Becoming Cuenca

A Historical Look at Cuenca

Oct 1, 2023

“History is not the past but a map of the past, drawn from a particular point of view, to be useful to the modern traveler.” ~Henry Glassie

The U.S. historian is spot on about needing to know the past to understand today, and to plan for the future.

One way is studying old photos. They can tell us so much about history and offer a fascinating insight into how previous generations lived as well.

Photographs allow you to understand that history happened to real people and not just in books.

That is why today’s blog post is a look at the past of what Cuenca was like.

In my three years scouring the Internet, I have come up with some interesting photos that document what Cuenca was like. Most of these photos have no attribution, so I do not know who the photographer was. Or in many cases, I have no idea why the photo was taken.

Though I may not know the source, I have done some research concerning the images. There are times that the information is very limited, and I am not talking about English sources, but all languages.

American historian David McCullough said, “History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”

So, let’s take a look at what Cuenca was, how Cuencanos lived, and why this great city is the way it is.

We start off with two photos from the late-20th century. The first one was taken in 1894 on Calle Benigno Malo, and the second photo was taken four years earlier on Calle Presidente Borrero.

The streets of El Centro are different today than 130 years ago. Back then, the streets were not graded. And sometimes, drainage was down the middle of the street.

In 1999, UNESCO declared El Centro to be a World Heritage Site. The United Nations organization said El Centro is “a remarkable example of a planned inland Spanish town (entroterra) that bears witness to the interest given to the principles of Renaissance urban planning in the Americas. Founded in 1577 according to the guidelines issued thirty years earlier by the King of Spain, Charles V, it has preserved over four centuries its original orthogonal plan.”

You do not need a Fitbit to know how far you walked in El Centro. Each block is 100 meters in each direction. Walk ten blocks and you have walked a kilometer. You have to walk six more blocks to get in a mile.

One of my favorite streets in the city is Av. Fray Vicente Solano. The tree line boulevard is young compared to Calle Benigno Malo, and Calle Presidente Borrero.

Fray Vicente Solano was born in October 1791 in Cuenca. He was an important priest, theologian, philosopher, naturalist, and journalist, who lived through the historic events of Ecuador’s independence.

Solano was ordained as a priest in 1814. He met the great leaders of Ecuador’s history such as Simon Bolívar, Antonio José de Sucre (military leader for independence), José Joaquín de Olmedo (President of Ecuador in 1845), and Gabriel García Moreno (twice served as President of Ecuador and was assassinated during his second term after being elected to a third).

The priest was convinced that the Catholic press was the freest expression of the human being. In 1828, he published “El Eco del Azuay,” the first newspaper in Cuenca.

Later, Solano founded “El Telescopio,” “La Alforja,” “La Escoba,​” “La Luz,” and “Seminario Ecclesiástico.” Not surprisingly, Solano defended journalists from bad practices promoted by what he considered “mercenaries of journalism,” by compromising ethics in favor of despotism and abuse.

Knowing something about cars, I am guessing the first photo of Av. Fray Vicente Solano was taken in the early-1950s. It appears to have been taken from Puente del Centenario. Notice the boulevard goes about one block south of Colegio Benigno Malo. There is a roadbed, but it has not been finished.

And speaking of Colegio Benigno Malo, the second photo of a couple and what appears to be a 1937 Packard was taken on March 25, 1937, in front of the high school. Note that the street is unpaved. And I love that mobster look on the driver’s face!

Though not confirmed, Cuenca may be the only city in the world that has two cathedrals. If it is not, it is one of the few. The original cathedral was built when the city was founded. The Old Cathedral or “El Sagrario” church, now houses a museum.

La Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción de Cuenca or “New Cathedral,” replaced it with construction of it beginning in 1885, according to the plan made by the German-born friar Juan Bautista Stiehle. The old cathedral had become too small for the ever-growing population.

Completed in 1975, a number of architectural styles can be seen, but it is dominated by Romanesque revival. That helps the main part of the church building to blend in well with the original historical buildings of El Centro.

