South America Living

Cuenca, Ecuador Travel Guide

Colonial Gem Cuenca, Ecuador

Cuenca, Ecuador is a hot spot for tourists and expats (around 1,600 of them) alike. A Colonial city with all the charms that implies, it is located in the Andes highlands and a great base for exploring this part of Southern Ecuador.

Popular spots for a daytrip include Cajas National Park and indigenous towns Gualaceo, Chordeleg, Sigsig and Paute. Each of these towns has a unique draw and it is possible to visit several or all of them in one day, as buses go between the towns frequently.   Visit Cajas National Park

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Gualaceo (36 km/22 miles from Cuenca) is known for its weekend produce market and weaving workshops. Chordeleg (15 minutes from Gualaceo) specializes in silversmith and ceramics. Sigsig (60 km/37 miles from Cuenca) is famous for its artisan products and has a women’s Panama hat workshop and cooperative that you can visit.

Paute (42 km/26 miles from Cuenca) is the place to go if you want to sample some traditional food, like roasted cuys (guinea pigs). Overall, visiting one or more of these towns offers a nice break from Cuenca’s city scene and provides insight into artisan communities of the southern Andes.

Making Panama Hats in the Town of SigSig Near Cuenca

Things To Do in Cuenca

  • Visit the Central Bank Museum – Cuenca’s free and must-see Central Bank Museum is filled with archaeological finds from the Pumapungo archaeological site, which the museum is built beside (and which you can visit after). You can also peruse exhibits displaying the countries ethnographic history (where you can see real shrunken heads from the Amazon), the progression of Ecuador’s currency, and some religious artwork.
  • An afternooon at the Modern Museum of Art – modern art aficionados will enjoy this museum’s galleries dedicated to international contemporary paintings, Andean sculptures and great Ecuadorian artists. Rotating exhibits featuring photography and other mediums like screen printing and engraving can also be seen. The museum is housed in a former Temperance House, or detention facility for alcoholics.
  • Mirador Turi – a viewpoint four kilometers south of Cuenca, in the historical parish of Turi, with sweeping panoramic views of the city from above. Mirador Turi is especially nice to visit in the early evening when visitors can watch Cuenca light up as the sun sets. Next to the lookout point is Turi’s church and one side of it is painted with murals
    illustrating indigenous life.
  • Cuenca’s Old and New Cathedrals – Cuenca is cluttered with over 50 different churches, and many are not ver interesting to visit. The two most famous and worth a look are the Old Cathedral (Iglesia El Sagrario) and the New Cathedral (Catedral de La Inmaculada), located on opposite sides of Cuenca’s main square, Parque Calderón. The Spanish conquistadors used the Old Cathedral as their primary place of worship (indigenous people were not allowed inside), but when their congregation became too large, they built the New Cathedral. The Old Cathedral is now only used as a museum, while the New Cathedral continues to function as a church. It is the one with the iconic blue domes, which are frequently shown in photos of Cuenca.
  • Panama Hat Factories – Cuenca’s four Panama hat factories produce 99 percent of all of the Panama hats throughout the world. While in the city, it is possible to visit one or more of the factories to learn more about the hat-making process and history, or to buy a Panama hat as a souvenir. Two excellent places to visit are the Barranco factory in Old Town (on the main drag Calle Larga) and the Hormero Ortega factory, near the bus station. Otherwise, head to the nearby town of Sigsig to visit workshops there.

Where to Stay in Cuenca

Name: Hotel Boutique Los Balcones   Book Now
Address: Gaspar Sangurima y Borrero
Website:   Near the Cathedral and Central Park, with rooftop terrace, breakfast and a restaurant “The Tavola” with a variety of local dishes.

Name: Posada del Angel
Address: Bolívar 14-11 and Estévez de Toral
Website:   An inviting and characterful family-run guesthouse in a restored colonial home with spacious rooms and plenty of comfy common areas to lounge in. Highly recommended and family-friendly, Posada del Angel is a quiet and welcoming place to spend the night.

Name: La Cigale
Address: Honorato Vásquez 7-80 and Luis Cordero
Website:   This charming hostel with friendly service is built around a small courtyard, and has comfortable beds, consistently hot showers and an included breakfast with eggs or fruit salad. The cute downstairs café has delicious and reasonably priced vegetarian food and crepes, while the bar is a popular spot for its cheap happy hour specials and good music selection.

Where to Eat in Cuenca

Name: Tiestos
Address: Juan Jaramillo 7-34 and Borrero
Website: None.   Worth the splurge, Tiestos’ personable chef whips up some of the best food in Cuenca, mastering mains like gigantic prawns in butter sauce, beef in blackberry wine sauce, and scallops stuffed with bacon. All plates are cooked in large, cast-iron hot plates and are served family style, accompanied by sides and sauces galore.

Name: Café Eucalyptus
Address: Gran Colombia 9-41 and Benigno Malo
Website:   A gringo haven with an extensive and eclectic menu, serving dishes like Thai chicken curry, BBQ beef sandwiches, French onion soup, Chicken Kiev, sushi, and mixed seafood ceviche. The popular bar has a long drink list to match.

Name: San Sebas Café
Address: Mariscal Sucre and San Sebastián, Parque San Sebastián
Website:   This American-owned café is the place to go for awesome American-style breakfasts, including vanilla cinnamon French toast and Mexican egg scrambles, as well as big portions of tasty sandwiches, wraps and salads, accompanied by artisan veggie chips and fruit salad. It also sells artwork by local artists and has live music every Friday night.

Interactive Map of Cuenca

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Photographs by Jena Davison, travel writer and editor, all rights reserved.

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