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A land as big as heaven

Janine Gates |
Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador, the safest city in the country, called "Athens of Ecuador" because of its reach and beautiful cultural heritage.

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Santa Ana de los cuatro rios de Cuenca, or Cuenca, is the capital city of Azuay Province in Ecuador. The name accurately describes the city since Cuenca is surrounded by four rivers. It is situated 2500m (for our American friends that's 8200 ft) above sea level and it is the home for some 270,000 inhabitants who live in Cuenca and 418,000 in Cuenca Canton.

In the ancient time the Canari natives called the place Guapondeleg, "A land as big as heaven". Today there's no more Canari language or Canari people but their heritage is preserved, mainly in such old names. After Canari there came Inca. When they arrived they did what every good conquistador do: they changed the beautiful name to Tomebamba - "River Valley of Knives".

Today, Tomebamba is the name of one of the Cuenca rivers. Not to much surprise, the Spanish conquistadors came next (1557) and established Santa Ana de los Cuatro Rios de Cuenca. When the independence of Spain was granted, Cuenca became the capital of one of the three provinces that formed part of the "new republic" (Quito and Guayaquil are the other two).

Cuenca is also known as La Atenas del Ecuador - the Athens of Ecuador - because many notable writers, philosophers, artists and poets were born in Cuenca. There are four universities in the city, along with many museums, research and cultural organizations. Although Cuenca is the economic centre of Southern Sierra, it still maintains its old traditions.

Cuenca is situated in Ecuadorian Andes so it enjoys a mild climate year-round. Days are generally warm and nights are cool enough that you should pack a sweater. The average daily temperature is 14.6 degrees C (for Americans: 58 degrees F). The rainy season generally lasts from mid-October until early May. During that time mornings are typically sunny and afternoons cloudy with light showers here and there, there's no need to think about Noah's ark at all.

Most of the streets in this nice city are made of cobblestone with an old colonial look, colourful balconies, charming plazas and markets, all very well preserved. While in Cuenca, there are some places not to be missed, no matter what. On Thursdays and Saturdays there is an outdoor market around the church of San Francisco and a smaller one at the Plaza Rotary. The San Francisco market has a more local flair but both are worth a visit.

As any self-respecting Ecuador traveller knows, Panama hats are not made in Panama, they are made in Ecuador. Homero Ortega & Sons craft some of Ecuador's finest hats at their factory on Avenida Gil Ramírez Dávalos near the bus station.

Conceptas Church with its monastery and museum is very attractive and whole complex takes up an entire block looking like a fortress. However, be prepared because you will see many morbid, although interesting, religious artefacts from the past. Museums are everywhere and you if you visit one church a week you'll stay for a whole year - there are 52 of them. Putting that aside, there are Plazoleta del Carmen, the site of a colonial church and flower market; Plaza de San Sebastián with a mural of children's art; and Avenida 3 de Noviembre along the Río Tomebamba with original colonial buildings where you will see the true soul of the city.

November 3rd, Cuenca celebrates its independence. During this time, you can enjoy many street theatres, the night life is great with many events, art exhibitions and dancing all over the city.

Cuenca's main bus terminal Terminal Terrestre is located on Espana Avenue, some 25 minute walk of the city centre. From there you can walk for six minutes in order to reach the airport. Local buses are very affordable with rates somewhere between 0.18 and 0.25 dollars, a short taxi tour cost one dollar, and driving to airport 1,6 dollars. If you choose to visit other provinces or cities nearby you'll see again that bus it an ideal transportation vehicle: for a drive of five hours you will pay three to five dollars. No need to be a millionaire to explore the whole region.

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