The beautiful, laid-back city of Cuenca has something to offer everyone. For the architecture lover, don’t miss a walk around the colonial city centre (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). For the nature lover, the otherworldly Cajas National Park beckons. As for the culturally curious, don’t miss a hands-on experience of indigenous culture at Kushiwaira. And for the history fan – well, take your pick of Cuenca museums!
Pre-columbian history (i.e. life before the Spanish arrived) holds special fascination for me, because little is known about it compared to what happened after that.
Even the Inca – perhaps the most famous regional example – only arrived in Ecuador less than 100 years prior to the Spaniards.
It doesn’t help that many of the pre-columbian tribes didn’t leave any written records behind. For example, riding through the Pululahua valley near Quito, you can see the ancient remains of – what? Nobody really knows.
You can see the unnaturally flat land, and there are some traces of human activity there. But all my guide could tell us was that the people who built it had died out, leaving no written records. So we can only speculate today what life for them was like.
Fortunately, Cuenca’s museums have a (relative) abundance of information on some of these mysterious civilisations. And not just in the Cuenca area, but more generally in present-day Ecuador!
3 Cuenca museums you should check out for a glimpse of life before the Spanish conquest:
1. Museo del Banco Central (“Pumapungo”)
Generally considered the museum to visit in Cuenca if you only have time for one. (Source: my AirBnB hosts, the guide on my hop-on-hop-off bus tour, and Lonely Planet.)
Lonely Planet calls it “one of Ecuador’s most significant museums”. The second floor houses an impressive exhibition of Ecuador’s diverse indigenous cultures, complete with the rarely seen tzantzas (shrunken heads(!)) from the Shuar tribe in the Amazon. Best of all? It’s completely free! (To enter, not to… you get it.)
Unfortunately, most of the museum was closed for renovations when I visited. So I didn’t get to see the shrunken heads and potentially freak myself out. Is it just me, or is anyone else always up for something macabre??
We did get to see the central bank part of the museum (down the stairs), though. Very cool if you like seeing old currency which isn’t in circulation anymore.
That, combined with the Archaeological Park at the back of the museum, meant the trip wasn’t a total waste. The park in itself is worth a leisurely stroll around.
But what am I actually looking at?? – you might ask.
These are the ruins of an old Incan city which was destroyed during the Incan civil war. After that, most of the stones were carried away by the Spanish to build the colonial city of Cuenca. I guess at least they didn’t let good stones go to waste…?
It might not look like much today. But if you take the time to read the signs, you’ll get a pretty good idea of the city’s layout and the functions each section served.
And don’t forget the garden!
Here, you get to see many plants that are native to Ecuador, complete with a description of their common uses.
There’s also a small bird rescue centre in the garden, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
So if you only have time for one museum in Cuenca, please please check Museo Pumapungo out. And will you do me a favour? Tell me all about the second floor stuff I missed!!
I’d definitely go back if I’m ever in Cuenca again.
For further details on my Museo Pumapungo visit, click here.
Address: Calle Larga between Arriaga and Huayna Capac
Opening hours: 8am – 5.30pm, Tues – Sat
2. Museo de las Culturas Aborígenes (Museum of Aboriginal Culture)
Just a few blocks down from Museo Pumapungo is this indigenous culture museum.
No fancy reconstructions here, just straightforward displays of more than 5,000 artifacts representing over 20 pre-Columbian cultures in Ecuador.
(I’ll just let the numbers speak for themselves.)
What saves it from being incredibly dry and boring is the informative guidebook you get.
It tells you about the background of these artifacts, including what they were (likely) used for and points out interesting design features you might otherwise have missed.
There’s a small gift shop and cafe as well, so you could easily linger here for quite a while.
One thing I feel compelled to point out: I love my Lonely Planet guidebook (2015 edition), but sometimes it gets things wrong. Like here – admission costs $4, not $2. (It’s a private collection, hence the fee.) And there is no “guided tour” as such, just the guidebook. Self-guided tour, perhaps?
Hope this doesn’t put you off visiting, though. I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to those interested in pre-columbian cultures – and it has a surprisingly high rating on TripAdvisor! (I say “surprisingly” because there was hardly any other visitors when we were there.)
Address: Calle Larga 5-24, between Hermano Miguel and Cueva
Opening hours: 9am – 6pm Mon – Fri; 9am – 1pm Sat
3. Museo Manuel Agustín Landivar
This is a small (free!) museum with some archaeological exhibits.
But the real highlight for me was the Ruinas de Todos Santos – a gated outdoor area next to the museum where you can see Cañari, Inca and Spanish ruins layered one over another.
Ian and I tried to guess which parts were Cañari, which were Inca and which were Spanish. (There’s a map and signs which mark this out – so you’re not left hanging!) It’s incredible to see how one civilisation formed the base for another – literally – and how they are still standing after all these centuries.
