CuencaDestination guide: Cuenca, Ecuador

Cuenca is an old city in Ecuador with a colonial air, located 450 kilometers south of Quito and split into two by the Tomebamba River. To the north is the historical center, with its maze of streets and endless colonial churches, while in the south, its residential areas, malls and wide avenues stand out.

Cuenca is known as the "Athens of Ecuador" and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, making it the third most important city in Ecuador.

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After Quito, Cuenca is Ecuador’s most important and beautiful colonial city. Dating from the 16th century, Cuenca’s historic center, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is a place that time keeps forgetting, where nuns march along cobblestone streets, kids in Catholic-school uniforms skip past historic churches, and old ladies spy on promenading lovers from their geranium-filled balconies.

In addition to its trademark skyline of massive rotundas and soaring steeples, Cuenca is famous for its barranco (cliff) along Calle Larga, where the city’s 18th- and 19th-century ‘hanging houses’ seem to hover over the rocky Río Tomebamba. The city is the center of many craft traditions, including ceramics metalwork and the internationally famous panama hat. Also well known are intricate and vibrant weavings called ikat that are displayed in the clothing of Cuenca’s cholas cuencanas.

At least three cultures have left their imprint on Cuenca. When the Spanish arrived in the 1540s, they encountered the ruins of a great, but short-lived Incan city called Tomebamba (Valley of the Sun). The Spanish eagerly dismantled what was left of it, incorporating the elegantly carved Incan stones into their own structures.

Before the Inca, the indigenous Cañari people had lived in the area for perhaps three thousand years, and they too had a city here, call Quanpondelig (Plain as Big as the Sky). Except for a few limited but interesting sites, the physical remains of these pre-Columbian cultures have been erased.

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