Old versus new in Cuenca, Ecuador’s culture capital

Cuenca is the kind of city you can visit without having any plans at all. We didn’t!

We came to the city with a vague idea to learn Spanish at a local language school while we house sat a local home for 10 weeks and get to know the city a bit. No list of sights or things to do. Simply explore the town.

Check out our video of the cathedral:

We’ve found this is the perfect plan for Cuenca. Just to have a look and see what you find.

Cunenca new cathedral cupolas

The view over Cuenca from the top of the new cathedral is worth the climb

It’s a compact place, high up in the Sierra region of Ecuador in the poetically named province of Azuay, surrounded by four fast flowing rivers which gave rise to a succession of native cities. When the Spanish came, they razed most of what was there and built a colonial city where the riches of the new world were concentrated in churches, grand houses and European styled streets and public squares.

Like Venice, or Barcelona, Cuenca is a place you can just simply walk around and take in its character.

Every street has a building worthy of a photo or a garden square where the noise of the city melts away. Go down to the river and watch the water flow under the gorgeous bridges or sit in a cafe and watch the Cuenca’s colourful people walk past.

Cuenca street fireworks

Fireworks during the Corpus Christi festival in Cuenca

Cuenca is a little old fashioned. Just about everyone is well dressed with the men mostly in suits and ties and the women in elegant outfits. There are shoe shiners everywhere, vendors hawking sweets and snacks, dignified restaurants serving Ecuador’s main meal of a three course sit down lunch and you’ll see some cars from the ’80s downward in perfect working order and show room condition.

Cuencanas are proud people who love their city. So they should.

The centre of Cuenca is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and one look at it will tell you why. The central square is called Park Abdon Calderon and it’s a flowing maze of old growth trees, park benches, statues, band podiums and ice cream sellers. It’s always busy, never hectic, and always alive.

Cuneca new cathedral view

The main square is the city’s heart and soul

Ornate buildings that were built as family homes by the city’s richer classes surround the square and have been lovingly restored. But they are not museums. The ground floors are shops and restaurants and magazine sellers and other hawkers hustle and bustle around the old foundations and colonnades, bringing the whole area to life.

The true focus of the city centre is Cuenca’s cathedrals, the new one and the old one – to my new-world Australian eyes both of them are old but in Cuenca the locals see them as visions of two very different eras.

Now, I’ve written before about ABC Syndrome, Another Bloody Church, that malaise I sometimes get when confronted by yet another visit to yet another church when touring any country. I was raised Catholic so I know what a church looks like. Believe me. ABC can also be applied to castles, though they NEVER bore me. It’s a castle!

But if you’re in Cuenca, a visit to both of Cuenca’s cathedrals is a must. They both hold so much of the city’s history, culture and character.

The old cathedral is called “Iglesia de El Sagrario” and was built in 1557, the same year as the founding of the Spanish colonial city. The bright white cathedral was strictly reserved for those with Spanish blood; the locals had to worship outside or take their prayers somewhere else.

Cuenca old cathedral mural

The old cathedral is filled with murals and you get a real sense of what it was like many centuries ago

Inside, the old cathedral is stunning. High ceilings, ancient painted frescoes, a colossal pipe organ, side altars filled with antiques and religious artefact’s. The whole place is a museum, it’s no longer used for worship, so you are free to wander and marvel at the architecture and decorations. The floor is pink marble and the walls are covered in brightly painted wooden coverings.

The mural above is the oldest Catholic church mural in South America and dates back to the 1500s.

The old cathedral is a reminder of a more divisive time in Cuenca’s history when the Spanish colonists held sway over every aspect of local life, including where people could worship.

Cuenca old cathedral interior

Look up to the heavens and you’ll be rewarded

The new cathedral however, is a symbol of a new Ecuador, one freed from the colonial yoke. This cathedral goes out of its way to include everyone. Its official name is “Catedral Metroploitana de la Immaculada Concepcion” and its construction was completed in 1975, a full 90 years after it first begun!

Now, it’s not perfect.

The architect made a big error in his plans and it was discovered that the foundations could not support the weight of the towers if they were constructed to their full height.

So, the two towers at the very front are a little stumpy.

No matter. Once you get inside the very notion of stumpy goes right out the window. The ceiling is colossal and the high altar and stained glass windows are awe inspiring. It’s a consecrated church so there is usually always a service underway and everyone, Spanish blood or not, is welcome. Cuencanas, for the most part, are very religious and it’s a very common sight to see people making the sign of the cross next to the barest hint of anything religious.

Cuenca new cathedral interior

Pope John Paul II once gave mass inside the new cathedral – legend has it everyone in Cuenca turned up

In fact, if you look in the corners between buildings you can often see a small cross. That’s there to deter people from peeing on the streets!

There are two must-see parts to the new cathedral.

The first is to visit the crypt down below. Quite creepy.

Cunenca new cathedral crypt

The crypt is filled with the remains of Bishops, Priests and rich people from Cuenca

Cuneca new cathedral crypt tombstone

Some of the tombs are quite beautiful

Then you can climb up one of the towers to a viewing platform. There’s an unbeatable view of Cuenca up there. You get a close up look at the blue cathedral cupolas, sweeping vistas of the old city and a bird’s eye view of the main square down below.

I loved the view from the top of the new cathedral as it fired my imagination. Looking down on Cuenca you can see so many amazing buildings, gardens and people all waiting to met, explored and experienced.

It’s an old city that goes out of its way to preserve the look and feel of many past things.

But is also a modern metropolis with all the tech and pace that comes with it. A mix of old and new, symbolised perfectly by Cuenca’s cathedrals, gives the town a unique feeling.

Cuenca new cathedral tower

One of the stumpy towers of the new cathedral

New Cathedral Cuenca model

This is a model of the new cathedral and shows what it should look like

If you get the chance, check out Cuenca. You don’t need plans, just a comfortable pair of shoes and a camera. The rest will fall into place very easily.

What you need to know for visiting Cuenca’s Cathedrals:

Cost The old cathedral is $2 per person to enter and has been turned in to a museum – it no longer holds services.  The new cathedral is free to visit but if you want to climb the tower it’s $2 per person and entry to the crypt is $1 per person.

When to go The old cathedral is open from 9am to 5pm and the new one is also open during the day, although the entrance to the crypt and tower isn’t open at lunchtime.

How to get there The old and the new cathedral are on opposite sides of  the main square Park Abdon Calderon.

What’s the best cathedral you’ve ever visited?

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About the author

Dave is the co-founder of Double-Barrelled Travel and has been nomadic since May 2013. When he's not busily working on a novel, he can be found exploring a war museum, sailing a yacht (unfortunately not his own), or hiking up a mountain.

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