The museum staff will let you through the gate when you’ve finished at the museum, and you can let yourself out when you’re done. So – no pressure!
That said, if you don’t want to bother with the museum, you can still gawk shamelessly at the ruins from the road. You just won’t be able to see the map pointing out which parts are Cañari, etc.
Address: corner of Calle Larga and Vega
Opening hours: 9am – 1pm & 3 – 6pm, Mon – Fri
So that’s my list of pre-columbian culture museums to check out in Cuenca! What’s your approach to museum-going? Have you been to any of these, or do you have any to add?
Another thing history and nature lovers alike should also check out in Cuenca is a day-trip to the Ingapirca ruins – coming up in my next post!
And now, on a more personal note…
My regular readers (all 5 of you, haha) will have noticed my extended hiatus from blogging – and when I say hiatus, I mean real, disappear-into-thin-air, don’t-respond-to-comments, kind of hiatus.
Sure, I’ve been busy, but you always make time for stuff you’re truly passionate about, don’t you?
The ugly truth, I guess, is that for a long time I just didn’t feel any inclination to write. There are literally thousands, if not tens of thousands, travel blogs, out there. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had nothing meaningful to add to the discussion – nothing that someone hasn’t already written about.
Then I finally logged back in, and saw some comments – people who were planning a trip to somewhere I’d written about and had some questions about it. And because I’d gone MIA for so long, my answers were probably no longer relevant. I felt awful!
But at the same time, I felt strangely encouraged, knowing that there is a genuine need – however small – for the stuff I write about. So I’m back (for now, heh), and I’m gonna try to keep plugging away for you guys.
And, to be honest, it’s kinda cathartic to write. I’d forgotten how good it feels to craft a post! So don’t worry, I’m not being entirely altruistic 😀
Thanks to those of you who kept in touch via Instagram, etc.! It really made me feel like I was still part of the blogging community despite not actually blogging.
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This post is part of The Weekly Postcard hosted by Travel Notes & Beyond, California Globetrotter, Toddlers on Tour, Two Traveling Texans and TravelLatte – check out what’s going on elsewhere!
Very interesting read. I do love museums and when I travel abroad, I try to visit them.
I feel the same like you about blogging, but keep it up. You have got a good blog going and unique gallery of photos.
Thanks for sharing.
Aww, thanks so much for your kind comment, Nyla! Yeah blogging is a lot more work (and time) than it looks, but a little bit of encouragement goes a long way.
It’s funny when a place has great reviews online, and you arrive and it’s as if they have only ever had a handful of guests, and so every one of them must have left a great review? That is how it feels to me at least. I really enjoyed reading this so I hope you keep writing, and your photos are beautiful.
Yes, it’s so funny isn’t it?! But that must mean that those who visited *really* liked it, I guess – which says loads about it. Thanks so much for your kind comment, Alexandra – really appreciate the encouragement 🙂
What a great post! We lived in Cuenca for a couple of months and had an awesome time at Museo Pumapungo (we were lucky enough to see the shrunken head exhibit). This post brought back some very happy memories and was a great reminder of the museums we need to hit the next time we’re in Cuenca. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard!
Wow, I’m half-envious of you guys for having had the opportunity to live in Cuenca – I imagine it would be a lovely city to live in! It didn’t feel half as chaotic as Quito or Guayaquil. I’d love to go back and check out that shrunked head exhibit one day. Glad I could provide a bit of a trip down memory lane! Thanks so much for stopping by 🙂
Such a lovely list of musuems! To be honest, I haven’t heard of Cuenca before reading this post but now I’m definitely interested in visiting in the future! I really enjoyed reading this, don’t give up on blogging 🙂 really glad I got to know about your blog!
Thanks so much for your kind comment, Yazhini – much appreciated 🙂 Ecuador is a LONG way from our Little Red Dot, but if you can spare a few weeks it’s well worth it! It’s pretty close to the Peruvian border so you might even be able to squeeze it in with a Machu Picchu trip 😉
The museum sounds really interesting and I love learning more about places that I visit. It also looks like the town has a beautiful and colorful old colonial center!
