Photo: Ecuador 365
Cuenca is an ancient city, founded originally by the Incas when it went by the name of Tomebamba, then destroyed and rebuilt by the Spaniards in 1557. While some Inca ruins remain, it is the Spanish influence that is most immediately apparent.
Superbly preserved (the Old Town became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999), the colonial architecture conducts a charm offensive, each building quainter than the last. Cobbled streets, red-tiled footpaths, sixteenth-century churches and whitewashed adobe walls, Cuenca seems the epitome of Spanishness. But spend a bit of time there and you notice that the Incas, and their predecessors the Canari, never went away.
In truth Ecuador’s third city, located at over 2,500 metres above sea level, is first and foremost an Andean city. Its raucous markets teem and heave with commerce, indigenous people in traditional dress bustle all around, animals are sold on street corners, and when it comes to fiesta time, things get REALLY crazy. If there’s one thing that Cuencanos like more than a fiesta, it’s playing with fireworks. These passions dovetail nicely at Inti Raymi (Corpus Christi per the Catholic Church) in June, when huge firework towers light up the night. This is just the largest of the many such celebrations that take place all year round, usually based on the old pagan festivals but with Catholic names.
It is this mix of pagan and Catholic, Spanish and Andean, ancient and modern, rugged mountain ways and colonial charm that give this stunning city and its people their unique character.
The third city of Ecuador nestling in the Andes. Cobbled streets, a very large cathedral and (as ever in Ecuador) an awful lot of ice cream shops. It's safer and staider than Quito. We lived there for six months back in 2003, and enjoyed the regular festivals and processions. A long walk out of town is Turi, with another church, this time on a hill.
Two other great places are the olympic swimming pool, also used by soldiers for training (watch out, only cold showers), and Feria Libre a market bigger than the bustling one in the town centre.