Down by the rivers


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Cuenca is a tale of four rivers. They run from west to east, sent on their odyssey across the continent to the mouth of the Atlantic Ocean by the upheaval of the Andes Mountains. They give the conurbation its full heraldic Spanish name: Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca (Saint Anne of the Four Rivers of Cuenca). They flow, intertwine and weave like the city’s life, health, fate and heart lines.

The rivers have all been lined with specially-conceived promenades that cover miles on end
of solace, recreation, even meditation, under the shadow of robust endemic trees and grassy banks from where the central activity –water flowing at an almost imperceptible downhill decline– can be witnessed with indifference, admiration, or sheer bliss.

Some spots along the way invite Cuencanos to enjoy time with their families, with public jungle gyms and slides, while other areas are contoured with cobblestones and benches, expecting people to make use of them (yet most naturally prefer lying on the grass, watching the endless cycle of frothy water forming against innumerable boulders large and small). Cuenca is all about its rivers.

The central, most predominant river is the Río Tomebamba, known as San Julián el Matadero (Saint Julian the Slaughterhouse) during colonial times. The name insinuates the not-so-pretty picture of cattle being barbarically thrashed along its banks. But the image is far from its present serenity. Numerous bridges, many restored with a modern twist, join Cuenca’s Historic Center and its new town. It has also received a new class-act make-over, with uplights and spotlights bathing its riverbanks and a number of choice locations that offer a drink or bite to eat.

Living by the river.

Heading west, along Avenida Pumapungo, you reach the most important river junction in the city, the joining of the Yanuncay and the Tomebamba. This spot also becomes Cuenca’s largest park, El Paraíso. Landscaped simply and beautifully, with rocks lined against each other to delimit certain areas and a long elevated wooden boardwalk, highlighting the lovely natural setting that includes the rolling riverbed with its enormous boulders and some of Cuenca’s tallest standing trees. You’ll also notice “children playing” signs, a bizarre and colorful world clock and an entire city that actively revolves around its green pastures along peripheral roads.

The Yanuncay, which ends its journey from the heights of El Cajas National Park to lend its waters to the Tomebamba, is similar in size, yet more natural, with fewer sights but beautiful strolls. Its “monument” lies at the end of Fray Vicente Solano Avenue, which some will tell you was conceived as Cuenca’s very own Champs- Elysées. Its equivalent Arc de Triomphe is a fantastic triple bridge: two modern bridges built around a faltering colonial one that no one dared demolish. This surely says a lot about the conservationist soul of Cuencanos in general.

Tomebamba river. Photo: Yolanda Escobar.

Walking a short distance north on Solano, visit the Metales gallery or the Virgen del Bronce Church, found atop a stone wall, whose claim to fame was to feature the settlement’s first bronze religious image. Along the Paseo Río Cuenca and not far from the University of Azuay, we witness the joining of the smaller River Tarqui and the Yanuncay. While along the Yanuncay, many residential areas have formed, Río Tarqui reaches the city only at its southern edge, and following its course upstream you’ll encounter more suburban and rural settings.

Its deeper waters remind Cuencanos of their first true swimming experiences. While the three rivers give force to the Tome- bamba, pushing its waters eastward, a fourth river, the Machángara, another peripheral water- course that animates the northern, more working-class sectors of town, joins them to form a new river, the sum of them all, the Río Cuenca (which technically is not in Cuenca, ironically enough).

This southern provincial capital’s rivers lend it
an air of peace and stability. Of course, every so often, these living natural forces decide to express themselves differently; they become rowdy as torrential rains in their headwaters turn them into roiling torrents that wreak havoc downstream.
The history of the city is scarred by these waterborne calamities. But in general, Cuenca’s riverine character is a metaphor for the permanence of movement, offering a constant reminder that life is to be embraced at its natural pace.

Sharing moments at the river.

Most experiences of nature in Cuenca are dominated by these beautiful watercourses. They gave the city its name, chartered its development, determined its history, influenced its citizens’ character, and no doubt, set its course for the future, too.

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