13 Reasons We Loved Returning to Cuenca in Ecuador

Our first visit to Cuenca was in 2008. More recently we returned to the third city of Ecuador in June 2017. We had loved it the first time, and we loved returning for a second taste. We had to leave, after just a week, to make it to Pujilí in time for the Corpus Christi Festival . But we loved it so much that we returned again in July, for a visit that lasted 10 days including Sigsig. In fact, if we hadn’t been stymied by lack of time to extend our visa, we probably would have returned again.

The World Heritage listed city of Cuenca in Ecuador, and its surrounds, has a lot to offer. So much that one visit is not enough. We just loved to return.

The World Heritage listed city of Cuenca in Ecuador, and its surrounds, has a lot to offer. So much that one visit is not enough. We just loved to return.

In 2008, we were in and around the city for a total of 3 weeks. We left a couple of times to visit Sigsig and Cajas National Park. We described our time there on dare2go :

3 weeks in Cuenca, a city we grew to love more each day – if it wasn’t just a bit too cool due to its altitude (2,600 m), we would call it a very liveable city.

Cuenca turned out to be one of our favourite places in Ecuador.

So why did we love returning to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Cuenca in Ecuador?


The Historic Centre of Santa Ana de los Rios de Cuenca

1. Parque Abdòn Calderòn

Parque Abdòn Calderòn in Cuenca - a lovely place to just sit and watch the world go by.

Parque Abdòn Calderòn in Cuenca – a lovely place to just sit and watch the world go by.

Unlike many Latin America countries, the main plaza is not called Plaza de Armas. Instead it is named after Abdón Calderón, who was born in Cuenca in 1804. At 18, he fought and died a hero in the revolutionary war of 1822. It brought independence to the provinces, which became Ecuador.
The park is a lovely place to sit and watch the world go by. It’s full of gardens and benches, in the shade and in the sun, and is surrounded by some impressive buildings, including the ‘Old Cathedral’ and the ‘New Cathedral’, and a very popular ice cream shop.


2. ‘New Cathedral’

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

A local resident recommended that we take a tour of the Catedral Inmaculada Concepciòn – the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. We did, and gathered lots of interesting information, along with photos that you wouldn’t get by just entering the church for a quick look around. The tour took us from the crypt to the rooftop, with a birds-eye view of the city, and brought us right up close to the beautiful blue domes.

The new cathedral took 82 years to build, starting in 1885. The original designer was German-born Juan Bautista Stiehle, but he died in 1889, so never saw his work even close to being finished. The towers were never completed because it was discovered that the foundations were not strong enough to support them. So the front of the building looks a bit stunted.


3. ‘Old Cathedral’

The Old Cathedral of Cuenca, at night.

The Old Cathedral of Cuenca, at night.

Iglesia de El Sagrario, now a museum, was built in 1567 – the same year as Cuenca was founded. So it is the oldest church in the city. It was small. Over time it was added to, but it was never built to be a cathedral – it just became one by accident because it was the main church in Cuenca when the city got a bishop.

It is no longer used as a church. It is a religious museum, and is also used for concerts. There is a beautiful pipe organ, of which we unfortunately don’t have a photograph. It’s certainly worth a visit just to see the interior, with the remains of some frescos, huge wooden columns, impressive ceiling, gold leaf decorations and various other adornments.

You will also find a carved wooden model of the ‘New Cathedral’, complete with the towers it should have had.


4. Other Churches

Santo Domingo, a block from the plaza, has a very impressive facade.

Santo Domingo, a block from the plaza, has a very impressive facade.

Iglesia Todos Santos, one of Cuenca's many churches. This one stands out because of its location.

Iglesia Todos Santos, one of Cuenca’s many churches. This one stands out because of its location.

 

The historic centre of Cuenca has a lot of churches. There are 19 on the tourist map we were given. Many of these historic buildings are a big part of why Cuenca’s historical centre is listed as a World Heritage site .

We walked or drove with a taxi past Todos Santos (All Saints) every day to get into the historic centre. It is quite an outstanding feature of the city because of its location. The baroque style, El Carmen de la Asuncion, has the flower market in its plaza. La Merced has an interesting interior with some beautiful wooden carvings. It seems that there is a church to be seen around every corner.


5. Archaeological sites

Pumapungo, a beautiful park containing part of Tumebamba, a former city-state in the Inca Empire. In the foreground, a vegetable plot full of plants the Inca would have also grown.

