Paute is a small town a few miles NE of Cuenca that has a rich heritage, friendly people and is world famous for its Fruits and Flowers. Most people don't know that a great percentage of the cut roses that come to the USA come from Ecuador and many of those come from Paute. About an hour scenic bus ride from Cuenca, Paute gives a visitor that small town feel while still giving many great opportunities for shopping the local markets and deciding which wonderful restaurant to visit. Our favorite is "Corvel International Restaurant" just off the main square. Plan to just walk around town as it's a small town giving one a rest from the hustle and bustle of Cuenca. There is also a beautiful park along the Paute River that runs through town. Buses leave from Cuenca to Paute and from Paute to Cuenca from the Terminal Terrestre (bus station) about every 15 to 20 minutes all day long so you are never rushed.
About 15 minutes by bus South of Cuenca is the town of Banos where there are several hot spring pools and resorts. Our favorite is "Hosteria Duran". This is an upscale Hotel and spa with several hot swimming pools as well as private pools and mud baths. They also have a snack bar and a fine restaurant that serves wonderful meals. Access Banos by taxi for probably $2.50 or catch a bus at the terminal terrestre (bus station) for 25 cents.
About an hour North of Cuenca is "Inga Pirca" an ancient Inca ruins that everyone visiting the area should see. The grounds are kept groomed by lamas. There are buses that leave from the Cuenca Terminal Terrestre (Bus Station) regularly.
Once we had enjoyed a good breakfast we were ready to start our sightseeing in Cuenca. Right next door to the café was the church of La Merced, so this was as good a place to start as any!
The church is an attractive one, set back a little from the road on a small semi-circular plaza. An inscription above the door reads “Ave Maria, Redemptrix Captivorum” – Hail Mary, saviour of captives. The door itself is beautifully carved – I loved the slightly grumpy lion on one panel in particular (see photo two).
I was surprised when we entered to find that photography was allowed as in Quito the first sight that greeted us on entering many of the churches was one forbidding the use of any camera. So I was happy to be able to take some photos (without flash, naturally) of the ornate altarpiece. I was also taken by some excellent examples of the local tendency towards the gory in any representations of biblical events, which is often attributed to indigenous artists finding in their art an opportunity to draw attention to the blood spilt in the Spanish conquest of their lands. See photos three and five for typical examples.
This church was built here in response to a request by the people of Cuenca, following the construction of the church of the same name in Quito.
I read only after our visit of the painting here of the Sleeping Virgin, a representation of a miracle said to have occurred near Baños where it is believed her image appeared carved in a rock, so we didn’t seek that out. I also read too late that it holds the tomb of Julio Matovelle, local poet and priest, who founded the Congregación de Padres Oblatos and is best known for promoting the construction of the Basilica del Voto Nacional in Quito.
Next tip: the Ruinas Todos Santos
At the south-eastern edge of the old colonial city of Cuenca are a number of sights just a short walk from our hotel. One of these is the major Museo del Banco Central, with the archaeological remains of the Incan city, Pumapungo. But we had too little time in the city to see everything, and I lost the argument with Chris about how many museums we would go to in that limited time! So that will have to wait for a possible future visit ...
But we did take a walk in that area, and saw a few things of interest. First among them was this much smaller complex of ruins, named for the nearby church of Todos los Santos. The complex was closed (I have read that it usually is) so I had to content myself with peering over the fence. And to be honest, the ruins are so compact that you can see a fair bit that way. Although small, this is an important site in the history of Cuenca, as it was the first place where the Spanish founders of 1557 built over the old city. The ruins therefore are a mix of Cañari, Inca and Spanish with remains of all three civilisations including Inca walls, ruined arches and an old Spanish water mill. In my photo you can see the distinctive Incan construction technique, with the large stones in the walls neatly locked together without any need for a cementing substance.
Nearby is the church of Todos los Santos that gives the ruins their name. This was the first church built by the Spanish, but various restorations, most recently at the start of the 20th century, mean that today it shows elements of colonial, Renaissance, neo-classical and Gothic architecture. The main west-facing front is ornate with architraves, friezes, balustrades, niches etc. and an attractive and elaborate bell-tower. Despite the newer work, it still has its adobe walls. Unfortunately it is only open for Mass on Sunday evenings (18.00) and can’t be visited at other times.
