Cuenca (Ecuador)Cuenca is a vibrant colonial city in southern Ecuador, the third largest in the country, and the capital of Azuay Province. The city is located in a highland valley at about 2,500 m (8,200 ft) above sea level, and is home to 518,000 people according to the 2010 census. Its moderate climate makes it enjoyable year round. The center of the city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site site because of its many historical buildings. Everywhere you look in Cuenca, there are flowers, blooming trees, grass and rushing waters.
Cuenca is surrounded by mountains on all sides, with passes to the west, south and east. From downtown, looking southwest, you can see the beautiful Cajas mountains; the majority of this area is protected by the large Cajas National Park (Parque Nacional Cajas), well worth the trip.
The city is cleaner and safer than most large cities in developing countries and there are claims it has purer water than most U.S. and European cities. Unlike other cities in Ecuador, the drinking water is OK to consume. From 2010 to 2013 the government utility agency, ETAPA, built new water and sewage mains covering 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres).
The Cuenca city government has hired a Spanish urban planning company to design 80 km of bicycle trails that will be constructed throughout the city of Cuenca. These trails are in addition to the trails that already follow several of the rivers that run through Cuenca.
Cuenca is a city whose culture encompasses over 100 years or more at the same time. While walking in Cuenca, you will see modern buildings, use high-speed internet and wireless communications while seeing natives washing their clothes in the river while talking on cell phones. You will see many modern vehicles while seeing people move their cows, horses and donkeys to graze along the rivers and parks. In around the markets, you will see people milking their goats and others hauling milk into town on a donkey. This is the charm of Cuenca, a culture that encapsulates traditions and practices of many decades.
Construction has begun on the Tranvía (tram), but no opening date has been announced as of Dec 2017.
Cuenca is a very walkable city. Over the past year, the city has been upgrading miles of sidewalks which is making the city even more pedestrian friendly. Just watch for the drivers, because they will not watch for you. The Ecuadorian government is working on slowing down traffic, but this will take some time and education.
Mariscal Lamar International AirportThere are daily local flights from Quito, Guayaquil and neighboring countries. TAME, LATAM and AeroGal offer daily service to Cuenca. AirCuenca offers service every day except Sunday.
A taxi from the airport to the center of the city is approximately $2–3.
By bus or carCuenca lies on the Pan-American highway. Buses offer connections to many cities in Ecuador. The bus system in Ecuador is well developed. Buses can be obtained every one or two hours during the day.
Loja for connections to Vilcabamba (4½-7 hr, $7.5). The Viajeros buses to Loja do not have a working bathroom and they can take up to 7 hours (you maybe told that it will take 4 hours and that it only make one stop, but it may stop more than 50 times).
San Luis buses run from Cuenca to Loja using the national park route and take 4½ hours, $8. Departures at 07:45, 11:00, 16:00, 19:30 and 24:00. There is a working toilet.
- To Alausi: 4 hours (Transportes Alausi)
- To Riobamba: 6 hours (Patria)
- To Piura, Peru: There is a service to Piura leaving at 19:30, 21:00 and 23:00. This is a partnership between two companies, Pullman Sucre and CIFA International. It is necessary to change bus at either Machala or Huaquillas. The 19:30 and 23:00 services connect to a special sleeper seat service. The price is $12–15 depending on the class of service. It is a good idea to purchase your ticket a day in advance as it is not unusual for them to book out.
- To Tumbes, Peru: Azuay has one bus a day from Tumbes to Cuenca at 21:00 that arrives in Tumbes at 03:00 or so. Pullman Sucre no longer runs this route, despite what the schedule on their website says (Feb 2018). You may prefer to take one of several buses a day offered by Pullman Sucre or by Azuay ($8, Feb 2018) bus to Huaquillas (Ecuador), and take a bus or taxi for the remaining 30-min drive to Tumbes.
A yellow taxi to the joint Ecuador-Peru "Migraciones" building is $5, and a white Peruvian taxi from there to Tumbes is a fixed rate of US$10 or S/33 (Feb 2018) the drivers take either currency, regardless of what you might be told by a taxi driver from Huaquillas who will offer you soles at a rip-off exchange rate.