The cathedral’s iconic three domes are covered by stunning blue and white glazed tile from Czechoslovakia. Its stained-glass windows were created by Spanish artist Guillermo Larrazábal. He is considered Ecuador’s most important stained-glass artist.

Its towers were shortened from the original plans due to the architect’s calculation error. If it had been raised to the original planned height, the foundation of the cathedral would have buckled.

The façade of the cathedral is made of alabaster and local marble, while the floor is covered with pink marble, brought from Carrara, Italy. The Carrara quarries still produce some of Italy’s finest white and pink marbles.

When the cathedral was started, it would have been able to hold 90 percent of the city’s population. Obviously now, that percentage is a heck of a lot lower… like about one percent.

Cuenca has a long history with Christianity, primarily Roman Catholicism. The vast majority of Cuencanos put faith in their saints and virgins. Holidays and celebrations in Cuenca mostly originate from the Catholic calendar. Celebrations with parades, public dances, and loud music are all an important part of the religious culture in Cuenca.

I would be remiss if I did not mention Parque Calderón. The love of greenspaces and parks in my hometown started with the founding of the Spanish city with what is now called Parque Calderón.

Bounded by four streets (Simón Bolívar, Benigno Malo, Antonio José de Sucre, and Luis Cordero), this central square and park is a vibrant and beautiful place to be.

In the undated photo above, you will see what the town square looked like a long time ago. If my memory serves me right, this photo is the oldest image of Cuenca.

It is named for Abdón Calderón, the 18-year-old native of Cuenca, who died heroically as a result of wounds received at the Battle of Pichincha in 1822. Despite having received four bullet wounds, Calderón continued in battle, encouraging his entire battalion, and continuing to carry the flag before dying.

What you will immediately notice when you go to this central town square are eight Araucaria trees. These eight magnificent trees were a gift to President Luís Cordero in 1875. The tree grows to a height of 50 meters / 150 feet in the cordilleras of Chile.

They are probably about that height in Parque Calderón. In the wild, the trees can live up to a thousand years. Unfortunately, some of them are really struggling despite intervention by the city.

A major redesign of the park was made in 2001. The formal gardens and old gazebo were reincorporated into the central square. The walkways were replaced, and brand-new lighting was installed to highlight this park’s beautiful features.

During the Christmas season, the park is a glorious and festive place to be at night as thousands of holiday lights adorn the square.

Of the attractions inside the city limits, Parque Calderón is the third most popular place to visit on TripAdvisor’s list. This is impressive for a greenspace. For residents of the cities, including retirees, the park is a great place to watch people and just relax, letting time go by.

The official and long name for the city is Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca – Santa Ana of the Four Rivers of Cuenca. The four rivers are the Tomebamba, Yanuncay, Tarquí and Machángara.

The miracle of El Río Tomebamba begins at elevations as high as 4,450 meters / 14,600 feet above sea level at Cerro Arquitectos (Architects Hill).

Every drop of water that the spongy ground releases gets bigger and bigger as it goes down the mountains. The water drops eventually become a small stream above the tree line in the Cajas. As it collects more water, the small stream finally reaches the first plants on its way down the mountains towards Cuenca.

What I love about these historic photos is that they show you how different things were along the Tomebamba River 75 years ago. The historic photo above of the river was shot on Av. 12 de Abril, looking towards El Centro. Today, this former dirt road is a major east-west route on the south side of the river.

This photo was taken from El Centro, looking towards the southwest at Puente de El Vado and San Roque.

El Río Tomebamba (known then as “Julian Matadero”) has flooded this neighborhood three times. The first one was in 1933, followed by another one in 1936. The biggest flood was in 1950. That infamous massive flood destroyed the old lime and stone bridge in the photo above, which was the link to El Centro.

Though not in El Centro, San Roque has a rather long history. The San Roque Parish in Cuenca was created in 1751 at the request of the council and the Bishop of Quito.