Next tip: Rio Tomebamba
There are four rivers that flow through Cuenca – the Tomebamba, Yanuncay, Tarqui and Machangara. Indeed, the presence of these rivers gives the city its full and rather grand name of “Santa Ana de los cuatro ríos de Cuenca” – Santa Anna of the four rivers of Cuenca, with “cuenca” meaning watershed or basin.
Of these rivers, the Rio Tomebamba is closest to the old city, forming its southern boundary in the area consequently known as El Barranco. A walk here is a very pleasant way to see another side of the city – literally, as it will give you views of the river side of the old buildings on Calle Larga, with their traditional balconies almost overhanging the river. The path is lined with trees and the several benches invite you sit for a while. In the mornings I have read that local women still come here to do their washing but on the afternoon of our visit the activity was of a very different nature, with the riverbanks hosting some of the city’s Independence festival celebrations. There were traditional dancers, lots of music and stalls selling typical crafts from all over Latin America. Locals mixed with tourists, all enjoying the spectacle and the sunny weather. It was a super atmosphere!
Next tip: one of the river’s bridges, the Puente Roto
Several bridges cross the Rio Tomebamba, linking the colonial city to the more modern area to the south. One that doesn’t do that is the Puente Roto or Broken Bridge. This is an old stone arched bridge dating from the 1840s, a large part of which was washed away by a flood in 1850, only a few years after its completion.
Today there is a small gallery under one of the arches whose paintings and sculptures spill out on to the path. On Saturdays this expands into a mini open-air art fair but on the Friday we were here this part of the river bank was fairly quiet although further east the Independence weekend festivities had already started.
Next tip: Colonial Cuenca
At the heart of Cuenca, as with all Spanish colonial towns and cities, is its grand plaza, here called Parque Calderón after Abdón Calderón whose statue stands in the centre (main photo and photo three). Calderón was born in Cuenca in 1804 and became a hero of Ecuador’s fight for independence when only young. His death in the Battle of Pichincha at age just 18 ensured his conversion from hero to legend. According to accounts of the battle he stood immovable in the line of fire even after receiving 14 bullet wounds, and ensured that his battalion held firm. He died of his wounds and of dysentery five days later in Quito. His story is still told to young children in Ecuador and his statue here, which depicts the wounded hero holding firm to the flag of independence, was a focus for the city’s celebrations of its own independence day on the weekend of our visit as my third photo shows.
You will inevitably find yourself here many times as you explore the city and it acts as both orientation point and destination in its own right. Around the square are several of Cuenca’s most notable buildings including the cathedral, and the old cathedral which stand respectively in its south west and south east corners. Other less eminent but equally historic buildings add to the overall impression. The square is a focus for both tourists and locals and has plenty of benches and shady corners where you can relax and take a break from sightseeing which indulging in some quality people-watching. As we were here on a holiday weekend it was especially lively, with a variety of entertainments laid on for the local families who had flocked here to join the celebrations – stilt walkers, musicians, photographers with props (you could have your photo taken as a cowboy sitting on a model pony, for instance) and people selling all sorts of food and drink as well as cheap toys. On the Friday afternoon of the weekend there was a procession that passed through two sides of the square, adding to the atmosphere – and the crowds!
Next tip: Viva Cuenca!
This is the city’s original cathedral, built in 1557 using stones from the ruins of nearby Inca Tomebamba, and restored in both 19th and 20th centuries. It was the main focus for worship in the city for the Spanish during colonial times and became a cathedral in 1787. However it is no longer consecrated as a place of worship, having been superseded by the newer Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, built in 1880 when this one became too small to hold the city’s entire population. It serves today as a museum of religious art and venue for occasional concerts.
