Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca, commonly referred as Cuenca (Quechua: Tumipampa) is the capital and largest city of the Azuay Province of Ecuador. Cuenca is located in the highlands of Ecuador at about 2,560 metres (8,400 feet) above sea level, with an urban population of approximately 329,928 and 661,685 inhabitants in the larger metropolitan area.
The center of the city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its many historical buildings and its historical importance as an agricultural and administrative center.
According to studies and archeological discoveries, the origins of the first inhabitants go back to the year 8060 BC in the Cave of Chopsi. They were hunters, hunting everything the Páramo offered them, and nomads, following the animals and seasons. Their culture is represented by tools such as arrows and spears, which have been found throughout the Andean valley. The culture was most present about 5585 BC.
Later the early indigenous people used the stable climate, fertile soil and abundant water to develop agriculture. They grew potatoes, melloco, chocho, squash and quinoa. They also domesticated animals such as cuys (guinea pigs) and camelids: llamas and alpacas.
Their technology was also advanced. For example, they started creating ceramics. In fact, ceramics constitute the greatest number of artifacts which archeologists use to study their culture. The period from 5000 BCE to 2000 BCE is not represented well in the archeological record. Beginning around 2000 BCE, the people developed a more highly organized society, demonstrating delegated responsibilities, such as the managing of water and control of plagues. People were specialized as administrative and religious authorities (known as shamans). This occurred during the periods of Chaullabamba, Huayco, Pirincay, Monjas, Putushio, Huancarcucho and Jubones. From then until 500 AD began the periods of Tacalshapa III and the Cañari people, who were absorbed into the Incas in the 15th century.
Cuenca was originally a Cañari settlement called Guapondeleg. Archeologists believe Cuenca was founded around 500 AD. Guapondeleg translates into “land as big as heaven.” Less than half a century before the conquistadors landed, the Incas, after a bitter struggle, conquered the Cañari and occupied Guapondeleg and the surrounding area. Though the Incas replaced the Cañari architecture with their own, they did not suppress the Cañari or their impressive achievements in astronomy and agriculture. As was customary for the Incas, they absorbed useful achievements into their culture. They renamed the city Tomebamba. The city became known as the second Cusco, a regional capital.
The Spanish settlement of Cuenca was founded on April 12, 1557, by the explorer Gil Ramírez Dávalos. Andrés Hurtado de Mendoza, then Viceroy of Peru had commissioned the founding and ordered the city named after his home town of Cuenca, Spain. It was founded decades after other major Spanish settlements in the region, such as Quito (1534), Guayaquil (1538), and Loja (1548). Cuenca’s population and importance grew steadily during the colonial era.
Cuenca reached the peak of its importance in the first years of Ecuador’s independence; Cuenca achieved its independence on November 3, 1820. It became the capital of one of the three provinces that made up the nascent republic. The other two capitals were Guayaquil and Quito.
- Old Cathedral (Iglesia de El Sagrario). Built in 1557, the edifice eventually became too small for the town’s attendants. In 1880, a new cathedral was built as the replacement. The old cathedral, no longer consecrated, has been restored and is now used as a museum.
- New Cathedral (official name: Catedral Metropolitana de la Inmaculada Concepción). Its towers are truncated due to a calculation error of the architect. Had it been constructed as planned, the foundation would not bear the weight of the full towers. In spite of the architect’s immeasurable mistake, the New Cathedral of Cuenca, completed in 1975, is a monumental work of faith. A combination of Romanesque Revival and Neo-Gothic in style, the church’s blue and white domes have become a symbol for the city. Its façade is made of alabaster and local marble, while the floor of the nave is covered with pink marble, brought from Carrara (Italy). At its inauguration, the newly constructed Cathedral could accommodated 9,000 out of Cuenca’s 10,000 inhabitants at that time.
- Park Abdon Calderon. It is located in the center of Cuenca between the old and new cathedrals. On the park benches, people meet to converse and absorb its tranquility. The municipal offices are located nearby.
Monastery of El Carmen de Asuncion. In the atrium a colorful flower market supplements the beauty of the church which was founded in 1682. A sculpted stone façade and a golden pulpit make the church very attractive.
Monastery and Museum of La Concepcion, with 17th-century tombs and a complete collection of religious art.
- Museums: House of the Ecuadorian Culture, Municipal Museum Remigio Crespo Toral, Museum of the Central Bank, Museum of the Aboriginal Cultures.
- Church of Santo Domingo, San Blas, Turi the Mirador.
- Ruinas de todos los santos. In this old place, four niches of Inca origin exist. Their form is trapezoidal and they are built of stone. There are also remains of a colonial mill.
- Molleturo, a vast rural area (about 1,000 square kilometres or 386 square miles) situated in Ecuador’s southern Andes, and composed of several little villages (hamlets). The centre of the area is located 1.5 hours’ distance by car from the nearest big city (Cuenca). In fact, this distance is very little compared to ten years ago when there was no road for cars and it took people three days of mule riding to get to Cuenca. In spite of the advantages, the road has also had very negative impacts on the ecological system, which is still very important for people’s daily survival.
- Jima, located near Cuenca, is a hiking hotspot for southern Ecuador. Jima is located at the base of two beautiful green mountains at 8,800 feet (2,700 metres). Hikes for all skill levels are available including a three-day hike from the peaks of the Andes mountains down into the lush tropical rainforest of the Amazon basin.
- Chordeleg. Less than 50 kilometres (31 miles) from Cuenca, it is a town of Cañari origin, known for its weavers, embroiderers and potters. In the same area there is a stone corridor in snake form, built in pre-Inca time, known for gold and silver smiths and local jewelry.
- El Cajas, a national park where the rivers, streams, and lagoons seem to unite to create a temple of nature, in which the altitude varies from 3,500 to 4,200 metres (11,500 to 13,800 feet) above sea level. It is a place for bird watchers and trout fishermen.
- Azogues, the capital of Cañar Province, 29 kilometres (18 miles) from Cuenca. In this city of colonial atmosphere, one of the highlights is San Francisco’s convent, built on the summit of a huaca (sacred mountain) of the prehispanic residents.
- Cañar plantation, with a colorful market and the nearby ruins of Ingapirca (Kichwa: “Inca wall”). Cañar plantation is located 65 kilometres (40 miles) from Cuenca and it is usually the starting point for the trips to the famous ruins that, according to the experts, were used to control the native Cañaris. Stores, bathrooms, a tambo for the Inca, a temple dedicated to the sun, they are part of Ingapirca that was built in the 15th century by orders of Huayna Capac.
2 to 3 Days: Soak up the culture & explore this historic town and its surrounds over the course of a few days.