Cuenca is a very attractive and historic city with strong echoes of its colonial and prosperous early republican past. To its north, Ingapirca is the most important Incan site in Ecuador, and Cajas National Park offers wonderful highland landscapes for walkers. A string of villages, each with its own heritage of traditional crafts and costumes, lies among the warm valleys south-east of the city.
Further south, a jumble of much older mountains replaces the volcanic peaks and high plains of the central Andes and makes life hard and travel slow. Well off the beaten track, Podocarpus National Park attracts dedicated birdwatchers and the small town of Vilcabamba on a back road to Peru was once reputed to hold the secret of eternal youth.
Capital of the south, Cuenca is a comfortable rather reserved city with a well-preserved and restored colonial centre that has earned it UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Its cobbled streets, colonial churches and whitewashed buildings echo those of Quito, on a smaller scale, with a quieter provincial air, and at a lower altitude. Situated in a fertile valley at the confluence of four rivers, it enjoys the perpetual spring climate of the highlands.
Cuenca dates back to AD 500, and was a notable Cañari settlement when the Incas expanded north from Peru to establish their city of 'Tomebamba' as one of the very finest of its day. But all was soon laid low in the Incan civil war between rival brothers Atahualpa and Huascar. The Spanish rebuilt the city in a fine renaissance style, with well-laid out streets and plazas. Cuenca's architecture, much of which dates from the 18th century, was 'modernized' in the economic prosperity of the 19th century.
The streets of present-day Cuenca are filled with the life of a provincial capital, with a host of small shops and colourful markets. Fronting the central plaza is the rather splendid 'New' Cathedral, started in 1885. Its large blue-tiled domes, towers, arches and buttresses present an impressive sight, and contain below them a large nave that addresses one of the most ornate gilded altars one could wish to see, spangled by the light from windows lavishly furnished with stained glass. At the other end of the square is the Old Cathedral (El Sagrario), a much more humble building with whitewashed walls (incorporating some Incan stonework) and a single bell tower.
Many of Cuenca's more important buildings are made in the colonial baroque style using locally quarried marble. The houses of the well-to-do, mostly dating from Cuenca's heyday, reserve the best of their charms to graceful inner courtyards. The wealth of those times is evident not only from the size of the houses but also their interior décor: one private mansion boasts wall-coverings of stamped enamelled tin plate specially imported from Europe to resemble the embossed leather that was fashionable at the time.
Quinine and 'Panama' hats
The boom times of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century came partly from the export of quinine, harvested from the bark of the local cascarilla tree for the treatment for malaria, and partly from the Panama hat industry. Small workshops in the town apply the final stages of production to semi-finished hats drawn from the 'craft villages' (see below), and export the results all over the world.
The trade route first passed through Panama from which the hats took their name in Europe, a sleight that still rankles. If Panamas are your style then spend the extra to buy a superfino that can be rolled up in your luggage but will spring back into perfect shape for the Members Pavilion at Lord's.
The Incan empire began to expand in Peru in 1438 and spread into Ecuador through a series of conquests and alliances dating from 1516. Less than twenty years later it had been extinguished by the Incan civil war and the Spanish conquest. In this short space of time it had a remarkable effect, both culturally in the organisation of society and the introduction of the Quichua language, and physically in terms of roads and buildings.
The most important Incan site in Ecuador is at Ingapirca, north of Cuenca. Here a temple complex incorporating classic Inca stonework with precisely fitted 'pillow' blocks is built upon earlier Cañari structures.
Ingapirca lies in a graceful setting on a low hill. At its centre is a substantially intact temple of the sun, with inwardly tapering walls of supremely well-fitted stone blocks and a trapezoidal doorway, hallmarks of the finest Incan construction. Laid out around the temple are the low remains of a great plaza, and of a good number of buildings that must have included official residences, stores, houses, barracks and a tambo or inn for travellers on the Royal Road between Quito and Cusco in Peru.
The nearby town of Cañar is notable for fine weaving and its busy Sunday market.
Cajas National Park
The road from Cuenca to Guayaquil and the Pacific coast winds through a high pass in Cajas National Park. At the top of the pass, the Andean watershed is closest to the Pacific: a raindrop falling here could travel just 200 miles westward to the coast, or more than 4,000 miles east to the Atlantic.
The park's walking trails follow truly remarkable scenery, making for some really lovely day walks and longer treks. In contrast to the sharp young peaks of the central highlands, the older mountains of Cajas have been glaciated to leave a landscape of craggy hills, gentle valleys, rocky outcrops and more than 300 lakes-a unique environment that has been accorded RAMSAR protection. Elfin forests of polylepis 'paper bark' trees are very characteristic. The peeling reddish bark of these twisted trees protects them from being overwhelmed by the weight of epiphytes, bromeliads and arboreal ferns which cling to their branches. The forest floor is carpeted in deep velvety mosses. The whole effect is of a mythical forest in which Bilbo Baggins might appear at any moment. In remote areas dense cloudforests are home to a few remaining spectacled bear and possibly mountain tapir, while wild llamas and alpacas graze the open grasslands in good numbers. The park holds special attractions for birdwatchers.
Gualaceo, Chordeleg and Sigsig are not names that trip easily off an English tongue, but these three small towns are famous in Ecuador for their markets and the handicrafts produced here and in surrounding villages. In this region the rich culture of the cholos cuencanos, whose ancestry mixes Inca, Cañari and Spanish blood, sits confidently between the indígenas and the whites. Traditional cholo dress includes Panama hats for both men and women, and richly coloured ponchos, usually burgundy or red -- upgraded to beautifully woven ikat ponchos for fiestas.
The region is home to artisans of all kinds: embroiderers, weavers of ikat and other textiles, Panama hats and baskets, gold and silversmiths producing fine filigree and other jewellery, wood carvers and potters.
Near Chordeleg, San Bartolomé specialises in guitar making, and San Juan is a centre for Panama hat weaving. Back strap looms are favoured by weavers of ikat dyed shawls, belts and other traditional items.
Fruit and flowers are grown in these warm valleys. An orchid farm is open to visitors, and here and there small family farms offer decent guest accommodation with the opportunity to help milk the cows and walk or ride country trails in a rural idyll far from any road.
The deep south
A maze of older, lower, mountain ranges whose valleys have long lost their fertility, give southernmost Ecuador a quiet remoteness. In Saragura, the local Salasaca dress in black or dark blue out of mourning, it is said, for the Inca Atahualpa who, as every schoolboy knows, was captured by Pizarro's small band of men at the start of the conquest and shamefully executed despite the delivery of a huge ransom in gold.
Beyond Loja, a quiet county town, lies Podocarpus National Park, whose forests over a great range of altitudes make it an important destinations for serious birders. Nearby Vilcabamba enjoyed a period of fame in the 1970s when the Readers Digest claimed it was home to many centenarians, including an ancient of 128. The claims were discredited but the idea has stuck and the town has become home to ex-pats fostering an alternative lifestyle in the 'Valley of Eternal Youth'.