La Merced has already given us a small taste of the colonial heart of the city, but before venturing further let’s pause and consider how Cuenca came to be listed UNESCO World Heritage Trust site.
The city’s history began long before the Spanish colonial era. It was originally settled by the indigenous Cañari around 500 AD and was called by them Guapondeleg – the “land as big as heaven.” It had been conquered by the Incas less than half a century before the Spanish conquistadors landed, and renamed Tomebamba (the name still held by its river). Soon after the defeat of the Cañari, the Inca commander, Tupac Yupanqui, ordered the construction of a new grand city to be known as Pumapungo, “the door of the Puma”. The magnificence of this new city was to challenge that of the Inca capital of Cuzco. When the Spanish arrived however, there remained only ruins, although the indigenous people told stories of golden temples and other such wonders. To this day it s unclear what happened to the fabled splendour and riches of the second Inca capital.
The Cuenca that exists today was founded by the Spanish in 1557, and its population and importance grew steadily during the colonial era, reaching the peak of its importance in the first years of Ecuador’s independence when it became the capital of one of the three provinces that made up the emerging republic, alongside Guayaquil and Quito.
The colonial heart of the city is of course only a small part of the whole, but it s where we, like most tourists, spent the majority of our time. It has retained much of its character and sense of history, arguably more so even than Quito, although like the country’s capital it is very much a working city rather than museum piece. Many streets are cobbled, adding to the sense of the past as you explore. A few ugly 20th century buildings mar the whole, but for the most part you both sense and see the history around you.
There are some key sights, which I will describe in my following tips, but make time too to look at the details. Cuenca is known in Ecuador for the attractiveness of its old doors, both on major buildings such as churches (as in my photo of La Merced) but also, as in these photos, on regular houses. And many of the old buildings have intricate carvings, especially high up near the roof. And talking of roofs, do look out for the lovely ornamental figures etc that perch on the top of some of the traditional tiled ones. If you look carefully at the buildings you will be able to distinguish between the early colonial ones (some of the earliest made from adobe) and the more ornate later ones with a more European style. Take your time and soak up the atmosphere of this rather special city.
Next tip: the heart of Colonial Cuenca, the Parque Calderón
When planning our trip to Ecuador I was conscious that we were only going to have very limited time in Cuenca so when our travel company (Simply Ecuador) suggested pre-booking a half-day tour of the city I acquiesced, thinking it would be a good way to see a lot in a short time. But when we arrived, and I realised how compact the city was, I wondered if we would regret that decision as it seemed quite possible to cover a lot of ground even in the couple of days we had available. However I have to say that the guide we had, Wilson from local company Terra Diversa, was absolutely excellent, with the result that we were very pleased to have secured his services. What made it so good a tour was the variety of places he took us, his flexibility in listening to our preferences (and adjusting to the fact that I couldn’t walk as far as I would have liked with my still-dodgy knee), and the wealth of interesting information he imparted. Terra Diversa offer lots of tours and I wouldn’t hesitate to book with them again, directly – and would certainly ask for Wilson by name!
Our tour started when Wilson collected us from our hotel at 9.00 and should have lasted four hours, but he was as happy as we were to over-run a bit and in the end we spent nearly five hours exploring with him. In that time we visited:
~ a “panama” hat factory
~ the Mirador de Turi
~ the Plaza San Sebastian and the Museo de Arte Moderno
~ a local craftsman (tin engraver)
~ the Plaza del Cruz del Vado and nearby ultra-quirky café, Prohibido Centro Cultural
~ various streets in the colonial city, to explore the different architectural styles
~ the Plaza San Francisco
~ the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción
Most of these are covered in my following tips, starting with a look at those so-called Panama hats
After school on Friday, like most days, I wandered around the "Old City" of Cuenca. The colonial achitecture really makes you feel connected with history and makes you wonder what life was like for the people who built the place and lived here at the time. Sure, there a places like New Orleans that are similarly constructed but here it not spoiled with neon and crowds of rowdy people. The colonial district probably covers about 2 square miles of plateau surrounded by river gorges and mountains. To say it is scenic would be an understatement.
I read on the web that some of the few Americans living here meet on Fridays at little restaurant called Zoe´s. I found my way there, went inside and, seeing that the restaurant was empty, asked the hostess if I was in the right place (in Spanish of course -- few of the locals here speak any intelligible English). She pointed up a flight of stairs which, I found out, lead to the bar. There were about 15 Americans there drinking and talking among themselves but took little notice of me. It seemed that the only way to meet any one would be to sit at the bar and have a drink which, anymore, is not my "cup of tea" so I left. Maybe this Friday I´ll go back and order a Coke. I have to mention that the interior of the place was, if I remember correctly, entirely polished wood. There was a skylight and decorative plants set in every possible location on a clean, polished, tile floor -- very soothing. Nice restaurants etc. like this are typical here. At El Jardin, the fanciest place I have found so far, I went inside to look at the menu. The most expensive full course dinners were about 7 US dollars!
After Zoe´s, I went to the central plaza which has the "new cathedral" in the SE corner and the "old cathedral" in the NE corner. By "new" I mean it was built in the mid 1800s and by "old" I mean it was built toward the end of the dark ages, around 1600. One of my teachers told me that you could go into the new cathedral for free so I thought I would go in and take a look. What the heck, it´s free, right? I was completely unprepared for what I was about to see. I am sure you have seen in such places in Europe, so I don´t feel like I need to explain the magnificense of the place. It literally took my breath away. I returned there on Saturday to take pictures and on Sunday to attend a mass.
