Here is Ecuador’s prime Inca site, two of its most spectacular national parks, and Cuenca most congenial city and focal point of Austro, how southern part of Ecuador is called.
The convoluted topography of the southern highlands, taking in the provinces of Cañar, Azuay and Loja, reveals an ancient non-volcanic past, different from its northern highland neighbors. This region is home of many treasures such as two of the most spectacular national parks. Cuenca the city basin is the major artisans center, where produce ceramics, baskets, textiles, gold and silver jewelry, as well as the famous Panama hats.
CITY OF CUENCA (ECUADORIAN ATHENS)
Cuenca is located on an interandean valley on Southern Ecuador (441 km south of Quito), at an elevation of 2.535m. The city enjoys a typically warm weather, with an average temperature of 17°C, with over 600.000 inhabitants nowadays.
One of the highlights are the beautiful handicrafts that can be found throughout the city, including embroidered louses, wool sweaters, gold and silver filigree jewelry and weavings with tie-dyed patterns called ikat. Cuenca is also known for its elegant ceramic dishes and pottery. Crafts and fresh products can be found on sale at the weekly Thursday fair, or the smaller Saturday market, located at the plazas 9 de Octubre y 10 de Agosto.
History & Culture
In this charming city was located, many years ago, the Inca settlement Tomebamba, considered homeland of Inca Huayna-Capac (King of Inca Empire), and built over the place where was a city of the pre Incan Cañari nation, who inhabited the central area of the Ecuador we know nowadays.
Cuenca is also considered as the third most important city of the country, after Quito and Guayaquil, which are the cities where the political and economical powers of the country are settled. It’s not limited to its historical center only, which is a collection of tangible as well as “Cultural Heritage Site” named by the UNESCO. The administrative subdivision of Ecuador causes each one of its 24 provinces to be composed by cantons, and these are subdivided into counties.
From this perspective, Cuenca is the capital of the province of Azuay. As a canton it is subdivided into 14 urban counties and 21 rural counties, each one of them contributes to increase the splendor of the area, providing elements of cultural, archaeological, historical and natural wealth and therefore, elements of undeniable tourist attraction for the most diverse interests.
CUENCA THE PREFERRED DESTINATION OF NORTH AMERICAN RETIREES
Each year, the magazine, International Living, published a study that declared the Ecuadorian city of Cuenca as the ideal destination for retirees in the last years. Nowadays, more than three thousand North Americans have settled in the urban capital of the Azuay province, attracted by its climate, quietness, and friendliness of its people. After, it was named number 49 of historic destinations in the world by the magazine, National Geographic Travel. In 2009, the specialized Lonely Planet publication recognized Cuenca as one of the ten places that should be visited in the world.
The riverfront of the Tomebamba River is the most symbolic site of Cuenca, and serves as the border between the historical and the modern city. The Classical Republican style of the facades of the constructions that surround the river give a special personality to the city. El Barranco is a residential area, as well as a cultural district. The Pumapungo Ruins, the Central Bank and Remigio Crespo Toral Museums, the Todos los Santos vestiges, and other sites along this riverfront offer cultural and artistic exhibits
Located at the left margin of El Barranco, the Pumapungo neighborhood was the first developed zone of the Inca city of Tumipamba. The architectural elements of the vestiges of this neighborhood show that it was mainly a religious, military, political and administrative center. The vestiges of PUmapungo include walls, channels, cobblestone corridors, isolated enclosed areas, an enormous channel, 1,050 feet of length, with some internal bathrooms, a mausoleum within a tunnel, etc. All this is surrounded by terraces that were used for agriculture. This archaeological complex is complemented with gardens of native plants and a small display of birds of the region.
The Ruins of “Todos Los Santos”
Follow the Todos Los Santos Street down the hill. This site has ruins of Cañari, Incan and colonial Spanish constructions. Here you will find the four Incas stonework niches.
