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Cuenca, full name Santa Ana de los cuatro ríos de Cuenca, is the capital of the Azuay Province. Cuenca, which literally means "basin" is a vibrant colonial city in southern Ecuador, the third largest in the country. The dominant features of the city's geography are also the source of its name in Spanish: the four rivers of Cuenca (meaning a basin made by a confluence of rivers). These rivers are the Tomebamba (named after the Cañari culture), Yanuncay, Tarqui and Machangara, in order of importance. The first three of these rivers originate in the Páramo of Parque Nacional Cajas to the west of the city. These four rivers are part of the Amazon river watershed. In fact, the locals are very proud of their rivers. The city is located in the highlands of Ecuador and lies in a valley at about 2,500 m (8,200 ft) above sea level, and is home to 518,000 people according to the 2010 census. Its moderate climate makes it enjoyable year round. The center of the city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Trust site because of its many historical buildings. From downtown, looking southwest, you see the beautiful Cajas mountains. The majority of this area is protected by the large Cajas National Park (Parque Nacional Cajas), well worth the trip. Cuenca is surrounded by mountains on all sides, with passes to the west, south and east. Everywhere you look in Cuenca, there are flowers, blooming trees, grass and rushing waters. The city is cleaner and safer than most large cities in developing countries and there are claims it has purer water than most U.S. and European cities. Unlike other cities in Ecuador, the drinking water is OK to consume. The government utility agency, ETAPA, has been building brand new water and sewage mains covering 19,768 acres (8,000 hectares) over the last three years (2010 - 2013). The Cuenca city government recently hired a Spanish urban planning company to design 80 km of bicycle trails that will be constructed throughout the city of Cuenca. These trails are in addition to the trails that already follow several of the rivers that run through Cuenca. (less...) (more...)
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Points of Interest in Cuenca
- Christmas Parade (Pase del Niño Viajero) - On December 24, Cuenca offers a magnificent parade, considered to be the largest and best Christmas celebration in Ecuador and even South America. The procession begins at 10:00 at San Sebastian, goes along Simón Bolivar street, Plaza Calderón and ends up in San Blas. Thousands of musicians accompany the procession and every neighborhood decorates trucks, horses and whatever they can find with plenty of symbols. Children dress up in colorful costumes or as biblical figures. The parade last for at least 7 hours. During the parade, you will see thousands of people dressed up as Joseph, Mary, the three Wise Men, angels, etc. This is truly a sight to see.
- Baños - A beautiful spot just outside of Cuenca with large lakes for fishing. This is not to be confused with the Baños further north which is the entrance to the Rainforest. There are thermal baths ($5.50) available at a hotel complex which includes a few hot pools at 36C and Turkish baths. Many people can come here to relax in hot saunas, swim in the hot or cold waters of the pools, and relax with family and friends.
- The New Cathedral (c 1885). Looming over the main plaza is the city's main church, with its famous 3 large domes.
- El Sagrario (the "old cathedral"). Construction began in 1557. It's no longer in use as a church, and is now a museum. A restoration project has been completed recently and the original paint and old murals can now be seen in certain sections. $2.
- Festival de Independencia - The independence of Cuenca is celebrated with a huge festival that lasts twice as long as the battle itself. Each year it begins the first few days of November and lasts for three to four days. There are hundreds of art displays, craft booths, roving entertainment, street food, and general festivities. Artisans from all over Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia display and sell their works. During this time, there are also many stages with bands and performers. On the north side of the river, at the bottom of the Escalinatas, the grounds of the art museum CIDAP host much more elaborate display booths than those that crowd the sidewalks. A little farther up the river, at La Esquina des Artes across from the University of Cuenca, there are several artists, and a few vendors sell gourmet food products. La Esquina des Artes is a area of permanent shops of artists and artisans.
