Like every other place in the conquered Inca empire, Cuenca shows the the effects of the Spanish: the Inca buildings were torn down and the materials used to build the Europeans’ civic buildings and churches. However, in Cuenca, the foundation stones of the Inca buildings are well-preserved enough that we can get a good sense of the size and function of the complex.
It was a palace, comprised of soldiers’ barracks, quarters for virgins dedicated to the sun god, a temple, farming terraces, and other structures necessary to support a center of Inca activity. The ruins were excavated by a team led by Max Uhle, the German archaeologist, from 1919 to 1923. The ruins nowadays include a reconstruction of gardens, down the hill from the main structures, an aviary, and, naturally, a snack stand.
As with every other major Inca structure, the ruins of Pumapungo (“gate of the puma”) are situated precisely on the compass rose, aligned with mountains and other natural formations of spiritual significance. From atop the hill, looking out over the river curving around the base of the ruins, it’s easy to see why this might be a strategic as well as inspirational spot to set up a major hub in your expanding empire.
The ruins are behind the Banco Central and the Museo Pumpapungo, so after touring the ruins and feeling the first hint of rain on my jacket, I went inside the museum. I bypassed the display on money and went to the side room display on the Incas. It was an odd mix of meticulously made costumes and empty display cases, and I only got a muddled sense of the people who lived and died here 600 years ago.
Upstairs, a much better display awaited me–an entire floor devoted to the different ethnic groups of Ecuador, from the jungle-dwelling people in the Oriente, to the various highlands groups in the Andes, to the people living along the coast. Musical instruments, masks used for celebrations, clothing worn to indicate status, and everyday work tools were the most frequently displayed items.
Finally, one small, dark room at the end of the hall showed the famous shrunken heads of the Shuar people of the Amazon jungle. (Head shrinking was outlawed a few decades ago, so now they can only shrink the heads of animals, like sloths.) This is the only exhibit in the museum to include English translations alongside the Spanish placards, and the display includes a lot of information on the Shuar people in general, before getting to the head-shrinking. A few shrunken heads were on display, and they were eerie and grotesque, as you might expect.
But my favorite part of the exhibit was the careful way the text explained why the Shuar did this–to make sure the soul of the deceased, contained in the head, could not return–and that it wasn’t always done to enemies, but sometimes to Shuar people who had killed. Killing was so taboo that the killer was himself put to death and his head shrunk so his tainted spirit couldn’t return and inhabit another person. That’s a very different thing from the bloodthirsty savage we likely all imagined, right?
The final placard of the exhibit made this plea: “The ‘Shuar’ are a people who merit respect, and even if many of their customs have changed for diverse reasons, they maintain themselves as a group proud of their past and of their present, a true example of the diverse ethnic communities of Ecuador. Because being ‘civilized’ does not imply casting aside the historic and cultural baggage from which our being originates.” That’s a major statement for a group to make in Ecuador, where indigenous groups were until very recently legally discriminated against, and are still struggling against the racism of city-dwelling Ecuadorians. I was impressed to see the statement made here.
I was in Cuenca during the last two days of Carnaval, and the city was a ghost town, which meant I spent a lot of my time taking photos of street art and wandering empty streets, dodging small children with foam cans. It also meant that all the churches were closed, so I didn’t really get to go inside any, but here are a few shots of the exteriors.
The New Cathedral was a boring brown brick building, but the doors and the domes were great. Apparently, the interior has a lot going for it. I’ll have to check it out during a non-holiday sometime.