With streets that twist and turn and spiral upward into cul-de-sacs, it’s becoming clear that we’ll only have the opportunity to see a fraction of Cuenca in the two months before we head back to the states. Each time we leave the apartment we try to walk a new way, and with every detour we discover another bodega or empanada shop or panaderia tucked down a quiet street. We make mental notes of all these quaint shops, places we would like to explore but will probably not get around to. There are no phone numbers, no websites. Their locations are not listed on Google Maps.
Maps can be misleading as a whole here. Cuenca is a city of hills, and roads one might expect to intersect are, at times, on different levels. Conversely, stairwells and unmarked walkways will unexpectedly connect, providing easy passage between neighborhoods. Cuenca is in the process of implementing a light rail line, and we followed along a length of the finished track. Murals depicting the region’s indigenous flora and fauna line the walls of the street that tunnels underneath. There is a vibrant street art scene here, and though the work varies in technical ability, we often stop to admire the tilework and graffiti-covered walls.
We went on a wonderful adventure today. We’ve gotten more of a feel for the city as we run errands, and have been increasingly excited to actively explore. The sun was out, trees and shrubs were sporting radiant purple and orange blossoms, and by the riverside, the din of diesel of the slithering buses and cars is hardly noticed.
First, we trekked into the edge of downtown, enjoying the scenery, taking pictures and getting a better sense of the city itself. Navigating the sometimes chaotic streets can be a bit daunting, but we’ve figured out how to get from point A to point B without playing too much Frogger. Crossing signals are mostly reserved for the city center, a few miles away from our part of town, and trips around the neighborhood require taking rush-hour into consideration. Along the way, we’ve found shortcuts and spots to visit and a treasure trove of street art. Our destination for the day was El Museo de Cultura Prohibido.
The city of Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due largely to the stunning architecture of the many cathedrals located in its Centro Histórico. The Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, sits in the heart of the city, its crowning jewel. Inspired by Rome’s Basilica Papale di San Pietro, it’s three powder blue domes carve a stunning scene against the backdrop of the Andes Mountains. Amidst the ornate churches, the gilding, and marble sits El Museo Cultura Prohibido, a refreshingly distasteful antithesis to the Catholicism which surrounds it.
We rang the buzzer beneath a golden Medusa at the entrance. A slim man with long, loose dark hair cracked the door and asked for payment for our admittance. Unable to change our $10 bill, he pointed us past the red mosaic tiles of the entry toward a register. The register’s primary purpose was in handling the business of the small, attached cafe. Though currently closed, its proprietress seemed willing to undertake a search, and we once again found ourselves in the uncomfortable position of waiting while a shopowner scrambled for change. I scanned the room as she dug through envelopes stuffed with various bills. A life-size poster of the man who had let us in, a testament to his mastery of the tattoo arts, watched from the wall to our left.
With our payment squared away, we doubled back to experience the museum from its entrance. A throne was exhibited near the doorway, the crest of its backrest punctuated by miniature skulls. A doll of a baby lay beneath a grate in a coffin-shaped opening in the floor. There was a guillotine, two bone chandeliers, a number of statues contorted with pained expressions. It was like if the witch who tried to eat Hansel and Gretel made folk art.
El Museo is not well liked by its neighbors, which is hardly a surprise given the fact that the country is staunchly Catholic. It’s not uncommon to see people walk by churches and cross themselves in the shadow of the steeple. When researching the place, we found that the neighbors have tried more than once to shut the place down.
The decidedly satanic and violent Christian iconography among other things, makes the cafe/performance space/museum a fully immersive installation piece, albeit an R-rated one. As macabre as it all was, it was beautiful, and clearly a labor of love. A disused jewelry counter at the back had a backsplash of old and curling photographs, depicting a loose and happy family of punks, goths, musicians and gangly poets. These are the same kind of people we have shared many a dive bar with. The thought made me smile, even as I gazed upon saints with zippered vaginas and a Gollum-like statue installed at the bottom of a shaft peering up with frightened yellow eyes. A few coins glinted up in the pale light. The experience was well worth the $1.50 admission.
I could understand how some sensitive souls might find a mural with a gaping mouth of a vagina offensive. However, trying to take action against the group seemed ridiculous, like being horrified by the realism of a high school-produced haunted house. The second floor was partially exposed to the elements, a fact gleaned when one such element blew open the stairwell’s thin privacy curtain. A number of crusty bohemians ambled about the open room, and I wondered how people managed to muster up more than mild irritation at what was essentially an elaborate art project.
We explored the El Vado neighborhood, known for its craftsmen. The white straw hats of a sombreria lay in stark rows against its Tiffany blue walls. Metalworkers toiled away in the mouths of shops, uninhibited by the occasional onlooker. We paused to admire the wares in a shop of antiques. The marionettes featured in its window were unintentionally sinister and far more threatening than the scene we’d just left.
We wove down the narrow sidewalks single file. The city seems determined to keep up with the times and signs of construction are everywhere. Even the domes of the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción are ringed with scaffolding. Stanchions along the perimeter of an empty lot had been covered in murals. I was taken by the consistent efforts Cuenca makes in maintaining its charm and stopped to take a photograph. Or “Stopped short,” J would say, my newfound interest in photography once again causing him to question how I managed to navigate New York for so long.
We continued on and reached one of the downtown markets, taking a few sly pictures. Advertisements and the prevalence of Avengers and Pokemon make it clear that Ecuadorians have more in common with Americans than not, with the notable exception of community life. While people have phones, they’re not glued to them. Neighbors talk in the shade of awnings of market stalls, women chase down the milkman, children play in the alleys. The ice cream truck swings through the neighborhood every day, a recording of a jocular man relaying the flavors in between exaggerated chuckles. The daily life of other cultures isn’t a commodity to be thrown up on Instagram, it’s something to directly experience. Pulling a phone out and snapping a picture is often more intrusive than anything.
Craving refreshment, we went to Jodoco Belgian Brew in the Plaza de San Sebastián. The impressive cathedral of the same name sits to the Northwest of the square. Fading daylight and a flock of pigeons crowded along its steps had given it an unusual moodiness. I stepped near to frame the shot and the pigeons took to the air, engulfing me in the process. I tried to recall if swarming birds were one of the ten plagues. When it was over I stood unscathed. ‘No hoy, pájaros.’
My first few years in New York were spent waiting tables at a Belgian brasserie. My service imbued me with a fondness for the country’s beer and a deep respect for its potential for hangover. Jodoco manages to import a small selection, but more impressively, brews their own. A raw beef carpaccio with grapefruit and parmesan was both fresh and unctuous and a lovely way to pace our consumption.
We grabbed a snack at a panaderia and stopped for a beer at Jodoco, a surprising Belgian cafe in a nearby plaza. We took the opportunity to practice our Spanish (B/C+) and enjoy some spot-on beers and some baller carpaccio. We’ll certainly be back. We stopped at the liquor store on the way home, stocking up for a night of writing. In the evening I hit the 20,000-word mark as well as the bottle, hard, meaning the next day was destined to be spent mostly in sweatpants and the slow agony of a hangover.
I don’t always drink to write, but when I do, it’s absolutely worth it. Poring over the results the next day dulled the misery considerably.