- Devil’s Nose train, located in Riobamba - Alausi, Riobamba, about 2.5 hours from Cuenca, is considered one of the world’s best railway engineering feats. This scenic railroad travels over a series of switchbacks as it zigzags down the steep mountainside passing small villages and Andean lakes along the way. Cost $25.
Cuenca is a city whose culture encompasses over 100 years or more at the same time. While walking in Cuenca, you will see modern buildings, use the high-speed internet and wireless communications while seeing natives washing their clothes in the river while talking on cell phones. You will see many modern vehicles while seeing people move their cows, horses and donkeys to graze along the rivers and parks. In around the markets, you will see people milking their goats and people hauling milk into town on a donkey. This is the charm of Cuenca, a culture that encapsulates traditions and practices of many decades.
In mid-February 2013, construction will begin on the Tranvía light rail system. Work will continue to near the end of 2014, with the rapid transit system becoming fully operational in early 2015. The Tranvía is a light rail rapid transit system that is designed to decrease traffic and pollution in Cuenca, particularly in the Historic District.
Cuenca is a very walkable city. Over the past year, the city has been upgrading miles of sidewalks which is making the city even more pedestrian friendly. Just watch for the drivers, because they will not watch for you. The Ecuadorian government is working on slowing down traffic, but this will take some time and education.
- Sightseeing Bus. $5 for 2 hour tour of Cuenca and a visit to the Mirador de Turi (Turi viewpoint). Leaves from Parque Calderón. For one price, you can get off the bus anywhere you like and get on the next bus that comes.
- Cuenca River Walk. Just completed at the end of 2012, the new river walk is a great place to walk, relax and enjoy the views of the city. The city of Cuenca has a vision for the river walk to someday become another San Antonio, Texas. The river walk is along the Tomebamba river that flows close to downtown.
- Pumapungo Museum. Also known as the Central Bank Museum, the museum covers four floors and has expansive grounds with well preserved ruins. The museum has very good exhibits for those interested in the complete history of the region and city, including exhibits like the shrunken heads.
- Ingapirca - Approximately one hour north by automobile or one and a half hours by bus is the excavated ruins of Ingapirca (Kichwa: Inkapirka, meaning “Inca wall”). The ruins are located just outside of the the small town of El Tambo in the Cañar Province. The town was named after the Inca palace and temple site. These are the largest known Inca ruins in Ecuador. At the site, you will see the excavated temples of both the Incas and the Cañar. Ingapirca was the northern ruling city of the Inca empire.
LOCATION & HOW TO GET THERE: In order to reach Ingapirca, there are two different access roads from the main Panamerican highway that are approximately 8 to 10km travel: (1) North entrance from El Tambo (recommend option); and (2) South entrance which is just south of Uculoma. The journey east from the Panamerican takes you through typical southern Andean countryside panorama, including sheep, donkeys, llamas.
Many people will hire a driver to take them to the ruins. The cost is usually $20-30 USD. However, there is great bus service to the ruins. The bus can be boarded at the bus terminal close to the Cuenca airport. The bus fare is $3.00 USD and the buses are quite nice.
THE ENTRANCE FEE: Once you arrive at the archeological site, the entrance fee for foreigners is currently USD $6 per person (USD $2 for Ecuadorian nationals). Visiting hours are 8am to 6pm. THe majority of the tours are in Spanish. There is an English guided tour once per day. Ingapirca is always closed on the many holidays in Ecuador, so make sure to check out the holiday schedule before you take a trip to Ingapirca.
- Banos Mineral Springs and Spa in Cuenca - On the outskirts of Cuenca, about a 15 minute bus ride from Coral Centro on Las Americas, is a quaint little town called Banos. There are actually two towns in Ecuador called Banos, the other Banos is near Quito. Banos is right below a mountain where natural warm mineral water flows into the valley. The people of this quiet little town took advantage of this natural resource and created three different mineral spring parks where one can go and bathe in the mineral pools. Two of these mineral springs are geared for families with small children. The cost for the family is $8 USD per day per person. Piedra De Agua Mineral Springs & Spa is in the same area. Admission is $10 to spend the whole day in these mineral pools. There were no children in these pools. There is a full spa and restaurant at this mineral spring.
