After Quito, Cuenca is Ecuador’s most important and beautiful colonial city. But don’t tell that to the locals, who insist that their laid-back culture, cleaner streets and more agreeable weather outclass the capital, hands down. Dating from the 16th century, Cuenca’s historic center, a Unesco World Heritage Site with its trademark skyline of massive rotundas and soaring steeples, is a place time keeps forgetting; nuns march along cobblestone streets, kids in Catholic-school uniforms skip past historic churches, and old ladies spy on promenading lovers from their geranium-filled balconies. The city is the center of many craft traditions, including ceramics, metalwork and the internationally famous panama hat – and the nearby villages offer many more handicrafts besides. At least three cultures have left their imprint on Cuenca. When the Spanish arrived in the 1540s, they encountered the ruins of a great but short-lived Incan city called Tomebamba (Valley of the Sun). The Spanish eagerly dismantled what was left of it, incorporating the elegantly carved Inca stones into their own structures. Before the Inca, the indigenous Cañari people had lived in the area for perhaps 3000 years. They, too, had a city here, called Quanpondelig (Plain as Big as the Sky). Except for a few interesting but limited sites, the physical remains of these pre-Columbian cultures have been erased – although some cracking museums here tell their story.