Cuenca, the Athens of Ecuador, a Progressive City of Stately Colonial Charm

I remember our first trip to Cuenca, Ecuador, about 10 years ago. Gary and I were awestruck as we walked the lovely old streets and peeked into colonial courtyards.

I combed the gift shops and craft markets and was amazed at the incredible quality of the wood carvings and the originality of jewelry and furniture. It's a paradise for artists and history or culture buffs.

We found an artist who has her own factory where local weavers make her wool creations: sweaters, hats, jackets and scarves. Her husband designs modern furniture. Art and artists are prevalent.

We made a bee line for the Panama hat factories. Some are humble shops and others are haute couture where a hat can cost $1000 or more.

I find Cuenca to be an interesting mix of history and religion yet surprisingly progressive. It's by far my favorite city in Ecuador and I love to visit.

We usually stay at the restored Hotel Santa Lucia, a gorgeous building constructed by the first governor.

You can dine in the fabric-covered courtyard. The rooms are luxurious and there is a great café at the entrance of the hotel.

Gary also likes the lovely Hotel Victoria, a beautiful restored building near the Tomebama River. There are rooms in the back of the hotel that face the river and open onto a landscaped hill with outdoor furniture so you can enjoy the gardens.

When we're in town we usually go to the popular Café Eucalyptus which has an international menu and good live music.

Cuenca, often lauded as one of the best cities in Latin America to live in, is a UNESCO World Heritage Trust site. It's a magnet for foreigners, both investors and retirees.

It has a well-preserved historic district, plenty of culture in the form of art, museums, architecture and theater and is reminiscent of its Spanish namesake. No wonder it is called the Athens of Ecuador.

When in Cuenca we usually visit the Museo de Arte Moderno. It's on the west side of the colonial district on the Plaza San Sebastian. The museum was originally a Casa de Temperancia, or House of Temperance for those who needed a place to sober up, sometimes priests.

It's a lovely building with lots of little rooms that have been turned into galleries, exhibition rooms and meeting rooms. There are several grassy courtyards displaying sculptures that are especially charming because of the winsome juxtaposition of the sculptural pieces with flowers and trees.

Here's Gary with a piece of modern art. What do you think? Would it be a great object de arte in your Cuenca foyer? Certainly an object of curiosity and interesting conversation.

With a population approaching half a million souls, Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador and the capital of the province of Azuay. At 8200 feet, the city is in central Ecuador in the highlands, with four rivers flowing through it. They are the Tomebamba, Yanuncay, Tarqui and Machangara Rivers.

It's known as a university city with eight universities, including the oldest--the University of Cuenca, Universidad de Cuenca. With so much to see and do in Cuenca, you can spend days walking the streets imbibing the history and soaking up the ambiance. The large number of college students give the city an exciting night life and a dynamic feel.

The climate can be cold, colder than Quito and Cotacachi. Temperature averages about 58° F. The dry season is usually from June to December and the rainy season, from January to May.

I love the flower market, too. In fact, the city is full of flowers, from street vendors selling from huge baskets to small flower markets in church yards.

Cuenca History: Full of Riches and Mystery

Cuenca was founded by the Canari Indians about 1500 years ago. The Indians called the city Guapondeleg, which means, "the land as big as heaven." The city was conquered by the Incas but they didn't destroy the culture. They changed the city's name to Tumebamba.

A fabulous city was constructed by Tupac Yupanqui, the Inca commander. Legend says that it rivaled that of Cuzco, Peru, which was a city of gold, and was the second capital of the Incas in the northern part of their kingdom.

When the Inca emperor Huayna Capac died, war began immediately between his two sons. Atahualpa was captured and imprisoned in Cuenca by his brother Huascar. Legends say he escaped by turning himself into a snake.

Atahualpa then defeated Huascar. As revenge, Atahualpa made a cup out of the skull of Huascar's general and destroyed Cuenca totally, killing everyone in the city. Not a very positive start to his reign there.

