During my travels through Ecuador, I managed to squeeze in the small city of Cuenca. It’s located in the highlands of Ecuador at about 2500 meters above sea level (8200 feet) and is the capital of the Azuay Province. Year-round temperatures average in the mid-70s Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius). In fact, we typically only needed a light sweater at night. That’s a good thing too because Cuenca is located at the convergence of four major rivers and is surrounded by mountains meaning there is ample opportunity for the nature lover to explore the great outdoors taking advantage of all that Mother Nature has to offer.
On top of this, it is considered a UNESCO World Heritage city due to it’s Spanish-colonial layout and incredible architecture. Don’t forget the city is considered one of the most walkable and livable in Latin-America. Additionally, it’s a pretty safe city welcoming expats and tourists from all over the world with a large English speaking population.
Combine all of this with it’s affordability, incredible culture, kind citizens, great food, and active nightlife, and you’ve got the makings of an incredible experience. When you visit Cuenca, you could easily spend a few days to a few months in the city exploring it’s history, architecture, and surrounding natural wonders. There’s even a bit of a gay scene in this small city! If you are short on time, these are the 10 things I highly recommend you experience. You don’t want to miss them! And if you’re not short on time then there is so much to explore in this wonderful Ecuadorian city!
1) Catedral de la Immaculada Concepcion
Known locally as Nueva Catedral or New Cathedral and situated in front of Parque Calderon, this church took almost a century to be constructed starting in 1885. It’s Romanesque Revival stile will certainly impress as you walk inside and see it’s beautiful decorum. The most striking features of this church are its three domes adorned with blue and white tile from Czechoslovakia (pictured above) and it’s stained glass windows created by Spanish artist, Gillermo Larrazábal. Light a candle out of respect and be courteous to those worshiping.
This FREE museum is one of the largest most important in Cuenca. The fact that it’s free really makes this a no-brainer for those on a budget. Hosting collections of religious art, portraits, and indigenous works as well as a historic money collection, exhibits on Ecuadorian and all 22 indigenous cultures found in Ecuador, musical instruments collection, shrunken heads collection, and more. You can’t possibly see the entire museum and the gardens in one visit. But it’s free so you can always return later!
3) Cañari Ruins
The Cañari ruins are located behind the Pumapungo Museum and are pretty open and unguarded. You can walk right up to the ancient walls and visualize what the place must have looked like in ancient times. Sidenote: The Cañari were the indigenous group who inhabited the area before the Inca took over. You can walk into a replica village where sacrificial virgins volunteered to live until their sacrifice and see one of the places where they were burnt on pyres as a sacrifice to the gods. There is also a bird sanctuary onsite and the views of the surrounding city are both dramatic and beautiful.
4) Catedral Vieja
This cathedral’s construction began in the 1500s and it served as a place of worship until the completion of the New Cathedral. It now serves as a Museum for Religious Arts as well as a concert venue. Behind the building there are photos of Cuenca throughout history as well as a Mexican Restaurant.
Cuenca is actually located on the intersection of four rivers, so to speak. However, the Tomebamba River divides Cuenca with the modern residential areas on the southern side and the historic colonial areas on the northern side. Strolling along this river is a great activity for a rest day. You can sit or lay on the grassy banks of the river, take in the views of Calle Larga, and check out the historic architecture of the homes located here. There are a couple museums along the walk including the Museo de Artes Populares and Museo de las Culturas Aborígenes. You can also check out Iglesia Todos Santos, a 19th Century church, and the Zoológico Amaru, a zoo boasting indigenous fish, reptiles, and amphibians.
6) Plaza Abdon Calderon
This is the main square of Cuenca and one of the most popular. There is a large statue of Abdon Calderon, a war hero, at the center of the square surrounded by trees given to Cuenca as a gift from Chile. This is a great place to meander about or just sit around taking in the sights of everyday life in the city.
Casa de la Mujer (or Centro Municipal Artesanal) is a great place to go if you are looking for affordable souvenirs from Cuenca or Ecuador as a whole. This indoor market is filled with booths manned by local people selling everything from hats to hand carvings, painting, jewelry, and more. Pretty much everything is made by hand and it’s in a great location. It’s near the center of the city just past the flower market and behind the San Francisco market.
8) Mercada 9 de Octubre
This is a three-story food market where most local people do their shopping. It’s overflowing with affordable meat, vegetables, and fruits. Fruits are my favorite and you are sure to see and taste some great passion fruit! You can explore this place for a bit and really get a sense of what local market life is like in Cuenca. Not only can you purchase groceries, you can also talk to an indigenous healer and take part in an Andean cleansing.
9) Museo de Sombreros
This museum is dedicated to what most the world knows as Panama hats. Fun Fact: The Panama hat was invented and first created in Ecuador. However, President Teddy Roosevelt purchased and wore won in Panama which gave it the name we all know today. This museum is dedicated to the rich hat making history of Cuenca. You can walk through a few exhibits, actually see Panama hats being made, purchase beautifully made hats or a custom job, and visit the coffee shop upstairs with a gorgeous view.
I’ve added this because it was something I truly enjoyed. The sanctuary is beautiful and well-worth entering. It’s located adjacent to the flower market and is also the home to an order of nuns who are never seen by the outside world. The nuns sell items they make in order to support themselves including herbal tea, wine, and caramel. However, you will have to pay for the items at a spinning window which prevents the nuns from being seen. The most incredible thing about this church is the shrine dedicated to El Señorde la Justicia which is an image of Jesus Christ. The room is covered in plaques from all over Ecuador and the world sending thanks for blessings and miracles. The image also bleeds which is something not to be missed.
So head to Cuenca and, if your short on time, be sure not to miss these highlights!
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