Becoming Cuenca

A Roundup of the History of Cuenca

Oct 16, 2023

“A page of history is worth a volume of logic.” ~Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

It makes sense to look at the past to understand where you are and why things are the way they are.

That includes, Cuenca, Ecuador.

Maybe the number-one thing expats love about Cuenca is history. Its history as Cuenca goes back to 1557. This is not to ignore the Incas or the Cañari, but to focus on Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca itself.

Ansel Adams said, “Photography is an austere and blazing poetry of the real.”

And Swiss photographer Robert Frank said, “There is one thing the photo must contain – the humanity of the moment.”

It is my hope that these historical photos of Cuenca that I have dug up in the last three years give you a better ‘picture’ of what Cuenca was like.

Cuenca was founded on April 12, 1557, on the ruins of the Inca city of Tomebamba by Gil Ramírez Dávalos. Viceroy Andrés Hurtado de Mendoza, Marquis of Cañete, appointed him governor of the province of Quito to build the new town of Cuenca de América. This was rather late as other major Spanish settlements in the region, such as Quito (1534), Guayaquil (1538), and Loja (1548), were founded years earlier.

Cuenca became one of the three Spanish capitals of Ecuador. Because of that, the city’s population and importance grew steadily during the colonial era.

On November 3, 1820, the residents of Cuenca declared the city independent from Spain, following other cities of Ecuador. The Spanish commander Melchior Aymerich took swift action, and his army defeated the patriots 47 days later.

In February 1821, General Simón Bolívar sent reinforcements to the Patriot forces and aid in the liberation of Quito. The first attempt to liberate Quito failed. On May 24, 1822, the patriots’ army defeated the Spanish army on the slopes of the Pichincha volcano. The defeat of the Royalist forces brought about the liberation of Quito, which quickly led to the liberation of Ecuador from Spanish rule.

After the Spanish left, Cuenca saw economic prosperity as the city became a major exporter of quinine (cinchona bark) and straw hats (that have the misnomer of Panama Hats). A seventeenth century writer called cinchona bark more precious to mankind than all the gold and silver that the Spanish brought from South America.

Panama Hats became a big money maker for Cuenca in 1836. Local officials decided to open a hat factory to boost the city’s economy. They wanted to capture a share of the rapidly increasing export market, where most of the hats were being shipped to the U.S. By 1850, Americans were buying 220,000 hats every year. Hat making was so profitable that Cuenca became an economic power in Ecuador.

During this prosperity, Cuenca’s first Bank, Banco del Azuay, was founded in 1913. At the beginning of the 1920s, Quito architect Luis Felipe Donoso Barba was hired to design its new and glorious neoclassical building. Banco del Azuay ruled the financial world as it was the only bank in Cuenca until 1935. The bank operated for 86 years, until Ecuador’s financial crisis in 1999. Today, the municipal government of Cuenca calls the historic bank home.

The transition to modernity was a slow one for Cuenca. Guayaquil and Quito progressed at a lot faster pace because of the city’s isolation. Roads to the outside world basically did not exist.

This meant muling everything in. The indigenous were hired and given a derogatory name: Los Guandos. It was a form of exploitation of the indigenous people as they used a guando, a stretcher to mule things in.

In 1912, the first car was brought to the city (in the photo above). Because of the lack of roads to Cuenca, it had to be brought in pieces to be put back together after it got here.

What boggles my mind is that the car really had nowhere to go. There were no roads to drive out of the city. And at that time, Cuenca only went as far south of the Tomebamba River for a few blocks. Obviously, the person who owned the car wanted it for prestige more than practicality.

The second photo of cars was taken around the same time in Cuenca. This photo was identified as “Roadside Eatery.” Note the lack of buildings in the photo. Ecuador’s population in 1930 was about two million.

Finding census figures for that time period is difficult, but if we say that Cuenca was around four percent of the country’s population (which it is today), there were approximately 75,000 residents in the city when the second photo was taken.

If you make it to Cuenca, one of the things you will quickly notice are the numerous religious shrines and references to Catholicism. The Roman Catholic church’s influence here lives in everyday life, education, and important life events, including baptisms, marriages, and funerals. Catholic churches are found in nearly every town square, and Catholic shrines are found in unsuspecting places.

Catholicism became influential in Ecuador after the arrival of the Spanish in 1531, led by Francisco Pizarro. The Catholic Episcopal Conference estimates that 85 percent of Ecuador is Roman Catholic, with 35 percent actively practicing.

Some groups, particularly the indigenous people who lived in the mountains, follow a syncretic form of Catholicism that combines indigenous beliefs with orthodox Catholic doctrine. In the Amazonian region, Catholic practices are often combined with elements of shamanism.

Religious decorations are prominently displayed in homes, businesses and even on public transportation. Many trucks are decorated with religious references to Jesús, María, and Jehová. These displays obviously include small garden shrines. Many have a statue of Christ, Mary, or a saint on a pedestal or in an alcove. Some shrines include paintings, statues, and even architectural elements.