There is a $0.10 departure fee for leaving from the bus terminal, which you pay at a machine before you can access the platform.
Cuenca's tourism office, iTur, is on the main plaza (Parque Calderón) and has lots of helpful maps and brochures to guide you during your visit in and around the city. (M-F 08:00–22:00, Sa Su 08:30–13:30 Mariscal Sucre, between Luis Cordero and Benigno Malo. +593 7-282-1035, email@example.com). There is also a satellite iTur office in the airport (M-W 07:30–11:00, 14:00–15:30 and 17:00–19:00, Th F 07:30–11:00, 14:00–15:30, 16:30–19:00, Sa 08:00–12:00. +593 7-286-2203, ext 162).
Central Cuenca is easily walkable, and it is often faster than taking a cab through the narrow traffic-jammed lanes.
Cabs are readily available and charge $1.50–3 per trip. The fee should be negotiated before entering the car. Some taxis make use of taxi-meters.
City buses are also fairly easy to figure out. Most bus stops are marked. The cost is $0.25 per ride (exact change is required as you put coins into a machine, there is no fare collector on the bus) (July 2017). You can buy an SIT card for $1.75 at any shop that offers SIT recargas. You can find a guide to using the City buses, as well as maps of the routes and an online trip planner at CuencaTransit.com.
- The New Cathedral (c 1885). Looming over the main plaza is the city's main church, with its famous 3 large domes.
- El Sagrario (the "old cathedral"). Construction began in 1557. It's no longer in use as a church, and is now a museum. A restoration project has been completed recently and the original paint and old murals can now be seen in certain sections. $2.
phone: +593 07 2831-521address: Calle Larga and Huayna CápacThe museum has very good exhibits for those interested in the ethnological history of the region and city, including exhibits like the shrunken heads. The museum has expansive grounds with well-preserved Inca ruins, an aviary with a variety of spectacular birds, a botanical garden with a focus on food and medicinal plants used by the Incas, and some llamas.
Museo de las Culturas Aborigenesaddress: Calle Larga 5-24 at Mariano CuevaA large collection of pre-Columbian artifacts and pottery displayed with a free guide in English (or French) describing room by room the artifacts. Cafe and handicrafts shop.
phone: +593 7 2840-919address: Hermano Miguel 3-23 and Paseo Tres de NoviembreThe CIDAP has the largest collection of crafts and pieces of folk art of America, from 26 countries with more than 8000 pieces of ceramics, textiles, wood, metals, plant fibers, stone, glass, utensils, and tools of work. It offers a variety of temporary exhibitions throughout the year.
- Christmas Parade (Pase del Niño Viajero) — On 24 December, Cuenca offers a magnificent parade, considered to be the largest and best Christmas celebration in Ecuador and even South America. The procession begins at 10:00 at San Sebastian, goes along Simón Bolivar street, Plaza Calderón and ends up in San Blas. Thousands of musicians accompany the procession and every neighborhood decorates trucks, horses and whatever they can find with plenty of symbols. Children dress up in colorful costumes or as biblical figures. The parade last for at least 7 hours. During the parade, you will see thousands of people dressed up as Joseph, Mary, the three Wise Men, angels, etc. This is truly a sight to see.
- Festival de Independencia — The independence of Cuenca is celebrated with a huge festival that lasts twice as long as the battle did. Each year it begins the first few days of November and lasts for three to four days. There are hundreds of art displays, craft booths, roving entertainment, street food, and general festivities. Artisans from all over Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia display and sell their works. During this time, there are also many stages with bands and performers. On the north side of the river, at the bottom of the Escalinatas, the grounds of the art museum CIDAP host much more elaborate display booths than those that crowd the sidewalks. A little farther up the river, at La Esquina des Artes across from the University of Cuenca, there are several artists, and a few vendors sell gourmet food products. La Esquina des Artes is an area of permanent shops of artists and artisans.
Sightseeing Bus$5 for 2-hour tour of Cuenca and a visit to the Mirador de Turi (Turi viewpoint). Leaves from Parque Calderón. For one price, you can get off the bus anywhere you like and get on the next bus that comes.