Pumapungo, a beautiful park containing part of Tumebamba, a former city-state in the Inca Empire. In the foreground, a vegetable plot full of plants the Inca would have also grown.

Cuenca has 2 of the most important archaeological sites in Ecuador: Pumapungo and Todos Santos.
Pumapungo is now a large park that is very popular with locals and tourists alike. On the weekends it is full of people wandering among the ruins or just relaxing with a picnic in the gardens.

Nearby is the small ruin of Todos Santos. Both of these sites were a part of Tumebamba, a former city-state in the Inca Empire. It was almost entirely destroyed when brothers, Huascar and Atahualpa, fought to obtain control of the empire. Cuenca was built on the site.


6. Streetart

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

Juergen loves to photograph street art. After the lack of it in Peru, he was really pleased to find it again in Ecuador. Cuenca had some interesting pieces to show us.


7. Architecture

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

Since the historic centre of Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage site, you can expect to find some very impressive architecture – you won’t be disappointed. Just wander through the city and you will see beautiful colonial buildings with balconies, ornate and interesting doors and windows, courtyards and all sorts of exterior decoration.

We also spotted some more unusual architecture, just outside the historic centre.


8. Gastronomy

This heading appears in the Tourist Guide to Cuenca. It tells us that food is so important in Cuenca that there is a saying, “tell me what you are celebrating and I will tell you what you would eat”. If you’ve been following us for a while, you will have noticed that food doesn’t often feature in our posts. We don’t eat out very often, for 2 basic reasons. The first is that we are basically vegetarian and Juergen is allergic to garlic. The second is that we save a lot of money by shopping in local markets and preparing our own food.

But we do go for the occasional coffee and cake, and we (more so ‘I’) are rather partial to ice-cream. In Cuenca we happily returned to Tutto Freddo Heladarias on the plaza. Let’s just say we visited it several times. It was always full of locals and visitors. Sometimes we just took a cup and sat in the plaza. Other times, we would have a seat upstairs and splash out a bit. They serve very, very good ice cream.

 

9. Museums & Art Galleries

There are many museums in Cuenca, and arts of all varieties being sold all over the city. We visited 2 museums and stumbled upon an art gallery that also impressed us.


Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes
Yet another fascinating museum - 5000 pieces from pre-Colombian Ecuador.

Yet another fascinating museum – 5000 pieces from pre-Colombian Ecuador.

This museum houses a private collection of 5000 pieces. They are all archaeological finds in Ecuador covering the pre-Hispanic history of the country. It’s fascinating to wander slowly through, paying close attention to very small pieces, which can be fascinating.

You can’t miss the Artisanal shop, since you will pass through it on the way out. It is packed full of local objects, many very tempting…


Cuenca Museo del Sombrero
Cuenca Museo del Sombrero - this is the place to go to explore the history of the Panama Hat. You can also see the finishing process of the hats, and buy one if you like.

Cuenca Museo del Sombrero – this is the place to go to explore the history of the Panama Hat. You can also see the finishing process of the hats, and buy one if you like.

We also visited the hat museum – again. In 2008 we went through it with a large group of people with a Spanish speaking guide. Now it’s more of a serve yourself. So, we wandered through the exhibits, read the information signs, and then moved on to the showroom where the finished hats are on display.

Juergen was interested in buying one. He didn’t find exactly what he wanted, but the friendly assistant told him they could finish one to fit in a short time. We watched the whole process of completing his hat to his specifications.


Galeria de Arte Miguel Illescas
An interesting art gallery that we happened across in Cuenca. The artist is Miguel Illescas.

An interesting art gallery that we happened across in Cuenca. The artist is Miguel Illescas.

The day we visited Pumapungo, we were wandering back towards the centre and came upon this art gallery. The bright, colourful pieces drew us in. This artist produces 2- and 3-dimensional pieces, mostly from metal. We particularly liked his underwater scenes and the iguanas.


Around Cuenca

10. Turi’s Viewpoint

South of the city you will find this high point that gives an amazing, panoramic view. Our first few days in Cuenca on our current trip were spent at a mechanic workshop – Talleres Quintuña. One evening the office manager, Tani, offered to take us up to the viewpoint; the view of the city was beautiful at night. We probably wouldn’t have driven up there in Berta.

Then she drove us into the historic centre. It was lovely to re-acquaint ourselves with the city in this way and we really appreciated her friendly offer.


