Ecuadorian Legend: The Story of Cantuña

Quito, Ecuador
Quito, Ecuador. John and Tina Reid/Getty Images

Everyone in Quito, Ecuador, knows the story of Cantuña: it is one of the city's most beloved legends. Cantuña was an architect and builder who made a deal with the Devil…but got out of it through trickery.

The Atrium of San Francisco Cathedral

In downtown Quito, about two blocks away from the center of the old colonial city, is Plaza San Francisco, an airy plaza popular with pigeons, strollers and those who want a nice outdoor cup of coffee.

The western side of the plaza is dominated by the San Francisco Cathedral, a massive stone building and one of the first churches built in Quito. It’s still open and is a popular place for locals to hear mass. There are different areas of the church, including an old convent and an atrium, which is an open area just inside the cathedral. It is the atrium that is central to the story of Cantuña.

Cantuña’s Task

According to legend, Cantuña was a native builder and architect of great talent. He was hired by the Franciscans sometime during the early colonial era (construction took over 100 years but the church was completed by 1680) to design and build the atrium. Although he worked diligently, it was slow going and it soon became apparent that he would not finish the project on time. He wished to avoid this, as he would not be paid at all if it were not ready on a certain date (in some versions of the legend, Cantuña would go to jail if the atrium was not completed on time).

A Deal With the Devil

Just as Cantuña despaired of completing the atrium on time, the Devil appeared in a puff of smoke and offered to make a deal. The Devil would finish the work overnight and the atrium would be ready on time. Cantuña, of course, would part with his soul. Cantuña, desperate, accepted the deal.

The Devil called in a large band of worker demons and they spent the whole night building the atrium.

A Missing Stone

Cantuña was pleased with the work, but naturally began to regret the deal he had made. While the Devil was not paying attention, Cantuña leaned over and pried loose a stone out of one of the walls and hid it. As dawn broke on the day the atrium was to be given to the Franciscans, the Devil eagerly demanded payment. Cantuña pointed out the missing stone and claimed that since the Devil had not fulfilled his end of the deal, the contract was void. Foiled, the angry Devil disappeared in a puff of smoke.

Variations on the Legend

There are different versions of the legend which differ in small details. In some versions, Cantuña is the son of the legendary Inca General Rumiñahui, who foiled the Spanish conquistadors by hiding the gold of Quito (also allegedly with the help of the Devil). According to other telling of the legend, it was not Cantuña who removed the loose stone, but an angel sent to help him. In yet another version of the legend, Cantuña did not hide the stone once he removed it but instead wrote upon it something to the effect of "Whoever picks up this stone acknowledges that God is greater than he." Naturally, the Devil would not pick up the stone and was therefore prevented from fulfilling the contract.

Visiting San Francisco

San Francisco Church and convent are open daily. The cathedral itself is free to visit, but there is a nominal fee to see the convent and museum. Fans of colonial art and architecture will not want to miss it. Guides will even point out a wall inside the atrium that is missing a stone: the very spot where Cantuña saved his soul! The San Francisco church is also known for a darker legend: the Black Hand.