Mercado 10 de Agosto-El Vado-San Sebastián Route

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Everyone’s heard of the evil eye and placing a red band around your wrist to protect yourself from it, but I bet you haven’t heard of “Being swallowed by the Earth“ (agarrado por la tierra) or the El Huaca’s spell (a spiritual being that induces stupidity in certain people). Placing a band around your wrist does nothing against these forces of the intangible. Every Tuesday and Friday, under the electric stairs of the popular indoor Mercado 10 de Agosto, the famous “limpia” therapy sessions take place, where the healer smothers patients in fresh herbs, raw eggs or guinea pigs to rub off unwanted spirits in and around the ailing body.

The market is Cuenca’s traditional hub, where
you experience the spectrum of the city’s demo- graphic composition under one roof, including
its newest arrivals —the ex-pats—strolling about during their midday grocery shopping. You’ll see what Cuencanos read at the news stand, what they shop for, what they snack on, what they lunch
on, how they dress, how their children play, how parents discipline them, you’ll hear their accents, their cellphone conversations, the flurry of everyday life.

10 de Agosto Market. Photo: Yolanda Escobar.

Upstairs is probably the most interesting: delicious-looking fruits and vegetables,
a line of yellow parasols where you can choose your dish of “pork and mote”, or a wonderfully aromatic herb and potion section in the back (to the east), where you can ask for a coveted branch of “ven a mí” (come to me). As you leave the market, on Calle Larga, you see where this long street (long by Cuenca standards!) begins, at its juncture with Calle Condamine. In itself, Calle Larga is pretty much self-explanatory, while Calle Condamine is a short but sweet stroll so named because Geodesic Charles Marie de La Condamine resided at the corner house, today’s “Laura’s” antique shop (we’ll meet the shop’s owner further up the block). As you walk south and then west, following La Condamine’s elbow, you’ll find barbershops with century-old seating and “hat-bleaching” service stores where locals pay $3 to keep their headwear spick-and-span.

As you continue west, you sense that every single one of these long-lived buildings          —including Rafael Carpio Abad’s mosaic-tiled home— could be fabulously made-over into trendy, modern attractions: museums, cultural centers, performance venues, boutique hotels, posh nightclubs, you name it. Most still look like they’re about to topple over, but two specific addresses have already become first-rate recommendations: Casa Museo “Laura’s”, and Lo Prohibido Cultural Center. They couldn’t be more opposed in concept and feel, yet as neighbors, fit like ying and yang.

The Casa Museo is owned by Graciela “La China” Vintimilla and her husband Johannes, a Dutch version of Santa Claus, whose workshop opens onto the street. You can find him busily fixing items from damaged household appliances to heritage objects for his wife’s antique shop –Laura’s– on the corner. Ring the doorbell and you’ll be let in. Johannes may be lunching, the family maid may be dusting, or “la China” may come down to greet you: a Dickensian way of popping into a world that just happens about you, to the chattering of pet budgerigars and the cooing of countless pedigree fan-tailed doves that have colonized the back patio. The home seems to look like it would have when Mrs. Vintimilla was a child.

Photo: Jorge Vinueza.

Lo Prohibido, on the other hand, is a
scandalous extreme-art hangout and den, run
by artist Eduardo Moscoso, where twenty-first century shock-value à la Cuenca may actually take you by surprise. Dare take a peek?

By the end of the block you reach the large cross at El Vado (the shallow waters) where colonial Cuencanos used to cross the river at low tide before bridges existed. At the end of this espla- nade, an attractive sculpture depicts the traditional “palo encebado” game. You can, of course, head down to the river, or walk a block up along Coronel Talbot to the Modern Art Museum, or the currently pacific yet once stormy San Sebastián Square, officially called Parque Miguel de León. Find watercolorist Eudoxia Estrella’s gallery in a simple colonial style home, or visit San Sebastián Church, one of the oldest in Cuenca which marks the Historic Center’s western limits.

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