Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca, otherwise known simply as CUENCA (2530m), is Ecuador’s most seductive – and possibly its most beautiful – colonial city. A classic example of a planned Renaissance town in the Americas, Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and shares many architectural features with Old Quito: narrow, cobbled streets, harmonious, balconied houses with interior courtyards and an abundance of flashing white churches and monasteries – all presented without the pollution, noise and overbearing crowds of the capital.
Founded by the Spaniards on April 12, 1557, Cuenca was not the first dazzling city to be erected here: the Inca Tupac Yupanqui founded the city of Tomebamba here around 1470, which was said to have rivalled Peru’s Cuzco with its splendour. Its glory was short-lived, however, as the city was destroyed during the Inca civil war that broke out during the second decade of the sixteenth century, prompted by rival claims to the throne by the brothers Atahualpa and Huáscar. By the time Cieza de León (one of the chroniclers of the Spanish conquest) saw it in 1547, Tomebamba was in ruins, but enough remained to evoke its former grandeur: “These famous lodgings of Tumibamba were among the finest and richest to be found in all Peru…The fronts of many of the buildings are beautiful and highly decorative, some of them set with precious stones and emeralds…Today, all is cast down and in ruins, but it can still be seen how great they were.” These days, Cuenca’s Inca legacy has all but vanished, hinted at only by the foundation stones of some of its buildings, and some modest ruins excavated in the twentieth century.Read More
Museo del Banco Central
Museo del Banco Central
About half a kilometre east of the Iglesia Todos los Santos, at the eastern end of Calle Larga, the Museo del Banco Central is Cuenca’s most polished and absorbing museum. The ground floor contains a room devoted to the Inca city of Tomebamba, displaying some beautiful Inca artefacts including jewellery, fertility symbols and ritualistic objects. Also on the ground floor is a collection of nineteenth-century art, dominated by religious paintings and sombre portraits, but with some wonderful costumbrista (folk art) pieces showing indigenous people dancing, playing the fiddle or roasting a hog. The highlight of the museum is the Sala Etnografía Nacional on the first floor, which illustrates the diversity of Ecuador’s indigenous cultures using day-to-day objects and reconstructions. Displays include an extraordinary exhibition of Shuar tsantsas (shrunken heads) from the southern Oriente; a model of a masked dancer from the southern sierra; a collection of festival costumes; and many musical instruments. At the bottom of the building is the Museo Numismático, holding coins and notes of the republican and colonial epochs, dating back to the mid-seventeenth century.
Entrance to the Museo del Banco Central includes access to the Pumapungo archeological park (same hours), right behind the museum, which is where most of the artefacts displayed in the museum’s archeological sala were found. Excavations have revealed this is where the most important religious buildings of Tomebamba were located, though all that’s left to see are the foundation walls. The site also features the so-called Jardines del Inca, combining the ruins with botanical displays of important Andean plants and a bird-rescue centre.