Of all the Ecuadorian cities that we visited, I found Cuenca to be one of the most beautiful. Perhaps, it is second only to the grandeur of the colonial center of Quito, but the smaller scale made it much easier to explore. Its’ historic district, which goes back as far as the 16th century, has been named a UNESCO heritage site, and the patchwork grid of streets does not let one down. There is great, imaginative architecture lining each calle, with towers, steeples, rotundas, storied balconies, brick and tiles, carved wooden porticos, and cobble-stoned roads entreating you to pause and look longer, while encouraging you to continue. I can say all this, despite the timing of our visit, which coincided with the closure of many main streets in the historic district. They were under major construction for the development of a city-wide and significant light-rail system.
There are several parks and plazas that showcase the flora, pines and palms of the region, and a rocky river that winds through the center of the city, perpendicular to a perfect promenading path. It is a highly clean and walkable city, known for its spring-like climate and friendly locals. There are open markets everywhere (vegetables, flowers and crafts), a surplus of pastry and ice-cream salons, and a large choice of restaurants. It is also very affordable to live in, with rents as low as $250 a month, and many museums, music venues and free cultural activities. All of these traits equate into a desirable city to live in, which has attracted both Ecuadorians and foreigners alike. It is estimated that there are 3500 US expats living in this city of over 330,000, which seems small within this larger context, but makes up a significant colony. Many of these North Americans, usually retirees, live and congregate in the dense historical center, making their presence clear. We met, many, many Americans who told us stories of how they chose to move to this city, sometimes sight unseen, after reading so many positive stories about the Cuenca lifestyle. No one had a bad word to say.
Which brings me to one of our most frequent observations – after meeting less than five people from the United States during our six weeks in Colombia, we felt like Ecuador was another US state. We were frankly shocked by how many American travelers were in Ecuador, and these same people were often surprised to hear that we had gone to Colombia. This just shows you how maligned Colombia is by our western media, but it doesn’t explain why Ecuador is immensely popular. We could only guess that it might have to do with the fact that this country uses the American dollar as its main currency, AND there are places like Cuenca that seem to attract retirees who are either disenchanted with their US lives, or are looking for a way to stretch out their post-work savings.
We lucked out with the timing of our visit, not realizing that we would be there during a large and free musical festival, featuring 52 bands and 300 musicians, on 20 stages around town. We watched reggae, rap, alternative, heavy metal, and then capped it with a cultural show of indigenous song and dance in a vintage theater.
When we finally left Cuenca to visit Incapirca, we were still unaware that this was the weekend of Inti Raymi, a religious festival to honor the Incan sun god, “Inti”. So, not only did we not understand that this was one of the reasons we had been treated to live music and festivities in Cuenca, but we were also clueless about the fact that we were headed to the Ecuadorian epicenter of Incan celebration. We had booked a special night for Father’s Day, at upscale Posada Incapirca, the only accommodation close to the ruins. As soon as we arrived into the hilly town, about two hours from Cuenca, our driver informed us that he would not be able to drive us all the way to our accommodation, as the streets would be blocked off to traffic. We were thus dropped off at the bottom of a steep hill, with all our heavy bags, just in time for the last day of the fair and performances.
After the miserable, monster trek to our Posada, we could not convince Stella and Gabriel to come back down part of the hill, in order to watch the dancers and musicians. We could not find anyone at the guesthouse to check us in, even though the main lounge with t.v. and billiards was open. We figured everyone was attending the festival, as would make sense, and wanted to see the spectacle ourselves. The kids just wanted to watch cartoons on the t.v., so… we. left. them. alone… and they were fine! This is what they missed:
Once we returned to the Posada, which was quicker than it seemed, we arrived right when our host did. Most guests had checked out that day, with the ending of the festival and weekend, so we practically had the Posada to ourselves. We were checked into a lovely room with a wood-burning fireplace and immediately fell in love with the feel of the place. Wandering the halls, and dining areas was like living in a museum. From the gardens, which were filled with llamas and rabbits, we had misty views of green mountains and farmland, circling the largest Incan ruins in all of Ecuador. We ate a delicious meal in an elegant, but cozy dining room, and decided that we had to stay another night.
The following day and the weather was not great, rain kept us inside, but the place was incredibly peaceful. When the deluge became a faint drizzle, we were able to run out and make a quick visit of the Incapirca archeological site, specifically getting a tour of the Temple of the Sun, an elliptical Incan structure built without mortar. It was perfectly positioned so that the sun’s light would shine directly through the main chamber’s doorway only on the solstices. We did convince the kids to come with us this time!