Southern Dawn

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We leave the dramatic Quito light, trapped within the city from the early morning hours by a colossal wall of mountains to the west, to wake up in Cuenca, where the sun’s rays are smoother, softer, and flow across the valley in rippling waves. This is surely a palpable difference between these mountain cities –Ecuador’s most important mountain settlements– but not because Cuenca isn’t surrounded by a rugged topography. It is. Perhaps less precipitous than up north, but more knotted for sure: more maze-like. The thing is, Cuenca –the city– is different. It’s like a miracle amidst the mountains.

This must be why the name Guapondelig, the “valley as vast as the heavens”, made so much sense when the area’s first settlers, the Cañari, sought a good name to describe it. There, where it took sloping hills and rollercoaster paths to reach it, thrived a miraculous valley so different from anything anyone had ever seen, it surely seemed “as vast as the heavens”.

Ingapirca. Photo: Juan Pablo Verdesoto.

As we take a short drive anywhere outside the urban hub, to the birthplace of the Cañari myth of creation along
the dizzying hills of San Bartolomé, or head to the broken landscapes of Paute or Dudas into the eastern lowlands, all we find are endless hills and gullies. Guapondélig: where rivers roll at the pace of those who stroll by them, where one can walk without tiring and feel the level tranquility of what could only be compared to the bottom of a bowl (as in the word “cuenca” in Spanish), this landscape is vast and languid, light shining uniformly across it as day breaks, creating delicate transitions, smooth contours over its clay-toned tile-roof back. Such different visions –a Chola Cuencana and a dreadlock hippy setting up their hand-crafted products across a colonial square, a nun opening her bread shop and a graffiti artist collecting hisspraycans– coexist, animated by a cool,generous morning glow.

The sun shines on the hands of the artesanos, colors the waking rivers, paints the marble, brick and adobe walls and brightens the church domes and bell towers as if harmony pertained to those who chose the heavenly valley as their place to live, as if everyone and everything could share every ray of light equally and forget the rest of the sloping, irregular, rugged world out there, where edges are jagged, and differences break off into the shadows. Cuenca is different.

Onion-skin City

Everything is more than meets the eye in Cuenca. You could swear that you were standing amid a well-preserved Spanish American Historic Center, only to find some ten or so edifices built prior to the 19th century. You marvel at the French-influenced wrought-iron balconies, enter courtyards and admire ‘must-be’ French wallpaper, imagining the French-dominated society that ‘obviously’ prevailed throughout the early 1900s in Cuenca. But then you learn that archaeologist Paul Rivet was, for years, the only Frenchman in town. Curiously, little is left of what was once nothing less than the Inca’s second capital, the majestic Tumipamba, birthplace of the sixth Hanan-dynasty Emperor, Inca Huayna Capac. Yet only the archaeo- logical site at Pumapungo vaguely suggests a settlement that was once believed to have rivaled the grandeur of imperial Cuzco. What about the chiseled features of the ancestral Cañari, the ancient inhabitants of this land? We can scarcely make them out from the round eyes of the chola cuencana… It must all be here – some- where – if not swirling in the air, then perhaps running in the blood, or hiding in crevices, as ‘identity’ continues incessantly to engrave its refurbished face onto the city’s woodwork. Cuenca will surely take on different façades with the times. But will she ever truly change?

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