There are many reasons to visit this huge, free museum in Cuenca, Ecuador. It is home to a world class collection of art, artifacts, and more than 20 displays that illustrate the variety of Ecuador’s geographic regions. But for many visitors, the main draw is the museum’s collection of shrunken heads from the Shuar people of Amazonia.
Historically, in some indigenous cultures, part of a boy’s transition into manhood required that he kill an enemy and make a trophy of his skull, scalp, ears, or—in the case of the Shuar—the hide and hair from the entire head. The process of shrinking a head into a necklace-sized pendant, known as tsantsa, was unique to the Shaur. After killing and decapitating the enemy, the eyelids and lips were sewn or pinned shut to prevent the spirit from escaping. The skull was removed and replaced with a wooden ball to retain the shape. The head was then boiled in a special herbal tea to reduce it to the size of a man’s fist. After boiling, the head was dried with hot rocks and sand and polished with charcoal ash.
These days, young Shaur making the transition from adolescence into adulthood are encouraged to hunt sloths and shrink their heads—a legal and more socially sustainable substitute.
Outside the museum building is a four hectare complex that includes the foundations for a former Incan military post, an archeological and ethnobotanical park with over 300 plant species, and a bird rescue center which includes species such as macaws, parrots, and eagles. You can easily spend a full day at the museum and complex.
Know Before You Go
Museo Pumapungo is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. It is closed on Mondays. You are not allowed to take photos inside the museum.