Visiting here I got a strong sense of it being neither one thing nor another – neither church nor museum. It retains so much of its ecclesiastical structure and features that you are left in doubt as to its original purpose, but has an emptiness of soul that is no less obvious than its lack of pews for being invisible. But that is not to say that it is not worth seeing. It is an impressive building, and it is hard to imagine that it was ever considered too small, as its present day emptiness makes it seem vast. There are three naves with central altar, in front which are life-size statues of Jesus and apostles arranged as if at the Last Supper (see photo four). To either side of the naves are chapels with some beautiful altarpieces, religious statuary, and in one some wonderful illuminated manuscripts. Labelling though is all in Spanish so I wasn’t always sure what I was looking at – but it was still mostly very lovely. The ceiling of the main structure is also noteworthy, ornamented with paintings of flowers and leaves as well as religious symbols and saints.
We were charged just $1 to go in although signs said $2 for foreigners – we didn’t question the unexpected discount, naturally, but I wondered afterwards whether it was a special price for the Independence holiday. The ticket seller told us we could take photos if we didn’t use flash, so I did, despite the several signs inside indicating otherwise. Most people in fact were doing so, and many of them even using flash. The museum is advertised as being open Monday-Friday 9.00-13.00 and 14.00-1800, and Saturday-Sunday 10.00-13.00, although when we left just after 13.00 on the Sunday, visitors were still being admitted – again, possibly because of the holiday.
Next tip: the newer Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción
The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is the newer of Cuenca’s two cathedrals, and its distinctive blue domes have become a symbol of the city. You see them everywhere – on tourist publicity leaflets, on restaurant menus, on hotel websites and more. Ironically, you don’t see them very well when in front of the cathedral itself, as they are set back a little – the best views are from nearby Plaza San Francisco from where my main photo was taken.
This is the largest structure in the colonial part of Cuenca. The domes are almost 50 metres high and its towers should have been even taller than they are had the architect not made an error n his calculations and failed to dig foundations strong and deep enough to support the planned weight. But even with its truncated towers it is still an impressive sight. Started in 1885 as a replacement for the old cathedral, El Sagrario, its construction continued over the next century, and the result is a blend of neo-gothic and Romanesque. The imposing facade that faces the Parque Calderón is alabaster and local red marble, while pink marble imported from Carrara in Italy covers the floor. The domes owe their sky-blue hue to tiles from Czechoslovakia.
The inside is equally imposing in size, having been designed to hold the city’s then population of 10,000. It is somewhat austere but has some striking stained glass windows and an imposing marble altar decorated with gold leaf, a copy of one in St Peter’s in Rome. This interior was only completed in 1967, more than 80 years after the first foundations were laid.
I wasn’t sure whether photos were allowed inside so I only took one quick one of one of the windows that I especially liked (photo five). It is a great example of how local artists blended traditional biblical imagery with motifs from their own surroundings. See how the people who kneel at the feet of Jesus are dressed – not in the costume of first century Palestine, but in that of the Andes region.
Entry to the cathedral was free of charge when we visited (November 2013)
By now you must be hungry? So my next tip is about a restaurant very near here, Raymipampo
You will probably not see a lot of the diminutive Plazoleta del Carmen, or Plaza des Flores as it is often called, as whenever you visit it is likely to be packed with the stalls of the daily flower market. As well as being a pretty and interesting sight in its own right, the market forms a colourful foreground for photos of the new cathedral and of the church right here on the plaza, the Iglesia del Carmen de la Asuncion. It’s also a good spot for people watching as there’s lots of activity among not only the flower shoppers but also those coming to pray at the church. Be respectful, naturally, and keep a low profile if you want to take people shots.
Next tip: the church on this square, the Iglesia del Carmen de la Asuncion
The monastery here dates back to 1682 but the church that stands next to it is more recent, having been built in the 18th century, around 1730. The white marble facade features a carved image of the Virgin and the shield of the order of the Assumption. Inside, the Baroque interior has a stunning altar piece, again with an image of the Virgin of the Assumption, surrounded by angels, a very ornate pulpit, several other ornate altars and a ceiling beautifully painted in rather surprisingly delicate colours (see photo three - rather fuzzy though I'm afraid because of the poor light).
Photography is allowed (without flash) and admission is free, but I have read that it is rarely open to the public so we must have struck lucky.
