Becoming Cuenca

Insight Into Cuenca (And Its History)

May 25, 2022

So many articles have called Ecuador, “The Best Place to Retire in the World on a Budget.” It began around 2010 when International Living kept mentioning Cuenca over and over again. To be honest, that got my attention.

International Living has been around in some form since 1979. Their publications are filled with information about how to move, live, and enjoy being overseas. Many, but not all, consider the lifestyle magazine a trustworthy guide for anyone thinking about living abroad.

Topping that off, Ecuador has long been popular with retirees who do not have enough money saved to live comfortably in the United States or Canada anymore. A Cuencano I have a business relationship with says that the vast majority of expats in Cuenca are “financial refugees.” They do not have enough money saved and/or not receiving enough money each month to survive in their birth country.

Wedged between Colombia to the north and Peru to the south and east, Ecuador is about the size of Colorado. Situated on the west side of South America, with 109,483 square miles / 176,195 square kilometers of land, Ecuador is the most biodiverse country in the world. With such diversity, it is no surprise that you have your choice of climates. You have the mountains, beaches, the Amazon, and the Galápagos Islands packed into this small nation.

Cuenca is not only the most popular place for expats in Ecuador, but it has also been deemed the retirement capital of South America. So many things point to Cuenca as the place to live outside of your current country.

The official and long name for the city is Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca – Santa Ana of the Four Rivers of Cuenca. The four rivers are the Tomebamba, Yanuncay, Tarquí and Machángara. Cuenca is the capital city of the province of Azuay. It is located high in the Sierra of the Andes mountains. It is just over eight hours south of Quito and less than four hours southeast of Guayaquil.

Cuenca is one of the highest large cities in the world. Of the world’s major urban centers, La Paz, Bolivia easily takes the crown with an average altitude of 12,693 feet / 3,869 meters above sea level. Ecuador’s capital, Quito, is second at 9,134 feet / 9,134 feet. Bogota, Colombia is #5, sitting at 8,533 feet / 2,601 meters above sea level. This puts Cuenca just 133 feet / 41 meters behind the capital of Colombia. Yes, Cuenca is way up there. Most Americans talk about how high Denver, but the Rocky Mountain city is way down there at just 5,280 feet / 1,609 meters above sea level.

The literal translation for Cuenca is “Basin.” Andrés Hurtado de Mendoza, who commissioned the founding of the city, was not thinking about the layout of the land. Mendoza ordered the city to be named after his mountain hometown of Cuenca, Spain. Cuenca sits snugly in a large valley with mountains surrounding it on all sides. To the northwest are the Cajas that reach as high as 14,600 feet / 4,450 meters above sea level. It is Cuenca’s watershed and water supply. Clean, cold water flows from these mountains and into the city.

Nestled in the Andes, Cuenca sits between the Nazca and South American tectonic plates. The convergence rate between the plates is 2.4 inches / 6.1 cm. per year. This convergence helped create the Andes. You need to know this because like Japan, Ecuador is used to earthquakes.

How big is Cuenca? Darn good question. Getting an accurate number of people living in Cuenca is difficult. Googling the population gets such a crazy variance from as low as 328,000 people to as many as 700,000 residents. After extrapolating figures and crunching the numbers, I have concluded that in 2020, the population of Cuenca was somewhere near 628,000 people. That is comparable in size to Louisville, Kentucky and is a bit smaller than Hamilton, Ontario.

If larger cities make you uncomfortable, Cuenca’s approximately 80 neighborhoods will make you feel at ease. Trust me. My wife grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina. When she left her childhood town, it had just reached 55,000 people. Large cities made her uncomfortable, be it the crowds, the noise, or congestion. She never wanted to live in a large city as it was just too stressful for her. As soon as Joanna first stepped foot in this large city, she was at ease.

The layout of the city with its unique and welcoming neighborhoods put her at ease. Each neighborhood is big enough to find almost everything you need in your everyday life nearby as Cuenca does not have rigid zoning. You will not find any of that R-7 or R-15 zoning. There are no commercial-only zoned areas.

Probably the most famous neighborhood is El Centro. It is the original part of what is now known as Cuenca. Though Cuenca was founded in 1557, its history goes back a millennium at least. The city was originally a Cañari settlement called Guapondeleg. It is believed to have been founded around 500 CE. Guapondeleg means “Land as Big as Heaven.” The etymology of Cañari comes from Kan (Snake) and from Ara (Guacamaya). Some linguists think that means “Descendant of the Snake and the Macaw.” These animals were considered sacred.

It is believed that the Cañari people had a federative monarchy – a federation of states with a single monarch as overall head of the federation but retaining different monarchs. Each leader had control over his individual tribe. Like the Jews, the Cañari used a lunar calendar. They built temples in circular or moon-like shapes to keep track of what time of year it was.

The Cañari are famous for holding off the mighty Inca empire for an exceptionally long time. Despite being heavily outnumbered, their military maneuvers held the Incas at bay. A good example of their brilliance was when the Incan leader Túpac Yupanqui thought that he could hasten the conquest of the Cañari people by sending his troops in a surprise attack. Unfortunately for the Incas, the Cañarís had information about the attack and had already occupied the many strategic positions. The intense battle ended up with the Incas hastily retreating. It wasn’t until the 1480s or possibly 1490s that the Incas finally defeated the defiant Cañari people.

