Debating the relative beauty of Cuenca and Quito is a favorite pastime in these parts, but an impossible issue to resolve. In terms of grandeur, Quito wins hands down. But Cuenca – that colonial jewel of the south – takes the cake when it comes to beauty. Its narrow cobblestone streets and whitewashed red-tiled buildings, its handsome plazas and domed churches, and its setting above the grassy banks of the Río Tomebamba, where women still dry clothes in the sun, all create a city that’s supremely impressive. Though firmly anchored in its colonial past, Ecuador’s third-largest city also has a modern edge, with international restaurants, art galleries, cool cafés and welcoming bars tucked into its magnificent architecture. It has a large student population and (unsurprisingly) is popular with foreigners.
Barely half a century before the arrival of the Spaniards, the powerful Inca Tupac-Yupanqui, after conquering the Cañari, began construction of a major city at the site of present-day Cuenca. Its splendor and importance were to rival that of the imperial capital of Cuzco. The indigenous people told of sun temples covered with gold sheets and palaces built using the most skilled cuzqueño stonemasons, but what happened to Tomebamba, as the city was called, is shrouded in mystery.
By the time Spanish chronicler Cieza de León passed through in 1547, Tomebamba lay largely in ruins. Today it is difficult to imagine Tomebamba’s splendor, as all that remains are a few recently excavated Inca walls by the river.
In 1999 Cuenca was honored by Unesco, which declared its center a World Cultural Heritage Site.