Cuenca & the south Sierra
Home of the Panama hat and a slower pace of life...
Ecuador’s southern region is markedly different to the dramatic geography of the other parts of the country. The peaceful, unpopulated southern sierra offers a far more tranquil way of life. The jewel in this bucolic crown is Cuenca, Ecuador’s third largest city. Yet with a population of only 200,000, it is a world apart from Quito and Guayaquil. What it does share with Quito is a UNESCO world heritage site old-town centre, featuring pretty balconies, cobbled streets and a selection-box of colonial architecture; plus the striking blue-domed Cathedral Nuevo, as a tasteful new addition. It is easy to see what Cuenca is considered by many as Ecuador’s most picturesque town. Cuenca can also lay claim to being the home of the Panama Hat; with the name being attributed to the canal that distributed them rather than their place of creation!
Aside from pottering the streets, the Tomebamba River waterfront and getting a bespoke Panama hat measured up, Cuenca is also an ideal spot to explore the fascinating environs. El Cajas National Park is a must for fans of hiking or fishing. This Påramo Lake District (there are over 200 lakes in the park) receives surprisingly low visitors, so offers a great option for a spot of solitude while you fish for trout of trek the trails. Whilst llamas, woodpeckers and hummingbirds are the most likely wildlife to be encountered, pumas and Spectacled bears have been spotted in the past. For any tired limbs, head to Baños de Cuena (not to be mistaking for the far more illustrious Baños de Aguas Santa further north) and bathe away the aches and pains.
Less than 2 hours north of Cuenca are Ecuador’s best preserved Incan ruins – Ingapirca. The site dates back to the late 15th century and, whilst it can’t hold a candle to Peru’s finest, Ingapirca still showcases the Inca’s extraordinary stonemasonry skills. Despite the Spanish ‘reallocating’ a lot of the stonework for their own purpose, the Temple of the Sun remains an impressive structure that overlooks the whole complex. Baños del Inca, an Incan bathing site that was shaped out of natural rock formations, can also be seen just a few miles away.
Finally, the town of Loja is situated down near the Peruvian border. Similar in size to Cuenca, it also has an airport, with direct flights to Quito and Guayaquil. Whilst it lacks the charm of Cuenca, it is not without its attractions. The main reason to head this far south is to visit the Podocarpus National Park. The park is surprising unknown, considering the staggering levels of flora and fauna found there. With grasslands, Cloud forest and rainforest all within the 1,500km2 protected land (twice the size of New York City), there is an abundance of wildlife. Giant armadillos, pumas, jaguars, Spectacled bears and mountain tapir all roam these lands; although are ever-elusive.