Cuenca River WalkThr river walk is a great place to walk, relax and enjoy the views of the city. The city of Cuenca has a vision for the river walk to someday become another San Antonio, Texas. The river walk is along the Tomebamba river that flows close to downtown.
Outside of Cuenca
- Devil’s Nose train leaves from Alausi, about 2½ hours from Cuenca. It is considered one of the world’s best railway engineering feats. This scenic railway travels over a series of switchbacks as it zigzags down the steep mountainside passing small villages and Andean lakes along the way.
- Hot springs and spa in Cuenca — On the outskirts of Cuenca, about a 15-minute bus ride from Coral Centro on Las Americas, 40 minutes from downtown, is a quaint little town called Baños de Cuenca (not to be confused with Baños, nearer Quito. Baños de Cuenca is right below a mountain where natural warm mineral water flows into the valley. The people of this quiet little town took advantage of this natural resource and created three different mineral spring parks where one can go and bathe in the mineral pools. Two of these mineral springs are geared for families with small children, $8 per day per person. Piedra de Agua Mineral Springs & Spa, a beautiful resort with restaurant, is in the same area. Admission is $10 to spend the whole day in these mineral pools, $20 extra for the spa. Sunscreen can be handy as the pools are outdoor.
- Learn Spanish. There are many language schools for foreign visitors in Cuenca.
- Flowers at the flower market on Calle Sucre across from the new cathedral. Continue on about a block from there to get to the clothing and artesan market where one can also find knit crafts from Otavalo. Lovely handmade ruanas, sweaters, hats, mittens, and finger puppets are also available here.
- Inside the yellow CemuArt building across from the police station at the market other artisans have booths with beautiful embroidery, metal, wood and leather work, Panama hats, musical instruments, knit goods, jewelry and other handicrafts.
ABC Libreriaphone: +593 7 2845 749address: Padre Aguirre 8-11 y SucreDiagonal to the flower market, there is a tiny selection of English books.
Rafael Paredes & Hijosphone: +593 7 2831-569To buy from their fine range of Panama hats. You get a short tour round, an explanation of how they are made and a chance to see your hat go from a simple woven straw cone to a finished wearable hat. Various styles, men's and women's and sizes.
Used Booksaddress: Hermano MiguelThere are two wonderful used English bookstores --although a bit pricy ($5-20).
Mall del RioCuenca's biggest shopping mall, with cinemas (typically Spanish language only) and food court. $2-2.50 by taxi (10 min).
phone: +593 7 2831118address: Av. 12 de Abril and Agustín CuevaA permanent and quaint display of artists and artisans located next to the University of Cuenca.
address: Gran Colombia 9-41Very popular with travellers, they offer everything from Pad Thai to pasta, salads, hummus and guacamole, all very tasty. It's warm and friendly, and also good for groups. Quite expensive for Ecuador, $5 for a Coca-cola plus tip makes one think that the travellers are taken advantage of.
phone: +593 7 2830350address: Antonio Borrero 4-11 y Calle LargaOne of the better cafés in the lovely historical centre of Cuenca, with a beautiful (heated!) street terrace and friendly staff. Great variety of coffees available. The food is also praised though pricier than most restaurants, coffees are the real deal here.
Jazz Society Caféphone: +593 93 934-2714 (English), +593 99 588-8796 (Español)address: 2nd floor (upstairs) of La Viña Italian Restaurant, 5-101 Luis Cordero y Juan JaramilloThe Jazz Society Café is the Cuenca performance venue of the Jazz Society of Ecuador. It is above La Viña Italian Restaurant, and La Viña provides the food & beverages using the same menu and prices as downstairs, and has an excellent reputation for serving authentic Italian cuisine and pizza, as the owner and chef are from Italy.
La FornaceA well-known local pizza chain in Cuenca that has three or four branches. The fruit pizza is excellent and quite inexpensive. The ice cream there is also delicious and costs about 70¢ for the first scoop.
Mixx Gourmet Ice-creamaddress: Parque San BlasHome-made ice cream with a variety of flavors, including exotic gruits and alcoholic flavors such as whisky, beer, brandy or vodka.
