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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 doors–they’re quite striking. The best hotels and restaurants are to be found here, as well as ice cream parlors, cafes, shops and more. Quiteños 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 Cañari settlement. When the Incas came, they conquered the Cañari 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 Ríos 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 Río Tomebamba, which runs along the southern edge of the old city.
Cuenca has a lot of activities for travelers. Apart from the obvious architecture and colonial churches – they say that Cuenca has 52 churches, one for every Sunday of the year – Cuenca is used as the base for trips to the breathtaking El Cajas national park as well as Ecuador’s most significant Inca ruins, Ingapirca.
Cuenca is surrounded by quaint villages, each of which is worth a visit: Gualaceo is a small town with colonial roots and a pleasant river park; Chordeleg is known for the numerous silver shops that line the main street and park; Sigsig is a bit far off, but a good place to see Panama hats being made in the traditional way; Bulcay is the last place to see the dying art of ikat weaving: There are less than 30 weavers who still practice it today; Girón boasts colonial architecture and the nearby waterfall of El Chorro; Jima is known for hiking.
The hotels in Cuenca are a great value for any budget. The best hotels are the converted colonial homes in the center of town, such as the Santa Lucía, Mansión Alcázar or Hotel Crespo, but there is the elegant Oro Verde outside of town for those well-heeled guests who don’t want to be in the. There are also any number of mid-range hotels and budget options.
The restaurants in Cuenca 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 it’s very well done and there are always options, even vegetarian ones. Even backpackers on a tight budget may want to splurge in Cuenca: an entrée at an elegant, converted colonial restaurant generally costs under $9.
If Cuenca is lacking in anything, it’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 Wunderbar or some of the other bars and cafés by the river.
Come for a visit and you’ll see why Ecuadorians agree that Cuenca is one of the most beautiful cities in their country.
Other places nearby Cuenca: Chordeleg, Vilcabamba, Sigsig, Baños (Cuenca), Girón, Loja, Jima, Gualaceo, Bulcay and Agato.
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