.

We’ll cross a bridge which I call the Women’s Bridge. Everything in Cuenca has a name, but very few structures or streets have these names posted. This bridge has been painted on each side with the yearly number of reported abuses against women. It’s a sobering observation.

Now our ascent starts. We will climb 88 steps to reach the edge of El Centro. I do this several times a week (good exercise for the heart) to reach my part-time job at Carolina Bookstore, the only English-language used bookstore in Cuenca (the store also has growing Spanish language sections). At the top of this ascent, we land upon Calle Larga (Long Street) which runs along one edge of El Centro.

88 Steps to El Centro

Now, if you would prefer a shorter climb, you can walk up river to the next set of steps, a mere 84 steps 🙂 which rise alongside the Selina Hotel. Further upstream is another set of actual stairs (uncounted for now)  coming from Cuenca University (there are 3 universities in Cuenca) paralleling a curving road.

84 Steps Along Hotel Selina

Reaching the top, we find the streets of the old town jutting out in a grid pattern. Easy to circumnavigate? Yes, if you don’t care to know which direction you’re going. This grid, sitting askew to much of the rest of the city, is likely to have been structured by the river below. Despite the traveling I’ve done, I am totally confused with directions here. I’ve been lost numerous times and have had to ask how to get where I want to go. I made the mistake of thinking my base street ran in one direction when, in fact, it ran the other direction. I continue to have problems rotating my directions by 45º.

Having reached “up top,” we’ll explore El Centro next week. Come back and walk with me through this UNESCO World Heritage site.

Fact: Cuenca is described as the most beautiful city in all of South America
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