If you measure a city on size or population alone, Cuenca ranks third in Ecuador. If you consider charm, beauty and the opinion of all Ecuadorians, however, Cuenca leaps into first place. The city is a colonial jewel, a neat, orderly city set in the picturesque rolling hills of southern Ecuador.
Like Quito, Cuenca has a centuries-old colonial center full of stunning architecture, venerable churches and well-kept parks. Unlike Quito, however, the colonial center is still the heart of the city: a place to be enjoyed by all cuencanos, day or night. As you wander around the center, notice the finely carved wooden doorsâ€”theyâ€™re quite striking. The best hotels and restaurants are to be found here, as well as ice cream parlors, cafĂ©s, shops and more. QuiteĂ±os have abandoned the colonial heart of their city, at least at night; cuencanos still cherish theirs. They are immensely proud of the fact that their colonial downtown was named a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural site in 1999.
Cuenca is an ancient city, older than even the Spanish occupation. Long before this settlement became Cuenca, it was Guapondelig, a CaĂ±ari settlement. When the Incas came, they conquered the CaĂ±ari and changed its name to Tumipamba. The Spanish continued the tradition, building on the city of the vanquished Inca; they named it "Santa Ana de los Cuatro RĂos de Cuenca," or "Saint Anne of the Four Rivers of Cuenca." Four rivers do indeed flow through and around Cuenca, the most visible of these is the RĂo Tomebamba, which runs along the southern edge of the old city.
Cuenca has a lot activities for travelers. Apart from the obvious architecture and colonial churchesâ€“they say that Cuenca has 52 churches, one for every Sunday of the yearâ€“Cuenca is used as the base for trips to the breathtaking El Cajas National Park as well as Ecuadorâ€™s most significant Inca ruins, Ingapirca. Cuenca is also surrounded by many quaint villages, each of which is worth a visit: Gualaceo, Chordeleg, Sigsig, Bulcay, GirĂłn and Jima.
The hotels in Cuenca are a great value for any budget. The best hotels are the converted colonial homes in the center of town. Cuenca's restaurants offer a great value and memorable dining experiences. Cuencanos love food (particularly ice cream and other sweets) and there are many excellent restaurants in town. Regional fare is similar to the rest of Ecuador: a lot of pork, rice and potatoes, but itâ€™s very well done and there are always options, even vegetarian ones.
If Cuenca is lacking in anything, itâ€™s nightlife: Cuenca is just not a party town. Still, there are places where you can go out and have a good time. Check out some of the other bars and cafĂ©s by the river.
Come for a visit and youâ€™ll see why Ecuadorians agree that Cuenca is one of the most beautiful cities in their country.