The word “Cuenca” means “watershed” which is appropriate. A confluence of four rivers run through town on their way to the Amazon. In fact, the town’s full name, “Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca” pays tribute to the Tomebamba, Yanuncay, Tarqui and Machangara rivers.
The Rio Tomebamba flows along the border between the historic district and newer areas of Cuenca. Depending on the season and the rain, the Tomebamba is either a gentle stream or an unpredictable force of nature, slicing like a knife through the fertile mountain valley.
The power of this river gushing from the Parque Nacional Cajas wasn’t lost on the region’s Cañari people. The name “Tomebamba” comes from the Kichwa, “Tumipamba,” and translates as “Knife Field” (“pamba:” plain or fertile lowland; “tumi:” axe or knife).
Today, school children play along its banks. Blissful lovers steal kisses as tourists and residents stroll carefree along the shores, never suspecting the river’s capricious alter ego, “Julián Matadero,” flows just below the surface.
Legend tells that Bishop Carrión y Marfil (1747-1847) once blessed the river in the hope of taming it. (“Carrión y Marfil” translates to “Carrion and Marble” which has a real fire and brimstone ring to it.) On Saint Julián’s Day in 1802, the Bishop is said to have thrown a rosary and holy water into the rushing river, baptizing it as “Julián Matadero” saying, “Julián, you will do no more damage to the city.”
Interestingly, Saint Julián the Hospitaller is said to be the patron saint of ferrymen, circus performers, innkeepers, childless people, and, after accidentally killing his parents, repentant murderers.
River Julián might have behaved for a while but in April 1950, torrential mountain rains drove him to overflow with violence. A raging slurry of water and debris destroyed fourteen of the Cuenca’s sixteen bridges. Visitors can still walk out onto the broken stone remains of the bridge now called “Puente Roto.”
Why does Julián have such a split personality? Born in the nearby Andes, the Tomebamba is but a child when Julián passes through Cuenca. An ill-fated child perhaps, destined to be assimilated and consumed downstream by the great and mighty mother Amazon as she races toward the sea. Could it be resentment of his short lifespan and impending loss of identity that compels Julián to jump his banks to lash out against the very city that loves him so much?
While psychologists analyze Julián’s motivations, the rest of us can enjoy the beauty and power of the Rio Tomebamba. Just beware of its evil twin.