The gorgeous highland town of Cuenca is where to drink in colonial architecture, shop for handicrafts and mingle with welcoming locals.
Unquestionably one of Ecuador’s most attractive colonial cities, Cuenca not only offers a step back in time, but the laidback culture here is both endearing and addictive. This UNESCO World Heritage Site – one of the best examples of well-preserved colonial and indigenous heritage in the country – has cultural and architectural influences dating back over 3,000 years. First the indigenous Cañari people inhabited the river valley, next the Incan Empire, and finally the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.
Any trip to Cuenca can easily be spent quietly wandering cobbled streets and historical buildings. Many of the old structures have since been turned into museums and cafés, so soak up the atmosphere of this ancient place while casually sipping a cappuccino! Cuenca is rivalled only by Quito in terms of its rich past, though without quite the same level of urbanisation one might find in the capital.
Outside of the city lies the beautiful El Cajas National Park, which is well worth a visit. The landscape here can appear inhospitable, but delve a little deeper and one finds deep lakes, moss-covered cliffs, and low-lying clouds; which arrive without warning! While here, to stay in a working Ecuadorian hacienda amidst the majesty of the Andean highlands is a great chance to gain insight to the traditional day-to-day which people in this area have enjoyed for many generations. Experiencing a local way of life with such stunning surroundings, and in complete comfort, is a joy. The hacienda fuses charm, character and history with bucolic landscapes, roaming horses and rustically elegant dining, which is a wonderful way to enjoy the region, feeling connected to its people and their heritage.
Plaza de Calderon and the Cathedral
The Plaza de Calderon is a cultural and architectural delight, thanks to its combination of rich history, carefully designed gardens, and numerous colonial buildings. It’s also one of the best places to admire Cuenca’s ‘New Cathedral’ – La Catedral de la Inmaculada Concecpción – a beautiful piece of gothic architecture featuring distinctive blue tiles.
Museo del Banco Central
Widely regarded as one of the best and most important museums in all of Ecuador, the Museo del Banco Central is awash with artefacts showcasing the entire history of the countries indigenous heritage. From the Afro-Ecuadorians to the cowboys of the West, and, of course, the infamous shrunken heads of Shuar; this Museum will give you a fascinating insight into Ecuador's long and varied past.
Pumapungo Archaeological Park
Thought to be what's left of the ancient Incan city of Tomebamba, Cuenca's Pumapungo Archaeological Park is a modest, though historically significant ruined complex. With most of the old town having long since been destroyed by the invading Spanish conquistadores, what is left of the site makes good reference to the more distant past which can be easy to forget in a colonial gem such as Cuenca.