Moritasphone: +593 983196709address: Hermano Miguel 4-36 y Calle LargaNice little cafe which serves yum affordable breakfasts. Much of the food features raspberries in one way or another.
Olivetoaddress: Calle Larga y Luis CorderoRomantic Italian restaurant with the largest wine selection in Cuenca. Serves lunch and dinner.
San Sebas Cafeaddress: 1-94 San Sebastian y Mariscal SucreGreat little cafe with a good atmosphere. Serves breakfast and lunch.
Women's Coopaddress: on General Torres --near Mariscal SucreCheap, nutritious, and local lunch with a soup and a drink. Made by indigenous women in a sweet courtyard. Vegetarian and meat options.
La MesaGreat salsateque on Wednesday nights. Full of locals and extended-stay travellers. Extremely fun.
El CafecitoHostel-bar-restaurant. Appears very noisy and uncomfortable as a hotel, but it is a good place to eat lasagna or sandwiches although more expensive than most places. The perfect place to start your night with a few drinks and to then proceed elsewhere.
Hostal Villa Del Rosarioaddress: 5-25 Honorato Vasquez, CuenceLovely, quiet place, with a mix of rooms to suit all travellers: singles, doubles, double en-suites. Gorgeous little courtyard with garden in the middle of it all; a hummingbird likes to hang out there sometimes! Very cheap, but really clean, and just nice. $2 breakfast: eggs, toast, juice, coffee, bread and jam. Towels provided. Lady owner very friendly, but it really helps to speak Spanish! Cuenca is really safe, but even more so in this area - Calle Larga is a block away. Reception is next door, but there is a bell to ring to the left of the main door to get someone to come over - it's hard to spot it, but the bell is there!
phone: +593 7 282 6009address: Hermano Miguel 4-45Owned by an Ecuadorian family, this hostel is located in the heart of Cuenca's historic district. Dorms and private rooms available with or without private bathroom. Hostel is quiet enough to get a good night sleep but in the same neighborhood of all the great restaurants and bars.
Tourist of the World Hostalphone: +593 7 2829125address: Calle Larga 5-79Hostel with nice views on the river, a kitchen, and lots of random DVDs. Also, extremely friendly owners. Just ring the door bell across the street.
Casa Solphone: +593 7 2822507address: Estévez de Toral 10-33 and Gran ColombiaNice family run hostel near center. Bed quality varies, atmosphere is great and the owners (Luis and Maria-Elena) are very helpful. You can use their kitchen and laundry facility is available. To get there, take bus 28 from the bus terminal (25¢) and get off at Estévez de Toral. The hostel doesn't have a sign, so look for the number.
Hostal Villa Floraphone: +593 7 2846-842,+593 7 2845-935address: Borrero 5-15A cheap option in the historic centre. Includes a cafeteria service, a laundry, and cable tv.
Casa Naranjaphone: +593 7 2825415, +593 8 8867661address: Mariscal Lamar 10 38 & Padre AguirreNice, clean rooms at less than $13. Features 2 indoor patios, fully equipped kitchen and is 3 blocks from the main square in a safe area. Colonial house with indoor balconies and has single, double, triple and quadruple rooms.
phone: +593 7-283-4353address: Luis Cordero 5-66, Cuenca CantonHostel run by Swiss siblings a couple of blocks away from Cuenca's main square. The place features an amazing design and also has a very nice restaurant and bar.
Hostal Perla Cuencanaphone: +593 7 2850-792address: Mariscal Lamar 8-44 between Benigno Malo and Luis CorderoOwned by a local family, the hostel is perfectly located, very central. Clean and comfortable though some might find it bare and old with its creaky wooden floors and uncharming facade. Large rooms with windows and some with balconies (the best are at the back, away from the noise of the street). Free and good Wi-Fi (in the rooms), laundry facilities, communal kitchen (very basic), towels provided, and roof terrace. Great and cheap place. The owner is very helpful and friendly.