If you are interested in religious monuments, historic churches, and holy places, Cuenca is a great place to be. There are numerous historic churches in El Centro, and Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción is the crown jewel of the city.

Cuencanos celebrate the big religious holidays, but maybe no holiday generates as much anticipation, excitement, and silliness as Carnaval (I spelled it correctly).

Traditionally, Carnival is the feast or series of feasts leading into Lent that begins with Ash Wednesday. The Lenten season is intended as a time of abstinence to purify the adherent for the coming Holy Week of Easter, commemorating Jesus’ 40-day retreat of fasting and prayer in the desert wilderness where he himself was subject to temptations of the flesh.

Carnaval likely takes its name from the Middle Latin expression “carne vale” (“farewell flesh”). It refers to the common custom of refraining from meat-eating throughout Lent and perhaps to a more general parting with worldly comforts and pleasures as well.

Nowadays, the practice of tossing up flowers, flour, and water has transformed into an all-out water and foam war amongst friends and family.

And frankly, pretty much anyone you see on the street.

Carnaval in Ecuador is the Mardi Gras of the country. It gives children and the young at heart the perfect opportunity to indulge in some streetside mischief, such as throwing water balloons, flour, and eggs at each other.

And… Squirting an unsuspecting passersby with foam.

According to my source for this photo, this is El Vado in 1870. The literal translation for El Vado is “The Ford,” a shallow place in a river or stream allowing one to walk across.

The El Vado neighborhood was created the year Cuenca was founded. Upon reaching the high plain called Paucarbamba, Spanish conquerors planted a cross, and that location, which is 450 feet / 300 meters from the Tomebamba River, became the first neighborhood of the city.

Carved in marble, a cross is planted on the “Balcony” overlooking the river. Placed on a lime and brick pedestal in 1881, the cross is a religious symbol of travelers who had to cross the waters of the Tomebamba River, when it was swollen.

El Vado is not a very large area. It runs from Calle La Condamine, going up Calle Tarqui to Calle Simón Bolívar. Calle Juan Montalvo is the only street which vehicles have access to Cruz del Vado square.

Today this neighborhood has become one of the most emblematic, both for its beauty and its history. When visiting this neighborhood, you will experience the history of bakers, barbers, musicians, tinsmiths, and famous people.

This photo of Mercado 9 de Octubre is young compared to others I have shown you. It was taken in 1943, about 10 years after the market opened.

El Mercado 9 de Octubre is located in the historic center of the city, between Calle Mariscal Lamar and Calle Hermano Miguel. Most expats will know it for being right next to “The Rotary,” officially known as Mercado de Artesanias Rotary.

The creation of the mercado generated a change in land use. Stores, warehouses, and grocery stores were established. It created a trend towards commercial activity in the area that continues to this day.

In the recent past, Mercado 9 de Octubre was renovated and modernized for the ever-growing city. You will find almost anything you need at this market and the artisans’ market (The Rotary) next door.

Another important market area is Plaza de San Francisco. In 1558, Gil Ramírez Dávalos arranged to build a public space dedicated to the commercial exchange of agricultural products. Originally named Plaza la Feria, its name has changed, and it has ceased to be a market for perishable products to become an open shopping center, specializing in clothing and shoes for tourists and residents.

At one time, vehicles were allowed to park in the plaza. There was even a small Esso/Texaco gas station on the east side of the plaza, when one could drive up and down Calle Padre Aguirre. Today, that portion of the street is only for pedestrians.

The deterioration of the plaza with the multiplication of stalls led the city to a controversial decision. Work was carried out in 2017 and 2018 to revitalize the plaza. That meant the displacement of dozens of merchants who used to sell their goods there.

This integral rehabilitation of the plaza included new water fountains for drinking, an overhaul of the sewer system, electrical and telephone lines being buried, and the “intervention in streets adjacent to the square in order to improve mobility in the historic center of the city.”

In this undated photo, what you see gives you a very good idea of what Cuenca looked like in the early-1940s. I base that on the clothing and the gorgeous tall building in the background.

That beautiful building with the dome is Colegio Benigno Malo. On October 30, 1923, construction began on the new French neoclassical-style high school building. Construction took nearly 13 years to complete the school building, opening in 1936.

The two-story building nearest to the young men is no longer there. Today, a multi-story building for public housing stands there.

What is interesting is that the photo says the boulevard below is Tres de Noviembre. I have no idea when the name was changed as it is now Ave. 12 de Abril. Tres de Noviembre is now a pedestrian way that cannot be seen in the photo. That walkway follows the Tomebamba River on the north side of it.

The street going by Benigno Malo is still Av. Fray Vicente Solano. Eighty years ago, it went into forested land just beyond Benigno Malo.

And it is hard to see because of the clarity of the photo, but Iglesia de Turi can barely be made out on the hill in the background. It is the hill that dips behind Benigno Malo.

I hope these two posts give you a better idea of what Cuenca was. To me, it is always fun to look at photos that give a great perspective of the history of the area.

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.

You may want to sign up to be notified when I post new information and photos. By doing this, you will get the latest as soon as it goes online.

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.