Museo Pumapongo stood astride the ancient ruins of one of the first settlements in the mountain valley we had come to love so well. We opted to take Rio Tomebamba for most of the way there, basking in the cool shade of its banks and pausing to snap photos of the layers of street art. Cuenca is an unapologetically expressive city, in a way that’s hard to compare to Pittsburgh or New York, though all three have a wealth of public visual art, legal or otherwise. Cartoons and caricature stood tall next to unmolested and stately old-world architecture. Both seemed confident in their silence, as if in on a private joke, as the traffic buzzed alongside the humble river.
Grand houses perch precariously on the hilltop above Rio Tomebamba. It was a gorgeous, 80 degree December day, and the river’s waters kicked up a cool breeze as it collided against rocky riffles. We followed the path past cafes and graffiti. The Universidad de Cuenca sat across Avenida 12 de Abril and students had collected on the banks, sunning themselves between classes.
A switchback staircase led up to the Centro Histórico. We climbed past a group of students sharing a joint and paused on the landing. The red dome of the Colegio Benigno Malo rose above the palms lining Fray Vicente Solano. A bust of the man stood in the middle of a traffic circle, the centerpiece of the avenue bearing his name.
We ascended to Calle Larga where businesses catering to each of Cuenca’s transient groups lined the streets. Yoga studios and Spanish language classes beckoned Cuenca’s expats, while shawarma stalls offered students a grab and go lunch. Tourists could shop for souvenir hats at shops adjacent to their boutique hotels.
The streets grew quiet as we continued East, the narrow lanes curving upward and back toward the city’s center. We admired the noble architecture, the gutters forged to resemble dragons, the woodwork carved into heavy doors. The fountains of courtyard gardens babbled just beyond their gated entrances.
As much as we treasured our walks along the river, our destination was up on the plateau of the city’s center, and we scaled a grand staircase, slathered in murals, mosaic and wheatpaste, many referencing the stately tree that anchored the main landing ¾ up the stairs. We emerged onto Calle Larga, one of the main arteries and home to a dizzying array of shops, museums and restaurants, interspersed with stately homes, verdant palms and shrubs spilling over the high walls and through the gates.
As we marched along, the traffic diminished. We could see the Eastern outskirts of town spread like a blanket from our high vantage point. The narrow street opened out onto a plaza of sorts, and we found ourselves next to La Iglesia de Todos Santos. We explored the church, pausing to appreciate a massive shrine as the shadows of clouds flowed over the mountains in the distance.
Nearby and below us was a strange bridge that ended before ever crossing Tomebamba. The appropriately named Puente Roto is the remnant of a bridge washed out in a 1950s flood. Looking at the river now and knowing that its dwindling depth is a subject of vague concern among locals, it’s hard to imagine the river ever having enough wrath to tear down the stout stone piers. The abbreviated bridge is now used as a public space, overlooking a plaza where events are often held. Today it was quiet, with a lone couple looking out towards the mountains to the south.
We trooped down Calle Larga, pausing here and there to examine graffiti or mentally log future sites of exploration. As a growing city in transition between an increasingly forgotten time and the rush of modernity, it’s anyone’s guess what will still be there when we next walk down this street.
Museo Pumapongo slowly emerged from behind the row of buildings, its weathered brutalist facade an anachronism in a city that swirled with tiled roofs, imposing colonial columns, vaulted archways, and humble adobe walls. We eagerly scaled the steps, walking past an impressive fountain and through the front door. A bored guard greeted us and directed us to an equally bored attendant behind a desk. She gave us a brief rundown of the museum’s amenities and sent us on our way.
The museum was massive, but in the midst of an extensive rehabilitation. The beaten colored guidelines on the floor alluded to mysterious past, especially when these lines led under temporary walls. One wall promised a soon to be unveiled street art display, while others were a reminder that the renovation process was a long time in coming.
We walked through a small gallery of watercolors, capturing the majesty and beauty of Cuenca’s churches and plazas. Our favorite plaza, San Sebastien was alongside pictures La Puente Roto and points around town both familiar and strange. Cuenca has plenty of mystery left for our eventual return.
I worked in a number of mediums in design school. Proficiency with charcoal, acrylics, and markers was necessary to effectively communicate one’s design. Feeling secure in my talents, I elected to take a class in watercolor painting. The results were embarrassing. Watercolor requires layers of hue to be built up slowly, adding new pigment once the underlying paint has dried. I was impatient. Puddles of color pooled into one another, creating muddy tones that warped the paper once dry. My grasp of negative space, so acute in my personal life, was wanting. I have an unyielding respect for those able to master the medium.
