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The tale of two Cuencas: The Ecuadorian version is the namesake of the Spanish, but today the cities are vastly different

By Christopher Lux

Although most Cuenca expats know that the city is the namesake of Cuenca, Spain, few really know much about Spanish Cuenca.

One of the famous “hanging houses” on Cuenca, Spain’s barranco.

Cuenca, Ecuador was named by Andrés Hurtado de Mendoza, a Spanish military commander and the fifth Viceroy of Peru, on April 12, 1557. Hurtado de Mendoza said the barranco area overlooking the Rio Tomebamba reminded him of his home town of Cuenca, Spain.

There were other similarities. Both Cuencas are surrounded by mountains and have rivers running though them. The full name of the Ecuadorian city is Santa Ana de los cuatro ríos de Cuenca, a reference to the four rivers that flow through town, the Tomebamba, Yanuncay, Tarqui and Machangara. In Spain, the Rios Júcar and Huécar run through a gorge that divides the city.

Beyond that, the cities had little in common in 1557. Cuenca, Spain was one of that country’s major commercial centers, with a population of 50,000. Cuenca, Ecuador, on the other hand, lay in ruins, the result of a civil war for domination of the Inca Empire by the sons of Huayna Capac. Spanish monks described seeing massive piles of stones, three and four meters high, when they first entered the city, all that was left of a project to make Cuenca the northern capital of the Inca Empire. Except for several small groups of Cañaris, they said the city was empty.

Today, the situation is vastly different. Cuenca, Ecuador is a growing city of almost 600,000, while the population of Cuenca, Spain has grown very little in 500 years.

Brief histories of the two Cuencas
Cuenca, Spain

Cuenca, Spain is home of the famous casas colgadas (hanging houses), suspended from cliffs overlooking the Huécar river. One might think of the buildings of the barranco in Cuenca, Ecuador, but the drastic overlook of the casas colgadas greatly exceed those facing the Tomebamba.

Colorful houses in Cuenca, Spain’s historic district

Other main sights in Cuenca, Spain include the Church of Saint Peter, the Church of Saint Michael, the Church of Our Savior, and the Old Convent of Saint Paul. The Bridge of Saint Paul was built during the same time Cuenca, Ecuador was founded by the Spanish, from 1533 to 1589, crossing over the Rio Huecar gorge. The purpose was to connect the town’s El Centro with the Old Convent of Saint Paul. The original bridge later collapsed and the current one was built in 1902. It’s highest points are 40 meters, and it is built on the remains of the old bridge.

Cuenca, Spain also features El Castillo, the ruins of an ancient Arab fortress. All that remains today are a tower, the arch which allows visitors to enter, and a fragment of the walls. The castle was home of the Holy Inquisition after 1583, and it was mostly destroyed during the 19th century by French soldiers during the Spanish War of Independence.

Cuenca, Spain, is situated between Madrid and Valencia, and is the third least populated region in Europe; the city itself today has a population of about 60,000. There are a number of ways to get to Cuenca, Spain from Madrid, including bus and high-speed rail. Most of the city’s best restaurants are located in the newer part of town, which is less picturesque than the historic city center.

The city is known for of its museums and galleries, which attract large numbers of visitors from Madrid. In addition to art, visitors can buy Cuenca souvenirs in the El Centro tourist center.

For decades, Cuenca, Spain has been an artists’ Mecca — hence all the galleries — attracting artists from all over Europe, North America, and Japan. Today, the city is working to establish an arts tradition to increase tourism and, in the last 15 to 20 years, has opened several new museums, built a new auditorium for concerts and the performing arts, renovated many of the medieval buildings and streets, and spruced up walking paths along the valleys near the city.

Cuenca, Ecuador

The origins of Cuenca, Ecuador, may date back as far as 8,060 BC, shortly after small groups of hunter-gatherers occupied the region. The inhabitants were nomadic, hunting what they could find in the páramo, the high, treeless plain in the surrounding area. Arrows and spear points have been found throughout the area. The hunter-gatherer culture’s largest presence was around 5,585 BC.

Cuenca, Ecuador’s historic district is distinguished by its iconic cathedral domes and red tile roofs.

Soon after, the inhabitants began taking advantage of the area’s climate by farming foods like potatoes, squash, and quinoa. They also domesticated cuy (guinea pig), llamas, and alpacas.

Around 2,000 BC, the people developed a more highly organized society that included managing the water supplied from the four rivers and controlling illness. Administration and religious order started to take hold.

From that time until about 500 AD the Cañari people inhabited the Tomebamba area. Despite their fierce fight against the Inca Empire, the Cañari were conquered in the early 16th century, just before the arrival of the Spanish.

Though the Incas replaced the Cañari architecture with their own, they apparently did not suppress the Cañari traditions in astronomy and agriculture. Instead, the Incas incorporated those achievements into their culture.

The Inca city was then named Tomebamba and was given to Atahualpa when the empire was divided between the two sons of Huayna Capac in 1527. At the time, the city was the center of the northern part of the empire. The center of Tomebamba was Pumapungo, where the administration of the region was performed. Today, the ancestral park of Pumapungo, features the archeological site of the Inca temple.

The Cuencas today

Both Cuencas are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. For the city in Ecuador, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is specific to the historic center, El Centro. In Spain, the UNESCO recognition applies to the historic walled town, built by the Moors. The walled town is more akin to the Fortifications of Rhodes, the large medieval town of Rhodes, Greece. Despite the wall, Cuenca, Spain was conquered by the Castilians in the 12th century.

In Cuenca, Ecuador, the new cathedral combines various architecture styles, but is predominantly Romanesque Revival. Cuenca, Spain, on the other hand, is home of Spain’s first Gothic cathedral, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Grace and Saint Julian. Unlike the Ecuadorian cathedral, photography is not allowed in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Grace and Saint Julian.

Though you won’t find Cuenca, Ecuador’s hornado or pernil sandwiches, Cuenca, Spain does have a fine cuisine to offer. Typical dishes of the area include ajo arriero (made of cod, potato, and garlic, often spread on bread), cordero (pieces of roasted lamb), morteruelo (a pâté made of hare, partridge, hen, and pork), pisto manchego (a mixture of vegetables cut up and fried together), queso manchego (cheese made only from sheep’s milk), and a variety of mushrooms. Like Cuenca, Ecuador, you can find an abundance of trout in the nearby mountain rivers.

Drinks of Cuenca, Ecuador include canelazo and naranjillazo. In Cuenca, Spain, locals enjoy resoli, a traditional liqueur often served in a glass with ice.

Like Cuenca, Ecuador, Cuenca, Spain has also been touted as a great place for expats, although the numbers there are in the hundreds, mostly British and German, whereas Cuenca, Ecuador is home to several thousand foreign residents, mostly from North America.

Whether you like a subtropical highland climate or a Mediterranean climate, hornado or jamón serrano, cheap aguardiente or affordable wines, cuy or miniature lamb chops, there is probably a Cuenca for you.

5 thoughts on “The tale of two Cuencas: The Ecuadorian version is the namesake of the Spanish, but today the cities are vastly different

  1. You might define the term “morlaco” for them. Has a lot to do with the two Cuenca’s

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