Cuenca seems to be everyone’s darling, especially amongst the countless expats living here. Whether that reputation is justified is another story. But the laidback city, with its colonial architecture, is definitely a good place to spend a couple of days.
Then again, personally I have seen more beautiful places than Cuenca. It is more chilly than you might expect. And besides a couple of museums, there is not a lot to do. Actually the biggest attractions are outside of town, wich does make Cuenca a good base for exploring the region and Cajas national park especially.
You can easily call Cuenca the capital of the south of Ecuador. The sprawling valley is a jungle of dwellings, providing housing for around 330’000 inhabitants. It is well-connected to the rest of the country with long-distance buses and an airport in the middle of town as well.
In general it is a lovely place to walk around. But personally there were two no-go’s for living there permanently: at an elevation of 2’530 metres it is just too chilly for me, especially during the nights. And there are a couple of nice museums, but all in all it would be too boring for me. That though is of course a matter of personal taste.
For your orientation: the centre is the old town. The Rio Tomebamba in the south delineates the border to the new town.
Food and drinks
Being a rather international town, you can find all kinds of cuisines for different budgets. Around the central park (Parque Calderon) are several chain restaurants. The Raymipampa has good medium-budget meals. If you go to the patio of that building on the western side of the plaza, there are several restaurants as well. And the alley between the cathedral and that building also hosts good eateries.
Personally I love the area around the Parque San Sebastian. It’s more laidback, prices are lower as well, there is even a Belgian beer cafe. One block away is Mangiare Bene, a brilliant Italian restaurant. The Akelarre serves tapas food. A bit posh, but delicious.
Another good street is Presidente Borrero, with more upscale food in Hotel Santa Lucia I think and supercheap eateries one or two blocks south. Another very popular area is the Calle Larga and the square at the Iglesia La Merced. locals and expats meet each other here.
Finally, Cuenca is great for good coffee and lunches. The Moliendo cafe is said to be one of the best in Ecuador, didn’t try it myself. The cafe Nucallacta did get several personal visits, it’s a very pleasant cosy place with great coffee and food indeed.
Activities / things to do
- Parque Calderon: the central square is a truly classic masterpiece, adorned with restaurants, arched walkways and the Catedral de la Immaculada Concepcion. Its domes are lit at night, which makes for beautiful views
- Plaza de San Francisco: it’s a surprising mess, with different styles of architecture, but therefore also very Latin. Street stalls sell everything you might and might not need
- Parque San Sebastian: much more relaxed, it’s a good place to chill, eat and drink. And on the westerrn side is the Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno
- art and museums
- Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno: located in a nicely renovated building, this museum has temporary exhibitions that are hit-and-miss. Definitely worth a visit though
- Pumapunga: part archaeology museum, part art museum, this is a huge and beautiful place with a museum garden as well
- Museo de la Ciudad: one block north of the central square, it apparently has good exhibitions. Closed unfortunately when I was there
- La Escalinata: from the old city you have to walk down to the Tomebamba river. There are several stairs for that as well, the most famous and romantic one next to the Hostal Escalinata
- El Vado: this is a cool district full of cafes and galleries. Amongst other things, the Museo de Arte Extremo is a freakshow of skulls, semi-religious art and more, curated and sometimes produced by the local tattoo artist
- Mirador de Turi: you can take a taxi here, but it’s much more fun to walk there in maybe an hour from the centre. This lookout on the south of town has amazing views of the Cuenca valley. Only here you realize how big the city actually is
- Rio Yanuncay: my personal highlight of Cuenca. Two kilometres south of the center, the authorities did an amazing job by creating a long walkway and recreational spaces around this river. You can decide yourself how long you want to walk, but it’s really nice when you start in the west and slowly make your way towards Parque El Paraiso
- football: the Estadio Alejandro Serrano Aguilar is just outside of the city centre. It’s not the most beautiful stadium in the world, but the local football team is of course the pride of Cuenca city
- Cajas national park: not located in Cuenca, but a 30 to 60 minute bus drive away, depending on which part you want to visit. This was one of the absolute highlights of Ecuador for me, especially watching the paramo (Andean highlands) at around 4,000 metres
Getting to Cuenca and getting around
- the airport is on the eastern edge of the centre. Really close is the Terminal Terrestre as well, a bit of a chaotic place but a main transport hub and this is where you will start or end your long-distance bus travels (including to Cajas and Guayaquil)
- From there you can take a super-modern tram into town. Taxis are super cheap as well, and buses go where the tram doesn’t
- inside the city centre everything is within walking distance. If you go further (Rio Yanuncay, Mirador de Turi) taking a taxi might be a good idea if you don’t want to walk 30-60 minutes
- Weather: not warm and not cold, daytime temperatures vary between 20 and 23 degrees. The chillier nights (always around ten degrees) can be unpleasant though. There is rainfall throughout the year, with february-april being the worst months. Summer (July-August) is the nicest period, but still counts for around ten days of rain a month
- Safety: not an issue. Be cautious after dark when you are alone on the streets outside the city centre. And in high season beware of pickpockets