Editor´s note: Cuenca's independence holidays begin officially on Nov. 2 but activities have been underway around the city for more than a week. We are reposting Deke Castleman's article and photos from last year's festival.
Guayaquil declared its independence from Spain on October 9, 1820, seizing military control of the city in a nearly bloodless coup. Less than a month later, on November 3, Cuenca won its own independence after a handful of skirmishes between revolutionaries and Spanish soldiers that lasted two days. These two events set the stage for the decisive Battle of Pichincha, which took place on May 24, 1822, liberating Quito and achieving independence for all of what would soon be Ecuador.
The independence of Cuenca is celebrated with a huge festival that lasts twice as long as the battle itself. This year, it geared up on Wednesday November 2, with most of the city’s businesses closed on the 3rd and 4th. Some businesses reopened on Saturday the 5th, but the art displays, craft booths, roving entertainment, street food, and general hubbub run through the weekend.
On the corner of 12 de Abril and Frederico Malo, edging Parque de la Madre, are block-long rows of original art displayed on easels and long wooden frames: landscapes, cityscapes, still lifes with fruit in bowls and flowers in vases, trees, barcas sailing into the sunset, indigenous figures, Inca-style designs, religious scenes and symbols, abstracts, and surreal Railroad in the Sky depictions, most in vibrant colors and vivid styles.
The festival attracts most Cuenca’s expats who head into the main part of the fair, where vendors sell: embroidered bags and wall hangings; leather wallets, belts, change purses, women’s purses, and key holders; rings, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and pendants fashioned from shiny metals and colorful beads, with boxes to put it all in; kids’ stickers, toys, and dolls; feather art; figurines small and large; pottery, ceramic, wooden, and stone products; incense and incense holders; religious symbols; chess sets, picture frames, masks, miniatures, posters, and wooden utensils; souvenirs and knick-knacks; and that’s in the first five minutes.
Textiles are on display in abundance: scarves, shawls, blankets, fabrics, men’s and women’s shirts, socks and underwear, sweaters, sweatshirts, jackets, hats, vests, skirts, and dresses. Vendors also sell souvenir and tie-dyed T-shirts, jeans and slacks, even shoes.
On the north side of the river, at the bottom of the Escalinatas, the grounds of the art museum CIDAP host much more elaborate display booths than those that crowd the sidewalks. They're inside big tents, complete with signs of the names of vendors and where they’re from -- mostly Cuenca, but also from other areas of Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. This is a higher class of art, crafts, collectibles, and utensils; here, you'll find wrought-iron, brass, glass, pottery, rocks and crystals, wooden jigsaw puzzles, candle holders, lamps, and much more.
A little farther up the river, at La Esquina des Artes across from the University of Cuenca, a few vendors sell food products, such as jars of marinating peppers and mushrooms, jams and jellies, chocolate, honey, cakes and tortes, and cookies, all outside the permanent shops of artists and artisans.
On the other side of Avenida Loja right at Puente de Vado are crafts from Peru, sold by women in distinctive dress that differs in detail from what you'll see worn by Ecuadorian's indigenous people.