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While wandering around Cuenca, it’s easy to forget you live in the 21st century. The city’s cobblestone streets, towering cathedrals, and marble and whitewashed buildings give it a colonial air unequaled in Ecuador and rarely rivaled in Latin America.

 

Officially known as “Saint Ann of the Four Rivers of Cuenca,” it’s not surprising that the city sits amidst four rivers. The most visible of the four, the Rio Tomebamba, runs through Cuenca’s colonial heart, separating it from several newer residential areas to the south. The historic district’s compactness, grid-like layout, and numerous readily identifiable monuments make it easy to navigate. There are quaint B&B’s, fine hotels, and inexpensive hostels peppered throughout city center, as well as good cafes, bars, and eateries and nearly all are within walking distance of the main sites.

 

Cuenca’s nearly limitless sightseeing opportunities begin with the two cathedrals on either side of the main plaza, Parque Abdón Calderón. The beautiful rose window and celestial blue domes of the New Cathedral (Catedral de la Inmaculada) dominate the skyline while the bell tower of the Old Cathedral (El Sagrario), built in 1557, radiates a more subtle charm. Not far from the plaza, there are half a dozen other worthwhile sites, including Las Conceptas, a fortress-like complex that occupies an entire block and houses a working monastery and a museum displaying centuries’ worth of religious artifacts and artwork, and the Museo del Banco Central, which contains a permanent collection of black and white photographs of 19th and early 20th century Cuenca, as well as displays of art and archeological pieces.

 

Those searching for signs of indigenous cultures in Cuenca won’t find much in plain sight because even though Cuenca’s story began long before the arrival of the Spanish—it was originally a Cañari settlement called Guapondeleg believed to have been founded around 500 AD—little evidence of its pre-Colombian past survived the Spanish Conquest. Nevertheless, those interested in indigenous cultures will not be disappointed by the Museo de las Culturas Aborígenes, which displays a private collection of 5,000 archeological pieces representing over 20 pre-Columbian cultures of Ecuador. Also, some Inca walls and stonework may be found along Calle Larga, Avenida Todos los Santos, and along the river, although they don’t compare to Ingapirca, Ecuador’s most important Inca ruin, which is located about 70 kilometers north of Cuenca on the Pan-American Highway.

 

In addition to being the cultural Mecca of Ecuador, which recently earned it the honor of being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Trust site, Cuenca has become a favorite destination among international travelers because it provides easy access to some of Ecuador’s best protected areas, El Cajas and Podocarpus National Parks, and it’s a painless three-hour drive from Guayaquil and the southern Ecuadorian coast. If you’ve only time to visit one place in the Ecuadorian Andes, it should be Cuenca.



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