Saturday’s International Museum Day festivities are a vivid reminder of the rich world of archeology, history and art housed in dozens of Cuenca museums. Here, we offer a brief primer on what we believe to be four of the best.
You can’t miss the Museo del Sombrero on Calle Larga near Padre Aguirre: A huge Panama hat is attached to the facade above the front door. The sales room and workshop of Rafael Paredes & Hijos, the oldest and one of the largest Panama hatmakers and sellers in Cuenca, double as the museum (free), which displays an interesting selection of antique hat-making equipment and implements, including a 19th-century contraption for measuring the shape of heads. Photos illustrate the process of growing, harvesting, and drying the toquilla straw plant, then weaving the leaves into “Panama” hats (so-called because they were shipped from Ecuadeor to Panama, where they were distributed throughout the world). A bilingual guide takes you through the shop, explaining the process and answering all your questions.
The Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes is also located 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 $2.50 and worth it.
The displays of the Museo del Monasterio de las Conceptas are spread out among a couple dozens rooms surrounding a courtyard on two stories of the large convent building that takes up nearly an entire square block of El Centro. This convent is one of the oldest in Ecuador and has housed nuns for more than 400 years. It also hosts one of the most impressive collections of religious art in the country, including 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 the world. One room displays 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; admission is $2.50.
Finally, Cuenca’s most extensive museum exhibits seen at the Museo Pumapungo next to Banco Central, located in an edifice on the east end of Calle Larga at the corner of Huayna Capac. Off the lobby is a collection of 19th century paintings: portraits of military heroes, landscapes, and religious and folk art. Downstairs is a comprehensive display of money, from crude coins pre-dating the Spanish all the way up through the 100,000-sucre notes at the end of the doomed currency’s life. Ethnographic exhibits on the upper floors encompass Ecuador’s 22 indigenous cultures in life-like dioramas; don’t miss the shrunken heads in the Shuar exhibit, the only one in the whole museum with English-language signs. Music, crafts, arts, and more round out the museum; outside are the ruins of Pumapungo, with its foundation walls of an important Inca religious site. The Museo Pumapungo requires at least two visits; trying to do it one is a good way to turn into a zombie. Entry is free.
Photo captions, top: the historic display at the Panama hat museum; second: The hat, not your head, goes into the hydraulic shaping machine; third: three of the rooms chock full of artifacts at the Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes; bottom: the entrance to the Museo del Banco Central.