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Ecuador: Cuenca old city

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Cuenca old city | Ecuador | Americas

[Visited: December 2011]

A very early rise in Guayaquil allowed us to reach Cuenca before 8am, even though I discovered at the bus station that I had left my equipment in the hotel: we ended up taking a taxi all the way. Driving through El Cajas National Park made us decide right away that we should go there, too; but after breakfast in Cuenca, curiosity lured us into staying in the old city for the rest of the day. The history of Cuenca goes back a very long time: the first inhabitants are supposed to have settled here around 8000 BCE, and partly because of its long history, the city is dubbed the Athens of Ecuador. Various peoples populated this area before the Incas took over and established Tomebamba, supposedly a very rich city with golden temples, and second only to Cuzco, the Inca capital. It could be that the mythical city of El Dorado that the Spanish were frantically looking for after they discovered South America, was Tomebamba. However, once they found the city, it lay in ruins.

Picture of Cuenca old city (Ecuador): Light blue domes on the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción in Cuenca

The Spanish founded the city of Cuenca in the mid 16th century, named for the hometown of the Viceroy of Peru, and as today, was always one of the three most important cities in Ecuador. The historic significance of the city was recognized by Unesco who declared the historic city centre a World Heritage Site in 1999. With so much history under our feet, we first walked to the main square, which would become one of the places in the city we liked most. A park with a fountain in the middle and plenty of benches to sit on, the place is a meeting place for people, and lots of socializing goes on here. Also, we found the new cathedral here, which was built in the late 19th century to offer a higher capacity than the old one. Curiously, the architect made a big mistake in calculating the bell towers, they are not as tall as they should have been. The portal, arched with layer upon layer of decorative elements, is fantastic, as are the light blue cupolas that can only be seen from the western side of the cathedral. From here, we walked down to the river, passing some interesting graffiti, and walked along the river until we reached the old ruins of Tomebamba, the mythical old Inca city. We ended up spending much more time than anticipated here; what looked like simple ruins from the outside, turned out to be an interesting, educational visit explaining not only the history of the ruins, but also gardening in ancient times, digging of irrigational canals, and much more.

Picture of Cuenca old city (Ecuador): Typical street in the colonial heart of Cuenca

The weather was still very pleasant when we started walking back to the city on the Calle Larga. After visiting the pretty Museo de las Culturas Aborígenes, we continued to marvel at the beauty of the city, house upon house, street upon street. We were struck by the amount of lawyers in the city, judging from the signs on houses, and also about the fact that these narrow, colonial streets still had to endure so much motorized traffic. We enjoyed seeing the warm afternoon sunlight fall on old wooden doors, on balconies, on Cuencanos walking the street proud about their city. We discovered more small squares, quiet places and corners, saw very old women entering churches, and went to a lookout point on a hill outside Cuenca just too late: the sun had disappeared behind the clouds. On the morning of our departure, we left our old colonial hostel early in the morning, and were rewarded with fresh sunlight on the whitewashed buildings with their typical red roofs, contrasting nicely against a dark sky promising rain. The streets were all quiet now, and we took advantage to further explore the attractive streets of Cuenca. Even after a few days, we felt like the city had been very welcoming and had adopted us, and it was hard to leave the city behind.

Picture of Cuenca old city (Ecuador): Close-up of the decorated columns of the portal of the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción
Picture of Cuenca old city (Ecuador): Richly decorated door and portal of Cuenca Cathedral
Picture of Cuenca old city (Ecuador): Richly decorated roofs of the bell towers of Santo Domingo church in Cuenca
Picture of Cuenca old city (Ecuador): Santo Domingo bell towers seen from a street in Cuenca
Picture of Cuenca old city (Ecuador): Benigno Malo street running off the central plaza of Cuenca with colonial buildings
Picture of Cuenca old city (Ecuador): Detail of orange and yellow wooden door and lock in Cuenca
Picture of Cuenca old city (Ecuador): Wooden window in one of the many old houses of Cuenca
Picture of Cuenca old city (Ecuador): Late afternoon light on a balcony in the historic heart of Cuenca
Picture of Cuenca old city (Ecuador): Rounded corner building on the Plaza Grande in Cuenca
Picture of Cuenca old city (Ecuador): Low-rise houses in a typical street in Cuenca
Picture of Cuenca old city (Ecuador): Small pool reflecting the ruins of the Tomebamba Inca ruins on a hill
Picture of Cuenca old city (Ecuador): Late afternoon sunlight falling on the facade of the Catedral Vieja in Cuenca
Picture of Cuenca old city (Ecuador): Cupola on one of the many neo-classical buildings in Cuenca

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