Cuenca is Ecuador’s third largest city and home to the country’s second most beautiful and well-preserved colonial downtown. It comes as no surprise that in the year 1999, UNESCO named it a World Heritage site. This friendly and quiet city is rich in history and architecture. Walking down its cobblestone streets, and plazas or immersing yourself in the impressive natural scenery that surrounds the city will give you a good taste of everything it has to offer. When visiting Ecuador, before or after your Galapagos adventure, make sure you spend some days getting acquainted with the country’s stunning Andes region. The cities and landscapes will certainly take your breath away. And while you’re in the area, why not make the beautifully renovated family mansion Casa Gangotena your base camp before letting the exploration begin? Cuenca is waiting for you!
By Land or Air
Cuenca can be reached both by car or airplane. The city has its own airport and flights from various airlines leave on a daily basis. If you are tight on time, this might be the best way to go, as you will get there faster and have more time to enjoy the city. However, if you’re lax on time and wish to have a broader view of the Ecuadorian highlands, a car ride is a good option. A non-stop drive to Cuenca would take around 9 hours, but you can split this up into two days, allowing for stops to be made along the way. While driving south of the equator, stop at Latacunga and try some chugchucaras, take a detour to the amazing Quilotoa crater lake, admire the Ilinizas and Cotopaxi as you drive through the Avenue of the Volcanoes, and try to get a glimpse of the impressive Chimborazo volcano. These are just some of the beauties that decorate the southern highlands. Take pleasure in the calmness of a road trip through the mountains and have your camera ready!
From Cañari, to Inca, to Spanish
Cuenca has a pre-Hispanic history dating back to the year 500 B.C., to the time of the Cañari people. Cuenca stands over an important Cañari settlement called Guapondeleg (meaning “plain as big as the sky”). Less than a century before the arrival of the Spanish, the Cañari were conquered by the Inca Empire after an arduous battle. Soon enough, the Inca took over Guapondeleg and replaced the Cañari architecture for their own. Eventually, Tupac Yupanqui, the Inca Emperor, ordered the construction of a great city called Pumapungo (the door of the puma) on Guapondeleg. The Incas were smart conquistadors, however, and they absorbed from conquered cultures whatever characteristics they felt could enrich their own. In this case, it happened to be the Cañari’s astronomical and agricultural accomplishments.
When the Spanish arrived to the Ecuadorian territory after taking Cajamarca in Peru, the Cañaris decided to form an alliance with them in order to defeat the Inca invaders. However, this would later turn against them. The Spanish rulers were merciless and the Spanish brought diseases; since the indigenous people no defense against these diseases, they decimated the Cañari population. The Spanish would later build a small settlement nearby, but the official founding of the city happened much later in the year 1557, when it was baptized as “Santa Ana de los Ríos de Cuenca”. However, it would have to wait until the year 1820 for its independence from the Spanish, therefore becoming the capital of the third independent province in the newly established Ecuadorian Republic.
Today, the city of Cuenca is recognized for its rich culture, art scene, clean streets, and kind people. Even though the city went through a rough patch during the 1999 Ecuadorian financial crisis, it recovered successfully and it’s now considered one of the cities with the best standard of living in all of Ecuador. For this reason, many American retirees have chosen it as a destination to spend some quiet years while enjoying the beauties of the city and its surroundings. While in Cuenca, have a taste of history and visit one of its many museums, including the Pumapungo Museum or Museum of Aboriginal Cultures. Walk through its picturesque streets and plazas, and marvel at its old cathedral called “El Sagrario” which stands across the new cathedral called “Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción”. And if you want to do a little shopping, visit any of its handicraft markets, like the Market at Plaza San Francisco, and be sure to try on a selection of handcrafted Panama hats. Did you know Panama hats come from Ecuador and that the best ones come from Cuenca? Visit Homero Ortega P & Hijos and find your perfect fit. If a taste of nature is what you are looking for, go for a hike at Parque Nacional El Cajas – located on the outskirts of Cuenca – and marvel at the view of its lakes and rolling hills. Or maybe just go for a stroll by the Tomebamba River – one of Cuenca’s four rivers – to get a glimpse of both old and new Cuenca. We guarantee you will fall in love with this delightful Andean city!