The beautiful Santa Ana de los Rios de Cuenca sits in the southern part of the Andes mountains on the Tomebamba River. The capital of the Azuay Province, Cuenca is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Trust site for it’s stunning colonial era architecture. In recent years it has become a hot stop amongst expatriates and retirees for it’s mild weather, relatively low cost of living, and culture.
This charming capital is a sightseeing mecca. Museums, cathedrals, plazas, ruins, and other landmarks make it the ideal place for grabbing a camera and hitting the cobblestone streets to explore the rich history and beauty that is Cuenca.
The historical quarter of the UNESCO World Heritage Site city is located between the river and Gran Colombia street. On this calle, you will find the second largest church in the city, the Church of Santo Domingo, in all it’s brick-facade glory. Or see the Church of San Blas, one of the most distinct churches for it’s design built in the shape of a Latin cross. Be sure to take in the entire city with a spectacular view from Mirador Turi.
Parque Calderón is Cuenca’s main plaza and cultural hub. Visit the majestic Cathedral de la Inmaculada, known for its iconic blue domes, and the Old Cathedral (El Saguaro) across the square. A 20-minute walk will take you to the Museo del Banco Central (Pumapungo Museum), which features a collection of 19th and 20th century photographs of Cuenca, alongside art and archeological pieces. Comparable is the Museo de Las Culturas Aborígenes, a newer museum with more archeological pieces from pre-Columbian Ecuador.
Inca ruins line Calle Larga, Avenida Todos los Santos, and the river. Visit the the outdoor market around the church of San Francisco with local fair and handicrafts, open on Thursdays and Saturdays. Or tour the Panama Hat Factory, where Panama are are really made.
Artisan towns nearby include Gualaceo, Chordeleg, and Sigsig. All three can be traveled to in one day, and there you will find produce and animal markets, silver handicrafts, and a Panama Hat cooperative.
Nightlife is mellow in Cuenca. The food scene consists of pork, rice, and potato dishes which an emphasis on ice cream and sweets. Try El Túnel, reasonable priced, for lunch and pleasant atmosphere. Cafe Austria offers cappuccinos, lattes, cakes, and other desserts. For a mix of Latin music, salsa dancing, and merengue, visit the lively La Mesa Salsoteca.
The trip to Quito is about 10 hours (only costing about $15). But those in need of quicker day trip ideas, first think about bundling up for a day at the Parque Nacional El Cajas. The protected land is mountainous grasslands characteristic of the Andes, and it’s pocked with hundreds of sparkling frío lakes and lagoons. Foggy and wet, the flora and fauna that grows in the area make it spectacular for trekking, hiking, and biking.
Don’t miss Ingapirca to see Ecuador’s most prominent Inca ruins. About 70 km north of Cuenca via the Pan-American Highway, you can take a bus from the main station Terminal Terrestre. Just up the hill is a traditional restaurant you can warm up in after exploring.
Popular backpacker’s destination Baños (Baños de Agua Santa) is reachable by bus. Famous for it’s thermal pools, the town is surrounded by green mountains and flowing waterfalls for hiking to. The murky-brown natural hot springs are hot destinations for a spa-like, relaxing experience.
Colonial homes and converted mansions close to the city center are ideal rentals that can be found on Tripping. Also nearby consider spots along the river with a view of the water. Rentals outside of the city can be found in Baños or Ingapirca for a relaxing break from the city with close access.
The Aeropuerto Mariscal Lamar is about a 5 minute walk away from the bus station. Hop on and head straight to the Cuenca city center.
The Terminal Terrestre is the main bus terminal that takes you in and out of the city, accessible by a 20-minute walk from the historic center. The local bus runs every 15 minutes or so. But if you’re situated in the city central, most everything is accessible by foot. Try renting bikes to explore farther around the area!
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