Cuenca

This might be Ecuador's third largest city, but it doesn't even look like. Compared to the biggest Ecuadorian metropolises, Quito and Guayaquil, Cuenca seems much more relaxed. Despite its accelerated growth, to the point that more than half a million people live in the city and its surroundings nowadays, Cuenca still preserves a certain provincial flair, featuring beautiful cobblestone streets and impressive colonial mansions. Just like Quito's, Cuenca's historic center has been declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO, with the objective of supporting conservation of its colonial architecture.

Centro histórico - Cuenca, Ecuador
Centro histórico - Cuenca, Ecuador

Cuenca is located in a valley surrounded by the Andes, 2,550m (8,360ft) above the sea level, fact that allows the city to benefit from a pleasant weather all over the year. Orchids exported to the whole world are grown here. Pottery and textiles also play an important role in the local economy. This region, however, is more widely known for the production of its magnificent Panama hats, which despite the name are of Ecuadorian origin.

Before the arrival of Spanish settlers, Cuenca (by then known as Tomebamba) was the second largest city of the Inca Empire (only behind their capital, Cusco). Even before the Incas, this region had been occupied for centuries by the Cañari culture. This rich past is remembered nowadays by several museums, including the Pumapungo Museum, linked to the Ministry of Culture, which offers permanent ethnographic and archeological displays, besides temporary expositions and a site museum where it is also possible to learn something about the history of Pumapungo, a group if Inca ruins.

Corte de Justicia - Cuenca, Ecuador
Corte de Justicia - Cuenca, Ecuador

Leaving the Pumapungo Museum and continuing through Calle Larga, a street almost parallel to River Tomebamba, you will arrive to the city's historic center. Alternatively, taking some extra precautions due to the occasional presence of anti-social elements, you can follow the river through the sidewalks available on both banks, in a beautiful area known as Barranco. Walking at leisure through the historic center while heading to the city's central square, known as Parque Calderón, visitors will find some architectural wonders. The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, known as the new cathedral, is the main church of Cuenca, characterized by its three blue domes.

Nueva Catedral - Cuenca, Ecuador
Nueva Catedral - Cuenca, Ecuador

Some 75km (45mi) north of Cuenca, Ingapirca stands as the most significant archeological site in Ecuador. Settled by the Cañari for long before the arrival of the Incas, both civilizations lived together here. The Temple of the Sun is the most relevant building still existent in the site, which can be visited in organized tours or even on a regular bus leaving from Cuenca's terminal.

Cuenca has a small domestic airport with daily flights to Guayaquil and Quito. Alternatively it is possible to take a bus from Guayaquil (200km, or 125mi - 4h), Riobamba (250km, or 155mi - 6h) or Quito (450km, or 280mi - 8h). Tumbes, the northernmost city of the Peruvian coast, is 250km (155mi) away.

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