Little documentation is around today concerning the founding of San Roque. According to some people, between 1400 and 1600, a Salesian priest arrived in this sector carrying a sculpture of Saint Roque. The likeness was lost until sometime in the 1800s when it reappeared. And that is how the name came about.

What is known for sure is that San Roque was full of villas, but there were almost no houses for the ordinary people. It was a place for privileged people and foreigners to visit on holidays and vacations.

Av. Loja was the main road to the neighborhood and the first gateway to the south side of Cuenca. Because of this, San Roque became a bohemian neighborhood. It was known as “San Draque” (Saint Dragon) for its numerous drinking establishments.

Bridges like this one no longer exist due to the temperament of the Tomebamba. Most of the time, El Río Tomebamba peacefully goes through the city. Then there are times it doesn’t.

Because of the various moods of El Río Tomebamba, this beautiful bridge only partially exists. Juan de la Cruz Pigara (I cannot find anything about him) began construction on it in 1849 when Jerónimo Carrión was governor of Azuay province. It was finished a year later.

This lovely bridge, made of stone and blocks of marble, with lime and sand mortar, linked the historic part of Cuenca to the lower part of the city.

The photo above had to be taken before April 3, 1950. That is when a massive wall of water came down the Tomebamba.

A newspaper article four days later said, “An unknown number of persons disappeared in the flood waters of the Tomebamba River when it swept through the town of Cuenca on Wednesday night. Five more bridges collapsed yesterday, bringing the total destroyed to 15. People crowded churches praying for relief. The floods have cut off drinking water supplies and destroyed highways, impeding the transport of food relief convoys.”

Today, Puente Roto (Broken Bridge) is a tourist destination. It also functions as a point of cultural encounters. Throughout the year, there are street fairs and craftsmen who have set up their tents to sell their wares.

An important part of Cuenca’s history involves an Italian pilot. After the First World War, many aviators were laid off. That included Elia Liut, who in 1918 had broken the world speed record in a Marchetti Vimy biplane.

Somehow, the Ecuadorian embassy in Rome comes into contact with Liut in order for him to come to Ecuador to teach about aviation, especially military maneuvers.

Meanwhile, the owner of the Ecuadorian newspaper “El Telégrafo”, José Abel Castillo, was looking for a way to increase the number of subscribers to his paper. Castillo hired Liut and took on the costs of bringing a plane from Italy to Guayaquil. It was Castillo’s idea to utilize the plane to distribute his newspaper daily throughout other parts of Ecuador.

Liut was to perform a flight exhibition in Cuenca to celebrate Ecuador’s 100th year of independence from the Spanish. Getting Liut’s plane to Cuenca was debated. The original plan was to dismantle the plane and transport it from Guayaquil to Huigra via the railroad. From there, it would be people carrying the dismantled plane through the rugged mountains for 100 miles.

Liut thought the idea was awful. He told them the best way to get the plane from Guayaquil to Cuenca was to fly. It had never been done before due to the Cajas mountains.

That meant his Macchi-Henrit HO biplane had to fly at an elevation of 3,700 meters / 12,140 feet. His plane would carry the first air postal bag, so postcards were printed with the legend of First Air Mail of Ecuador.

At 9:55 in the morning of November 4, 1920, Liut took off from Guayaquil and headed for Cuenca. He landed in Cuenca just 86 minutes later.

A replica of his mail plane, El Telégrafo, sits on the grounds of Café del Museo.

If you have been to Cuenca’s airport, you have noticed it is totally surrounded by buildings. Constructed on farmland on the outskirts of Cuenca in 1941, the airport today sits in a highly populated area.

Empresa Ecuatoriana de Aviación, more commonly known as simply Ecuatoriana, was the national airline of Ecuador. Founded in 1957, Ecuatoriana served Cuenca until it folded in 2006.

Today, Cuenca’s airport is served by LATAM Airlines (Chile) and Avianca (Colombia). Cuenca is hoping to entice Copa Airlines (Panama) to come here. And there are talks underway to have service to northern Peru very soon.

A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

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Salud, mi amigo.

Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.