11. Sigsig

Sigsig, near Cuenca, is an interesting village to visit. It has some historic buildings as well as the local cottage industry, weaving panama hats.

Sigsig, near Cuenca, is an interesting village to visit. It has some historic buildings as well as the local cottage industry, weaving panama hats.

This is a small town around 50Km SE from Cuenca. The locals are a big part of the local cottage industry of weaving Panama hats. The town really comes alive on Sunday market day. On our first trip to Ecuador we did a round trip to Sigsig, via San Bartolomé on the way out, and Gualaceo on the way back. It is a road trip, which we recommend, for the scenery along the way and the interesting towns you pass through.

This trip we returned to Sigsig on our way from the Amazon area to Cuenca. We found the exact same parking place as we had used last time and spent a couple of quiet days in the town. Unfortunately it was raining on Sunday so the market wasn’t as interesting as we’d found it to be on our first visit.


12. Cajas National Park

This picture gives an idea of the beauty and tranquillity of Cajas National Park. Taken during our first visit to Ecuador in 2008.

This picture gives an idea of the beauty and tranquillity of Cajas National Park. Taken during our first visit to Ecuador in 2008.

Cajas National Park is less than 20 km west of Cuenca. It’s a popular place for hiking through cloud forests and around its many lakes. We had visited it in 2008 with fellow overlanders and enjoyed it immensely. It is somewhat higher and quite a bit colder, but it was nice to be out of town. And it was a very quiet place to sleep at that time.

This time we only drove through it as we left Cuenca on our way to the coast. The scenery is quite lovely, although it was spoiled somewhat by the all-enveloping fog we drove into as we got higher towards the pass at 4100m.


13. Ingapirca archaeological site

The ruin site of Ingapirca, close to Cuenca, is a great place to overnight. It's also an interesting site where the Inca lived side by side with the local Cañari people.

The ruin site of Ingapirca, close to Cuenca, is a great place to overnight. It’s also an interesting site where the Inca lived side by side with the local Cañari people.

Another of Ecuador’s important archaeological sites is located just 50Km from Cuenca. When we left Cuenca to go to Pujilí, we decided to visit this site. It was mentioned in our guide book as Ecuador’s most important ruin. A short detour from the Pan American, we thought perhaps we could spend the night near there and drive on the next day.

Imagine our surprise, as we rounded the last bend in the road and the site came into view, when we suddenly realised we had been there, and spent the night in the parking lot, on our previous trip! We also loved returning to Ingapirca.


This is not an exhaustive list of things to do and places to see in and around Cuenca. These are the things we enjoyed doing and seeing on our several visits to the city. I’m sure if you visit, you will also love it enough to want to return.



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Cuenca, a UNESCO World Heritage listed city, is our favourite city in Ecuador. The city has a relaxed feel to it, and offers many interesting sights to visit. Here are 13 reasons why we love to come back to Cuenca. From its churches and public parks to the interesting architecture in the historic centre. You can spend hours in its many museums and art galleries. Around the city you can visit the Cajas National Park, the Ingapirca ruins, and the Panama-hat town of Sigsig. For more Cuenca attractions see our post!

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Yasha

dare2go's human navigator (we're not lost because there's nowhere particular we have to be) alongside our Nexus 7 tablet, writer and editor of our blog, first cook and loving wife. Teaching English as a second language when possible.

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2 Responses

  1. Peter Rogers says:

    Cuenca was one of our favourite places in Ecuador. We stayed in a lovely family run hotel on the barranca, just a short stroll to town centre. There was a music festival when we were there. We saw an American male glee club in the bandstand of the main plaza (a great place to people watch), a chamber orchestra with two sopranos in the sumptuous acoustics of the Old Cathedral and a folkloric dance competition in the Town Hall. Some excellent art galleries and studios in the area we stayed. Flower market was lively and v colourful. And there was a museum of historical medical gear in the hospital – suitably gruesome. Great eats, as well. I wholeheartedly agree, a lovely city to visit, and flat for easy walking.

    • Yasha says:

      What a great comment. I’m impressed at the detail you remember since I know that trip was a while ago. Lucky you were staying close to the centre and it was ‘flat for easy walking’. We parked our truck down by the river and it was a bit of a hike UP to the centre. But there was always a taxi if we didn’t feel like it. Nice to hear from someone who loved Cuenca too.

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