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Convoking the muses of Cuenca.

ECUADORIANS HAVE LONG considered it their country's loveliest tourist destination, but to foreign visitors the charms of colonial Cuenca, Ecuador's third largest city, have gone largely unnoticed. With no paved roads to connect it to the rest of the country until the 1960s, this small but sophisticated enclave in the southern Andean highlands has remained off the tourist's beaten path. Cuenca is all too easily sidestepped in favor of the more accessible splendors of cosmopolitan Quito, Ecuador's two-mile-high capital city and the tropical allure of its sprawling port, Guayaquil, on the Pacific cost.

Now all that may change if the city's leaders have their way. As part of a country-wide promotional campaign, a group of American development specialists were invited to explore Cuenca and its environs in order to assess the area's tourist-attracting potential. After sampling its mild climate, its superb treasury of colonial architecture and decorative arts, its pre-Colombian ruins, its lakestudded national parks and Indian markets with their array of fine handicrafts, theteam promptly declared Cuenca one of Ecuador's--if not South America's--best kept secrets.

For all its centuries-old legacy of isolation, Cuenca is not now nor ever has been as sleeply backwater town. As the capital of Azuay province and a respected center of learning since the colonial era, its three universities have supplied this small south American republic with a continuing sream of prominent diplomats, poets, jurists and writers. The city is the birthplace of such illustrious figures as Luis Cordero, a nineteenth century writer who became president of the republic; Cesar Davila Andrade, a poet of international fame during the 1940s; and the contemporary novelist/journalist Eliecer Cardenas. For years (until the 1940s) Cuenca was the site of the only regularly held meeting of poets in Latin America, the annual Fiesta de la Lira, where people lieterally became drunk with poetry and rhyme and reason competed for survival. Thsi event has evolved into today's Encuentro de Escritores, a triennial meeting of writers from throughout Ecuador, sponsored by the University of Cuenca. Small wonder, then, that Cuenca is referred to as the Athens of the Andes.

The city has also nourished a variety of noted painters and scupltors and boasts an intense cultural and artistic life with dozens of theaters, concert halls and museums, such as the impressive Museo de Arte Moderno. This museum is the venue for the Bienal Internacional de Pinturas-Cuenca, a biennial exhibition brining together prominent visual artists from throughout the Hemisphere. The government of Ecuador has been instrumental in providing both financial assistance and resources for these international exhibitions, the third of which is being planned for October of 1991.

Today, Cuenca's burgeoning population, now past the 250,000 mark, reflects the city's growing role as a commercial hub for the country's little-developed southern highland region. Comfortably nestled into the recesses of the fertile Andes-rimmed Oucarabamba Valley and fed by four rivers--the Tomebamba, Yanuncay, Tarqui and Machangra--Cuenca was founded in 1557 on the ruins of an ancient holy city built by the prosperous Canari Indians. The Canari called the place Guapdondelig, which signified "as big as the sky." (The Quechua Indians later called it Paucarbamba, meaning "valley of the flowers.") Captured by Inca forces in the late fifteenth century following decades of fierce battling, the site was soon transformed into the splendid metropolis of Tombebamba where gold-encrusted temples and palaces were said to rival those of the imperial capital at Cuzco. Still the city's existence was to be short-lived, its fate sealed with the arrival of the Spaniards in the 1540s.

According to Ecaudorean historian Alejandor Carrion, the Spanish lieutenant Gil Ramirez Davalos began exploring the New World in search of an idylic spot whic would fulfill the dream of his boss, Don Diego Hurtado y Mendoza, the Marques de Canete, who was also Viceroy of Peru. When Ramirez Davalos communicated the news that he had found such a spot, Hurtado y Mendoza rejoiced and gave his lieutenant the authority to call it Santa Ana de los Rios de Cuenca.

While there are few pre-Columbian ruins in evidence within the city's confines to recall its former glory days, some recently discovered Incan walls can now be seen along the Tomebamba River. Not far away, washerwomen still spread their clothes to dry by its grassy banks while at their backs, on gently sloping bluffs, rise the stately, ocher-colored mansions of the city's first residents. It is the Tomebamba, on its way east to the Amazon River, which divides the city into two distinct levels--to the south, the newly developed residential areas and to the north, old Cuenca with its bountiful markets, balconied homes, flowered plazas and narrow cobblestone streets.

Here in the colonial section, Cuenca shows her proudest face--not without wrinkles to be sure, but full of the beauty and allure of an enduring heritage where Indian and Spanish meet and meld. Some twenty-seven churches punctuate the red tile-roofed cityscape plus two cathedrals, both located off Parque Calderon, a gracefully landscaped expanse at the city's colonial heart. Catedral Antiqua is in fact Cuenca's oldest building. Although religious services are no longer held here, the building is used frequently for a variety of cultural activities. Catedral Nueva, its younger rival, was begun in 1880 to accommodate the growing numbers of faithful. An imposing structure with its pink marble facade and blue-tiled domes, Catedral Nueva was orignially designed to become South America's largest church, but remains unfinished to this day due to architectural miscalculations.

Less than a block away at Sucre and Aguirre streets is the pint-sized Plaza del Carmen with its colorful flower stalls spread lavishly around a gurgling foundtain. Like other marketplaces in the city, it is presided over by its cholas cuencanas, native women of Indian/Spanish bloodlines, renowned throughout Ecuador for their beaty and unique style of dress. Off the same square lies the Monasterio de la Concepcion (founded in 1599), a repository of priceless religious art pieces contributed to the Catholic Church over the centuries by the families of cloistered Carmelite nuns. The nuns themselves commissioned paintaings, adding further to the Church's rich collection.