This divisiveness weakened the Inca Empire enough to make it easier for the Spanish when they came seeking gold and converts for their rulers and religion.

But when the Spanish conquistadors showed up one hundred years later, they found the city in ruins. No one knows for sure what happened.

Cuenca may have been the fabled city of gold, El Dorado, which was said to have been burned to the ground by the people living there rather than allow the Spanish to take it.

The city was next named Santa Ana de los Rios de Cuenca when it was founded in 1557 by Gil Ramirez Davalos, a Spanish explorer. Hurtado de Mendoza named Cuenca after his home town in Spain. Cuenca gained its independence on November 3, 1820.

The main historic area is located between the Tomebamba River and Gran Colombia Calle. It's easy to navigate and the streets are laid out in an orderly grid. Outside this area the streets are more chaotic. Strolling along the rivers is a favorite pastime. Indigenous women can still be seen washing their clothes along the river banks.

There are more than 50 major churches in Cuenca. Many of them are awe-inspiring monuments.

The Catedral Antigua (Old Cathedral) or Iglesia de El Sagrario, is the oldest structure in Cuenca, made with stones from an Inca palace. It was built in 1557.

Religious services are no longer held there now that the Catedral Metropolitana de le Immaculada Concepcion or New Cathedral (Neuva Catedral) has been completed.

This cathedral was begun in 1880. It was planned to be the largest in South America with enough room for 10,000 church-goers. The towers are shorter than they were first designed because the building's foundation couldn't support the originally-planned height. It's made of pink marble with blue domes.

Between the two cathedrals is Park Abdon Calderon, the city's central park. Opposite the Neuva Catedral is the Casa de la Cultura with an art gallery, museum and bookstore.

It is in the center of Cuenca between the old and new cathedrals. On the park benches, people meet to converse and absorb its tranquility. The municipal offices are located nearby.

The Monastery of El Carmen de Asuncion has an atrium and square that is filled with flower vendors. The scent and bright color of the flowers is worth a leisurely pass-by. There are also vendors with a wide variety of potted flowers and bulbs for sale. The beautiful church was built in 1682.

We always enjoy a saunter through the thriving and boisterous produce market. It's large and chock-full of feasts for the eye as well as the stomach. The medicinal plant area is fascinating. There's always someone who wants you to sample their herbal concoctions or try an unusual mixed fruit drink with herbs and minerals added.

Construction in Cuenca is excellent, with attention to detail and fine craftsmanship in cabinetry and kitchen design. Expats are finding the well-constructed high-rise condos a good buy. A recent client moving to Ecuador said his 4,000 sq. ft. penthouse condo purchase in Cuenca far surpassed a similar unit he saw in Panama that was three times the price.

There are hot springs at one end of Cuenca in an area called Banos, not to be confused with the more famous town of Banos farther north. A newer hot springs with spa is Piedra de Agua.

We've stayed at the Hosteria Duran, which has several heated pools and very hot Turkish baths. The water in the pools when we were there was 78-80 degrees centigrade and there are no Jacuzzis or pools with really hot water.

Four kilometers from the city is a lookout with a fine overview of the whole city. It's called the Mirador Turi.

Also worth a day's visit is a trip to Cuenca's picturesque countryside, visiting indigenous crafts markets and artisans. Weavers make textiles of wool or silk in distinctively designed patterns that are deliberately made to blur. The warp threads are tie-dyed before weaving. Their work is known as ikat.

Ikat shawls are called paños. There is a museum in Gualaceo that has antique ikat textiles on display.

The village of Chorteleg has filigree jewelry in silver and gold.

Some expats are making the nearby Yunguilla Valley their new home. The temperature there is much warmer than Cuenca so this is the place to be if you want to garden or grow your own food. And it's not far to the city when the need for entertainment and culture arises.

If you are planning a visit, you might want to take a look at our blog about Cuenca hotels.

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