With the volcanic Galapagos Islands teeming with strange and fascinating wildlife, impressive Andean peaks, and the lush Amazon rainforest, Ecuador is perhaps best known for its natural wonders. But Ecuador has another side – its cities. An astounding variety of art, culturally rich traditions, monumental architectural gems, and exceptional cuisine are the cornerstone of the country's colonial cities – Quito and Cuenca. In 1978, Quito was declared as the first UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site for its extensive historic center. In 1999, Cuenca was declared Cultural Patrimony of Humanity by UNESCO for the city's successful fusion of three different Latin American cultures and the preservation of their customs and traditions. Here are just a few of the highlights from each of these lovely old cities.
Quito – A City At The Center Of The Earth
Surrounded by volcanos and straddling the center of the earth, Ecuador’s capital city is a place where the past and present effortlessly coexist. Founded in the 16th century on the ruins of an Inca City, Quito has the best-preserved historic center in Latin America. Narrow cobblestoned streets are lined with colonial churches, monasteries, convents, and beautifully restored houses with architecture from the 16th to the 20th century.
The Calle De Las Siete Cruces (Street of the Seven Crosses) is named for the seven churches with different congregations located just blocks from each other and each with a predominately displayed cross as a testament to the religious practices of the city that have existed since the 16th century. The iconic La Compañía de Jesús Church also known as the "Golden Ember" is considered the Baroque jewel of Latin America. The façade is a work of art carved out of Andean stone. Inside, the altars, pulpits, pillars, and arches are all covered with gold leaf. Baroque carvings in geometric shapes, flowers, fruit, and garlands are plated with 23-carat gold.
El Panecillo is an ancestral hill where a massive statue of the winged Virgin of Quito made from over 7,000 pieces of aluminum keeps a watchful eye over the city. This is an excellent place to get an overview of Quito and a close up look at the Virgin.
At the southern end of Quito's Historic District you will find the narrow cobblestone street La Ronda. One of the most iconic streets of the historic district, La Ronda is the bohemian center of the old town - a place where musicians, artists, and poets mingled in the 1930's. Today traditional foods and beverages are served in modest nondescript restaurants, and traditional trades coexist with designer shops, craftwork shops, and spaces for folklore and popular culture. Don't miss the empanadas de viento (wind empanadas), which are made from wheat and filled with cheese that inflates when they are fried in oil as if they were empty inside. They are huge and delicious. You can wash it down with a Canelazo (warm spiced cocktail) made from the Andean fruit, naranjilla, whole cane sugar, cinnamon, cloves, anise, and a splash of sugar cane moonshine.
Of course no trip to the city at the center of the world would be complete without a visit to the equator. Stand with a foot in each hemisphere and experience the scientific wonders of the earth's movement at 0 latitude. Participate in physics experiments like placing an egg on the head of a nail or watching water swirl down the drain clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. It was fascinating even to this non-scientific gal.
Santa Ana de los Rios de Cuenca
Situated in an Andean valley in the South Ecuadorian mountain region at an altitude over 8,300 feet, Cuenca is crossed by four rivers. The Tomebamba flows through Cuenca forming a natural border between the historic downtown and the new part of the city. Paths alongside the river are ideal for cycling or walking. Along the way you will see capuli trees, eucalyptus, willows, walnut trees, and numerous species of birds.
There are 52 churches in Cuenca, one for every week of the year. Built in 1730, the Baroque style El Carmen de la Asunción Church is one of the oldest. The stark white exterior of the church contrasts beautifully with the vibrant colors of the Flower Market on the plaza outside. The largest and most important monument to the Catholic faith in Cuenca is the Immaculada Concepcion Cathedral. Construction began on the cathedral in 1885 and continued for almost one hundred years. This stunning and colossal structure combines several architectural elements including gothic, Romanic and the Renascence style, which is represented by three large blue domes covered in tiles brought from the Czech Republic.
Preservation of the customs and traditions of the arts and culture of Cuenca contributed to its declaration as the Cultural Patrimony of Humanity. Throughout the city you will find artisans and craftsmen using the knowledge transferred through several generations to continue the creation of iconic treasures like the Panama Hat which originated in Cuenca – despite its name.
There is a saying in Cuenca, "Tell me what you are celebrating, and I will tell you what you would eat." In other words, food is abundant all year long in Cuenca and always celebrated. This is true for traditional dishes like locro de papa (potato soup), which is served at almost every meal. Chefs are also adapting traditional recipes into contemporary entrees. It is hard to choose a favorite meal in Cuenca, but one of mine was at Tiestos in the heart of the city where entrees are served in traditional clay pots. Dessert arrives on plates hand-painted in minutes with fresh fruit and chocolate sauce by the chef's wife – it is delicious edible art.
Ecuador's abundance of natural wonders has captivated travelers for years - but the culture and charm of its cities represent the soul of this infatuating country.
Have you been to the cities of Ecuador? What captivated you?
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