Yes, the colonial city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – apparently the architecture and layout is a great representation of the fusion of local and European influences 🙂 I’m no architectural expert, but it sure is beautiful! Thanks for stopping by, Jessica 🙂
Glad to see you are writing again. I do enjoy reading your post and hearing your perspective. I have learned a lot from your blog. All these museums sound interesting. I hadn’t really thought much about the pre-Colombian time. It’s not something we ever covered in school but now I am curious. I also love that some of these museums are free, I wish more museums were like that
Thanks so much for your kind words, Anisa! Your encouragement means a lot because it can feel like I’m just talking to myself haha. Yeah, I wonder if schools outside of Latin America go into any depth at all on pre-Columbian history! I remember learning about ancient China and India in school (all the dynasties…!! That’s a good way to make your head spin) but Latin America was maybe a bit too geographically far away for to be considered relevant! Free museums are awesome – that’s one of the things I like best about London 😀 gotta make full use… Read more »
It reminds me of the history of the Philippines – before the Spanish came we have very little records of what was like for the indigenous people too. We even had our own alphabet then. Anyway, I love the ruins, the gardens and the indigenous culture museum you’ve shown in Cuenca. It’s always fascinating to see what life is like for people before us. 🙂
Thanks for your kind comment, Katherine! It’s a huge pity when entire cultures are lost altogether like that 🙁 I realised that yeah, I don’t know anything at all about the Philippines prior to the Spanish arrival! Even Tagalog is so influenced by Spanish that I can understand words here and there because of the similarity to Spanish.
I’d really love to go to Pumapungo to see that shrunken head! 🙂 Great tips, Mich, for people like me who love everything that is history, architecture and culture related especially for places like South America – it’s BIG dream for me to travel there some day. Because the continent is so far away from Asia, travelling there is gonna cost a lot of money. However, I’m pretty sure I’ll get there! Btw, don’t give up on writing/blogging/sharing your stories. Forget about the millions of travel blogs out there – most of them die off within a year or so… Read more »
Thanks so much for your kind comment, Kat! I feel like blogging is like an iceberg – it’s much more time and effort than it looks on the surface, haha. And I have other interests as well, so it’s hard to manage my time properly. So it’s always a great encouragement to hear from someone who’s been at it for a long time and still enjoys it! I hope you get to visit South America someday – it is *really* far from Asia, but totally worth it 🙂 I heard the most expensive countries are Argentina and Chile, so if… Read more »
I´d love to visit The Pululahua valley near Quito – I´m always getting so excited about these mysteries! In fact, history and science (as much as we love talking about “our progress” and “age of technologies”) still fail to explain way too many things… Ok, I must say it again – I´m in love with your posts! lol And as to the lack of inspiration for writing – I guess, we all feel this way from time to time. A couple of days ago I’ve watched one travel Chanel on youtube and one of the top bloggers said that she… Read more »
Hey Anna – I’m always fascinated by these ancient mysteries as well! 🙂 Isn’t it unbelievable that after all this time (and technology and progress), we haven’t figured out how the Egyptian pyramids were built?! Thanks so much for your kind words and encouragement – I really appreciate it and it means a lot to me 🙂 It’s really interesting to think that even top bloggers (with half a million followers!) feel that way sometimes… I also realise that I don’t really watch travel channels on Youtube! Do you have any recommendations? 😀 Your writing and photos are really good,… Read more »
I don´t really follow anyone from the travelers myself! Only yoga, Photo Editing Chanels, smth for Personal growth, books, Ted – all in different languages, so I also practice lol! I do watch some random travel videos – but have´t found anyone I´d like to watch on a regular basis! If you find someone let me know as well! Thanks so much for your kind words as well! I love your photos myself! If you’re ever curious about how I edited a certain photo, you could always write me. I’ve recently started using Lightroom, but before I’ve edited everything with… Read more »
That’s a great tip about watching videos in different languages – thanks, Anna! I generally just stick to English because I usually have videos on in the background while I’m doing something else and don’t have the mental capacity to pay full attention, but it’s worth a try 🙂 There’s such a wealth of information about how to edit photos out there – I just need to get around to it someday 😀
I’m fascinated with the Inca culture ever since visiting the ruins of Tulum and Chichen Itza in Mexico. It must have been quite interesting visiting the Cuenca museums and catch a glimpse of life before the Spanish conquest. I’d love to visit Ecuador someday. Great photos! #TheWeeklyPostcard
Hey Anda, if I ever get to Mexico one day I’m definitely going to make a beeline for one of those ruins! These ancient cultures (the Inca, Mayans, Aztecs etc) have always fascinated me 🙂 So if you enjoyed the Tulum and Chichen Itza ruins, I think you would really enjoy Ecuador – and of course, Peru. Not gonna lie – the Incan ruins in Peru are far bigger than the ones in Ecuador. Thanks so much for your kind words on my photos – you know I’m in awe of your photography! so it means a lot to me… Read more »
Great list of museums. I love to learn about pre-Columbian history in the Americas, and I’d love to visit this place now. I haven’t been in South America yet, but when I eventually go I’d like to stop in Cuenca. Thanks for putting this list together. And thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard. on a personal note: your blog is worth reading, I’m glad you are returning to it.
Hey Emese – so good to meet someone who’s also fascinated by pre-Columbian history! 🙂 If you do go to Ecuador, you should definitely check out Cuenca and Quito – there are some really good museums there on pre-Columbian history too. And, of course, Peru – not gonna lie, the Incan ruins there dwarf the Ecuadorean ones! Thanks so much for your kind comment – I really appreciate it 🙂