The nearby Monasterio del Carmen contains more treasures of colonial art, including some works by the revered Indian sculptor and painter Manuel Chili, known as Caspicara. A native of Quito, Caspicara was reared by Franciscan priests and worked during the second half of the seventeenth century when artisitic creation in the city was focused on the fulfillment of religious practices. Caspicara is renowned for his elegant baroque-styled sculptures and engravings, as well as for his miniature carvings, executed with such sharpness that they defy imagination. Other outstanding works found in the Monasterio del Carmen are the sketches done by the mestizo artist Miguel de Santiago for a series called Los misterios del rosario.

A short walk leads to the Plazza de San Francisco, another daily marketplace specializing in clothes and woven articles of all materials, shpaes and sizes. This market is noted for its ponchos, rugs, belts and blankets as well as finely woven scarfs in English tweed patterns. Many of these items are made in the northern highlands and transported to Cuenca by the prosperous Otavalo Indians. Known not only for expert weaving but also for their astute business sense, the Otavaleno, with their distinctively long braided hair, knee-length white pants and dark ponchos, can be seen trading in markets throughout Ecuador and, indeed, all of South America.

Locally made handicrafts from both Azuay and neighboring Canar provinces are readily available in Cuenca's downtown shops and play an important role in national craft production, now enjoying a spirited revival under government sponsorship. They include hand and machine embroidered dresses, blouses and hand bags, as well as ceramics, furniture and jewelry. But Cuenca's most prominent craft business is centered around the production of the world famous sombrero de Toquilla, Montecristi o Jipijapa, better known as the Panam hat. Although woven for centuries in several areas of Ecuador, these elegant hats carry their moniker through a close association with Panama where they were sold in large numbers to California-bound gold seekers crossing the Isthmus, or so one story goes. Another theory is that Theodore Roosevelt made the hat popular when he wore it in Panama during the construction of the canal.

Today about half of all Ecuador's Panama hats come from Cuenca and its environs. Not to be missed is the city's Thursday morning hat market in Maria Auxiliador Plaza where weavers from near and far come to haggle with wholesalers over their week's output. At the same time they replenish their supplies of the supple toquilla straw, the fiber produced from a palm-like plant grown in the country's coastal regions and which is used to make the Panama hats. From the marketplace, the hats are delivered to one of a half dozen urban factories (some are open to visitors) where their loose rims are finished in preparation for export. While stylish, attractive and durable, these hand-fashioned Panama hats from the Cuenca area take only about two days to make and are genrally considered of ordinary quality. Higher grades, taking two months or more to complete, hail from the remote town of Montecristi on the Pacific Coast and can cost thousands of dollars.

Visits to Cuenca's outlying villages afford a first rate opportunity to view regional crafts being made by traditional methods as well as the chance to cathc the color and activity of weekly native Indian markets. One town worthy of exploration is Azogues, just nineteen miles outside the capital along the Pan American highway. Surrounded by rich ore deposits, Azogues is a center for tanning and flour milling. Here visitors have yet another opportunity to witness the manufacture of Panama hats and on Saturdays can take in the sights of a bustling hat market.

The colonial towns of Gualaceo and Chordeleg also have their own Sunday markets which can be seen easily in one morning with an early start. In Gualaceo, long a center of ikat dyeing and weaving in Ecuador, the Sunday market displays piles of multicolored macanas, handwoven shawls with long, intricate macarma fringes. Other stands are loaded with semi-tropical fruits, vegetables and household wares. Chordeleg, a jewelry center dating back to pre-Inca times, produces fine silver and gold filigree work, plus wood carvings, pottery and textiles.

Two other points of interest in the area are the ruins of Ingapirca and El Cajas National Park. Located to the north in Canar province, a two hour drive from Cuenca, the archeological complex of Ingapirca contains Ecuador's best preserved pre-Columbian ruins. Whether Ingapirca was originally a Canari temple, an astronomical observatory, or a fortress is still a mater of speculation. However, while under Incan domination in the fifteenth century, it gained renown as the favorite residence of the emperor Huayan Capac, a native of Cuenca who fathered the last great emperor, Atahualpa. Open to the public since 1966, Ingapirca boasts an adjacent museum containing a fine collection of Canari artifacts.

Some eighteen miles west of Cuenca, lies El Cajas National Park, an ideal destination for campers, hikers and birdwatchers. With more than 250 lakes, rivers and streams dotting its landscape, it is also a favorite with fishermen.

Cuenca has definitely stepped into the twentieth century, but the old ways live on. In a local marketplace a snake charmer donning his Sunday suit and sporting a freshly vaselined mustache lures toursits into having their fate read by his ancient and tried looking phython. A bright-lipsticked woman ("she's not from here," offers another) is showing others the art of applying make-up for a small fee. "You've got to look good to feel good," she announces, a ditto of television slogans.

"Yeah, we're one of the largest cities in Ecuador now," bemoans a native of Cuenca, "but we still have a heart and we live for our poetry, our art and our music."

Norma Romano-Benner, a native of Bolivia, is currently a writer for the U.S. Information Agency in Washington, D.C. She has worked for UPI in the United States and as deputy bureau chief for the Andean region, based in Lima. Suzanne Murphy is a freelance writer based in California.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; assessment of Cuenca, Ecuador's tourist-attracting potential
Author:Romano-Benner, Norma; Murphy, Suzanne
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jan 1, 1991
Previous Article:Peru meets a menace.
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