A short course on Cuenca’s remarkable history and the museums that display its artifacts
By Sylvan Hardy
According to archeologists, the first humans arrived in the Cuenca area about 10,000 years ago, setting up camp in the Chopshi cave, 18 miles east of the city. The site has yielded a bounty of arrow heads, spear points, pottery and tool shards.
Ecuador´s early people were primarily nomadic, but were known to have established temporary settlements, particularly along the Tomebamba, Paute and Jubones Rivers. One of the most concentrated areas of early settlements was Challuabamba, today a northeastern suburb of Cuenca. Work by a number of archeologists, including the noted German, Max Uhle in the 1920s, suggests that the area was a convergence point of major trade routes as early as 5,000 years ago.
The first permanent settlers established communities during the Narrio era, beginning 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. The Narrios had two primary settlements, Tacalshapa, current day Cuenca, and Cashaloma in today´s Cañar province.
“The record shows that the Narrio were traders with contacts on the coast and later, as far north as Mexico and as far south as Chile,” says Carmen Lucia Cordero, director of Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes in Cuenca. “Archeologist have found alabaster and jade from Mexico and Lapis from Chile.”
Archeological evidence also suggests that the Narrios segued into the Cañari nation, 1,500 to 2,000 years ago. The Cañari culture, centered in Cuenca, dominated much of southern Ecuador for more than a millennia before falling to the Incas in the late 1400s. Known for their sophisticated administrative systems, the Cañaris built irrigation canals and established an extensive system of trade routes.
The Cañaris called Cuenca, Guapondeleg, and constructed a temple at Pumapungo, the current site of Banco Central and the Pumapungo Museum on Calle Larga.
The Inca in Cuenca
When the Inca defeated the Cañari in 1470, they built their own temple at Pumpungo and renamed Guapondeleg, Tomebamba. The Inca´s plan was to make Tomebamba the northern capital of the empire. According to legend, the magnificence of Tomebamba nearly rivaled that of the Inca capital at Cuzco and it held the significance of being the birthplace of the last emperor of the unified Inca impire, Huayna Capac.
Archeologists have confirmed that many of the stones used to build Tomebamba were quarried and cut in Cuzco and transported north over the Inca trail. Many of those stones have been incorporated into the foundations of current Cuenca structures.
The glory of Tomebamba was short-lived, however. A civil war between two of emporer Tupac Yupanqui’s sons, Atahualpa and Huáscar, battling for the Inca throne, destroyed 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.”
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 Avenida Huayna Cápac behind the Museo Pumapungo, 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.
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). You 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.
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 the restoration process. Artifacts found in the ruins, along with Uhle’s map of the site, are displayed in the Museo Pumapungo in the archaeological sala; also on the grounds are the Jardines del Inca botanical gardens and a bird-rescue center. Pumapungo became an Archaeological Park in 2003.
Access to the Park (and museum) is Monday-Friday 9-6 and Saturday 9-1.
Catedral El Sagrario
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. Catedral El Sagrario, on the southeast side of Cuenca’s plaza mayor, Parque Calderón, was the first church in Cuenca. The cornerstone of the first mud-and-straw chapel built on this site was laid in 1557, shortly after Cuenca was founded.
The lone bell tower was added in the 1730s; 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 is an organ transported from Germany in 1739. Five people were required to operate it: four manning the bellows to run air through the pipes, 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 opened across the square. The Catedral Vieja was restored between 1999 and 2005 and now serves as a religious museum of early Cuenca and a concert hall for medium-sized performances.
During the restoration, original 450-year-old frescoes were uncovered on the walls. A timeline of the various expansions and renovations of the building are also on display. The elaborate altar is occupied by life-size figurines of Jesus and the apostles; there’s another mannequin exhibit in the side room.
The Catedral museum is open Monday-Friday 9-1 and 2-6, and 10-1 Saturday and Sunday; admission is $2.
Museo del Monasterio de las Conceptas
The Congregation of the Conceptionists was founded in Spain in 1448; in 1540, the first convent in the Americas was established in Mexico City. The first regional convent was founded in Quito in 1557 and on July 13, 1599, the finest house in Cuenca was donated to the Conceptionists by Doña Ordoñez as the dowry for her three daughters. In 1986, the Banco Central funded the conversion of part of the convent into a museum.
Descriptive signs in Spanish, English, and French lead you through a couple dozen 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.
Photographs of the part of the convent still inhabited by the nuns are displayed in the first two rooms, including one of the refectory (dining hall) with its larger-than-life mural, and another of the ornate altar in the private church.
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. One display is of pitimas water, prepared from plants, flowers, and essences with curative properties much in demand in Ecuador; another houses a poignant collection of toys brought by girls as young as 12 entering the convent.
The museum entrance is on Hermano Miguel between Juan Jaramillo and Presidente Cordova. Hours are Monday-Friday 9-5:30 and Saturday 10-1; admission is $2.50.