From a den of thieves to one of Cuenca’s crown jewels, the El Vado neighborhood is transformed

Jul 28, 2019 | 6 comments

The houses of El Vado have been renovated. (El Tiempo)

By Robert Bradley

Cuenca street artists who enjoy painting large-scale pieces are familiar with El Vado.

Bajada del Vado is famed for the often dramatic street art climbing the steep draw, some crumbling even more rapidly than the wall they use as a canvas. The plazoleta itself, a beautifully designed common area allows awe-inspiring views of the Cajas and is regularly used as a backdrop for music videos, model portfolios, not to mention an endless stream of tourists. It is not uncommon to see practitioners of tai-chi or modern dance perfecting their bodies through stretching and occasionally groaning while wired to their headphones.

My how times, and conditions, have changed.

The El Vado plaza provides space for crafts shows, art exhibits and the occasional wedding.

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Plazoleta Cruz del Vado, or the “place of the river crossing,” was once a very dangerous neighborhood. The now-demolished public restrooms were dank caves where villainous characters plied their trade. Broken-down hostels housed broken-down people. For most Cuencanos, there was no reason to go into the neighborhood and, if there was, they wouldn’t go alone and certainly not at night.

It all came to a boiling-point twenty-five years ago. Community leader Hernán Alvarado explained it this way, “People had had enough. After years of twisting ourselves into knots of in-fighting and recrimination, a band of neighbors formed a neighborhood support group and reached out to city agencies for help.”

Fortunately for everyone, their voices were heard, loud and clear.

Cuenca’s Director of Historic Areas, Felipe Manosalve, the Tourism Foundation for Cuenca, and the Ministry of Tourism joined together with a multi-pronged approach for cleaning up one of the most beautiful, and most scary, parts of the city.

It has also become a favorite venue for musical events.

The public restrooms were the first to go. Years of neglect and a lack of monitoring transformed the facilities into de-facto drugstores for addicts, criminals, and reckless travelers looking to get high. They were torn down and hauled away. Next on the list was an accounting of the abandoned houses in the sector. Once issues of ownership were clarified, several houses were remodeled, repainted, and generally upgraded to acceptable standards. A third and equally important component of the restoration effort has been the city’s commitment to using the plazoleta for concerts, art shows, and even an occasional wedding. All of this activity has made a dramatic change.

Today, Plazoleta Cruz del Vado is touted by tour operators as one of Cuenca’s crown jewels, and a must-see destination any hour of the day or night.

There have been no murders, homicides, rapes, robberies or thefts to homes, people or vehicles in the neighborhood so far this year, making El Vado one of the safest areas of the city.

Occasionally, this reporter walks down Calle de la Cruz late in the evening after a concert, or dinner with friends. I feel comfortable, bathed in the not too harsh night lighting, and always marvel at the numbers of children playing in the street and plazoleta. Young lovers flock to the view of city lights, old folks are walking even older dogs needing a late-night outing, someone is learning how to skateboard, another is painting, his easel aligned to the city lights.

Late night on the Plazoleta Cruz del Vado is a Felliniesque carnival of dancers, skaters, and artists all playing under the stars in one of Cuenca’s crown jewels.

My, how things have changed.

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