Cuenca, or its full name, Santa Ana de los cuatro ríos de Cuenca, is a town in the southern highlands of Ecuador. The city sits at around 2,500m (8,200ft), giving it a mild climate year round. The entire city center is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site because of the many beautiful historic buildings. Needless to say, we were not disappointed by the beautiful architecture that surrounded us during our stay.
Our time in Cuenca was characterized by lots of walking. Every street had so much to look at that we spent a several days just weaving up and down the streets occasionally stopping in a cafe for a cup of coffee. There is a river-walk that runs along the Tomebamba River, straight through the center of town, creating a great place to take a stroll or go for a run.
One of the most interesting places that we visited was Pumapungo, an archaeological site built in the 15th century by the Incas. The site was made up of a collection of garden terraces where crops were grown related to sun worship and Incan spiritual ascension. The site was destroyed before the conquest by the Spanish, but in 1981 the land was acquired by the Ecuadorian central bank which began the recovery and restoration process. Pumapungo was also home to thousands of different species of plants as well as rescued native birds of Ecuador. The entrance was behind the Banco Central. Unfortunately we didn’t realize this and ended up walking around the entire perimeter of the ruins (along with several detours), before ending back at our starting point. The detour took about an hour but gave us a better perspective of that part of town. The grounds were beautiful with ruins, gardens, and ponds.
Many of the buildings and churches were so beautiful, but capturing them with a camera proved difficult. Surrounding the main square, called parque Calderon, are an impressive collection of historic buildings. The largest and by far most impressive is the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepcion (Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception), also known as the New Cathedral. The cathedral is the largest building in Cuenca, built in the 1880s incorporating Neo-Gothic and Romansque styles that were in vogue at that time, was constructed to hold 10,000 people which was the population at the time. On another side of the square is the Catedral Vieja (old cathedral) which now serves as a museum and concert hall. The third side of the park is dominated by Palace of Justice which was originally a university until the school outgrew the available space.
The combination of tall trees in the central park and the immensity of the New Cathedral made taking a picture of the entire structure impossible. We looked around the square for a building that offered a raised vantage point from which we could get an unobstructed view. The tallest and best situated building turned out to be a government building. We walked into the building and up the stairs, looking on each level for a window from which we could get a photo. When we reached the 8th floor and final floor we realized that every window with a view of the cathedral was within an office. At this point we were committed so we walked back down to the 7th floor where there was an open door and asked a very kind receptionist if we could walk through her office to take a photo of the cathedral. Although I’m sure she thought we were very strange wandering through the building to take a photo, she graciously allowed us to pass through the office, full of people working, to take the picture.
During our time in Cuenca we had heard about the beautiful view from the Mirador (scenic lookout) Turi, but that to get there we needed to take a taxi or bus there because it was very far to walk and dangerous because we would have to cross the freeway. We decided to take this as a challenge and walked towards the church on the hill which was our landmark reference. The walk ended up being beautiful, a large part of which we followed the river through town. The “freeway” we had to cross turned out to be 2 lanes of traffic in each direction with relatively light traffic, which we crossed easily on foot. After crossing the freeway the only challenge left was to walk up the steps up the side of the mountain to the mirador, which we decided was great training for our upcoming Machu Picchu hike. The view was everything that we had hoped for and we were able to enjoy looking over the town and picking out all of the places that we had visited on our previous days walking the city.
Although we didn’t participate in any organized tours or feed our adrenaline addiction, we thoroughly enjoyed our time wandering the streets of this beautiful city. From Cuenca we have a pleasant 19 hour bus ride across the Peruvian border to look forward to!