By Jeremiah Reardon
Cuenca just celebrated its two hundred and second year of independence from Spain. Founded in 1557 the Spanish built its churches on the ruins of Incan temples. As nine-year expat residents, my wife Belinda and I note how proud Cuencanos are, a pride born in close knit family life with a deep-rooted appreciation for their hometown.
Covid brought a halt to citywide events in early 2020. The city’s two hundredth year celebration, though well-funded, failed to attract many visitors. Cuenca’s Emergency Health Committee routinely set restrictions in response to the number of Covid cases and deaths reported by public health officials. Curfews halted economic progress. The use of masks and social distancing had a big impact on keeping the pandemic at bay. Citizens concerned about spreading the disease to family members eagerly complied. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” seemed to govern people’s actions and attitudes.
All these sacrifices over the past couple of years culminated in this year’s fantastically successful Fiestas de Cuenca. The city’s internationally recognized reputation for tamping down the pandemic gave our visitors confidence as well as their awareness of how Cuenca has resisted the criminal incursions by the drug cartels who thrive in the port of Guayaquil and along the coast.
In the days leading up to November 3, Independence Day, we walked past vendor tents which appeared as white dots closely spaced along the south bank of the Tomebamba River for a mile, reaching from the Inca ruins on the east to the westerly University of Cuenca neighborhood. Families and young people streamed past their booths, occasionally stopping for a meal or snack purchased from mobile food vendors.
Cuenca’s public safety measures paid off big time. At the height of the festival, crowds jammed the vendor-lined Avenida Doce de Abril. Restaurants on Paseo Tres de Noviembre which traces Tomebamba’s north bank struggled to promptly serve patrons at tables which turned over quickly.
On Thursday afternoon, November 3, our excellent orchestra backed a cumbia band, dance music popularized in Colombia and played by taxi drivers. Attending on my own, the city’s Festival Musical Te Quiero Cuenca marked the first time I had been inside the soccer stadium which we walk past to the supermarket. On high alert due to increased crime at the coast, police and ushers diligently searched everyone who entered, including children.
Working my way towards the center of the stage, I found a free seat several rows back. The tented stage was framed in lights and speakers dangling precariously from towering metal scaffolds. I bobbed my head along to the beat of romantic songs sung by Salsa Sinfonica’s front line, a woman and four male vocalists. At times the orchestra’s youthful violin section sounded like an amplified horn, blasting rich musical notes in harmony with the band’s brass players.
Touring the city on Friday afternoon alone, I wanted to grab a bite to eat and arrived to find one of my favorite expat watering holes, Inca Bar, besieged by tourists eager to try their two-for-one-dollar tacos. I ran into a few friends as well. Zach from Colorado sat with a visitor from Brazil, Manuela, a striking young woman with green eyes and brown hair. I conversed in Spanish with the native Portuguese speaker. Zach soon clued me in that Manuela also spoke English. Learning how she’d set out the next day for Peru, I suggested that she visit hilly Saraguro while in the area.
An indigenous community in Loja Province separated by the Oña River from our Azuay Province, its citizens are easily identified by their native costumes. The women wear broad rimmed white and black hats and gold necklaces. The men wear short black pants and braid their long black hair, topped with a felt hat. They have a community supported cheese shop in busy El Centro. I regularly greet a woman at the artisan market, Casa Mujer, on San Francisco Plaza who weaves colored beads into bracelets and necklaces.
For the festival, some of Casa Mujer’s craftspeople displayed their wares at the Portal Artesenal facility in sight of San Blas Plaza. Highly skilled with colorful items to sell, they also had the support of food vendors and an elaborate bandstand awaiting the arrival of Andean musicians later in the evening.
Friday evening, I ran into my friend Cristian, a marathon competitor with a masters degree in economics from a London university. We sat at a patio table enjoying artisanal beer at The Pub, owned by gringo friends. “Jeremiah, I have passes for the heavy metal concert at the stadium. It’ll last another hour or so.”
“Wow! Cool, Cristian. I went to the cumbia concert yesterday. Yeah, I’ll stop in on my way home. Thanks.” The stadium ticket line moved quickly; again, I got another thorough search by security before entering. My pen and water bottle were tossed into a black plastic bag tied onto a chain link fence. The grass field surmounted by a bowl of wooden bleachers had a park-like feeling in contrast to concrete sidewalks and roadway around it. Here and there, children sat on the grass below grownups as I walked to the same area I had sat in the day before. No chairs appeared anywhere. The crowd shimmied in time to the music of Descomunal, one of Quito’s best heavy metal bands. Emotive chords shook the sound system with its heavy bass line. The lead singer paced the stage while screaming like a wounded animal.
Fans only occupied about a quarter of the vast soccer pitch, attendance only a third of the previous day’s cumbia crowd. The front row mosh pit dominated the jumbo screen as well as the vision of the half dozen musicians. I seized the moment to capture the band’s light show, snapping shots in quick succession. In another half hour I left for home. The photos turned out fantastically!
On Sunday, the festival’s last day, we accompanied our Ecuadorian friends in their car to Turi. It rises above the Tarqui River south of the city some three hundred feet. Its view of our valley is tantalizing and a must stop on a visit to Cuenca. With sightseeing buses to ride, daredevil outdoor attractions on steep hillsides and horseback rides into the farming community a short distance away, tourists had flocked there in a last gasp before heading home.
A full moon bathed our Andean valley with a warm glow the day after festivities concluded. The light it shone served as an auspicious omen for future festivals appearing on the horizon. A Christmas holiday tradition is the Paseo del Nino parade in El Centro. Crowds approaching one hundred thousand regularly flood the city the day before Christmas. They stand jam-packed on sidewalks; lucky ones fill balconies overlooking the brass and drum bands, indigenous dancers and children decked out in Spanish finery on horseback guided by their parents.
Once the new year is under way, preparations will begin for Carnaval marking the start of Lent in the Catholic liturgy. And April 12 is when Cuenca celebrates its 1557 settlement by the conquistadors. So, again, that street named for this event will provide space for vendor tents and host multitudes of visitors appraising their wares. Here’s hoping that it’ll be equally successful as when Cuenca celebrated its two hundred and second year of independence this past week.
Photos by Jeremiah Reardon