Taking a stroll from Catedral Nueva


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Parque Calderon, Cuenca’s centerpiece, is a very large square with very large trees, including the eight Chilean Araucarias that cup the central statue honoring Abdón Calderón, a 16 year-old independence war hero from Cuenca whose final heroic feat was allegedly hoisting the victorious flag of independence from Spain… with his teeth!

The square extends breezily before the sensational Catedral Nueva (officially named Catedral de la Immaculada Concepción), Cuenca’s undisputable point of reference, with its shining azure domes dominating all other buildings within the historic center, and an imposing brick-laid (and marble-arched) Romanesque façade, a monument that would lead Pope John Paul II to wonder if he had been transported back to Rome upon walking inside. Of course, many a Cuencano nostalgically claims recollection of his Sanctity’s comment, as well as the general hysteria that ensued.

Construction began in the 1880s. “Build me a church as large as my faith”, were Bishop Miguel León’s purported orders to German architect Brother Johannes Stiehle. It was intended to become the largest church in South America, a superb neo-Gothic structure whose completion was thwarted by miscalculation. Had it been completed as planned, it would have toppled over or cracked in two. The cathedral does, however, hold 10,000 people, an impressive spectacle during Palm Sunday, for example. Notice the deep-colored stained-glass windows, the white Carrara marble floors and the main altar, made almost on purpose so as not to fit in, in blinding neo-Baroque style. You can visit the Catacombs on November 2, for the celebrations of All Souls’.

Next to the Church, Raymipamba is a decent joint to grab a bite when all else fails and just next door there’s an ice-cream parlor (Tutto Freddo) with an amazing sample of flavors. Cuenca has a lot of fine finds, and if ou stick with us, we’ll tell you where, how and why!

Behind the New Cathedral, to the west, lies the ever-
busy Parque de las Flores (Flower Plaza), a petite
square that seems organically borne from the Carmen
de la Asunción cloisters. Its pretty church is often
closed, but the miraculous Señor de la Justicia usually services the faithful as, day in and day out, people
flock from every corner of the city to visit the rock
upon which Jesus’s image was painted. The square is a sublimely picturesque flower market, where cholas cuencanas, the city’s domineering protagonists, sell not only roses, but a series of brightly colored bromeliads, birds-of-paradise, and other tropical and summer flowers and plants.

Photo: Juan Pablo Verdesoto.

Don’t forget to try the “pítimas” water from the cloister’s side store, a soothing drink concocted by the Carmelite nuns conceived to cure depression and bring peace to your morning hurries (you can also buy costumes for miniature holy figures that usually represent great dress-up fun for your kids and their dolls).

Continuing south towards the dapper orange-lined 12 white-washed San Francisco Church, we find a string of corner stores that sell a-million-and-one plastic knickknacks and the outdoor market of San Francisco, where handcrafted items from the northern Andes blend noisily with synthetic clothes, including local football jerseys, kitchenware and shoes. To the west of the busy square, you can visit the more specialized Centro Municipal Artesanal handicraft market for examples of paja toquilla (straw) hats and bags, silver filigree or the vivid colors that characterize the cholas’dress code, including the polleras and embroidered lliglias.

More stores abound along Calle General Torres, specializing in all kinds of things, including imported goods,
bread, nutrition, as well as the unusual concentration
of farm product retail stores with their own personal
vets dressed in white coats, a commercial frenzy that
reaches its climax at the Mercado 10 de Agosto, the 15 market that just about “sells it all” in Cuenca.

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