- Oliveto, Calle Larga y Luis Cordero. Romantic Italian restaurant with the largest wine selection in Cuenca. Serves both lunch and dinner. Closed on Sunday and Monday.
- Women's Coop, on General Torres --near Mariscal Sucre ((next to the artisanry market)). closes around 2pm. Cheap, nutricious, and local lunch with a soup and a drink. Made by indigenous women in a sweet courtyard. Vegetarian and meat options. $1-1.50.
- Cafe Eucalyptus, Gran Colombia 9-41. 5-11pm, later on Th-Sa. Very popular with travelers, they offer everything from Pad Thai to pasta, salads, hummus and guacamole, all very tasty. It's warm and friendly, and also good for groups. Quite expensive for Ecuador, $5.07 for a coca-cola plus tip makes one think that the travellers are taken advantage of. Mains $3-9.
- Mixx Gourmet Ice-cream, Parque San Blas. Home made ice cream with a variety of flavors, including exotic gruits and alcoholic flavors such as whisky, beer, brandy or vodka.
- La Fornace. A well known local pizza chain in Cuenca that has three or four branches. The fruit pizza is excellent and quite inexpensive. The ice cream there is also delicious and costs about 70¢ for the first scoop.
- San Sebas Cafe, 1-94 San Sebastian y Mariscal Sucre (On the corner of Parque San Sebastian). Great little cafe with a good atmosphere. Serves both breakfast and lunch. Closed on Monday and Tuesday.
- Banana Cafe, Hermano Miguel 4-36 y Calle Larga. Run by three local women, Banana's serves an outstanding breakfast at a fair price. They also have a sandwich plate with chips for an early lunch -- they close at 1 p.m. The menu includes such items as GREAT omelets, pancakes, french toast, homemade granola, fresh fruit juices, smoothies & yogurt (plus numerous other yummy breakfast goodies).
- La Mesa is a great salsateque on wednesday nights. Full of locals and extended stay travelers. Extremely fun.
- El Cafecito hostel-bar-restaurant. Appears very noisy and uncomfortable as a hotel, but it is a good place to eat lasagna or sandwiches although more expensive than most places. El Cafecito is the perfect place to start your night with a few drinks and to then proceed elsewhere.
Buy some flowers at the flower market on Calle Sucre across from the new cathedral. Continue on about a block from there to get to the clothing and artesan market where one can also find knit crafts from Otavalo. Lovely handmade ruanas, sweaters, hats, mittens, and finger puppets are also available here.
Inside the yellow CemuArt building across from the police station at the market other artesans have booths with beautiful embroidery, metal, wood and leather work, Panama hats, musical instruments, knit goods, jewelry and other handicrafts.
- ABC Libreria, ☎ 593-7 2845 749. At Padre Aguirre 8-11 y Sucre. diagonal to the flower market has a tiny selection of English books.
- Rafael Paredes & Hijos, ☎ 831-569. To buy from their fine range of Panama hats. You get a short tour round, an explanation of how they are made and a chance to see your hat go from a simple woven straw cone to a finished wearable hat. Various styles, men's and women's and sizes.
- Used Books, Hermano Miguel (near Calle Larga). There are two wonderful used english bookstores --although a bit pricy ($5-20)
- Mall del Rio. Cuenca's biggest shopping mall, with cinemas (typically Spanish language only) and food court. 2-2.50$ by taxi (10 mins).
- La Esquina des Artes, Av. 12 de Abril and Agustín Cueva, ☎ (593 7) 2831118. The location is a permanent and quaint display of artists and artisans located next to the University of Cuenca.
This article is based on Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike 3.0 Licensed text from the article Cuenca (Ecuador) on Wikivoyage.