Saturday, January 17, 2015


It was time to re-visit Cuenca in the highlands of southern Ecuador.  Our first trip to Ecuador was in the l990's when we were still working, raising children, and living in Southern California.  We were tourists/visitors in a Spanish speaking country in the southern hemisphere and we were definitely out of our comfort zone.  Even though I remember feeling unsure of what we were doing, I was also very excited by the challenge and  the unknown.  

Our month long exploration of Ecuador commenced in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, where we rented a car and headed north.  From there we backtracked and headed south through the lovely central highlands of the country until we reached the charming colonial city of Cuenca.  From Cuenca we then headed east up and over the Andes and down to the amazing Amazon rainforest. From there we returned to Quito where we were forced to face reality and our return home.  But what an adventure!  

Springtime flowers are found daily in the plazas for all to purchase and enjoy!

I remember finding Ecuador not only beautiful, but fascinating with the Spanish colonial cities and the influence of the indigenous cultures.  Please remember that this trip was before we had retired and decided to move to Mexico on a permanent basis.  It was also before we had subsequently lived in many interesting places and countries and become “nomadic” in our nature.  We were then still Latin American novices.  With the passage of time, I started wondering about my memories of Cuenca.  It was time to return to Cuenca and check it out which was what we did  four years ago.  So please join me in this most recent visit to Ecuador and  my “re-discovery” of  Cuenca.  

Cuenca has at least eighteen churches to be visited and admired

Of all of the cities in Ecuador, Cuenca is the most charming with its cobblestone streets, old-world cathedrals, colonial parks and urban rivers.  Cuenca, capital of the province of Azuay and the third largest city in Ecuador, is located in the sierra of the Andes in the southern region of Ecuador. It is approximately nine hours south of Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and four hours east of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s large Pacific port city. 

  Caballos waiting patiently on Parque Calderon, the main plaza, for their masters to return

Two generations of local women as evidenced by their dress

The elevation of Cuenca is approximately 8,200 feet and features a subtropical highland climate. Like the rest of the Ecuadorian Andes it is said that Cuenca enjoys a mild climate year-round.  Days are generally warm and nights are cool enough that sweaters or jackets are needed. Ecuador has been called the land of Springtime.  Having said that, however, I personally found the “mild climate” often chilly and a challenge for my southern California bones! But as my husband tells me, I have no tolerance for cold whatsoever!

The lovely blue towers are the highlight of the New Cathedral which took over one hundred years to build!

The dominant features of the city's geography are also the source of its name in Spanish: the four rivers of Cuenca (meaning a basin made by a confluence/or junction of rivers). These rivers are the Tomebamba (named after the Inca culture), Yanuncay, Tarqui and Machangara, in order of importance.  These four rivers are part of the Amazon River watershed.  Cuenca is surrounded by mountains on all sides, with passes to the west, south and east.  From downtown, looking southwest, you can see the beautiful Cajas mountains.  Everywhere you look in Cuenca, there are flowers, blooming trees, grass and rushing water.  Cuenca’s setting  is truly lovely.

The four rivers of Cuenca set this colonial city apart from many others in its natural beauty.

A woman's work is never done as shown here with a local woman washing in the icy river waters of Cuenca.

As I have mentioned before, I am a  firm believer that having some knowledge of an area’s history is a very good thing.  It makes me appreciate where I am and what I am experiencing.  So here is my mini-mini summary of Cuenca’s history:  

Cuenca’s history began long before the arrival of both the Spanish and the Inca. The city was originally a Cañari settlement called Guapondeleg, “land as big as heaven,” which is believed to have been founded around 500 AD. In the 1400’s the Inca ruler Tupac-Yupanqui invaded the region from the south.  Shortly after the defeat of the Cañari, Tupac-Yapanqui ordered the construction of a grand city to be named Pumapungo,“the door of the Puma,” whose magnificence was to challenge that of the Inca capital of Cuzco in Peru.

Fast forward to the arrival of the Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, who landed in Ecuador in 1532 accompanied by 180 armed men with a strong lust for gold. Several years earlier, Pizarro had made a peaceful visit to the coast where he had heard rumors of inland cities of incredible wealth. This time he intended to conquer the Incas just as Hernando Cortez had crushed the Aztecs in Mexico.  However, by the time the Spaniards found the legendary city of Pumapungo all that remained were ruins which left the Spanish wondering what had happened to the fabled splendor and riches of the second Inca capital.

What a contrast in hat styles - traditional vs modern!

After being abandoned by the Cañari and then the Inca, Cuenca was sparsely populated until the 1550’s. The Cuenca that exists today was founded by the Spanish in 1557. Spanish governors ruled Ecuador for nearly 300 years, first from Lima, Peru, and then later from the vice royalty of Colombia. The Spanish introduced Roman Catholicism, colonial architecture, and today's national language. Independence from Spain was won in 1822 when the famed South American liberator Simon Bolivar defeated a Spanish army at the Battle of Pichincha. Cuenca’s population and importance grew steadily during the colonial era and reached the peak of its importance in the first years of Ecuador’s independence.  

The busy and attractive historical district in downtown Cuenca is great to explore on foot

Shopping for farm fresh produce on the downtown streets of Cuenca is a fun experience

Now to current “history.”   In 1999 UNESCO designated Cuenca a World Heritage Trust Site. The city center of Cuenca was honored by UNESCO because of its many splendid historical buildings. In addition, Cuenca has also been honored by being named the Cultural Capital of the Americas for the year 2002.  it takes no more than a leisurely stroll through the city’s narrow cobblestone streets or the beautiful surrounding countryside and mountain areas to appreciate the unique and lovely amenities of Cuenca.  

