Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca, otherwise known simply as CUENCA (2530m), is Ecuador's most seductive, and possibly its most beautiful, colonial city. A classic example of a planned Renaissance town in the Americas, Cuenca shares many architectural features with Old Quito, such as its narrow, cobbled streets, harmonious, balconied houses with interior courtyards, and abundance of flashing white churches and monasteries. Here, however, they're presented without the pollution, noise and overbearing crowds of the capital, in a relaxed, provincial and altogether more enjoyable atmosphere. Still swollen with pride from having been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, Cuenca has, moreover, maintained itself at its gleaming, spruced-up best, further adding to its appeal.
Founded by the Spaniards on April 12, 1557, Cuenca was not the first dazzling city to be erected on this site: the city of Tomebamba had been founded here by the Inca Tupac Yupanqui around 1470, and was said to have rivalled Peru's Cuzco with its splendour. Its glory was short-lived, however, as the city was destroyed during the Inca civil war that broke out during the second decade of the sixteenth century, prompted by rival claims to the throne by the brothers Atahualpa and Huáscar. By the time Cieza de León (one of the chroniclers of the Spanish conquest) passed through in 1547, Tomebamba was in ruins, but enough remained to evoke its former grandeur: "These famous lodgings of Tumibamba were among the finest and richest to be found in all Peru . . . The fronts of many of the buildings are beautiful and highly decorative, some of them set with precious stones and emeralds . . . Today, all is cast down and in ruins, but it can still be seen how great they were." These days, Cuenca's Inca legacy has all but vanished, hinted at only by the foundation stones of some of its buildings, and some modest ruins excavated in the twentieth century.