Cuenca, in the highlands of south-central Ecuador, is the country’s third-largest city, with about 400,000 residents. It has a reputation for being a charming colonial-era city, built on the site of an Inca settlement—and before that a town of the indigenous Canari people—in a broad mountain valley where four small rivers come together.
Cuenca isn’t a fixture on the backpacker trail, except perhaps as a stop for people traveling overland south to Peru. But the city is popular with North American retirees, who have moved here by the thousands. They’re drawn by Cuenca’s mild climate, good infrastructure (including drinkable tap water!), and low cost of living.
The city wasn’t as pretty as I was expecting (it’s a listed World Heritage Site), and the museums, though mildly interesting, were underwhelming. But Cuenca was walkable and a good place for observing everyday Ecuadoran life—in plazas and markets, outside churches, in parks and small neighborhood restaurants with no names. Indigenous women here wear distinctive local dress, characterized by brightly colored, knee-length, pleated velvet skirts and wool shawls with embroidered hems and fedora hats.
Speaking of hats, this part of southern Ecuador is the birthplace of the white straw hats mistakenly called Panama hats. (They got their name when the Spanish exported them through Panama in colonial times.) We visited several hat shops, including one small factory with metal hat presses imported from North America and Europe. The most finely woven hats there can be rolled up to the circumference of a quarter and cost hundreds of dollars. But we didn’t find any that we really needed.
A combination of rainy weather and recurring intestinal problems kept us from visiting two of the most interesting sites outside Cuenca: Cajas National Park, home to mountains covered in cloud forest and hundreds of lakes, and the ruins of a joint Canari-Inca city at Ingapirca. We’ll have to save those for another trip.
But we had a pleasant time in Cuenca, staying in a comfortable apartment, enjoying international food for a change (German, Thai, and NYC pizza), strolling along the burbling little river near our apartment, and watching daily life unfold in the parks and plazas and coffee shops nearby.