By Sylvan Hardy and Deke Castleman
A statue of Garaicoa Abdón Calderón marks the heart of Parque Calderón, which marks the heart of El Centro, which, in turn, marks the heart of Cuenca. To get your bearings in Cuenca, this is where you start.
Abdón Calderón was born in Cuenca in 1804. At the tender age of 18, Calderón was one of the heroes of the decisive Battle of Pichincha, fought on May 24, 1822, south of Quito, where revolutionaries defeated Spanish royalists. The battle liberated Quito and secured the independence of the provinces that would soon join to become Ecuador.
How many times Calderón was wounded in the battle is in dispute (between four and fourteen), but what’s in universal agreement is that Calderón remained in the line of fire, ensuring that his battalion held firm; he died a few days after the battle. His story, like that of Nathan Hale or Paul Revere, is told to schoolchildren in Ecuador; his last words were, supposedly, “I can die happy, because my country is free.”
His name is honored by Cuenca’s plaza mayor, where the heroic statue, depicting the wounded hometown boy holding firm to the flag of independence, was unveiled on May 24, 1932, 110 years after the battle and 12 years after the park was redesigned (1920) and renamed for Calderón. Prior to that, it had been called Plaza República for more than 350 years.
Luis Cordero, president of Ecuador from 1892 to 1895, reputedly imported some pine seedlings from Chile and planted them in a sort of circle in the center of the park. Today, the towering pines, which surround the statue, are more than 120 years old.
The park is one square block, bordered to the south and north by Mariscal Sucre and Símon Bolívar, both named for War of Independence heroes, as well. Marshall Antonio José de Sucre led the patriot troops at the Battle of Pichincha where Abdón Calderón was mortally wounded. On the east and west, the park is bordered by Luis Cordero and Benigno Malo (sometimes called “Bad Bennie” by expats).
It’s recommended that, to familiarize yourself with El Centro, you start with these four main thoroughfares that surround the park, using mnemonics to memorize the streets that radiate out in all four directions.
At any time of day, Parque Calderón is the place in Cuenca to hang out and observe life in the central city. Green wrought-iron fences border lush horticultural displays. Almost all the green wooden benches are occupied by people chatting, reading the newspaper, and relaxing.
Municipal employees are usually sweeping the sidewalks or picking up litter, working on the flowers and shrubs. Vendors are selling fruit, homemade snacks and ice cream and popsicles from a cooler. Shoe shine boys are shining shoes (although the professional shiners usually congregate across the street in front of the Raymipampa Restaurant; the charge for a shine, by the way, shouldn’t be more than a buck). Photographers with props, such as model ponies or a real Saint Bernard, will take your picture (especially on weekends). Artists work on caricatures and portraits resting on easels.
Businesmen in suits and women in uniforms bustle through the plaza. Young families have children in tow. Schools come here on outings. Indigenous people in colorful clothing walk by. Tour guides speaking Spanish, English, French and German, regale tourists with tales of Old Cuenca.
A bandstand at the north edge in the center of the park often hosts performances, exhibitions, and break dancing exhibitions.
If you’re used to plazas in other parts of the world, you might be pleasantly surprised at the lack of beggars looking for a handout, although the coronavirus has temporarily, we hope, changed that; rather, the people are usually courteous, if not outright friendly.
And if you think it’s loud and crowded, think again. Parque Calderón has an almost magical quietness and tranquility about it, offering that proverbial peaceful easy feeling. Other than a little clatter from the cars rattling over the cobblestones, a stray horn beeping in the distance, it’s the perfect place to relax. The big caveat is that when a festival is going on, which is usually accompanied by fireworks, it’s the swingin’est, noisiest place in the city.
Across the streets and around the square are a number of noteworthy things to see and do. A good place to start is at the Catedral Viejo (Old Cathedral), also known as Catedral El Sagrario.
The cornerstone of the first adobe chapel built on this site was laid in April 1557, very shortly after Cuenca was founded. The building was completely restored between 1999 and 2005 and now serves as a religious museum of early Cuenca and a concert hall for medium-sized performances. It’s open Monday-Friday 9-1 and 2-6, and 10-1 Saturday and Sunday; admission is $2.
Across Mariscal Sucre on the southeast corner, facing the park, is the imposing Palace of Justice, formerly the Corte Provincial de Justicia del Azuay, whose majestic and colorful stone walls stretch a half-block east and south. The building was originally home to the University of Cuenca, which outgrew it and moved to its current location on 12 de Abril in the 1960s. Attached to the back of the building, on Calle Sucre, is the Sucre Theater, one of the city’s major performance venues.