Doesn't everyone walk their goats to town for a visit? Hope it's not to the local butcher shop!

More street activity in Cuenca's centro downtown with a march for human rights.

From the traditional agricultural practices of the ancient Cañari indigenous people which are  still practiced  in the area’s lush surroundings, to the splendor and mystery of the preserved Inca ruins, to the architectural grandeur of the towering Cathedrals built by the Spaniards, Cuenca is a tribute to all the peoples who have inhabited it.  What little of its cultural heritage that can’t be admired from its bustling plazas and verdant parks can be seen in the  many museums that are found in Cuenca.

Women in Cuenca are very much involved in the cultural, religious, and political life of the city.

The indigenous peoples of Ecuador as depicted at the Museum of Aboriginal Cultures

Most tourists visit the historic area, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, between the river Tomebamba and the streets Gran Colombia to the north, General Torres to the west, and Hermano Miguel to the east. This area's compactness, grid-like layout, and numerous monuments make it easy to navigate.  Outside this central historical area the city can be confusing as there are dozens of narrow colonial streets with similar buildings. I, however, think it is fun to wander around without a map, get lost, and discover unplanned surprises!  

Here is a list of the most important and visited sites in Cuenca:

  • Old Cathedral (Iglesia de El Sagrario).  Built in 1557, the Old Cathedral eventually became too small for the town's parishioners. Construction of a replacement cathedral commenced in 1885. The old cathedral, no longer consecrated, has been restored and used as a museum and is very beautiful. 

     The beautiful interior of the Old Cathedral in Cuenca

      Spanish architectural detail as seen in the historical center of Cuenca

  • New Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana de la Inmaculada Concepción). The New Cathedral took over the function of the nearby Old Cathedral that had become too small. Construction lasted for almost a century. This building combines many architecture styles including Baroque Revival, Byzantine Revival, and Romanesque. It’s blue and white domes are a striking feature of the New Cathedral.

     The blue domes of the New Cathedral against the blue skies of Cuenca is certainly beautiful

   The contrast between Spanish colonial architecture and modern murals as found in Cuenca is a delight!

  • Parque Calderon is the main plaza and is located in the center of Cuenca between the old and new cathedrals. The park is a popular meeting place and a lovely location to rest for your explorations, watch the the local action, and enjoy a ice cream cone!

Parque Calderon, the main plaza in Cuenca, is ready for Navidad!

Lighting a candle in honor of Gabrielle Dee "Gabby" Giffords and the other victims after the tragic Arizona shooting in the United States of America.

The following are additional attractions which should not be missed while visiting Cuenca: 
  • Monastery of El Carmen de Asuncion. In the atrium a colorful flower market supplements the beauty of the church which was founded in 1682. A sculpted stone facade and a golden pulpit make the church very attractive. 
  • Monastery and Museum of La Concepcion with 17th-century tombs and a complete collection of religious art. 
  • House of the Ecuadorian Culture 
  • Municipal Museum Remigio Crespo Toral
  • Museum of the Central Bank 
  • Museum of the Aboriginal Cultures

Masks are found in many indigenous cultures and used on special ceremonial occasions.

 Modern day masks are very popular for New Year's Eve celebrations and even include some blonds! 

In addition to the many public venues to be visited and enjoyed, Cuenca has some amazing processions during the year which celebrate both religious and sectarian events.  They include the “Mass of Children” that is celebrated on the day of the arrival of the Three Kings (January 6th - Epiphany Day) and Cuenca’s Independence day celebrations (November 3rd) during which processions, cultural presentations, and dances are performed. 

Epiphany Day celebrations (Three Kings Day) in the historical Parque Calderon area are truly special with the children and their horses.

The children and their horses are dressed in their finest in honor of the Three day celebrations in Cuenca.

 This senorita was our favorite with her incredible demeanor, dress, and black lace mantilla (shawl) are simply lovely.

    The Three Kings Day parade in Cuenca is wonderful. 

In recent years, Cuenca has become a popular place for expatriates and retirees to settle down to live. With its charming colonial city center, beautiful outdoor attractions, low cost of living, and a pleasant, although slightly cool climate, Cuenca has attracted many expats to this Andean city. We enjoyed our three month “revisit” to Cuenca and found it much as before with the exception of the inevitable growth in and around the city. I would not hesitate recommending  a visit to Cuenca for those who are interested in experience a traditional Latin  colonial city with modern and attractive amenities.  Cuenca to me represents something for everyone.

    Someone I know taking a break on one of the colorful street corners in Cuenca.  

    Exploring the Ninth of October Municipal Mercado in order to satisfy my Cuenca hunger.  

I will never forgot the following words from a very senior traveler we met while visiting funky Montezuma Beach in Costa Rica. This man was in his late 80’s and on honeymoon with his second wife who was also in her 80’s. They appeared to be so out of place we approached them and asked what they were doing there.  His immediate response was:  “If you want to know about a place go there!”  These words had been his life-long motto and he was still living by them.  I doubt if he had given his bride much say regarding their honeymoon destination, but his words have definitely been an inspiration to me.  And maybe they will also be an inspiration to you.  


I remember hearing many, many years ago that a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, I am a believer so following is the link to my  CUENCA, ECUADOR WEB ALBUM which has additional photos for this posting. 

Please do not hesitate to contact me with any comments, suggestions, or questions. I may be contacted directly by email or by posting a comment on this blog page. Gracias, Laura 

                                                    Memories are just a click away!

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