Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca, otherwise known simply as CUENCA (2530m), is Ecuador’s most seductive – and possibly its most beautiful – colonial city. A classic example of a planned Renaissance town in the Americas, Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and shares many architectural features with Old Quito: narrow, cobbled streets, harmonious, balconied houses with interior courtyards and an abundance of flashing white churches and monasteries – all presented without the pollution, noise and overbearing crowds of the capital.

Founded by the Spaniards on April 12, 1557, Cuenca was not the first dazzling city to be erected here: the Inca Tupac Yupanqui founded the city of Tomebamba here around 1470, which was said to have rivalled Peru’s Cuzco with its splendour. Its glory was short-lived, however, as the city was destroyed during the Inca civil war that broke out during the second decade of the sixteenth century, prompted by rival claims to the throne by the brothers Atahualpa and Huáscar. By the time Cieza de León (one of the chroniclers of the Spanish conquest) saw it in 1547, Tomebamba was in ruins, but enough remained to evoke its former grandeur: “These famous lodgings of Tumibamba were among the finest and richest to be found in all Peru…The fronts of many of the buildings are beautiful and highly decorative, some of them set with precious stones and emeralds…Today, all is cast down and in ruins, but it can still be seen how great they were.” These days, Cuenca’s Inca legacy has all but vanished, hinted at only by the foundation stones of some of its buildings, and some modest ruins excavated in the twentieth century.