Cuenca is Ecuador’s 3rd largest city but feels significantly smaller than numbers 1 & 2, Guayaquil and Quito. Like many of the old cities I’ve visited in Latin America, Cuenca’s center has maintained a colonial air, which is to say that the buildings and city planning imposed when the Spanish “founded” the city in the mid-16th century still define the downtown area. Cuenca was settled long before the Spanish arrived, of course, by an advanced indigenous population called the Cañari and then briefly by the Incas. This combination of impressive colonial architecture and indigenous ruins earns Cuenca status as a UNESCO World Heritage Trust site and made for an impressive visit.
If your goal is to appreciate these wonders and the other little delights Cuenca has to offer (which ours was), it’s best to simply walk around the city center for a few days (which we did).
A few highlights:
Possibly the best flower market I’ve ever been to. Though small, the square that is home to the magnificent market is bursting at the seams with activity—the chaotic chorus of conversations between flower buyers and sellers, the explosion of a rainbow that includes every shade of every color imaginable, the unique and powerful perfume created by the competing flower varieties—and all but overwhelmed my senses.
An awesome ethnographic museum situated next to some of the Incan ruins of the city. The 2nd floor of this museum, packed full of visual and audio artifacts, celebrates the impressively diverse array people that call this small country home, from the ever-diminishing indigenous populations of the eastern Amazon region to the Afro-Ecuadorians that make up the northern coast.
The tiny studio of an excellent Cuencan painter, which we popped into just to take a peek and ended up getting a quite thorough tour of (including descriptions of virtually all the paintings). We weren’t in the market for art of this kind (namely, expensive), which we would have told our loquacious guide at the beginning had we been able to get a word in, but it was a pleasure to spend a half hour admiring these beautiful works and hearing the stories behind them, nonetheless.
The Rio Tomebamba, a gently-rushing, boulder-strewn river that flows through Cuenca, whose grassy, tree-lined banks offered us an excellent spot for a picnic lunch and siesta.
Another impression, of a rather different nature, that I'm left with after 2 weeks in Ecuador:
Though Ecuador is quite obviously a developing country and impoverished on the whole, I’ve been struck everywhere we’ve gone by the lack of the kind of significant wealth gap that characterizes many of the other developing countries I’ve visited, especially those in Latin America. Though people certainly live in what we’d consider low-income conditions, on the whole it seems that the vast majority of people live there together. We never saw the kinds of breathtaking disparities you’ll encounter in place like Santiago or Buenos Aires, with elegant gated communities situated just a few kilometers (or in some cases even closer) from villas miserias, or slums, whether within cities or between the cities and the rural areas.
In reality we saw very little of the country; a trip south from Quito to Vilcabamba through places like Quilotoa and Baños means traveling pretty much directly along traditionally tourist-beaten path. Additionally, any thoughts about going in search of great poverty in the cities were trumped by both transportation limitations and safety concerns. Thus, I come to this conclusion about a minimal wealth disparity (at least by Latin American standards) quite hesitantly, both because I’ve done no actual research on its validity and because I recognize that our mode of experiencing Ecuador—as tourists passing quickly through a narrow swath of the country—greatly limited what we saw.
However, it’s an impression I’m left with nonetheless, and one I would really like to have addressed by those of you who know more about Ecuador than I do. More than a few of you have lived here or at least studied the region, so whether it’s to challenge, correct, corroborate, or simply comment, please send your thoughts on this issue my way.