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 more than 230 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 (except Mondays) at no charge. This is one of Cuenca’s must-visit sites.

Fact: Spanish settlement began in 1557
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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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