El Barranco: Along the tell-tale river


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Any graffiti-washed public staircase serves to get you down to El Barranco, Cuenca’s most accessible linear park —perhaps its quaintest corner, its defining attraction— and the steep mansion-lined northern riverbank of the Río Tomebamba. If we follow our path out of El Vado, we might as well walk down the staircase there, one of the most scenic descents, or a little further to the west at Otorongo where a more or less complete “Barranco Walk” could begin, walking east.

In a few years’ time, knowing Cuenca’s flare
for good taste and smart rendering of ageing constructions, this old coal trader’s neighborhood will probably be “hip city”. Right now, only two popular cafés, Otorongo’sand Magnolia, share an unusually large, open square, catering to students from the University of Cuenca, found a little to the east along the “left” bank.

The pun’s intended. You must understand, there may be a debate on how French Cuenca really is, but the river makes analogies easy, perhaps too easy. The bridges, the mix between new bridges and old bridges, can’t help summon those of the French capital.

Of course, this is misleading, since the Tomebamba is a much more friendly river than the Seine. You feel like taking your shoes off, getting your feet wet, it looks and feels so clean. You have the wonderful grassy banks to lay on, to picnic on. Yes, Grand-Jatte by Seurat all over again!

Photo: Jorge Vinueza.

The more picturesque, romantic Tomebamba bank is the northern bank, where a pleasant cobblestone path has been built, and at night, lights color the gurgling flow of the river. The hind sides of all the grandiose buildings of Calle Larga fill walkers with a feeling of “boy, I wish that house were mine”. Some have already fallen to someone’s whim and have visibly been over- hauled. Yet most are falling apart, inciting one to imagine them refurbished, with their gorgeous views and lordly architecture. One of these restored abodes lies straight across from the University of Cuenca, and is known as La Casa de los Arcos.

We suggest you stroll without really paying atten- tion to what attractions or visitor sites lie ahead, since the sheer experience of walking along the river is inspiring in its own right. But you do have, on the opposite bank, the handsome Esquina de las Artes, a gallery space for contemporary art and design shops that’s worth a look.

Up towards the zigzag staircase that reaches the intersection of Calle Benigno Malo and Calle Larga, you may notice Zoociedad, a rundown construction that come alive at night, hangout for the artsy- inclined, while Inca Lounge, further on, seems more straight-forward conservative. Hotel Crespo, one of Cuenca’s classic large-scale hotels, is an enormous mustard, scaled construction which steps its way up from the riverbank’s slope to Calle Larga, featuring some of the most organized graffiti of this area along its adjacent narrow ascending staircase.

El Vado. Photo: Jorge Vinueza.

Who really knows what will come and what will go in terms of things to do and see along El Barranco as time goes on? The crowning jewel of the walk, to date, lies at the beautiful CIDAP, a heritage residence that has become a petite, yet attractive, People’s Art Museum with temporary shows (we happened to come across an inspiring Masks exhibit that brought together items from throughout Latin America).

Next to CIDAP, find another staircase, with more jumbled grafitti, back up to Calle Larga, or continue downriver until the landmark monument el Puente Roto, a hanging bridge that was left as is, in memoriam of the 1950s tragedy when the Tomebamba River burst its banks and ripped apart a total of 13 bridges along its course. This particular corner of the walk is quite beautiful.

The Barranco’s slope becomes more and more gentle as we walk further east, until we reach the fast-trafficked Molinas Bridge and the ruins of Todos Santos, a small public green space where you can see Inca stonework and a colonial water mill. Of course, you can continue meandering downriver. A point of interest later on lies at the meeting of the ríos Tomebamba and Yanuncay, at Parque Paraíso.

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