Reportedly, Cuenca´s historic district has 53 churches, one for every week of the year. You can see the oldest, the largest, and the most ornate within three blocks of the central plaza. Another two mark the east and west boundaries of colonial El Centro.
Catedral El Sagrario, also known as Catedral Antiguo, on the east side of Parque Calderón, was the first church in Cuenca; as such, it’s the place to start your first church tour of El Centro. The cornerstone of the original mud-and-straw chapel built on this site in 1557, shortly after Cuenca was founded, was taken from the Inca palace at Pumapungo (next to the Museo del Banco Central). The church was in continuous use till the early 20th century, when the Catedral Nuevo opened across the square; it was completely restored between 1999 and 2005.
During the restoration, 500-year-old frescoes were uncovered on the walls. A timeline of the church’s various expansions and renovations are also on display. Be sure to make it up to the balcony (ask the docent if he or she doesn’t ask you) to see the organ, built in and transported from Germany in 1739 –- a fascinating look at 300-year-old musical technology. The lone clock tower was added in 1751 and El Sagrario was designated a cathedral in 1787. The elaborate altar is occupied by life-size figurines of Jesus and the apostles; there’s another mannequin exhibit in the side room.
From there, head across the park to the imposing Catedral Nueva, also known as La Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción. When construction was begun in 1880, this cathedral was designed to be the largest in South America, with enough room to seat 10,000. It didn’t turn out that way, but it is magnificent, with Gothic and Baroque architecture, a façade of pink Carrara marble, and three distinctive sky-blue domes made of Czechoslovakian tiles presiding over a jumble of turrets, spires, and buttresses.
Inside, a larger-than-life stature of Pope John Paul II commemorates his visit to Cuenca in 1985. Four pillars, and the canopy they support on the altar, are studded with gold leaf. As for the stained-glass windows, I made it a point to stop back on a sunny day to bask in their brightness. The enormity of the cavernous marble central nave can’t fail to humble you into reverence, no matter what religion you might be. Stop in for services held regularly through the day, full of reverent people.
A block south and west of the Parque Calderón, on the corner of Aguirre and Cordova, is the Neocolonial Iglesia San Francisco. Don’t be fooled by the modest pink and white stucco exterior; inside is a flamboyant and intricately carved altarpiece full of alcoves occupied by statues and a gold-leaf pulpit.
A block north and west of Parque Calderón, on the corner of Gran Columbia and Aguirre, is the Iglesia Santo Domingo, with geometric motifs covering the arches and ceilings and 18th century paintings decorating the walls.
Iglesia San Sebastian marks the western edge of colonial El Centro in the middle of a plaza on Talbot between Mariscal Sucre and Simon Bolivar. With the bright white walls of the old church and the tall trees and well-tended horticulture, this plaza is almost as inviting as Calderón. At the other end of Sucre and Bolivar on Ordoñez is Iglesia San Blas. Dating back to 1575 and built with stone from Pumpaungo, the church and its square mark the eastern edge of El Centro.
Photos by Shirlee Severs
Captions, top: Ask the docent how many people were required to play the 275-year-old organ in Catedral Sagrario; middle: the magnificent central nave of Catedral Nuevo, with a view of the gold-leaf pillars and canopy on the altar; bottom: the bright Iglesia San Sebastian occupies the west end of El Centro.
[Editor's Note: In last week´s Dining with Deke post, "Gringo Haunts Part 2," the hours for Kookaburra Cafe were slightly off. Proprietor Jenny Bluefields says that "poor souls looking for coffee early" should show up Thursdays to Sundays at 8 a.m., rather than 7 a.m. as reported. The Kookaburra closes at 4 p.m.]