Viva Cuenca!

Cuenca Travel Blog

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Cuenca from the Mirador de Turi

When we first decided to visit Ecuador, Cuenca was high on my list of must-sees. This beautiful colonial city in the south of the country has it all – lovely architecture, a temperate climate, friendly atmosphere, and some of the best restaurants in the country.

The old colonial centre, where we stayed and where we spent most of our time, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for good reason. At its heart is the main square, the Parque Calderón, with two cathedrals (old and new), and in the surrounding streets are more churches, attractive old houses, interesting museums and some great bars and cafés for the essential activity of people-watching.

We were fortunate enough to be here at a weekend when two festivals were taking place – the nationally-celebrated Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) and the local celebrations that mark the anniversary of the city’s independence from Spain on 3rd November 1820.

Southern part of the city from our hotel room
The city was in party mood and the various celebrations added to our enjoyment of it.

We came to Cuenca by air (with Ecuadorean airline TAME) from Quito where we had been spending the first part of our Ecuador trip. The flight left pretty early in the morning so we had to be at the airport by around 6.15 but already it was really busy, with a long queue at the TAME desk for the several flights leaving that morning. I was even a bit concerned that we could miss ours, as they were not prioritising those with the earliest flights, but I soon saw that the staff were really efficient and the queue moving quickly.

The flight was also quick at just forty minutes, and was mainly full of local businessmen, who must commute regularly between the two cities and many of whom seemed to know each other as lots of friendly greetings were thrown around on boarding.

Cotopaxi from the air
Flying south from Quito the route at first follows the line of the Avenue of the Volcanoes, and great views are to be had on either side. I was lucky enough to be on the left-hand side from where Cotopaxi could be seen, although unfortunately didn’t have a window seat. The man next to me however kindly let me lean over to take some photos of the majestic volcano poking up through the clouds. He even offered to swap seats (presumably he makes the journey very regularly) but I declined the offer as it was such a short flight and I didn’t like to put him to the bother. Besides, I had already seen the views and taken my photos, thanks to his obliging nature.

We were soon landing in Cuenca, where the weather was bright and warmer than Quito, being a little lower at 2,500 metres above sea level. Our pre-booked transfer meant that we were soon being driven through the city to our hotel on the edge of the colonial area.

Hotel Victora
Our eagerly anticipated visit to Cuenca could begin!

When we arrived at the Hotel Victoria it was only 9.00 am, so we weren’t able to check in but could only register and leave our bags. Our first impressions were favourable – the lobby was attractive and the hotel well located on the southern edge of the colonial part of the city. We went off to explore confident that we had made a good choice.

We spent just two nights here and had two and a half days in which to explore the city. On the first day we focused on the colonial centre, which has retained much of its character and sense of history, arguably more so even than Quito, although like the country’s capital it is very much a working city rather than museum piece. Many streets are cobbled, adding to the sense of the past as you explore.

Parque Calderón
A few ugly 20thcentury buildings mar the whole, but for the most part you both sense and see the history around you.

The Cuenca that exists today was founded by the Spanish in 1557, and its population and importance grew steadily during the colonial era, reaching the peak of its importance in the first years of Ecuador’s independence when it became the capital of one of the three provinces that made up the emerging republic, alongside Guayaquil and Quito. But its history goes back much further. It was originally settled by the indigenous Cañari around 500 AD and was called by them Guapondeleg – the “land as big as heaven.” It had been conquered by the Incas less than half a century before the Spanish conquistadors landed, and renamed Tomebamba (the name still held by its river).

Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción
Soon after the defeat of the Cañari, the Inca commander, Tupac Yupanqui, ordered the construction of a new grand city to be known as Pumapungo, “the door of the Puma”. The magnificence of this new city was to challenge that of the Inca capital of Cuzco. When the Spanish arrived however, there remained only ruins, although the indigenous people told stories of golden temples and other such wonders. To this day, it is unclear what happened to the fabled splendour and riches of the second Inca capital.

Our wanderings that day took in:

~ the main square, the Parque Calderón;
~ the “new” cathedral, Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, built in 1885 when the city out-grew the older one that still stands opposite;
~ the pretty flower market in the Plazoleta del Carmen and the Iglesia del Carmen de la Asuncion;
~ the ruins of Todos los Santos, where the Spanish founders of 1557 first built over the old Inca city;
~ the banks of the Rio Tomebamba which runs through the old town

I have written about all of these in my reviews below so won’t repeat too much detail here.

