A pretty church with light blue spires
Cuenca seemed to be at the heart of the tourist trail through Ecuador. I suppose that the UNESCO world heritage site designation, agreeable climate, and charming amalgamation of quaint colonial character and upscale modernism are partly to blame. With around 500,000 people Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador, behind Guayaquil and Quito respectively. The city is inundated with churches and museums and appears to have a lot to offer culturally. It is also located about an hour away from Cajas National Park which is supposed to offer great hiking, albeit at high altitudes of around 3,000-4,000 meters.
I had a cold so I decided that hiking in the damp cold at high elevation probably wouldn´t be the best thing, and seeing as I had some pretty rough travels ahead in the wilderness of northern Peru, I wanted to be totally recovered and well for that. So I limited myself to walking around town and seeing some of the museums and the major churches.
A real Tsantsa, a shrunken head
The central plaza is pinned in between two cathedrals, the "new" cathedral and the old cathedral. In reality, they are both old cathedrals, with the new cathedral dominating the landscape with its several domed tops and hulking structure. The old cathedral, in contrast, is much smaller and with a $2 fee to enter, I decided to skip it as every other church in town is free. Aside from the two cathedrals there is a modern art museum with some interesting artwork. I usually don´t like modern art, but since the museum was free I decided to check it out, and I was pleasantly surprised with a few nice exhibits.
Birds at the Pumapunga Museo
The biggest museum in Cuenca is the Museo Pumapunga which has several museums rolled into one and also includes some ancient ruins, a nice landscaped garden, and a mini aviary, as well as nice views over the newer part of Cuenca. There is a large section of the museum which covers the various indigenous groups of Ecuador, which was quite interesting, but the highlight for me was the exhibit on the Tsantsa or the shrunken heads. I had seen a real shrunken head before at the museum at the real equator along with a basic guide on how to make one. This exhibit had several different shrunken heads and really went into a lot of detail explaining the rituals and ceremonies behind the process. These days, it is forbidden by Ecuadorean law to make shrunken heads, but as part of the ceremonial process the tribes are allowed to make shrunken heads from sloths, which was previously one of the initial steps.
An old historic building in Cuenca
In the photos of the shrunken heads you can see that the mouths are all tied shut, this was done to prevent the evil spirits that were thought to reside within from escaping and poisoning the members of the tribe. When conquering a village the tribe wasn´t entirely barbaric, they would spare the women and children from the shrunken head ceremony. Other than the shrunken heads, there was also a section of the museum with a large coin collection from Ecuador´s monetarial history going all the way back from 1000 or so up to their present day use of the US dollar. Some more wandering of the streets led me to conclude that I had seen the highlights of Cuenca and that it was time to move on and continue south to Vilcabamba
, location of the fabled fountain of life.