Cuenca is the third biggest city but it could be considered as the biggest “other” city. The 500,000 people seem to be tucked away quite neatly and if you get caught in a big crowd or a traffic jam you will be very unlucky, so one thing to enjoy about Cuenca is that it is not Quito or Guayaquil. It is not dangerous. It is not overcrowded. It is not stressful. Maybe that means it´s not so exciting either but it is an attractive and pleasant city with beautiful churches, an interesting history and a touch of culture.
The colonial architecture is well represented in the beautiful churches, monasteries and other buildings that fill the centre of the city. The whitewashed walls, shuttered windows and light brown roof tiles have been well-maintained, enabling Cuenca to get UNESCO status as a World Cultural Heritage site in 1997. The centre is compact and can easily be explored on foot.
The highlights are the main square, Parque Calderon, where you can visit the simple Sagrario church (old cathedral) which was built in 1557 and has recently been restored. Across the square is the modern Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, started in 1880 and built in alabaster and marble. The huge interior feels very light and gentle and has beautiful stained glass windows. It’s three sky blue domes punctuate the city skyline and can be viewed clearly from the Plaza de San Francisco.
The church and monastery buildings of El Carmen de la Asunción and las Conceptas both date from the 17th century and house a lot of valuable religious art. The latter is open as a museum. The former is adjacent to the flower market and the altar is decorated with blooms making the church feel friendly and accessible.
There are many other churches to explore. I like the façade and the small squares outside the church of San Sebastián and of San Blas, at the western and eastern ends of the centre respectively. In the former you can also visit the modern art museum.
The joy of Cuenca is just to wander along the cobbled streets (especially on a Sunday when they aren´t so busy), admiring the attractive buildings with their iron wrought balconies, stepping in to discover internal patios, arriving at small gardens and public squares, and all the time seeing the commerce and activity of the city unfold before your eyes. The number one advice is to stay on the pavements when you are walking around the streets. If you stray off the precipice like kerbs you may have a nasty surprise from a taxi or bicycle. Bear in mind that the narrow pavements are quite elevated and can be difficult for those who have problems with their mobility although there are more and more lowered kerbs at junctions.
The Pumapungo museum is located on the site of old Tomebamba, an important Inca settlement. In the grounds you can see the fruit of excavations. Before that, take your time to understand the displays which document the areas archaeological history. There are also art and ethnographic displays.
Pumapungo is at the eastern end of Calle Larga. Further west, several staircases extend down from the street to the river. There are also two free museums – the Museo Remigio Crespo (various artifacts) and CIDEP (exhibits of artwork and handicrafts). If you walk down Calle Larga to the museum you will also pass the top of Calle Todos los Santos. One of the first churches to be built by the Spanish was located here, although it was replaced by the current church at the end of the XIX century. At the bottom of the street (which leads from the church down towards the river) you can find a site with ruins of Cañari, Inca and colonial Spanish constructions. There´s not much to see but it´s interesting because of that mix. Nearby is the Puente Roto (Broken Bridge) which extends out towards the river.
The Tomebamba river divides the old town from the modern city below and it is very pleasant to walk along its banks. On the modern side you can find apartments, a small shopping centre and the football stadium, home to Deportivo Cuenca. If you continue south along Avenida Fray Vicente Solano you come to some steps and a road which leads up to the church and village of Turi from where you can look out over the whole city. It’s quite a long walk but it’s also worth taking a taxi up there to enjoy the view.
Cuenca is a good place to buy handicrafts including pottery, hats, jewellery, weavings, clothing, baskets and leather. You can also visit blacksmiths and tinsmiths in various parishes.
Along Calle Torres, on the north side of Plaza de San Francisco you can visit the Casa de la Mujer where there are many craft stalls. One block north Calle Tarqui is a a good place to find “panama” hat shops. Other craft workshops can be found in the Vado area which extends north from there.
Eduardo Vega has a workshop and a gallery in Turi with beautiful ceramics.
Where to Stay
There are lots of good accommodation options to choose from in Cuenca, whatever your budget. At the high end, Mansión Alcazar, Hotel Victoria (see places I have stayed) and Hotel Santa Lucia are all well-regarded. There are also many good value hostels including Casa Naranja, Verde Limón and El Cafecito. (see places I have stayed).
Click here to find out Where to Stay in Cuenca.
Where to Eat
Around the centre there are many good cafés and restaurants. As well as the simple options you can find places catering specifically for international tastes (where else in Ecuador do they serve Hungarian goulash?) and some excellent upmarket restaurants.
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In 2001 we travelled all Friday from Gualaquiza to Cuenca just to be able to go out and enjoy the weekend. I didn’t find much going on once the bars closed. There are places to go out but they are not in one specific area so you might need a pocket map.
Many cafés and bars offer good happy hour deals. El Cafecito is a good place to start for a drink. It always seems full of people. Café Eucalyptus is a nice bar that stays open later at weekends.
From Thursday to Saturday you can find more discos open and also some small, atmospheric salsa bars where every foreign woman is sure to find a local dancing partner.
Cuencanos also head out at night to Calle Remigio Crespo which stretches west away from the football stadium in the modern city.
The airport is central and there are daily flights from Guayaquil and Quito. There are a couple of car hire agencies nearby.
The bus station is also next door and buses seems to leave regularly in all directions. They travel south towards Loja or Machala, east to the southern Oriente along various routes, west to Guayaquil via Cajas or Cañar, directly to Gualaceo, Azogues and Ingapirca and also to all the Andean cities along the Panamericana to the north.
Although it is possible to walk into the centre from the bus station, taxis are cheap and more convenient. Local buses are clean and fairly easy to board. You probably won’t need one in the centre but you can catch them along Calle Larga to Pumapungo or along Avenida Solano to get to Turi.
Read more about the Routes to Cuenca: 1. Riobamba – Cuenca, 2. Guayaquil - Cuenca, 3. Cuenca – Loja, 4. Cuenca – Machala.
The various groups who have controlled the city have given it different names. A settlement was known as Guapondelig by the Cañaris, which means a plain as big as the sky. In the 15th century the region was conquered by the Incas who raised the city of Tumipampa (ridge on a plain). The Spanish initially changed the name to Tomebamba and then Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos ( four rivers) of Cuenca. The Tomebamba river runs through the centre , the Tarqui and Yasnucay rivers cross the south and the Machángara the north of the city. There´s not much to be seen of the Cañari settlement but you can visit the Pumapungo (puma´s door) site which formed the centre of the Inca city.