Cuenca’s history lives in the names and dates of the city’s streets, parks and monuments
By Deke Castleman
Atahualpa. Gil Ramirez Davalos. Luis Cordero. Padre Aguirre. Presidente Borrero. Remigio Crespo. Abdon Calderón. These names fill the history books of Ecuador, and dot the city map of Cuenca. But who were these people?
And what about those dates? In the United States we often find Independence Avenue in most cities. The tradition of naming a street after a date on the calendar is much more prevalent in Latin America, where someone once said you can find a street for every day of the year. In Cuenca we have 12 de Abril, 3 de Noviembre, 1 de Mayo, and 10 de Agosto, to name only a few. Ever wonder why they are important?
In chronological order, we start our survey in the Cañaribamba barrio east of El Centro, where one of the main thoroughfares, Avenida Paseo de los Cañaris, is named for the indigenous Cañari people who, since ancient history, have inhabited the broad well-watered Andean valley now occupied by Cuenca. The Cañari called this valley Guapondelig (“Plain Wide as the Sky”). Avenida Guapondelig runs north through the neighborhood for several miles.
The Tomebamba River, which skirts Cañaribamba, recalls the Inca era in Cuenca. After defeating the Cañari in 1470, the Inca’s 10th and perhaps greatest emperor, Tupac Yupanqui, built Tomebamba (“Large Plateau” in Quechua) to honor the victory. The magnificence of Tomebamba nearly rivaled the Inca capital at Cuzco. Avenida Pumapungo (“Door of the Puma” in Quechua) commemorates most of what is left of the Inca city, preserved in Pumapungo Archaeological Park.
Pumapungo Park is located on Avenida Huayna Capac, named after the 11th Sapa Inca, successor to Tupac Yupanqui. Huayna Capac was born in Tomebamba in 1488; before his death from smallpox in 1526, Capac divided his empire, leaving the north, ruled from Quito, to his son Atahualpa and the rest to his son Huáscar, legitimate heir to the Inca throne. The civil war they fought over control of the entire empire opened the door for Francisco Pizarro to conquer the Inca in 1527.
The two short streets, Atahualpa and Huáscar, run parallel in Totoracocha; the brutal conquistador himself is remembered by a one-block street near the airport.
Cuenca was founded on April 12, 1557, marked by Avenida 12 de Abril, which follows the Tomebamba River from one side of town to the other.
Avenida Gil Ramirez Dávalos, which parallels the airport runways, is named after the governor of the Quito Audiencia, which encompassed all of present-day Ecuador, when Cuenca was founded. Calle Antonio Vallejo in Bellavista recalls the first governor of Cuenca.
Along the north bank of the Tomebamba is Avenue 3 de Noviembre, the day that Cuenca won its independence from Spain in 1820.
Símon Bolívar was the Great Liberator of South America. Bolívar’s youngest general, Antonio José de Sucre, liberated Ecuador at the Battle of Pichincha in 1822. Bolívar’s vision for a united South America was the short-lived Gran Colombia, which encompassed most of the northern continent. All three streets, Mariscal Sucre, Símon Bolívar, and Gran Colombia, run parallel in the heart of El Centro.
Abdon Calderón, born in Cuenca in 1804, was one of the heroes of the decisive Battle of Pichincha. Shot four times, Calderón remained in the line of fire; he died a few days later in Quito at age 22. His name is respectfully attached to Cuenca’s plaza mayor.
Gaspar Sangurima Street is named for a Cuenca native who was born around 1780 and, without the benefit of schools or teachers, became one of the greatest artists in colonial Ecuador.
Fray Vincent Solano was ordained a Franciscan priest in 1814 at the age of 23. For the next 50 years, Solano was a Cuencano writer, printer, and publisher whose satires and polemics were so controversial that some were banned by the Church and burned by local leaders. Still, Solano is considered the first Cuencano journalist; his name remains on one of the busiest avenues in town.
Antonio Borrero was vice president of Ecuador in 1863-1864 (preceded by Mariano Cueva, another El Centro street) and president in 1875-1876. Luis Cordero was president of Ecuador from 1892 to 1895. And Presidente Córdova also served in 1924-1925.
Whole books have been written about Eloy Alfaro, the president from 1895 to 1901 and 1906 to 1911. Charismatic leader of the Liberal Revolution of 1895, Alfaro’s name graces the Army’s military college, the flagship of the Navy, the local 50-cent coin, and the Cuenca avenue east of El Centro.
Monseñor Frederico González Suárez, namesake of the boulevard that extends Gran Colombia east all the way to Avenida de las Americas, was one of Ecuador’s most notable figures. Born in 1844, he was a priest, historian, and politician who served as a senator, Bishop of Ibarra, and Archbishop of Quito and wrote a four-volume history of Ecuador.
Remigio Crespo Toral (1860-1939), another name you see around town, was a lawyer, journalist, diplomat, art critic, and poet laureate of Ecuador. His name lives on in one of Cuenca’s major thoroughfares and in his house on Calle Larga which serves as period-piece museum for the late 19th and early 20th century.
And what of non-Ecuadorians remembered by Cuenca street names?
Charles-Marie La Condamine was sent by the French Academy of Sciences on a mission to discern the shape of the Earth by measuring one degree of latitude at the equator. He spent a year in Cuenca in 1739 and used the bell tower of the Old Cathedral as a reference for his triangulation points. His namesake street extends Avenida Loja up to the west end of Calle Larga.
Alexander von Humboldt, honored by a street in Bellavista, was one of the greatest Renaissance men of all time. On his expedition through Ecuador in 1799, Humboldt collected plant, animal, and mineral specimens, set a mountain-climbing altitude record (ascending above 19,000 feet on Mt. Chimborazo before turning back), and publicized the need to preserve the cinchona tree (its bark contains quinine, used to cure malaria).
German archaeologist Max Uhle has a street named for him in Cuenca’s Cañaribamba neighborhood. Considered the father of Andean archaeology, Uhle began serious excavation work of Pumapungo in the early 20th century.
Finally, there is Avenida de las Américas, which loops all the way around the city and symbolizes the way Cuenca embraces all the people here in the middle of the world.