Plazoleta del Carmen
As we walked around we found ourselves caught up in the celebrations of the Viva Cuenca! festival. On 2ndNovember each year Cuenca, like the rest of Ecuador, celebrates the Feast of All Souls or Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), and a day later on the 3rd it marks the anniversary of its independence from Spain. The two events form one merged celebration, Viva Cuenca!, and when, as in 2012, they fall at a weekend, the city really takes on party mood. We arrived here on Thursday 1st to find the Parque Calderón full of locals watching the All Saints Day procession which wound slowly round two sides of the square. We hadn’t at that point learned of the independence festivities so were a little puzzled by the floats that seemed to depict periods in the city’s history, but when we picked up a leaflet called “Viva Cuenca!” later in the day, all became clear.
Float in the parade

We hadn’t planned it, but we were lucky to be in the city at this special time and to be able to join in some of the fun. As well as the parade in the Parque Calderón we enjoyed watching dancers on the river banks – a part of the festival designed to celebrate the cultures of all the Latin American countries, with dancers from Cuba and Argentina, among others, and stalls selling alpaca scarves from Peru and wood carvings from the Brazilian Amazonia. Locals mixed with tourists, all enjoying the spectacle and the sunny weather. It was a super atmosphere and an unexpected bonus.

And near the Iglesia del Carmen de la Asuncion we saw a number of stalls set out, all selling more or less the same things. The following day was, as I mentioned above, the Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, which is commemorated in Ecuador as in many South and Central American countries, although not to the same extent as in Mexico perhaps.

Day of the Dead decorations
Its observance is strongest among the native people, the Kichwa, and especially so here in Cuenca. The stalls here were selling the typical decorations in white and purple which people were buying to decorate the graves of their relatives when they visited them for the celebrations. It is the custom to pay these relatives a visit on this day, much as you would if they were still alive – take them a gift, enjoy a meal (usually a family picnic on or next to the grave) and maybe play some favourite music while reminiscing about days gone by.

The morning of our second day in the city was spent on a tour with an excellent guide, Wilson from local company Terra Diversa. This was really good and took us to a number of places we either wouldn’t have been able to get to in the time if relying on public transport and/or didn’t even know about! These included:

~ a “panama” hat factory (despite their name, these hats originate here in Ecuador);
~ the Mirador de Turi viewpoint over the city;
~ the Plaza San Sebastián and near it the excellent Museo de Arte Moderno and the workshop of a traditional craftsman, working in tin;
~ the Plaza del Cruz del Vado;
~ the intriguing Prohibido Centro Cultural, where a local artist with a bizarre but very creative mind has restored an old house in his own unique style

Again, full reviews are included below, as are reviews of the several restaurants, cafés and bars we visited over the course of the two and a half days we spent here.

Plaza San Sebastian

On our last morning there was time to squeeze in a few more sights, seeing religious art in the Museo de Las Conceptas and the old cathedral, the Iglesia del Sagrario – both worth a visit as buildings in their own right, whether or not you are interested in the exhibits.

We left Cuenca that afternoon to drive to Guayaquil, but I will save that journey for my next entry …

Toonsarah says:
Thanks Brian - I like that feature of TB and enjoy choosing a colour that fits with my impressions of the destination (here, blue for the cathedral's domes)
Posted on: Apr 30, 2017
spocklogic says:
Nice use of bold and color to highlight in the blog narrative - well done!
Posted on: Apr 29, 2017
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Cuenca from the Mirador de Turi
Cuenca from the Mirador de Turi
Southern part of the city from our…
Southern part of the city from ou…
Cotopaxi from the air
Cotopaxi from the air
Hotel Victora
Hotel Victora
Parque Calderón
Parque Calderón
Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepci…
Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepc…
Plazoleta del Carmen
Plazoleta del Carmen
Float in the parade
Float in the parade
Day of the Dead decorations
Day of the Dead decorations
Plaza San Sebastian
Plaza San Sebastian
Museo de Arte Moderno
Museo de Arte Moderno
Iglesia del Sagrario
Iglesia del Sagrario
Cuenca Sights & Attractions review
Peaceful square
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A charming museum
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A traditional craftsman
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Plaza del Cruz del Vado
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"Are you easily offended?"
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European style
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Disappointing beers
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Religious art at the Museo de Las Conceptas
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Rooftop terrace
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A wonderful bar!
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Pavement seating
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Ruinas Todos los Santos
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The "new" cathedral
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On the river banks
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Broken bridge
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The heart of the city
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Iglesia del Sagrario
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Homero Ortega & Sons tour
In many accounts I read of visits to Cuenca a trip to a “Panama” hat factory was mentioned, so I was quite pleased that one was included in our to… read entire review
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Flower market
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Iglesia del Carmen de la Asuncion
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Great city tour with Terra Diversa
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Views of the city
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Great location
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Cosy and popular
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photo by: Ils1976