Some have said Cuenca stands on the site of what was once El Dorado, the mythical city of gold which the Spanish Empire searched for in vain.
Today, this city in southern Ecuador owes its architectural heritage to those marauding Spanish Conquistadors themselves, and is the country’s most important city after the capital, Quito.
I wandered the historical city centre and soaked up that ambience during a backpacking trip to South America, and found much to enjoy in this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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The Triple Cultures that Shaped Cuenca
Cuenca means ‘basin’ in Spanish, and was aptly named after its main geographical feature – a confluence of 4 rivers, the most significant of which is the Rio Tomebamba.
The first to populate the area, in a riverside settlement known as Guapondeleg, were the Cañari people, famous for their stoic resistance against the Inca Empire. The Inca eventually absorbed the Cañari culture and renamed the settlement Tomebamba (later called Pumapungo). Over the years they added their own opulent and lavish constructions, creating a city renowned across the Empire.
It was considered magnificent enough to rival the Incan capital of Cuzco, and word of its splendour reached the invading Spaniards in the 15th century.
Thinking it could be a contender for the legendary El Dorado, the Spaniards headed towards it, but by the time they arrived all that remained were ruins. It is thought that the inhabitants, aware of an imminent invasion, decided to raze the entire area and scarper into the hills, leaving the Spanish Conquistadors to rebuild the site in the style we see so much of today.
It’s a shame, but I can’t say I blame them.
The Charm and Culture of Modern Day Cuenca
Out of all the Spanish-speaking nations of South American, Ecuadorian Spanish is the most….well, Spanishy. The accent is the closest to standard Castilian Spanish that I encountered, and when combined with the colonial grandeur of Cuenca, gives the streets a unique ambience of cultural fusion, mixing the high Andes with Iberia.
The historic centre of the city is where most visitors spend their time, and with good reason. It’s jam-packed with historic buildings and bustling markets, and easy to navigate due to its straightforward grid-like layout. On the other hand, many of the streets do look almost identical, which can be slightly confusing – I suggest you use the unmistakable Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción (aka New Cathedral) as a focal point to keep your bearings – you won’t go far wrong then!
The Feria Libre Market is by far the largest, and spans several blocks, with row upon row of fresh produce, meats, herbs & spices, textiles and electronics, as well as hot food to-go – and, if you’re a first-time visitor, several items you probably can’t even identify. If you’re just after produce, I’d recommend the Mercado 10 de Agosto, as it’s less overwhelming without compromising on choice.
The main Tomebamba riverbank itself is lined with impressive manor houses and other colonial buildings, and is crossed by several bridges, making for a pleasant stroll or a relaxing picnic spot.
There is no shortage of cafes and restaurants in the centre of Cuenca. Considering the overall flavour of the city is very Spanish, I was pleasantly surprised at the range of international cuisines to be found, including Indian and Chinese restaurants.
We were on a tight budget, and happy to discover the Cafetería Capuccino. It’s nothing fancy, but they serve a good selection of regular breakfast and lunch dishes and the atmosphere is comfortable and unpretentious. It’s on the corner of Simón Bolívar and Padre Aguirre, right around the corner from the New Cathedral, so the location couldn’t be better. We found ourselves visiting several times as it was so convenient.
For something a little quirkier and some good Mexican fodder, the Monday Blue Bar and Restaurant, along the Calle Large, draws you in with its humorous and eclectic décor. The mood is cosy, the vibe is trendy and the prices are very reasonable.
Top Tip: In Ecuador, many places either restrict or prohibit the sale of alcohol on Sundays. The law does seem to keep changing, and it varies as to how strictly it’s enforced. You can usually buy beer or wine at restaurants and cafes until 10pm, but bear in mind that many restaurants may not even be open at that time. Be prepared for a bit of a walk/search if you are outside of a main tourist area, or plan ahead and stock up on the Saturday.
Cuenca’s Diverse Surrounding Area
It’s an outstanding destination in its own right, but Cuenca also serves as a springboard for some excellent day tours. The destination that appeals to me most, and I wish I’d had the time to visit, is Ingapirca, another UNESCO World Heritage Site and the location of one of the northernmost major archaeological ruins of the Incan Empire.
Its most important feature is the astronomical observatory, the Temple of the Sun, which was aligned so that during the solstices (link) and equinoxes, sunlight would fall through a small gap in a chamber at the top of the temple and fall upon a carefully placed idol. These key calendar points were cause for Inca celebrations in worship of their Sun gods.
But surprisingly, despite the Inca Empire technically defeating the Cañari, they didn’t suppress their culture or belief system. Ingapirca is testament to that – because there’s also a Temple of the Moon, based not around the Sun, but our lunar neighbour, around which the Cañari organised their agricultural activities. Most tour agencies in the area will offer a good selection of day trips, starting from around $15.
Moving On From Cuenca
Many travellers will either be tempted to head west towards Guayaquil’s beaches, or are perhaps just hopping about Ecuador a bit prior to that bucket-list staple – a trip to the Galapagos Islands.
If those aren’t on your agenda, and you’re either heading towards Peru or need a little R&R, I’d also recommend venturing to Vilcabamba, Ecuador’s legendary ‘Valley of Longevity’. It’s well worth a couple of days just for the incredible dark skies.
A City Not to be Overlooked
Ecuador packs quite a punch considering it’s relatively small for the South American continent; there’s Amazonian jungle, active volcanoes, the Galapagos, the equator, Andean highlands, golden beaches, cloud forests, hair-raising train rides, hippy havens and incredible biodiversity. Perhaps it has too much going on for its own good, because all too often travellers rush through in a bid to cram as much of Latin America into their itineraries as possible.
As a result, Cuenca often gets overlooked, which is a great pity. I’m so glad I trusted my instinct and spent a little time basking in its wonderful laid-back charm.
With beautiful parks, quality eateries, history in buckets and the vibe of a city which is progressive without wanting to change for its own sake, this city beguiles and welcomes you like no other in Ecuador. As much as I am in love with South America, I’m not sure I could easily live in many of the major towns or cities, as they’re often too overwhelming. In Cuenca, though, I found a city I could happily call home.
Disclosure: Our stay in Cuenca was part of our self-funded South American backpacking trip. Our original hotel double-booked us, and we ended up stayed at the Hostal Pichincha, which is very close to the city centre and therefore good value for money. We did find it a bit tired and gloomy, but it has since been updated and now looks far more welcoming. All opinions are my own.