Museum of Las Conceptas
The museum is located in a monastery that dates back to the XVI century. It was one of the first monasteries that were founded in the city of Cuenca, 42 years after the foundation of the city. Its interior gardens are beautiful and peaceful. Currently, the museum holds several exhibit rooms where one finds Nativity scenes, religious pieces and colonial time furniture.
Here you will find a great collection of religious art. It exhibits 64 paintings, and more than 200 sculptures, toys, furniture and other samples of craftsmanship.
The Sagrario Church (Old Cathedral)
It is one of the oldest churches in Latin America (1557). Inca blocks from the Pomango Palace were used in its construction. It has marble floors and a gold-leaf altar. The Geodesic Mission used this place as a reference point to calculate the Earth circumference. It doesn’t serve as a Cathedral since 1981, and now houses a religious museum.
Cathedral of The Inmaculate Conception (New Cathedral)
This Cathedral construction began in 1880, and is one of the largest of America. The Cathedral is made of alabaster and marble. Its floor is made of pink marble imported from Carrara, Italy. Both Romance and Baroque styles are prominent in its architecture. The stained-glass windows stand out for their beauty.
It’s open every day. Most of the sellers are cholas cuencanas. The market is a demonstration of the natural richness of the area throughout the year.
Todos Los Santos Church
This is one of the oldest churches in Cuenca. It’s also where the first Catholic mass was celebrated after the Spaniards arrived. The statue of Santa Ana, patron saint of the city, is found here.
Cajas National Park
Cajas is located 19 miles northwest of Cuenca, at an altitude of 9,000 to 13,000 feet above the sea level. This is a place for those who love the great outdoors. Some of the many things to do and see are camping, fishing, hiking miles of trails through a scenic preserve, and enjoying more than 230 lagoons of glacial origin. A guided tour of the area allows one to admire a breathtaking landscape and unique fauna and flora. Warm clothing is recommended due to the low temperatures (32°F to 47°F).
This is a subtropical valley, approximately 22 miles away from Cuenca towards the Azogues town. At El Descanso take a right to reach Gualaceo. This town is known for its handicrafts, folklore and a beautiful river where you can go for a swim.
Right to the south of the city, the charming Malacatos town holds colorful wooden houses that surround a main square where live music is played every Sunday. At this site you can visit a sugar cane molienda. The molienda are open Monday till Friday and you can observe the workers thought out the whole process of manufacturing of raspadura (sugar scraping), using the same machinery that has been used for generations.
This charming valley (at 4,921 ft.) located approximately 1 hour on the South part from Loja city (25 miles) has become a favorite spot for tourist, especially young adventurers . The name Vilca Bamba or Huilcopamba means Sacred Valley in the indigenous tongue Quechua. This site was reserved by the Incas for the main noble authorities, as it is a peaceful and quiet place. It’s common to find healthy people of over 100 years of age that live here and still work in agriculture.
Podocarpus National Park
This National Park is located 11 miles on the South part of Loja city. The park was named after a tree species commonly known as Romerillos (Podocarpus montanus). This is a gigantic coniferous that has adapted to the tropical Andean forests. These trees can reach a height of 131 ft. and live up to 1,000 years. The Podocarpus or Romerillos is in danger of extinction because of the over exploitation of its valuable wood.
Ingapirca Ruins are situated between the hills of the Andes of southern Ecuador, about 90 kilometers to the north of the city of Cuenca and 3230 meters above the level of the sea in a predominantly agricultural area and a rich indigenous history.
It is one of the most important of the Ecuador Wildlife Refuges, on these ruins you can see the skill of the cultures Inca and Cañari at work in stone, as well as his extensive knowledge regarding solar patterns.
Due to the shape of the crater, for years have formed an Andean forest very well preserved and without human intervention; today the forest is habitat for a diverse variety of fauna and flora. In these woods live more than 60 species of native trees and a variety of birds as the gallinazo and condor.