Sunday, 13 October 2013

Cuenca: Bounty, Beauty, Blood and Bureaucracy - Part I (Let's Start at the very Beginning)

At the end of my previous blog post I promised to share with you my initial impressions of my new city of residence, Cuenca, and over the next four blog entries that is exactly what I intend to do. 

Along the way, we shall encounter a cast of sexy crazy things, toothless Spanish conquistadors, squabbling Inca princelings and pencil-pushing Latin-Ametican bureaucrats.  I shall introduce you to 'The Doctor' and regale you with tales of warfare, incest, lunar astronomy, incipient colonies and quantum anomalies.   You shall witness great cities rise before you and crumble into dust and everything will be signed off in triplicate.

But first, ladies and gentleman, I give you...drum-roll please...

...the typical guidebook intro:

Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca (Saint Ann of the Four Rivers of Cuenca) is the third largest city in Ecuador with a current population in its metropolitan area of around 500,000.  Nestled in the Central Andes mountains in a basin (the Spanish word for which is 'Cuenca') formed by the confluence of four rivers (hence the name).  It is sometimes known as the Athens of Ecuador.  The reason for this is that people are incredibly lazy and have a tendency to bang an 'Athens of the x' label on more or less any city which combines beauty, age and culture.

What it actually is, is the Santa Ana de los Cuatro Rios de Cuenca of Ecuador; with its cobbled streets, 16th century cathedral and well-preserved colonial architecture, it was striking enough for UNESCO to get its purple plumed quill pen out and declare Cuenca's historic centre, with its formal orthogonal layout and system of parks, squares, atria, churches and other public spaces, a World Heritage Site in 1999.

The four rivers that have given the city its name are the ríos Tomebamba, Machángara, Yanuncay and Tarqui, which converge together to form the río Cuenca, which joins with the

río Santa Bárbara to become the río Paute. which is a tributary of the río Namangoza, which in its turn is a tributary of the río Santiago, which joins with the río Marañon, which flows into the río Amazonas (that's the River Amazon to me and you) which finally discharges itself into the Atlantic Ocean; which is all very: 'and unto Enoch was born Irad: and Irad begat Mehujael: and Mehujael begat Methusael: and Methusael begat Lamech'.

Located between 2,350 to 2,550 metres above sea level, at this height you receive 75% of the oxygen you would receive at sea level, which can take some adapting to, as your genes are getting round to switching on the 'produce more red blood cells' button; headaches, dizzy-spells and shortness of breath are common complaints to emerge wheezily from the as-yet-unadapted.

The area's stable climate (ranging from you-might-want-to-pop-a-jumper-on average lows of 8-11°C [47-51°F] to rolling-up-the-shirtsleaves-and-having-a-few-minutes-bask-on-a-parkbench-over-lunch average highs of 18-22°C [64-70°F] year round), fertile soil and abundant water have made it an attractive place to live for thousands of years. 

The earliest record of habitation dates back to
8060 b.c.; consisting of pieces of obsidian chisel, scrapers and other tool fragments, along with the bones of porcupines, rabbits, deers, bears, and partridges discovered in the cave of Chopsi not far from the (aforementioned) río Santa Bárbara.  These finds, along with other obsidian tools, spearheads and arrowheads found throughout the area, point to a hunter-gatherer society.

A host of tribes came and went over the millennia until, around about the year 500 b.c. we find a group known as the snake/macaws or Cañari (kan = snake, ara = mackaw) setting up shop.  

This name came from the fact that the primeval Cañari forefathers were hatched from a pair of snake's eggs, got a but uppity with the world they encountered. fought and killed everything, then fought the snake which bore them, who responded by spitthng water at them; giving growth and plenty to the world, after which the two surviving brothers tramped up a mountain where they encountered a sexy pair of lady mackaws.  An energetic burst of mythical, trans-species hanky-panky later and the rest of the Cañari people were born (or perhaps begotten).  Any suggestions of euphemism or phallic imagery in this myth is entirely the result of your own filthy imaginations.  Go wash your smutty minds out with soap and water! 
The Cañari were a loose confederation of matriarchal, lunar-calender following tribes whose territory covered much of what is now Southern Ecuador.

They built a city called Guanpondoleg, which means 'land as big as heaven', filling it with many circular and moon-shaped temples and other buildings of great beauty.  The farms of Guanpondoleg spread throughout the valley, there was plenty and prosperity and all was well.
Tupaq Inka Yupanki
All was well, that is, until around the year 1480, when the tenth Sapa Inca, Túpaq Inka Yupanki, found time out of his busy schedule of initiating the first general census of the Inca Empire, having major roads and palaces built, promulgating the cult of the sun and rebuilding the city of Quito to fit his Incaic whim, to give Guanpondoleg a good solid conquering.

He faced fierce resistance however; the
Cañari held a great gathering at Guanpondoleg in which they declared Cacique Duma, a chief from the town of Sigisg, as their war-chief.  By all accounts Cacique Duma was an astute fellow and a brave warrior.   He gathered a considerable army together and set them to work guarding the important passes on the approaches into their territory.  

A statue of Cacique Duma in a park
in his hometown of Sigsig.

Now, their creation myth has already given us a good indication that the Cañari weren't shy of a fight.  When Túpaq Inka Yupanki's army arrived, fresh from giving the nearby Paltas a good kicking and subjugating them to his mighty will, they found themselves with a real enemy to contend with and, after a short but intense battle, the Inca army beat a hasty retreat back towards already conquered territory.  For the first time Túpaq Inka Yupanki had tasted the bitterness of defeat.  

He clearly didn't much like the taste, as his response was to send for reinforcements from across the not-inconsiderable  expanses of the Inca empire and, to keep himself occupied while he was waiting for them to arrive, construct a great fortification along the border between the Paltas and the Cañari. 

When Cacique Duma saw the vastness of the assembled Inca army, he clearly decided that discretion was the better part of valour and proceeded to sue for peace.  
Túpaq Inka Yupanki didn't buy it and demanded, as proof of their fealty, that the Cañari chiefs send their own children as hostages.  When they did so, he relented and deigned to enter Guanpondoleg, casually renaming it Tumepamba (from whence the río Tomebamba) and allowing the Cañari a certain amount of autonomy as a reward for their fidelity and bravery.

He was impressed with what he saw there though; it was an architectural gem and well located on the way between Quito and Cuzco.  So impressed was he with the architecture that he decided to build some more of his own.   He ordered the construction of a palace complex and administrative centre to be known as Pumapunku or 'the door of the puma'

As the
Cañari were a matriarchal culture and the Inca a patriarchal one, the best way to seal the new relationship was with a wedding and so Túpaq Inka Yupanki married with a Cañari queen.

Thus, what was initially intended to be a mere fort to keep the Cañari under control became the secondary capital of the Inca Empire, a spectacular city designed to impress upon his subjects the sheer awe and might of the Inca. 

But by the time the Spanish arrived there, less than a hundred years later, nothing was left of the great city but ruins. 
¿What had happened?

To be continued....


  1. Aloha!
    I wanted to thank you again for submitting this article to the Byteful Travel Blog Carnival. It’s been included in the 21st BT Blog Carnival which was published today.

    So, if you could retweet, stumble, or "Like" the blog carnival, I would really appreciate it. It would help more people discover your article, too!

    Thanks again. Looking forward to your submissions next time! :)

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