The Incas had little time to enjoy their conquest as in 1536, Los Cañari and his Spanish soldiers defeated the Incas at the Battle of Sacsayhuamán, a citadel on the northern outskirts of what is now Cusco, Peru. Sacsayhuamán was the historic capital of the Inca Empire.

This is a quick synopsis of the rich culture of the Cañari people. When you make it to Ecuador, I recommend visiting the Kushi Waira Tourist & Cultural Center. Located just south of Cuenca, in Tarqui Canton, the project involves 12 families who show you the authentic Cañari culture and experience it firsthand. It is an excellent day trip to learn the rich history of this part of Ecuador.

Back to the Spanish. Cuenca was founded on April 12, 1557, on the ruins of the Inca city of Tomebamba by Gil Ramírez Dávalos. Viceroy Andrés Hurtado de Mendoza, Marquis of Cañete, appointed him governor of the province of Quito to build the new town of Cuenca de América. On April 12, 1577, he founded it in the valley of Paucarbamba, which means “Flowery Plain. This was rather late as other major Spanish settlements in the region, such as Quito (1534), Guayaquil (1538), and Loja (1548), were founded years earlier.

Cuenca became one of the three Spanish capitals of Ecuador. Because of that, the city’s population and importance grew steadily during the colonial era. On November 3, 1820, the residents of Cuenca declared the city independent from Spain, following other cities of Ecuador. The Spanish commander Melchior Aymerich took swift action, and his royalist army defeated the patriots in Cuenca on December 20, 1820.

That did not last long as in February 1821, the Venezuelan General Simón Bolívar sent reinforcements to the Patriot forces and aid in the liberation of Quito. The first attempt to liberate Quito failed. On May 24, 1822, the patriots’ army defeated the Spanish army on the slopes of the Pichincha volcano. The defeat of the Royalist forces brought about the liberation of Quito, which led to the liberation of Ecuador from Spanish rule.

After the Spanish left, Cuenca saw economic prosperity as the city became a major exporter of quinine (Cinchona bark), straw hats (that have the misnomer of Panama Hats), and other products. One seventeenth century writer called cinchona bark more precious to mankind than all the gold and silver that the Spanish brought from South America. The reason is that legend says the first European to be cured from malaria with the use of this medicine was the Countess of Chinchón in the 1640s. The physician treating her tried every remedy he knew from his European training to break her tertian fever (malaria). The legend goes on to say that in desperation, the doctor gave her some medicine provided by the locals who had been using it successfully for similar symptoms.

The countess survived the illness, and the legend goes on to say she took some of the Cinchona bark home to Europe with her. That has never been proven, but it is clear the Jesuit missionaries were aware of its properties early on. According to the online Catholic Encyclopedia, they had “learned the healing power of the bark from natives during the years 1620-1630.” A couple of decades later, it was being used in Jesuit colleges in Genoa, Louvain, Lyon, and Ratisbon.

Panama Hats became a big money maker for Cuenca in 1836. Local officials decided to open a hat factory to boost the city’s economy. They wanted to capture a share of the rapidly increasing export market, where most of the hats were being shipped to the United States. By 1850, Estados Unidos was buying 220,000 hats every year.

That was helped by Don Bartolome Serrano, who in 1845 sped up the production of the straw hats. The businessman set up straw supply lines from the largest toquilla straw growing areas in Ecuador. He bought everything that was needed for mass production of the hats. Serrano even hired master weavers from Manabí and brought them to Cuenca.

Using his considerable political influence, apprenticeship in hat making became compulsory throughout Azuay Province. Everyone was required to learn the trade, including children. It has been said, though not confirmed, that the requirement was so strictly enforced that failure to do so could result in prison time. This “incentive” helped Cuenca’s hat industry to be the leader in all of Ecuador despite its origins being at the coast. Hat making was so profitable that Cuenca became an economic power in Ecuador.

During this prosperity, Cuenca’s first Bank, Banco del Azuay, was founded in 1913. At the beginning of the 1920s, Quito architect Luis Felipe Donoso Barba was hired to design a new building in which Banco del Azuay would operate. Days after Black Tuesday in 1929, the bank moved to its new and glorious neoclassical building. Banco del Azuay ruled the financial world as it was the only bank in Cuenca until 1935, when the bank La Previsora was founded. Banco del Azuay operated for 86 years, until Ecuador’s financial crisis in 1999. Today, the municipal government of Cuenca calls the historic bank home.

Throughout its rich history, El Centro has preserved its original orthogonal plan. It is an urban design layout that consists of mostly square street blocks with straight streets intersecting at right angles. This forms a grid pattern. One of our friends takes advantage of the orthogonal plan as he said, “I do not need a Fitbit while walking. Every block is 100 meters long.”

The original layout is one of the reasons that the United Nations declared Cuenca a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, reporting, “The Historic Centre of Santa Ana de los Rios de Cuenca retains the majority of attributes necessary for the expression of its Outstanding Universal Value, which are complete and intact. Despite the loss of important edifices during the second half of the 20th century, all the components of the urban structure and its relationship with the townscape environment remain.”

The U.N. organization went on to say,” The Historic Centre of Santa Ana de los Rios de Cuenca has preserved its image of a colonial town and the essential aspects of its original character. Its historic centre is inhabited and enjoys an active traditional social life, although sometimes in degraded living conditions. Due to this continued occupation, the town offers a high degree of authenticity.”

This is a quick insight into this wonderful and historic city. A lot more information on the city can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.”

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Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.