address: Av. Huayna Capac y Casique Duma Esq., Cuenca, EcuadorWell-run hostel located next to the Pumapungo museum and archaeological site. Relaxed atmosphere, clean rooms and a free to use kitchen. Great escape from the chaos and noise of the downtown bars while still being within walking distance.
phone: +593 7 2849580address: Mariscal SucreIn a picturesque colonial-style building in the Historical center. 17 comfortable rooms with bathroom, distributed in 3 floors.
phone: +593 7 282 2489address: Tarqui I2-38 entre Sangurima y Vega MunozThis place is set back off the road, so it's pretty quiet. You are immediately treated like family, and they will do anything reasonable to help you out. There is parking, and you are about 8 blocks from central park. The water hot and they provide cable TV. While it does lack a little homeyness, it's because the facility is brand new.
phone: +593 7 2823111Nice hostel in the center of the city with a full kitchen, hot showers 24/7, and the friendliest service in town. Warm, homey, and very centrally located.
- Hotel Inca Real: Charming heritage site at General Torres 8-40 between Sucre and Bolivar, behind the new cathedral. Most rooms are large, and all are quiet. All room windows open onto interior courtyards. Three colonial houses joined into one charming hotel. There are three interior courtyards. The first is the hotel lobby and breakfast room, the second has a lovely fountain, and the third is a quiet hideaway. +593 7-2823-636. $45.14 for two people, including tax and breakfast.
- La Cofrada del Monje, Phone: +593 7-2831251. Great location on Plaza San Francisco at Presidente Cordova 10-33 y Padre Aguirre. The rooms may be a bit noisy with the windows open, but the street noise will die down after dark when the buses quit running. If you're concerned about noise, the quietest rooms are on the sides: 1, 2, 6, 7. The hot water available. $32 for two people, tax and breakfast included.
address: Calle Tarqui 11 64 & Mariscal LamarAn old colonial building with a pretty courtyard. The price includes breakfast. Very pretty but simple rooms, quiet, with a self-serve kitchen, free wireless, book exchange, and large DVD library. Very nice hot showers with good pressure.
phone: +593 7 2831104address: Presidente Cordova 8-89The most affordable nice hotel in town. Located in the center, across from the church and square of San Francisco. Most rooms have a balcony. All have cable TV and hot water. Price includes breakfast on the roof. Friendly staff, excellent value. $17 for one person, $25 for double.
address: Calle Larga 7-93Overlooking the river, it has woody carpeted rooms, some with great views. Breakfast is included, Wifi is free, and they also have a computer near the lobby.
address: Bolivar 12-55
phone: +593 7281 4511address: Av. Remigio Romero, Remigio Tamariz Crespo 2-614 junior suites, 3 one-bedroom suites and 4 two-bedroom suites, a restaurant and a terrace with a city view. For international arrangements calls +1 754 213-1423
Cajas National Park 1-hour drive to a beautiful national park with beautiful lagoons.The temperature is very cold in this area and fishing is a good pastime. Go with a guide or ask for a guide at the park entrance. It is very easy to get lost here as maps are not always accurate. The entrance is free of charge.
Sig Sig and Chordeleg Lovely towns about an hour outside of Cuenca. The landscape during the bus ride is quite scenic. Chordeleg is known for its silver and gold and is a pleasant town to walk around in. Sig Sig is known for a co-op of women who weave 'sombrero de paja toquilla' aka 'Panama Hats' or 'Montecristi'. There is a beautiful river to sit by and a market to visit.
Onward towards Peru: Many travellers find themselves in Cuenca as their last stop in Ecuador before heading to Peru. The fastest way to get to Peru is via Huaquillas and into Tumbes. At Cuenca's Terminal Terrestre there is a company called Pullman Sucre that will sell you a ticket to Tumbes, Mancora or Piura. The journey is fairly simple and involves the following: First 5 or so hours on a Pullman bus until Huaquillas where the bus will stop by the highway at the Ecuadorian immigration point to get your exit stamp. Since this is the end of the journey on the first bus you will have to wait for the CIFA bus to arrive and pick you up. The CIFA bus will head through Aguas Verdes and onto the Peruvian immigration point to get the entry stamp and then head onward towards for another 30–40 min to Tumbes.