One Friday afternoon, with a friend visiting from Ambato, we decided to head to Cuenca’s New Cathedral and climb the seemingly-endless staircase to arrive at the viewing deck and appreciate Cuenca from its highest central point. The issue – we were too late. I had forgotten to check the opening and closing times and we’d just missed the window. However, stuck to the small arched door that houses the spiral staircase, nestled in Calle Santa Ana, between the 16th-century ‘new’ cathedral and the San Luis Seminario, was a poster. “Ruta de Leyendas Tour” it read, the Route of Legends. My curiosity was piqued. We took down the Whatsapp number and made contact, confirming that the tour runs just once per week, on Saturday mornings at 11:00am. Our space was booked.
The next morning, we arrived to find a dozen people already waiting for the tour to begin. We paid the $5 ticket price and entered the Old Cathedral of Cuenca (Iglesia de Sagrario – Antigua Catedral de Cuenca).
La Ruta De Leyendas Begins…
Soon, our guide arrived. An old man with a deformity, hunched over at an almost 90-degree angle and using a cane for balance, greeted us warmly and led us outside. The tour was underway. I did my best to keep up with the old Cuencano Spanish, with the guide throwing in a healthy dosage of Quechua, old slang, and classic idioms. As the only Anglo-Saxon on the tour, I was immediately singled out for a joke, which I didn’t understand, but which seemed to amuse the other tourists. I later found out that he was asking me if I was part of the French Geodesic mission.
Whilst he continued to describe the history of Cuenca and its traditions, I began to appreciate the architecture of the Old Cathedral (initially unaware that there was an older one at all), and also that of the courthouse across the road (Corte Provincial de Justicia de Azuay). Our guide would soon lead us through a side door and into an internal patio, where his stories would continue. This time though, I’d do better to follow his words, especially when he began showing us how the building used human bones in its construction!
Our guide told us a bit about how Cuencanos amused themselves in the old days, whipping a dreidel out of his pocket and launching it across the room and under a piece of furniture. Perhaps the funniest moment of the tour. He quickly shuffled us into the next room to talk about religion and religious figures. Jesus and the 12 disciples had been made in lifelike size, presumably, from wood and varnish. Impressive.
Our final stop in the old cathedral was back where we started, in the main hall, among the pews, decorative paintings, and replicas of JC. This time, however, we wouldn’t be going out the main doors, but rather down a large hatch in the ground, descending into the crypts! Firstly though, we’d have to spin around three times, such is the tradition.
With a human skull in his hand and an ominous well in the middle of the room, we squeezed in on the brick benches and listened to ghost stories…
I thought to myself, wouldn’t this tour be so incredible on Halloween? As it turns out, this tour runs on Halloween and is one of the most popular things to do on the day of the dead! This tour, at night, with people all in costumes, would actually be a real hoot.
The “New” Cathedral
After crossing Parque Calderon, we slipped through a small doorway on Mariscal Sucre, descending one flight into a long tunnel decorated only with flowers. Our guide stopped us in this tunnel before we’d enter the crypt, and again encouraged us to spin three times to relieve us of any demons or bad energy that might have attached itself to us!
The first thing we were instructed to look at was a commemorative plaque for those who died during the construction of the cathedral. After that, we were free to roam and look at the 530 vaults of the priests, nuns, and civilians who bore such a great impression on our beautiful Cuenca.
Our guide, with his flat cap, blazer, and worn-through shoes breathing air on his toes, guided us through the lives of some of the most famous people interred in this crypt. Internally, I was expecting this crypt to be more spooky and haunted, much like the one we’d been in 15 minutes prior, but it wasn’t. There was calm, an echo, not a lot of chit-chat, just people admiring the marble designs and beautiful angel sculptures. A motion-sensor lighting system illuminated the hall as we progressed, culminating in a seating area to appreciate a large Jesus replica.
From Underworld to Overlooking the City
We climbed out to street level, circled the Cathedral, and entered the spiral staircase. We’d finally arrived at the place where our tardiness had shut us out the day before. We went up to the museum room, full of black and white photos of a Cuenca where most of what lay beyond the Tomebamba was farmland. No Supermaxi or Juan Valdez to speak of.
The old man who had guided us so well suddenly turned around, bent over, and pulled off his disguise! He was a young actor, perhaps around 30, whose delivery was so great that my friend Daniela completely bought his story. She said, “I’m so relieved, I really thought his parents abandoned him on the street for being deformed, and that the church gave him this tour guide job to help him”.
This tour has been going since 2014, but from what I gather, the pandemic turned it from a daily tour into a weekly tour. I believe that exclusivity makes it all the more special, that only on a Saturday at 11am can you enjoy this tour. The funny thing is, I posted pictures of the crypts on my Instagram story and asked “Cuencanos, do you know this place?” and they were stumped.
This tour gets you under Cuenca’s skin, just as Cuenca gets under yours.
How to Book the Tour
I presume you could just show up on a Saturday at 11am in front of the Old Cathedral on Luis Cordero, however, you might want to message first via Whatsapp and confirm a space on +593 98 112 5407.
Remember the tour is entirely in Spanish, in fact, in antiquated Ecuadorian Spanish, so I recommend you talk a local friend into accompanying you and summarising what is going on.
Been on this tour already? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or in our Facebook Group.