As an extra add-on to our Spanish lessons, we chose the “cultural outings” package. This meant that every day for our first week of studies, we had a two-hour excursion around the city where we got to use our Spanish while continuing to learn. Our instructor’s name was Carlos, and our frog Carlos was very excited about the idea of following a namesake around town!
On Monday, Carlos took us to Parque Calderon, also known as Parque Central. This is basically the heart of the Old City – El Centro. It has lots of palm trees, benches to sit on, a fountain and a statue, and is the perfect place to sit and rest or eat lunch (we did so many times). The park is bordered on three of its four sides by the courthouse, the Old Cathedral and Catedral de la Immaculada Concepción, a.k.a. the New Cathedral.
The New Cathedral is the most popular building in Cuenca. It was built in 1885, is made of Italian marble, and has three giant domes covered in sly-blue tile. Inside, the altar has features very similar to St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Unfortunately, there was only a designer for this cathedral, and no architect. The result is that the existing structure cannot support the final two stories that were meant to be added, and so the cathedral remains unfinished.
One of the highlights was the crypt underneath the New Cathedral. This was not nearly as creepy as the ones in Paris or Rome; instead it was more of an indoor columbarium where walls of niches held the remains of the devout – all safely tucked away behind marble memorials. It also had a domed ceiling with amazing acoustics, and some cool angel statues just begging for a high five.
We also saw the courthouse which has beautiful French-style tin ceilings and a covered marble courtyard. The marble here is pink, Ecuadorian marble, as are many of the buildings and even the sidewalks. There is also a theater which now hosts free cultural programs, but has been used for all sorts of things at one time or another including a porn theater.
Tuesday took us to an older neighborhood of Cuenca called Del Vado. This neighborhood is an honest-to-goodness UNESCO World Heritage site, which sometimes creates a bit of a problem. Since it has this historical significance, the residents cannot make any repairs or alterations to their properties without getting permits first. The permits are very, very expensive, and every attention to historical accuracy is necessary when making repairs or restorations. Most of the people who live here cannot afford the permits for the repairs, so they fall back on the only financially viable option: let the homes collapse. Then they are free to build what they like on the same spot. The result is that this historical treasure of a neighborhood is literally disintegrating.
Del Vado also features an interesting pop-culture spot in Cuenca: Prohibido Centro Cultural. This a museum/gallery/bar dedicated to things that are prohibited in Cuenca. Being a very Catholic city in Catholic country on Catholic continent, there is much that is frowned upon here. Prohibido is dedicated primarily to alternative art, and rock and roll. There is a heavy emphasis on nudity for art’s sake, skulls, vampires, demons, heavy metal, and anti-religious art. Naturally, I loved it, even though it is a bit weird to see a Beatles patch for sale next to that of some ridiculous death-metal band. I can´t say I had any problems with the vampire chicks or the multitude of skulls. Stephanie certainly appreciated the point behind it all even though not all the art and music was to her taste.
On Wednesday, we took the longest walk of all to Parque Paraiso. To get there, we walked along the beautiful Rio Tomebamba, and through Calle de las Herrerias. On this street – also known as Avenue of the Blacksmiths – the ancient craft of iron working is still practiced by hand. At the end of the street is a small plaza with a sculpture of Vulcan, the Greek god who forged Zeus´s lightning bolts, and is, presumably, the being all Cuencan blacksmiths aspire to be like.
Parque Paraiso is the largest green space in all of Cuenca, and Stephanie especially was really excited to find it. There is tons of grass, a playground, a fitness playground, and huge, ancient trees. There are some trails you can walk on with boardwalks, which we took to the place where three rivers meet, and the water rushes by. We saw colibris, or hummingbirds, and I even found a mariquita – the Spanish name for my ladybug. There are paddle boats that you can ride in for free, and there’s a pretty gazebo where ex-pats get together each week. It is definitely a place where we knew we’d be spending a lot of time!
Thursday´s outing was to the largest and only public cemetery in Cuenca. This too is a UNESCO heritage site, and the who´s who of Cuenca´s history are buried here. Basically, anyone with a street named after them. We learned all about why people decide to be buried in the ground vs. having their remains placed in the walls of the columbarium. Interestingly, although there are no Jews in Cuenca, there is a tiny Jewish cemetery walled off along one edge of the big one. It contains about 20 graves of the few Jews who lived in Cuenca around the middle of the 20th century.
Finally, on Friday, we hiked up a hill to the North of the city to an old church with tremendous views of the whole city. It was here that we learned about the last Incan emperor and his sophisticated network of messengers. When they brought him the news that the Spaniards were devastating the continent, he chose to destroy his own city rather than let the Spanish come and raze it for him.
After each outing, Carlos would ask us what we saw, and we would tell him in Spanish about everything we had seen and learned. It certainly was good practice. Too bad I´m still not as fluent in Spanish as I expected to be!