Question: Where in the world did a big design fail become a major skyline win?
Answer: Cuenca, Ecuador
Cuenca already had a Catholic cathedral in 1872, but the growing population was outpacing it, and the presiding Bishop announced that a new one would be built. From that moment on, nothing moved quickly. It was 1885, 12 years later, before construction began on a Romanesque Revival sanctuary that would be topped by two imposing towers and a trio of blue-and-white domes. But getting started was the easy part. Once the site had been cleared, rainwater had accumulated, which had to be drained away. Most of the needed tools were not available in Ecuador and had to be imported. By the turn of the century, the building was still a stone framework slowly rising—and work came to a near-stop for five years as funds were piteously low.
Between World Wars, construction advanced rapidly, and by the 1950s, the façade was up and Italian marble flooring was installed. Architects soon realized that their original dome plans were not going to be weather-resistant enough and went back to the drawing board, settling on material from a renowned tile-maker in Czechoslovakia—tiles that would take years to make. In 1967, the blue-and-white domes were finally in place, leaving only one major element to complete: the twin stone towers that would be the cathedral’s crowning glory.
But a massive earthquake in 1970 changed the rules for construction and required the cathedral builders to defend the towers’ ability to withstand tremors. When the designs were reviewed by the city, they realized that the combined height and weight of the towers would be unsustainable, risking collapse even without an earthquake. The towers were capped off several levels short of the original design, making the domes, once considered secondary, the highest points in the cathedral. In 1975, 90 years after construction started, the work was done.
Or was it? Masses were held, with room for as many as 9,000 people at once—almost the entire population in 1970s Cuenca. (However, not everyone is Catholic; see below.) But some say that because repairs and renovations have been continual ever since, the church still isn’t actually finished. If so, that would make this the second-longest church-building project in modern history, behind only Sagrada Familia in Spain (which stretched three years longer).
One thing is not in dispute: the domes became the true anchor of the Cuenca skyline. They are so popular that an outcry arose during recent repairs, when the city changed the paint between tiles from “bone” to “white”—a change not subtle enough for fans of the city’s biggest showstoppers.
Older than Mass: Fascinating Facts about Indigenous Limpia
- Ecuador has eleven indigenous populations whose roots go back at least to the Incas.
- Though they spoke ten different languages, they shared a belief in Pachamama (Mother Earth), and nature spirits.
- Indigenous traditions were premised on the power of herbal remedies to relieve stress and to heal, including a cleansing ritual called limpia.
- Once the Spanish arrived, they outlawed indigenous healers and persecuted anyone found to practice traditional spiritual rituals like limpia.
- In 1869, Catholicism officially became the state religion and you could only be a citizen if you converted.
- In the 20th century, religious freedom was allowed, but Christianity dominated heavily, and healers remained in the shadows.
- In recent years, traditional healers have re-entered public life, performing limpia ceremonies in public spaces like Cuenca’s markets.
- During a limpia, the subject is brushed heavily with branches and leaves from a variety of plants.
- The healer rubs the subject with an unbroken raw egg to determine where they need healing.
- The subject is asked to inhale fumes from a potent herbal alcohol.
- Part of the process is the “flower bath,” when the healer spits out a mouthful of flower petals at the subject as a blessing.
- The flowers for the bath are chosen based what the healer decides the subject needs, but often include chamomile, laurel, pennyroyal, Santa Maria, and eucalyptus.
- For babies, the limpia includes tying on red bracelets (left wrist for boys, right for girls) made of seeds that are considered to have preventative properties.
- The healers are typically women, often coming from generations of previous healers, who pass the tradition down mother-to-daughter to ensure it endures forever.
Discover Cuenca’s blend of Spanish colonial influence and indigenous heritage during the Ecuador: The Andes & the Devil’s Nose Train post-trip extension to O.A.T.’s Ultimate Galápagos Exploration & Ecuador's Amazon Wilds adventure.