October 1st, 2013

1).      Cuenca is the third largest City in Ecuador, and the second to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site – the other one is the Capitol City of Quito. There is rivalry as to which is the more beautiful and I will not take sides, except to say that Cuenca is known as the “Athens of Ecuador” because of the exceptional Classical Architecture within the boundaries of the Central Historic area.

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2).     It is a charming, well preserved  Colonial  City with most of the buildings dating from the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.  Founded in 1557 using the orthogonal plan decreed by Charles V of Spain, (Spain had conquered the territory), the historic area is made up of two hundred and fifty square blocks of  historic buildings, Cathedrals, Churches, plazas and parks connected by cobblestone streets.  Orthogonal means right angles or perpendicular in Greek.  Town Planners today would call this a “Grid Pattern”.   Being compact, it is easily walkable.    Colonial Cuenca  functions as a modern city within the Colonial framework with up to date amenities such as shops, internet cafes, restaurants, hotels, taxis, buses and all the usual layers needed to create a busy economy.

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3).     Located  8,200 feet above sea level, the temperature hovers in the top fifties, sixties and low seventies Fahrenheit and is always on the cool side.  The high altitude can also be physically challenging.  It lies in a fertile valley surrounded by four rivers and is set against a backdrop of Andean peaks.  The Rio Tomebamba is the most important river and cradles it, running clear and strong through its rocky basin,  separating the historic center on its higher north side from modern Cuenca on the lower south side.  The newer part of Cuenca developed because the Historic Center grew too small to handle the population and its needs.   By contrast, the new part has modern office buildings, apartments, hospitals and more diversified shopping including supermarkets and shopping centers.

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4).   The population is under a half million people.  There are eight Universities, the oldest being the University of Cuenca, founded in 1867.  It has always been a center for culture and learning and the large number of students lends a youthful edge to the population creating a Bohemian atmosphere.

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5).  With so much beauty and history,  Cuenca is a magnet for tourists and there is a diverse selection of accommodations.   A number of Colonial homes have been converted to Posadas, similar to bed and breakfast Inns, while some of the mansions were transformed into luxury boutique hotels.  There are strict rules in maintaining the Colonial   character and there are no Ritz Carlton or Hilton Hotels and no fast food franchises as these would take away from the authenticity.   All the hotels in the Historic Center are housed in historic buildings.  The Hotel Victoria, one of the better known mansion conversions, is built into a cliff  known as the Barranca and seeming to “hang” from the clifftop.  It is located on the Calle Larga, a very beautiful street on the edge of the historic center with amazing views over the extensive hotel gardens and the river. The restaurant, El Jardin, on one of the lower levels also has views “forever” and serves a sophisticated  menu of international food and fine wine with beautifully appointed table settings.   This hotel is very gracious and has some lovely old antique furnishings.

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6).   My carefully chosen hotel reservation turned into a “rough landing” because there was a huge discrepancy between the hotel description on the internet and what it actually looked like.  The only redeeming feature was the spectacular view from the bedroom window.  Prizing open the wooden shutters, the scene that revealed itself was of a busy, cobblestone market square, with the craft market at the far end.   Clearly visible were the three iconic blue tiled domes of the Nuevo Cathedral,  rising above the roof line,  set against a cloudless blue sky – probably the most photographed and easily recognizable view of Cuenca.   After surviving one night of drafty pneumonia temperatures and a drip, drip shower,  the view was not sufficient to keep me there and in less than eighteen hours I  had moved to the Posada del Angel, a total contrast.  Inside it was gleaming, all polished wood, and spotless marble floors, with beautiful green potted plants thriving in the light from the huge glass dome set into the roof three floors up. The design was a traditional Colonial residence conversion, with a large open area in the center  for the restaurant and lounges surrounded by floors of bedrooms above.  It was overseen with great love by an Ecuadorian Family who also ran the Italian restaurant in the Hotel.   The Family were charming and helpful, and after settling in, my mood lifted and I was on my way to enjoying Cuenca.

 

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SIDEBAR:   Cuenca is popular with both travelers and ex-Pats and there is no shortage of English being spoken.  The Cuencanos  (local residents of Cuenca)  have welcomed the growing  ex-Pat population composed mainly of American retirees,  who have chosen to move to Cuenca, some part-time but mostly full time.   The official number is  5,000, but in reality it could be twice that number and growing.    Many have taken out Residency in Ecuador and more are in the process of applying for their Ecuadorian Passports,  which come with generous retiree benefits.   Not only have they been welcomed,  but they have found an interesting City, with lots of cultural activities, live theatre, many museums and galleries and a symphony orchestra.   They have identified causes in which they can volunteer and have done so generously.    There are diverse reasons why people have decided to move to a new country so late in life,  the main one being that they can live a better quality life on less money with fewer worries.    The cost of   Medical Insurance is far lower and medical services are a fraction of the cost paid in the USA.    Medical facilities and hospitals are modern and the doctors are excellent, many having spent extra time studying abroad, in Europe, the USA and Mexico.   The new Residents are leading healthier lives, eating more fresh fruit and vegetables that are priced inexpensively in the markets.   This diet,  combined with the fact that people walk more than they did in the  US,  has led to improved health and less dependence on medications to stay well.   The one complaint the local  population has with these new Residents is that they do not make enough effort to learn Spanish and expect their hosts to speak English  !!

 

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