Among the most beautiful cities in Ecuador and in whole South America, Cuenca is a former Incan village, which was then conquered by the Spanish. These left an outstanding colonial imprint on the city, for which it was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Cuenca is the ideal destination if you are looking to get away from hectic and noisy cities. Its very tranquil atmosphere make it enjoyable to just stroll along its cobble-stoned streets and admire some outstanding colonial architecture, featuring impressive churches, façades with wrought iron balconies and red-tiled roofs showing up around every corner. There are over 50 churches in the old city center, all dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, making a walk through town a sort of time traveling experience.
Cuenca is a true gem of history and architecture… and to top things up, it is surrounded by stunning landscapes, a river, natural hot springs and Incan ruins, making it a significant cultural hotspot, where you can also unwind for a few days.
The traditions and customs of Cuenca are preserved by its inhabitants and harmonically blend into their modern lives. The handcrafting tradition has been turned over from one generation to the next. So, if you are fond of taking home some fine handcrafts, you might want to check out Cuenca’s marvelous artisans workshops. Among the souvenirs you can get, as mementos of your wonderful trip, there are leather jackets, ceramics, jewelry and toquilla straw hats, all produced around Cuenca.
Situated at about 8,200 feet of altitude (approx. 2,500 meters) and with a pretty walkable size, just wondering through its streets and corners and unwinding at its parks can be enough for those in seek of a relaxing time. But, if you are keen on some more action, there are very interesting spots surrounding the town itself that might complement that colonial heritage experience.
Approximately an hour away from Cuenca you’ll find the fortress of Ingapirca. This is a former political and administrative Incan Center (ca. 1,400 A.D.) of great importance, which also lays on the route of the Great Inca Trail. The Incan ruins of Pumapungo are also a great alternative. But, if you’ve had your share of ruins to please the archaeologist within you, there are plenty of other things to see and do in and around Cuenca.
The walk along the riverside and into Parque El Paraiso seems to be a favorite. Also, there are heaps of art galleries, museums and street art happenings… Cuenca is, after all, recognized as Ecuador’s hotspot for the arts and culture. In between strolls, you can also enjoy a break at one of the pubs along Calle Larga and observe the students’ town ambience.
To get a nice panoramic view of Cuenca and get a grasp of its beauty in a single picture frame, go up to the Turi lookout point (Mirador de Turi). You can either take a taxi or bus up to the top… or walk up the over 400 staircase steps.
Also, the beautiful natural landscapes that surround Cuenca are not less appealing… so, if you appreciate nature and a good hike, consider driving out to the Cajas National Park, an ecological reserve about 30 kilometers from Cuenca. The area is well known for its breathtakingly beautiful mountains, lakes and scenery. If you are lucky you will also spot some of the park’s wildlife, such as rabbits and ducks… and, if you get really lucky, even a white tailed deer, a puma or a condor.
Some practical notes:
Cuenca is only a 45 minutes flight away from Quito, but it can also be reached by bus or car (approx. 8 hours) and enjoy the landscapes and little towns en-route, such as the native town of Saraguro. While the basics of Cuenca can be covered in a couple days time, some people stay longer, simply enjoying its slow-paced atmosphere, warm welcoming people and beautiful sights.
What you might not want to miss while in town: the Cathedral of the Imaculada, Parque Calderón, the Tomebamba river, the thermal baths, tour a panama hat workshop, the Iglesia de la Asunción, the museum of modern art, the Plaza Civica, the Turi lookout point… among many other.
Need some itinerary ideas? Check these out or ask us! 🙂