The RealWorld Guide to Cuenca
Ecuador is spoilt for choice when it comes to pretty colonial towns, but it has to be said that Cuenca is definitely the pick of the lot. With beautiful architecture, shady tree-lined avenues and squares, and home to Ecuador’s oldest university, it's very much the Oxford or Cambridge of the piece.
With a history stretching back into the pre-Inca past, Cuenca to this day is regarded as possibly the cultural centre of Ecuador. As well as the fascinating colonial architecture, Cuenca is home to some of the county's best museums and art galleries - including Ecuador's premier modern art collection. Although the city of Guayaquil is much larger, in many ways it's Cuenca that continues to act as a cultural counterweight to Quito.
Where to Stay in Cuenca
Although there are hotels throughout the city, we'd highly recommend that you stay somewhere within the historic centre. This being Cuenca, there are lots of stylish boutique hotel options on offer, as well as a smattering of modern 5-star places. You'll also have all the major historical sites on your doorstep and the best of Cuenca's restaurants at your disposal.
Just to the south of the historic core, the riverside district of Barranco does provide some other good options, although they tend to be more towards the budget end of the spectrum. We really like Barranco as a district, as it has a really relaxed, bohemain atmosphere and some of the city's best museums, but we'd probably lean towards staying in the centre, and just walking down to Barranco for an afternoon.
A final option would be to stay in one of the hacienda hotels just outside the city, where you can enjoy views of the area's beautiful countryside. Several of them also have pools (quite unusual in the highlands) so if this is important then it's worth considering. The downside is that, although it's only a short taxi-ride away, you risk spending a lot of your time shuttling into Cuenca itself for meals or to see the sights.
What to See and Do in Cuenca
The colonial heart of Cuenca is still a place of shady, cobbled streets and towering church domes, much as the conquistadores would have planned things, and there is a palpable sense of history as you wander along the tree-lined avenues and sit in the peaceful squares.
The showpiece buildings are grand, but with a sense of style that is all Cuenca’s own. Little touches of class such as the graceful wrought-iron balconies or the exquisite tile decorations on many buildings show that this is a city that appreciates the finer things in life. It’s no surprise that in 1999, UNESCO declared the city to be a World Heritage Site.
Cuenca's Historic Centre
At the heart of the historic centre is the main square, officially known as Parque Abdon Calderon. On the corner of the main square is the Old Cathedral. Built in 1557, partly with reclaimed stones from the former Inca city, and despite having room for 9,000 worshippers, this grand church was quickly outgrown by the new city around it. No longer consecrated, today the cathedral is a museum of colonial times in the Cuenca region.
No sooner had the city had outgrown the Old Cathedral then plans were laid for the construction of the 19th-Century Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Just a block away from the old, this enormous church is one of the largest in the Americas and probably the most beautiful in Ecuador. Its soaring blue cupolas are the signature of Cuenca’s skyline to this very day. Inside, the floors of pink Italian marble and alabaster decorative work are similarly striking. All this despite the fact that the signature square towers (very unusual in this part of the world) are only that way because the architect made a mistake with his calculations: if they had built the intended spires on top, the extra weight would have collapsed the towers themselves...
Other churches that are well worth a visit (there are 52 in all but you don’t need to see them all!) include the monastery of El Carmen de Asunción, which is worth visiting for the daily flower market held outside, and the monastery of La Concepcion, which has a large collection of religious art.
Cuenca is also a particularly good place to do some shopping... What you and I think of as Panama hats are actually a traditional Ecuadorean design called a Monticristi. They get called Panama hats because thousands of them were exported to Panama for workers on the Panama canal but they are 100% Ecuadorean and the issue is something about which the normally placid Ecuadoreans get incredibly wound-up... In fact, the region around Cuenca is the best place in Ecuador to pick up a Monticristi and there are many reputable places to pick one up. We think the best is probably K. Dorfzaun & Co, on Avenida Gil Ramirez Davalos, out towards the airport, and just to the north-east of the historic centre.