Canaris are the main representatives of the pre-Incan population in the area of Azuay. They settled down between 500 AD and 1480 AD . They had developed a great social organisation of ethnic nobility, social division within the establishments, with the head of the social structure and the extreme priest governing. They were of great culture, knowledgeable in silver, agriculture, weaving and pottery. Today Cuenca is built in the area of their important old capital, Guapondelig. In about 1500 the Incas arrived, invaded and conquered them. Canaris were dispersed to different parts of the region but their descendants are still present in the province. Their famous open market is an opportunity for local people to gather and sell their goods.
Canaris culinary art is famous with delicious dishes of meat escorted by their fresh vegetables. They mainly cook pork. For the cold winter days they drink a local specialty called “canelacito” from distilled alcohol of sugar cane and cinnamon. In a more refined version it also contains “cangoracho” which gives it a wonderful red colour. It's great!
Click on the photo!
Fondest memory: He drove fast but a lot more carefully than most South American drivers. We passed everything in front of us but generally I felt in less danger than when taking the bus! While were drove he talked to me non-stop since I was sitting right next to him while my wife slept in the back seat. I did my best to keep up my half of the conversation despite my meager Spanish and I guess I did a good enough job since he never stopped. We were making great time but I kept an eye on the map just to make sure we were indeed going to Cuenca and not being abducted. When we hit the halfway point and we still had a few hours to go, I checked the bus prices and found out not only that the trip was eight hours but also that it would have cost us $10 each. He was only trying to charge us the going rate as it turned out so I felt a little sheepish for my tough negotiation. It took under five hours and despite a few doubting moments it was a good ride through some incredible if dusty scenery. We were feeling pretty good about our survival skills but mostly it just felt good to finally be in Cuenca.
As with all colonial charmers the best thing one can do in Cuenca is wander around with no particular destination. That's how you generally find the best stuff. What's best? It's up to you.
Fondest memory: It felt good to be back on the Pan American Highway, even if we stood next to our backpacks waiting for the bus to take us to Cuenca. The previous day’s eerie walk down the desolate road behind us was now a somewhat comical if haunting memory. It was easy to laugh about the territorial fierce dogs now that we’d already passed them. We were quite prepared to jump on the next bus which we figured would be no more than an hour but when a car pulled over despite our not even attempting to hitchhike, we rushed over to investigate. He was going to the next town and was willing to give us a lift for a dollar. We figured it would be easier to get a bus from there to Cuenca and we had already experienced the difficulty of jumping on a bus from the road the previous day. So, we hopped in and kept our fingers crossed. Though I never hitchhike we had taken a lift out of Cotopaxi National Park when it was our only alternative and despite the reported dangers of Ecuador, we had found the people warm and friendly. Our new driver seemed pretty much the same and the car was brand spanking new as evidenced by the plastic seat covering and fresh smell. As it turned out, he was delivering the car from Quito to Cuenca and made the run a couple times a week, often picking up passengers to make the ride more interesting and obviously make some extra money. Once he heard we were going to Cuenca he was quite happy and offered to take us all the way there for $10 each. I hadn’t gotten a chance to took at the transit prices from our current location to Cuenca but remembered it to be more like $5 each so bargained hard for a price reduction. He was a bit perplexed but eventually relented to us paying $10 for both of us. (concluded below in Fondest Memory)
UNFAVORITE THINGS ABOUT CUENCA. Simon Bolivar is the school that I first attended in Cuenca. I was unhappy with the teacher. Four hours of daily one-to-one lessons with an unprepared, bored, and uninspired teacher was truly painful. I did not look forward to the classes. Since the school does NOT rotate its teacher, I was going to ask for a different one after two weeks. When I asked the other students about their teachers, they didn’t have anything positive to say so I left the school and found a different one.
The school does NOT offer a conversational class or a language exchange with Ecuadorians students studying English (nor would they help me find one). This was a real disappointment for me. My primary purpose in attending was to work on my conversational skills so Simon Bolivar didn’t meet my needs or expectations.
In the past six years, I’ve attended five schools in five different countries. Simon Bolivar in Cuenca ranks in the bottom. I was truly surprised at the lack of skills the teachers had in the teaching of Spanish as a foreign language. Perhaps I attended at a “wrong” time or got assigned to a “bad” teacher, but I heard rumbling of discontent from other students about their teachers. It’s obvious that there is no quality control or emphasis on hiring and continue training of their teachers.
If you decide to attend Simon Bolivar, don’t pay for more than one-week in advance and be prepared to walk away if the school doesn’t meet your needs or expectations. There are other schools in Cuenca.
Minimum 20 hours per week (US$160 per week) plus US$20 registration fee.
Address: Luis Cordero 10-25 y Gran Colombia
Favorite thing: I wasn't too sure where to post this, but if you're looking for what's happening in the local nightclubs, check out the El Mercurio newspaper on Friday. In the Azuay section, which I believe is section 1B, look for "Bares" which list nightclubs and their entertainment, address, hours, and any cover charge. It's a good resource to plan your Friday and Saturday night entertainment.
A nice street scene in Cuenca, Ecuador.
Fondest memory: We met some really great people in Cuenca, went to the National Park of Cajas and just hung out. Cuenca is known for their hat making and also go to see the shop where they made the Indiana Jones hat, which is very cool.
Favorite thing: If you have an insatiable craving for Chicklets(and who doesn't), no need to worry. These little munchkins will find you.
At the river of Cuenca I saw the local women and their kids wash loads of clothes by the river.
When it was clean the laid it out to dry on the riversides.