Across Benigno Malo along the south side of the park is city hall, a couple of banks, and iTur, the tourist office. You’ll find flyers, maps, brochures, the bus guide, and bilingual attendants inside iTur, and a gorgeous street map made of tiles on the wall outside. This is a highly colorful depiction of El Centro, including detailed tile illustrations of important buildings, with listings of museums and churches and a beautiful inset with the Cajas mountains. The exquisite tile work was done by Pacheco Paredes for the Municipalidad de Cuenca in 2004.
Many locals still have fond memories of the quaint colonial houses that were torn down in the 1970s to make way for the unexceptional high-rise city hall that towers over this side of the square. The decision to demolish the old homes can still stir up a fight (regulations adopted in the 1980s, by the way, today protect all historic buildings in El Centro).
On the west side of Parque Calderon, on Calle Malo, is the largest structure in Cuenca, Catedral Nueva, (New Cathedral), officially known as Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción.
The cathedral was designed in the mid-1880s by German priest Juan Bautista Stiehle based on recommendations from by Bishop León Garrido, combining Neo-Gothic and Romanesque styles then in vogue, to accommodate the city’s population at the time: 10,000. Construction began in 1885 and, as often happens with cathedrals, it continued for nearly a century.
Materials included alabaster and local red and pink marble for the façade, white marble imported from Carrara, Italy, for the interior floor. The distinctive blue tiles of the signature domes were imported from Czechoslovakia.
The interior, finally completed in 1967, is vast, though much less ornate than, say, the San Francisco church a few blocks away. The stained glass is glorious; the marble altar is modeled on the one in St. Peter’s in Rome. A bigger-than-life statue of Pope Paul, commemorating his 1985 visit to Cuenca, greets visitors who enter from Calle Malo. Mass is conducted most mornings and some afternoons; the schedule is posted on a bulletin board near the entrance.
The Cuenca Diocese claims, by the way, that based on sheer interior volume, the cathedral is the largest in Latin America.
Just north of the cathedral on Malo, is the old seminary building, with the Raymipampa (one of the three oldest restaurants in Cuenca, and perhaps the most popular), and the Tutto Fredo restaurant.
On the north side of the square, along Símon Bolívar, are a big mercantile on the northeast corner, a shop selling lottery tickets, a men’s-wear store, and an Eljuri appliance store, owned by the richest family in Cuenca — and the richest in Ecuador.
Also along this stretch is El Cantaro, one of the best Ecuadorian restaurants downtown with a huge menu of comida típica.
On the northeast corner of Cordero and Bolívar is Gobernación del Azuay, the government center of Azuay Province. Immediately inside is Galeria y Historia Jose Domingo Lamar, with portraits of many of the provincial governors: 35 on one wall, 29 on another wall, seven on a third. The big mural facing you as you walk in is “La Huelga de la Sal” by Marco Martinez Espinoza, which commemorates the 1925 strike of the campesinos protesting the sudden rise in the price of salt due to speculation. There’s a wide wooden staircase, a big tiled mural on the landing, and rotating art exhibits in the anteroom.
Across Luis Cordero on the northeast corner of the park, is a building that dates back to 1886. In it, Símon, on the lower level fronting Bolívar, serves up fare similar to Tutto Fredo, including sandwiches, cakes and pies, granizados (fruit drinks), and crepes.
Cutting diagonally through the park to the southwest corner of the square, at Benigno Malo and Mariscal Sucre, you’ll find yet another restaurant, Don Colón. Popular with expats, it’s run by a congenial Ecuadorian (Colón), who spent 30 years in the restaurant business in the U.S. It has outside seating and is often crowed at lunch time.
Heading west on Mariscal Sucre, away from the square, you parallel the massive south wall of the cathedral, with a good view of the closest dome. On the corner of Padre Aguirre is the flower market, where more of the domes come into view. The best view of them is from San Francisco Plaza, a block south (toward the river) on Padre Aguirre.
An important consideration for both visitors and expats: Parque Calderon is only one block west of the banking center of Cuenca, the corner of Sucre and Presidente Borrero. Within a few paces of the intersection you’ll find six banks and 17 (we counted ‘em) ATM machines.
It’s easy to get to know central El Central: Parque Calderón is your centering point for Cuenca.