I arrived in Cuenca at about 4:00 a.m. after a long and difficult bus ride of almost 17 hours from Tena through Macas and Riobamba. Bus connections in South America can be frustrating and take longer than expected, especially when you’re traveling in the Andes. However, for long-term travel in South America buses are the best transportation choice, and most of them are reasonably clean and comfortable.
The scenery along the way was dramatic and beautiful with patches of fog rising in between the mountains, volcanoes, and dense jungle vegetation. There were interesting indigenous faces on the bus. The last few hours of the ride were so cold – I wished for one of the blankets worn by Cañari Indians as part of their attire. Now I understand how functional and important they are on a trip through the Andes!
Cuenca is a clean, gorgeous city with a population of close to a million and beautiful cobblestone streets, cathedrals, parks, rivers, and amazing colonial architecture. It’s very European and could be a city in Italy or Spain.
Cuenca is Ecuador’s third largest city after Guayaquil and Quito. It’s is popular with expatriates and retirees who enjoy safety, a low-cost of living, and a pleasant, moderate climate. The population is diverse, and it’s a comfortable place to hang out for a few days. The food in Tena was limited but Cuenca is the total opposite, with a variety of excellent reasonably-priced restaurants.
“Cuenca’s full name is Santa Ana de los cuatro ríos de Cuenca. The dominant features of the city’s geography are also the source of its name; In Spanish cuatros rios means “four rivers” and cuenca means “basin”.
Cuenca is in a basin made by the confluence of four rivers.” The four rivers originate in the Páramo of Parque Nacional Cajas to the west of Cuenca and are part of the Amazon river watershed. They’re the Tomebamba, Yanuncay, Tarqui, and Machangara.
I plan to stay here for a week before continuing on to Machala, Ecuador’s Podocarpus National Park, or Peru – not sure which yet. Another place of interest is the Mangahurco / Loja area where the flowering of the guayacanes trees takes place about this time of year.
Cuencanos have produced more notable writers, poets, artists, and philosophers than anywhere else in Ecuador. The culture and history of Cuenca is well represented in its spectacular museums.
Cuenca nightlife is also active with ample bars and restaurants and excellent traditional and international food at reasonable prices. As the capital of Azuay Province, Cuenca’s economic importance and well-preserved history have earned it the honor of being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Trust Site.
Cuenca is an architect’s heaven. Many of its hotels are converted colonial homes and old mansions with beautiful architecture and furnishings.
El Cajas National Park
Most of Cuenca’s sites of interest are churches, parks, and museums . El Cajas National Park is popular with outdoor enthusiasts for hiking and trekking. Bicycling around Cuenca is exceptional with thousands of miles of scenic seldom visited trails.
Cuenca’s history began long before the arrival of the Inca and Spanish. “The city was originally a Cañari settlement called Guapondeleg and is believed to have been founded around 500 AD. Guapondeleg translates into – land as big as heaven.”
Less than half a century before the conquistadors landed, the Inca conquered the Cañari in a bitter struggle and occupied Guapondeleg and the surrounding area. Like most of the Ecuadorian Andes, Cuenca has a mild climate year-round. The days are generally warm with cool nights. Average temperatures are in the high 60s. Rainy season lasts from mid-October until early May when mornings are typically sunny and afternoons cloudy with light showers. We had showers early today but the afternoon was lovely.