This winter, I officially became a card carrying adventurer when I traveled to Ecuador for the first time. When my boyfriend, Mathias, invited me to tag along to visit close family friends I jumped at the opportunity to experience this unique South American country. The combination of diverse geography, the remains of the Inca Empire and influence of Spanish-Colonialism make this equatorial nation rich in culture and natural beauty.
Our first stop was the quaint, Spanish colonial city of Cuenca. Nestled in a valley surrounded by the Andes mountains, the dominant features of the city's geography are also the inspiration for its name in Spanish: the four rivers of Cuenca (meaning a basin). These rivers are the Tomebamba (named after the Cañari culture), Yanuncay, Tarqui and Machangara. When we arrived, the friendly people of Cuenca made me feel instantly welcomed. Locals patiently listened to my broken Spanish as I navigated the narrow streets, made purchases at the open air markets and ordered vegetariano meals at local restaurants.
Tourists from around the world flock to this cultural center, the country's third-largest city and the capital of the Azuay province. Cafes, clothing shops and art galleries are tucked among the weathered cobblestone streets. The main plaza houses both the old cathedral, built in the same year that the city was founded (1557) and the blue-domed Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, built in 1885. Cholas de Cuenca (women of Cuenca) stroll the streets as they deftly weave Panama hats to sell at the central shopping market, Casa de la Mujer.
Upon landing in Cuenca we were greeted with Pase del Niño Viajero (Passing of the Child), a rich cultural tradition that depicts the birth of Christ amid parades of locals dressed in traditional costumes. This colorful event combines Catholic and indigenous traditions and is a three-month-long activity, beginning the first Sunday after Advent and continuing to Carnival in early March.
Pase del Niño Viajero
After enjoying the art and culture of Cuenca, the next stop was summiting Cotopaxi. Cotopaxi is a majestic, glacier capped mountain rising 19,347 feet above sea level (5,897 meters). We began our adventure by climbing Rumiñahui (a mountain next to Cotopaxi) to adjust to the altitude before the big climb.
View of Cotopaxi from the base of Rumiñahui
Our journey to “The Middle of the World” led us to the equator (for which Ecuador is named), the imaginary line that divides the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. We straddled the equator, toured the equatorial monument and visited some friendly Llamas that roam the monument park grounds. Next, we headed back to Cuenca to visit the pre-Columbian Inca ruins.
Ingapirca, which means “Inca stone wall,” is a well restored site of Inca ruins located near Cuenca. A fragment of Inca road called the Ingañan remains leads past the highlight of Ingapirca, the Temple of the Sun, also known as El Castillo (The Castle). The Inca Empire’s last remaining sun temple stands on a hill 3,200 meters high with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. It’s fun to imagine the temple as it was, lined with gold to reflect the sun in a way designed to create a religious experience.
Finally, we ended our trip with a relaxing visit to El Cajas National Park. Located 45 minutes outside of Cuenca, El Cajas is a beautiful, high altitude park with approximately 270 lakes and ponds, rare species of bird and animal life, and more beautiful plants and flowers than I could count.
The Spanish-colonial charm of Cuenca, the wild beauty of the Andes mountains and the vibrant culture of the Ecuadorian people made the trip to the middle of the world one that I’ll never forget.