By Liam Higgins
Reporting on his visit to Cuenca in 2010, Times of London travel writer Joshua Wellesey remarked, “I think I can safely claim that this charming little city has more culture per square inch than any place in the Western Hemisphere.”
Although festivals occur throughout the year in Cuenca, the public celebrations from March to May and November and December are particularly busy, coinciding with Cuenca’s founding (April 12) and independence (November 3), along with Christmas, New Year’s, and Carnival. At these times, besides a heavy dose of arts and crafts, and food, there are lots of fireworks, street theater and music, and parades.
On November 3, 1820, Cuenca won its independence from Spain after two days of skirmishes between revolutionaries and Spanish soldiers. Ironically, the art displays, craft booths, roving entertainment, street food, and general hubbub celebrating that independence lasts twice as long as the battle itself.
Although the nightly concerts and fireworks make the most noise, the centerpiece of the celebration has always been the hundreds of artists and crafts makers who come to town to display and sell their work in the fairs.
Among participants are artisans from Cuenca’s sister cities, Cuzco, Peru and Havana, Cuba. The Cuzco contingent is usually the largest during the holidays, in part because of cultural ties between Cuenca and Cuzco dating to the Incan Empire.
Independence is the largest and longest festival of the year, with major art and crafts fairs lining both sides of the Rio Tomebamba from Puente Roto (Broken Bridge) in the east to Plaza Otorongo in the west, a distance of almost two kilometers.
Block-long rows of original art is displayed on easels and long wooden frames: landscapes, cityscapes, still lifes with fruit in bowls and flowers in vases, trees, barcas sailing into the sunset, indigenous figures, Inca-style designs, religious scenes and symbols, and abstracts, most in vibrant colors and vivid styles.
Vendors along 12 de Abril sell embroidered bags and wall hangings; leather wallets, belts, change purses, women’s purses, and key holders; rings, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and pendants fashioned from shiny metals and colorful beads, with boxes to put it all in; kids’ stickers, toys, and dolls; feather art; figurines small and large; pottery, ceramic, wooden, and stone products; incense and incense holders; religious symbols; chess sets, picture frames, masks, miniatures, posters, and wooden utensils; souvenirs and knick-knacks; and that’s what you’ll find in the first ten minutes of looking.
Textiles are on display in abundance: scarves, shawls, blankets, fabrics, men’s and women’s shirts, socks and underwear, sweaters, sweatshirts, jackets, hats, vests, skirts, and dresses. Vendors also sell souvenir and tie-dyed T-shirts, jeans and slacks, even shoes.
On the north side of the river, at the bottom of the Escalinatas, the grounds of the art museum CIDAP host much more elaborate display booths than those that crowd the sidewalks. They’re inside big tents, complete with signs of the names of vendors and where they’re from — mostly Cuenca, but also from other areas of Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. This is a higher class of art, crafts, collectibles, and utensils; here, you’ll find wrought-iron, brass, glass, pottery, rocks and crystals, wooden jigsaw puzzles, candle holders, lamps, and much more.
On the other side of Av. Loja at Puente del Vado are crafts from Peru, sold by women in distinctive dress that differs in detail from what you’ll see worn by Ecuadorian’s indigenous people.
A word of caution to residents and would-be tourists who are unaware of the holidays: City hotels and restaurants are booked solid between November 1 and 4, so plan accordingly.
The other major festival is April 12, commemorating the founding of Cuenca, by Spain, in 1557 (that’s right, we celebrate the date Spanish took over the city and again, when we kicked them out). Parades, crafts shows, races, fireworks, and a thanksgiving mass at the New Cathedral highlight the anniversary
Several thousand people attend an April 12 mid-morning parade in the historic district. Marching bands and dance troupes from city schools are the main attraction, along with performers from a variety of civic organizations and indigenous groups. Later, Cuenca’s Mayor delivers a “state of the city” speech.
As with the independence festivities, at least a half-dozen craft and art shows are set up around the city. The work of artisans from Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia sell at a brisk pace.
Again, remember to book your hotel early if you plan to visit in April.
Then comes Carnival, another multi-day festival in mid-February or early March that takes place throughout Ecuador as well as the rest of Latin America. Nearby towns such as Paute, Gualaceo, and Sigsig present costume parades, native dances, and lots of food. By contrast, things are relatively quiet in Cuenca as many locals head out of town, particularly to the coast, for the holiday. The highlight in every venue, though, is the (mostly) good-natured water and foam fights, a fact that foreigners often learn about the hard way when they get smacked by a water balloon launched from a balcony or passing pickup trucks full of kids.
Ecuadorians, like foreign visitors, mostly take the water and foam fights in stride. Especially since
Cuenca old-timers remember a time when the punishment dispensed at Carnival was more painful than just getting watered down or plastered in foam. Years ago, Carnival was a time when people settled grudges and fistfights were the order of the day; the streets were filled with boys and young men with blood running down their faces. Thanks to the masks and costumes, parades, and celebrations, combatants were able to attack their enemies incognito. The blood-shedding custom, based in Inca tradition, faded in popularity in the 1960s and died out altogether in the 1970s.
As in much of Latin America, Carnival in southern Ecuador includes aspects of traditional folklore dating back thousands of years. Present at every celebration near Cuenca is the costumed Cañar deity, Taita, the ancient embodiment of good fortune and the crusader against the forces of evil. Frequently outfitted in feathers, floppy hat, and flowing robes, Taita mostly gives his blessing to agricultural endeavors, but through the years, his services have also been enlisted against foreign invaders, including the Inca and Spaniards.
Following the conquest, the Spanish tried to re-cast Carnival as a Christian celebration, but pagan influences remained strong and the Catholic church was forced to incorporate many of the ancient traditions into its own rituals.
Here’s a sampling of just a few other regularly scheduled events in Cuenca.
- Cuenca International Art Bienal: One of the largest art exhibit and juried contest in Latin America is held every other year from November to February.
- Festival de la Madre Tierra: Earth Day even features music, plays and speeches.
- Cuenca International Theater Festival: In conjunction with the art bienal, city theaters feature local and international presentations.
- International Orchid Show: It attracts visitors from Japan, Europe and the United States.
- Feria Artesanales: Craftsmen from Latin America gather at the CIDAP museum every April for an arts and crafts fair. The event spills over into several nearby locations.
- Internaitonal Food Fair: Hosted by Cuenca expats from about a dozen different countries.
- Pase de Niño: The seven-hour long Christmas Eve parade through the historic district is accompanied by food and crafts fairs.
- Cuenca Art Walks: Help periodically in the historic district. The most recent one showcased 60 artists in 40 locations.