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Cuenca, Cuenca's insider take:

This charming colonial city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has many of the charms of Quito and less menace. Perhaps that's why a number of U.S. expats (particularly retirees) have chosen Cuenca as their second home. Evidence of the American presence can be seen in the number of Italian-style eateries with names like Chicago Pizza or New York Pizza (for finer culinary fare, stop in at the Restaurant Casa Alonso). But the influx of new money is not all bad—Cuenca is cheerful and well-preserved and maintained, with free Wi-Fi in public squares like the Plaza de San Sebastian. Churches and cathedrals abound, the prettiest of which is the Church of Santo Domingo, even though it's certainly not as grand as the Church of San Francisco. A traditional center for crafts, Cuenca boasts one unique claim to fame—it's the birthplace of the paja torquilla, more commonly known as the Panama hat, since the hats were originally exported to Panama in the late 1970s for distribution to the international market. If you're interested in seeing the production process from palm frond to finished product, take a tour at Homero Ortega. For those who'd rather just have a quality souvenir, the boutique at Homero Ortega has a fantastic selection, with prices from $20 to $200. Cuenca is also the most convenient launching point for a visit to La Cajas National Park and the Ingapirca ruins.—Cathay Che

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