Cuenca is a small, green city in the south of Ecuador. It boasts a slower pace of life with more environmental consciousness and attention given to cyclists and pedestrians than I've seen anywhere else in this country. In Cuenca, the poorer people are employed by the city to clean the streets and take care of the gardens and lawns, rather than having to resort to begging and crime.
It reminded me of Boise because of the rivers running through it with bike paths, parks, and huge flowering trees, and because of the nearby mountains and the clean--but much more historic--downtown (built on/around Incan ruins). It's warmer than Quito and more friendly because of its size and significantly lower crime rate. I can see why there are nearly 4,000 expats currently residing there and I thoroughly enjoyed my stay, although I have to say--as with Boise--I could get a little bored there after awhile.
Anyway, here are a few pictures. Unfortunately, I neglected to take many of the downtown area, which has great architecture.
Christmas walk by one of the rivers with the fam.
One of the 58 (I think) historic churches.
View from some Incan ruins.
I met my German friends, Joe and Lisa, in Cuenca the day after Christmas and we decided to go to Parque Nacional El Cajas: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Cajas. It's a huge, beautiful national park only about half an hour from the city. The landscape is drastic; stark and stunning. There are cloud forests, mountains, and hundreds of lakes (and water in every form). It's home to a unique ecosystem that retains water--it looks dry, but believe me, it's a strange, spongey wetland--and there are crazy trees and plants and even some pumas, wolves, bears, etc. We left thoroughly wet and thoroughly happy. I could easily spend days and nights backpacking there.
Starting point: Lake Toreadora
I was in love with this plant and took about ten pictures of it...notice all of the lakes in the background.
Joe and Lisa walking behind me through the cloud forest: a tangle of "paper trees" with mist, caves, and painted rocks to keep us going the right way.
This lichen also got photographed a lot...
The next day, we visited Incan/ Canari (indigenous people who preceded the Incans) ruins, called Ingapirca, about three hours away by bus: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ingapirca. I was not that impressed because there isn't much hiking to do around there and it only took an hour or so to tour the ruins, but it cost six bucks for foreigners to see. Still, it was cool to walk through structures from that time period. The largest structure still standing, also the most famous, is the Temple to the Sun, which was built with stones that fit perfectly together without mortar.
I found out later that before Ingapirca was an official site, my uncle's mother snagged a couple of these special stones for her living room. She had me put my hands in their groves. Now I understand more why they charge you money and watch you while you're there...
We walked around a bit and got a more impressive view from the adjacent hill.
Then we made friends with some cows.
The next day, my aunt and uncle took my cousins and I to Cojitambo, which is a mountain about 45 minutes north of Cuenca. It is home to some Incan ruins as well as an incredible view. It's not very developed or popular, so there weren't many other people there, which was nice. Plus, it's a great place to rock climb and I got to try it for the first time because one of my uncle's tour groups was there climbing and we joined them. It was super fun.
Oops, I guess I didn't take any pictures of the ruins...well, you can't blame me. They were all over the place and the mountains interest me more. :)