A gallery near the museum’s entrance featured an exceptional collection of watercolors created by local artists. The unique light reflected off the city’s colonial architecture was well-suited to the dreamy nature of the paint. We circled the room, excitedly picking out the plazas and facades and cathedrals we had grown to recognize as neighbors. There is a sense of ownership that comes with knowing a place, and we claimed what little we had earned with pride.
Relics of Cuenca’s colonial past were in another gallery; portraits and pageantry and antique furniture. Some of the displays were in English, but we reveled in our ability to decipher the more numerous Spanish placards. We found ourselves again at the central hall of the museum, admiring the bone-dry fountain that accompanied the tall shaft of an enclosed atrium. A welcoming set of polished dark wooden stairs beckoned us to explore the upstairs galleries.
Exhibits outlined Ecuador’s rich and varied cultural makeup, displaying the traditions and garb of the various ethnicities that comprise the country. The detailed skirts and peaked hats of the native women were explained, giving us new-found respect for the artistry and tenacity of the native traditions. It was a stark contrast to our experiences in the American Southwest, where the narrative is generally one of decimation and dissolution and traditions forever lost to the ether. Tribal masks were reminiscent of the artist Basquiat, famous for injecting African themes into his evocative graffiti-inspired style, forging a strange link between three continents with those same threads of universality waiting to be found in the museums of the world.
After our experience with El Museo de Cultura Prohibido, we were both somewhat excited to get a glimpse of a genuine article. As part of Pumopongo’s anthropological exhibits, shrunken heads were on display, protected in a secluded and dimly lit wing of the museum. The bizarre shapes hummed with some taboo power, and it’s little wonder that something so eerie has been thoroughly fetishized in popular culture for decades. Though no longer practiced, the art and tradition are not forgotten. Now the heads of sloths replace them in ceremonial use. The uneasy images will stay with us, but despite this, we count ourselves lucky to have seen the exhibit before that wing of the museum was closed for renovation, only a few weeks after we would leave Cuenca.
As an inquisitive pre-teen, I developed a love for learning about other cultures. Perhaps it was due to my lack of interest in most of the people I was surrounded by. When I discovered Cuenca was home to ancient ruins, my curiosity was piqued. The museum housed a number of indigenous artifacts. Ecuador is split topographically between sea-level rainforests along the coasts and Andean ridges further inland, accounting for a good deal of variance in the types of tools used. Spears, hoes, nets, and fishing boats, were displayed along with ceremonial masks, musical instruments, and wigs adorned with antlers.
Being confronted by the craftsmanship inherent in these objects always reminds me how contradictory the Westen idea of native peoples is when compared to the reality. These were people who had learned how to utilize a single plant to create food, medicine, clothing, and tools. Your average American doesn’t even know how to chop an onion. Whose skills are more rudimentary?
I remember watching a documentary about a tribe that was so far removed from civilization that they had largely been unaffected by the advancements of the last 500 years. They lived in communal huts. The women wore little more than grass skirts. They were the template on which the Western world’s vision of primitive cultures was modeled. The tribe was about to have a wedding and the cameras had been allowed to film the bridal party preparing for the ceremony. A dozen or so young women were taking turns helping each other with their hair while gossiping about the groom’s laziness. They batted examples across the hutch, citing his reluctance to help with cleaning up and how he often feigned being ill when there was a large project to be done. By the time they were summoned it had been concluded his brother was the better catch.
It was a conversation that could have been overheard hours before a $100 per plate reception. Humans have been exactly as human as we currently are for a long time. Except for the Jivaroan tribes. Shrinking the heads of your enemies is savage as fuck.
We ventured outside and walked along the ancient foundations of a civilization that was here long before the Spanish first came to conquer. Broad and weathered stone stretched leftward, while an abandoned high school loomed on our right. The back courtyard of the school was the site of a religious facility. The former home to nuns and clergy sat atop a protruding hill that overlooked the valley below, with a park immediately beneath it. We sat at the edge, admiring an ornate garden as a man herded a small group of alpacas along the park trail, imagining his irritation when a bike caused one of his herd to wander astray.
The sun paid us extra attention, somehow knowing we soon wouldn’t be seeing much of each other for several weeks at a time. My pale skin was already resembling a pastel Easter egg from our walk to the museum. Returning home along the shady riverside was not only a joy, it was an imperative.
Our route eventually took us away from the urban oasis and out into the searing light. As Yvette paused to take a photograph of something vastly less important than the UV assault on my largest organ, I broke, announcing that I needed to get the hell out of the brutal late afternoon sun. Something about the altitude always made the sun at that hour seem to burn hotter. It certainly was closer to us, technically speaking, but I was spent, more interested in collapsing into the coolness of our apartment than exploring the science of sunburn.