Blog WHS Visits

WHS #643: Cuenca

They just call it ‘Cuenca’ in Ecuador, but with the Spanish Cuenca also inscribed we have two WHS with the same name! So for the website I’m sticking to its full name: Santa Ana de los Rios de Cuenca. Looking at the current state of our connections, links, reviews (1) and photos (1) for this WHS, not many previous visitors found anything to write home about or even had a critical look at its specific site page. So with Cuenca being the first stop on my Ecuador trip, it’s now time for a makeover.

Main door of the New Cathedral

Adding additional links proved to be hard. Actually none of the key attractions of the city has a functioning website. I found a number of blog posts from mainly Americans living in the city glorifying life there, but most were too shallow to warrant a link. I eventually settled for 5 Things You Can't Miss In Cuenca's Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. The best website about Cuenca still is the official one from the local tourist department. It does have comprehensive listings of churches, museums etc with their opening hours. I used it in planning my itinerary for the day, as it has so much more detail compared to what I had been able to find elsewhere.

I easily found 11 additional connections to characterize Cuenca. The New Cathedral, the city’s main landmark, in itself is a rich source. It was designed by a German friar, has 3 blue glazed domes, Carrara marble on the floors and is considered unfinished (there should have been 2 more domes). I visited on a Sunday during one of the almost continuous masses. The huge church can hold 10,000 people and this number surely was present. There are video screens attached to the pillars so even from far the people can see what the priest is doing exactly. A connection ‘kitsch’ would be needed to further describe the interior of this New Cathedral. There’s a 3m high statue of Pope John Paul II for example that looks like a gigantic plastic doll.

Remigio Crespo Toral Museum

The World Monuments Fund (WMF) and the US Ambassadors Fund have been active in Cuenca. The WMF supported the renovation of the Remigio Crespo Toral Museum. It only finished in 2014 and so is missing from many guidebooks and websites about Cuenca. It’s worth visiting though and is free to enter. This former house of a poet shows you how the elite lived in the late 19th, early 20th century. I can disclose that they were fond of Paris. Both WMF and Ambassadors Fund spent their money at the Todos Santos Complex. It covers a historic church (with roots going back to 1540), garden and bakery. Unfortunately it was closed on the day that I visited Cuenca.

Another notable location is Pumapongo. Pumapongo is the archaeological site that covers remains of the Inca city of Tomebamba. The story is that Tomebamba was already in ruins when the Spanish arrived, and that they choose to build their own city 2km away. I think we have to let go the connection Built over the ruins of an Incan city, as this was not technically the case in Cuenca (in contrast to Quito and Cuzco). Both are now enclosed within the modern city, which with 400,00 inhabitants seems to fully cover the valley. I found the ruins more impressive than I had anticipated. The site has a very straight canal running through it, with an “Inca" bath” at the center. Next to it they have re-created gardens, and there are manmade terraces that go all the way up to where the ceremonial center was.

Site of Pumapongo

In all I had expected a little more from Cuenca. For me it did not live up to charming colonial centres such as Guanajuato (Mexico), Antigua (Guatemala) and Granada (Nicaragua). Maybe this is because of its fairly large size, or I was distracted too much by the rainy weather. The city had its heydays in the late 19th and early 20th century, and this period reflects more in its buildings than the colonial era. It has always been a bit of an outpost and did not see the riches of towns that experienced mining booms.

Els - 19 September 2017

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Jay T 22 September 2017

Yes, that was I. The owner of the company is Dutch, and she was very helpful in setting me up with a tour to the park. I hope you have (or had) good weather when visiting, and hopefully you can get a glimpse of Sangay mountain itself!

Els Slots 22 September 2017

Hi Jay
I am doing a tour of Ecuador in your footsteps! Two days ago I was in the office of Julio Verne Travel in Riobamba to arrange a visit to Sangay. They asked me why I wanted to go there and I explained the WHS-thing. "Oh, we have had someone here last year who had the same reason". Was it you?

Jay T 22 September 2017

You beat me to it! I had a Santa Ana de Los Rios de Cuenca review scheduled for last Sunday, but was too busy to post. I guess I'll hold off a few weeks for that. Sorry you had rain on your visit (it rained for me earlier this summer, too), but I hope you enjoy Ecuador!