A quick guide to Cuenca’s history through its museums; they tell a story that goes back thousands of years

Feb 18, 2017 | 0 comments

By Sylvan Hardy

Though the four rivers of Cuenca are what impressed the Spanish settlers in the 16th century when they formally named the city, “Santa Ana de los Cuatros Rios de Cuenca,” the indigenous Cañari tribe identified it in a different way: “Guapondelig” or “Plain Wide as the Sky.”

Ruins of the Inca temple at Pumapungo.

Ruins of the Inca temple at Pumapungo.

When the Inca conquered the Cañari in 1470, shortly before the Spanish arrived, they gave the city a new name: “Large Plateau,” or Tomebamba.

All of the names are testament to how people of different eras viewed the world around them.

The glory of Tomebamba — the city was being built to be the northern capital of the Inca empire — was short-lived. A civil war between brothers vying to be emporer led to the destruction of the city in the 1520s. When Cieza de León, chronicler of the Spanish conquest of Peru, saw Tomebamba in 1547, it was in ruins; yet de León noted that before its destruction, the city had been “the finest and richest in all of Peru,” which of course the modern day city
of Cuenca was then a part.

The Cañari, who settled the area about 1,200 years ago, were not the first settlers in the valley. In fact archeologists believe the area has been continuously inhabited for at least 5,000 years. One of the earliest sites of human habitation in Latin America, in fact, was the Chopshi cave, about 20 miles southeast of Cuenca, where 11,000-year-old artifacts have been discovered.


Today, all that’s left of Tomebamba is Pumapungo (“Door of the Puma” in Quechua) archaeological Park. Located at the intersection of Calle Larga and Av. Huayna Cápac behind the Museo Pumaungo, formerly known as the Museo Banco Central, the park consists of low foundation walls of several of the Inca’s most important religious installations, including the Temple of the Sun where the high priests conducted worship ceremonies, and the residence of the Virgins of the Sun, women chosen to serve Inca royalty and priests in various capacities.

Pumapungo temple earthworks at night.

Pumapungo temple earthworks at night.

On the lowest level of Pumapungo’s terraces is the entrance to a tunnel more than 100 feet long, which served as a mausoleum that safeguarded the huacas (“hidden treasures”) and panakas (mummies embodying the spirits of Incan ancestors). Visitors can also see the remains of a large irrigation canal that watered the gardens along the stepped terraces where the plants related to Inca worship ceremonies were grown; a ritual purification bath was also fed by the canal.

Nearby are the foundations of barracks that housed the soldiers who guarded the sacred sites of Pumapungo. German archaeologist Max Uhle, considered the father of Andean archaeology, began serious excavation work of Pumapungo in the early 20th century.

The Central Bank of Ecuador purchased the land containing the ruins in 1981 and began a restoration process. Artifacts found in the ruins, along with Uhle’s map of the site, are displayed inside the Central Bank Museum in the archaeological room.

Also on the grounds are the Jardines del Inca botanical gardens and a bird-rescue center. Pumapungo became an Archaeological Park in 2003.

Cathedral El Sagrario

The history of Cuenca, like the history of Latin America, is a religious history, evident from its religious structures.  When Spanish settlers arrived at the site of Pumapungo, they used stones from the ruins of the city to build their first church and homes.

Saints in a monastery wall.

Saints and candles in a monastery wall.

Catedral El Sagrario, on the southeast side of Cuenca’s main plaza, today Calderón Park, was the first church in Cuenca. The cornerstone at this site was laid in 1557, shortly after Cuenca was founded.

The lone bell tower was added in the 1730s and has an interesting footnote in Ecuador´s history: it was used by Charles Marie de la Condamine as a reference point for his scientific mission to discern the shape of the earth by measuring one degree of latitude at the equator.

Upstairs in the balcony of the church is an organ transported from Germany in 1739.  Its size required five people to operate it: four manning the bellows below to run air through the pipes and the fifth to play the keyboard.

El Sagrario was designated a cathedral in 1787. The church was in continuous use till the early 20th century when the Catedral Nuevo, or New Cathedral, opened across the square. The Catedral Vieja, or Old Cathedral, fell out of use, but was restored between 1999 and 2005 and now serves as a religious museum of early Cuenca as well as a concert hall for medium-sized concert performances.

During the restoration, original 450-year-old frescoes were uncovered on the walls, which are on display. A timeline of the various expansions and renovations of the building can also be viewed. The elaborate altar is occupied by life-size figurines of Jesus and the apostles.

The Cathedral museum is open Monday-Friday 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.

Museo de las Conceptas

In Cuenca, one of the most important institutions to settle in the city was the Order of the Immaculate Conception, the first religious convent founded in Quito in 1557, and later established in Cuenca in 1599.

The convent is part of the living history of Cuenca. Cloistered nuns still inhabit secluded spaces unseen by visitors.  But to expand the appreciation of Cuenca´s religious history, part of the convent was converted into a museum in 1986.

Part of the pottery display at the Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes

Part of the pottery display at the Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes

Descriptive signs in Spanish, English, and French lead you through dozens of rooms surrounding an open courtyard in the two-story wing of the large convent building that occupies nearly an entire square block of El Centro.

Upstairs, the museum hosts one of the most impressive collections of religious art in Ecuador, much of it representing the Cuenca School of indigenous artisans trained by the Spanish and dating back to the 16th century. This includes distinctive paintings of Jesus on the cross by Gaspar Sangurima, an altarpiece of carved wood and gold by Manuel Machina, and what has to be one of the most ornate silver and ceramic Nativity scenes in Ecuador.

Downstairs, the rooms represent the rigorous lifestyle of the nuns in their domestic (cooking, weaving, embroidering) and religious (prayer, silence, fasting, confession, chastity, and poverty) duties.

And one display in particular speaks to the humanness and purity of the religious order.  It is a collection of toys brought by girls as young as 12 when they entered the convent.

The collection is a poignant reminder of how they saw the world around them, in contrast to the men who came before them to conquer and make possible their way of life.

The museum entrance is on Hermano Miguel between Juan Jaramillo and Presidente Cordova. Hours are Monday-Friday 9-5:30 and Saturday 10-1.

Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes

The Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes is on Calle Larga, father east between Hermano Miguel and Mariano Cueva. This museum displays one of Ecuador’s largest and best private collections of archeological pieces from 20 or so pre-Columbian cultures, dating as far back as 11,000 B.C.E. and proceeding through the Spanish conquest. Thousands of artifacts are exhibited in roughly chronological order, from Stone Age tools to Inca earthenware. A booklet is provided (in English, French, or Spanish) that names and describes the artifacts. The museum gift shop, with a large selection of T-shirts, postcards, books, crafts, replicas, jewelry, textiles, and more, is one of the best in Cuenca. Admission is $3.50 and worth it.



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