Quite apart from the Monticristi hats, Cuenca is a centre for ceramics, ironwork, and jewelry. The best place to shop for the latter are the shops along Gran Colombia, while for ceramics you can look in several of the small galleries in El Barranco, or take a taxi to the “Convencion del 45” on the west side of the city, where several potters have their workshops.
Barranco and the Riverside
Just away from the historic centre, we really recommend that you take a walk down through the riverside district of El Barranco to the Tomebamba river. One of the oldest parts of the city, this is a lovely peaceful place and in many ways typifies all that is best about Cuenca and is home to several of the city’s best museums and galleries, such as the Central Bank museum and the CIDAP Artes Populares de America museum, which specialises in indigenous arts and crafts.
Also located in El Barranco are the Pumapungo ruins – the largest surviving traces of the former Inca city. The archeological complex comprises the remains of several large buildings and terraces, surrounded by gardens of native plants and is well worth a visit. Even if museums and history aren’t your thing, the grand mansions and stylish bars might be, and the riverfront itself offers some lovely views back up to the city while the sparkling water and green riverbanks are a sight worth seeing in themselves.
Cajas National Park and Ingapirca
One of Cuenca’s most famous attractions actually lies a short way outside the city. The Inca ruins of Ingapirca are the largest and best-preserved in Ecuador – much larger than the Pumapungo site within the city – and are easily visited in a day from Cuenca. The large temple of the Sun, which forms the centrepiece of the site, is constructed in classic high-status Inca fashion of large polygonal stones chiselled and fitted together exactly without the use of mortar. A little-known fact is that this method of construction is extremely earthquake-proof: quite handy in the Andes...
Another big attraction in the area, at least for those of you who like getting out and about, is the Las Cajas National Park. Situated 30km to the west of Cuenca, it is a protected area of sub-Alpine forest which in practical terms means mountains and lakes: lots of lakes. It's a real haven for birdlife, with around 125 species making their home within the national park, including Andean condors and gulls. There is some great trekking to be done in Las Cajas, and with altitudes between 2,500 and 4,000m, it's a good staging ground for people preparing for the higher mountains further north in Cotopaxi and Chimborazo.
Flights To and From Cuenca
Although technically an international airport, the Mariscal Lamar airport which serves Cuenca only has domestic connections. There are several daily flights to Quito (with AeroGal, LAN and TAME), while TAME also fly twice a day to Guayaquil.
Roads and Railways
Cuenca has decent road connections to the rest of Ecuador, with good roads west to Guayaquil (about a 4-hour drive) and north to Quito (7 hours) via Riobamba (4 hours). There are regular inter-city coaches on all these routes, or you can also look to hook into the newly-refurbished train line between Quito and Guayaquil. At present, the nearest stop to Cuenca is Alausi, which is just south of the famous Devil's Nose switchback, and many people choose to leave the train here and continue down to Cuenca by road. There are plans to refurbish the spur from Alausi down to Cuenca, however, so hopefully you'll soon be able to do the whole trip by rail...
Getting Around Within Cuenca
So long as you're not staying outside the city, Cuenca is eminently walkable. The historic centre is very compact so you can explore by yourself rather than taking a guided tour of Cuenca, and the riverside district of El Barranco is just a short stroll away. If you do want to venture further afield (for example to Ingapirca) there are local bus services but they can be tricky to negotiate without Spanish, so taxis are probably the best way to go.
Tailor-made Tours in Cuenca
All our holidays in Ecuador are 100% tailormade, so if you'd like to customise any of the tours you see above, or just plan a trip completely from scratch then get in touch and let us know - we'll be delighted to help you plan your perfect holiday in Cuenca!
Did you know?
Ecuador was the northern outpost of the Inca Empire at its height, and just outside of Cuenca you can see Ecuador's only sizeable Inca site, at the fantastic Ingapirca ruins.