Next tip: celebrations to mark the Día de los Muertos
I had read about and wanted to visit this viewpoint to the south of the city, so I was pleased when Wilson told us that we would be going there on the tour. It is a popular spot because it affords such a good panorama of the city, including the historic colonial part. You can pick out the blue domes of the new cathedral and from there orient yourself and find other landmarks such as the Parque Calderón. From here it is easy to appreciate the grid layout of the early city planners, and also see how the rivers wind through the city throwing that plan out in places. Do click on my photo, which is a panorama, to get the full view.
Next to the viewpoint is the Iglesia de Turi (photo two), which dates from 1835. We didn’t have time to go inside on this tour so were unable to see on the main altar the sculpture of the Virgin of Mercy, patron saint of the parish (made in Spain, about 80 years old), and on a side altar the Calvary with the image of the Lord in Bethlehem. This latter is also commemorated in a grotto a short climb above the church (which again we didn’t visit and which I only learned of in researching this tip). According to a local legend, the Christ Child appeared to a Cañari shepherd boy on this hill, and since then the Cañari people have had a special devotion to him, coming to the grotto and to the church to leave offerings such as bird feathers, animal feed and small model animals at his feet, thereby ensuring that throughout the year their animals, their livestock, their crops and products are blessed.
From the Mirador we drove through an area to the south west of the city famous locally for its restaurants and street-food, and in particular for its horno or roast pig. The smell (to a non-vegetarian) was delicious! And we were interested to see how the pigs had been decorated with flags to mark the independence celebrations that weekend.
Next tip: the Plaza San Sebastian
I thought this was one of the loveliest and most peaceful spots in Cuenca, although there is a gory piece of history attached to it. It was constructed in the 17th century to serve as an open marketplace for the western part of the city. The church (which was unfortunately closed when we visited) is recently restored and has a carved wooden door, single tower and octagonal raised dome. In front of the church is the Cross of San Sebastián which marked the western limit of the city.
As we strolled around with Wilson he told us the tale of a member of the French Geodesic Expedition, the surgeon Juan Seniergues, who had come to measure the Equator and later settled in Cuenca. He was by all accounts a bit of a womaniser, but made the mistake of turning his attentions to the former girlfriend of a local dignitary and became embroiled in a dispute between the dignitary and the girl’s father. At that time (1739) the plaza was the venue for bull fights, but one evening at one of these a fight of a different nature broke out here, between the surgeon and some local “heavies”, and he was murdered. It had the appearance of an unfortunate accident, but it is generally accepted, according to Wilson at least, that his murder was ordered and planned.
Today this is such a peaceful scene that it is hard to imagine that it was the location for such an occurrence.
Next tip: the Museo de Arte Moderno which lies on the south side of the plaza
This is such a great museum – worth visiting even if you have little interest in modern art, because of the lovely building in which is located, but even better if you do have such an interest because of the manageable size of the collection and exhibitions, and the way in which they are presented.
The building is the former Casa de la Temperancia (House of Temperance), built in 1876 to house people with drinking problems. It later became a convent and then an orphanage before being restored in late 1970s and opening as a museum in 1981. The building has been very sensitively adapted for this new role and provides a somewhat unique setting for the art, which is for the most part displayed in the series of very small rooms (some no larger than cells and housing a single sculpture) which open off the pretty courtyards. You could spend a very pleasant hour wandering from room to room and then relaxing in the greenery of one of those courtyards.
The exhibits are a mix of those from the small permanent collection and temporary exhibitions. When we were there the latter included some intriguing sculptures as well as paintings exploring how modern technology is changing who we are as humans (or so I believe from the limited amount of Spanish labelling that I could guess at, and the works themselves).
The chapel of the Temperance House has been restored to its former appearance and is used as a venue for talks etc. If not in use, pop inside to see the lovely painted ceiling (photo five) and friezes.
Open Monday – Friday 8.30 – 13.00 & 15.00 – 18.30, and Saturday 9.00 – 13.00. Admission free
Next tip: art of a different kind, traditional tin engraving