Why You Need to Visit Ecuador’s Charming Cuenca

A visit to charming Cuenca is a must when in scenic Ecuador and this is why…

…not only will you experience stunning colonial architecture, encounter the fascinating home of the Panama hat’s inception, but you’ll also be captivated by a tapestry of local Andean faces and Cuenca’s history.

Charming Cuenca

Surrounded by the Andean mountains and set in southern Ecuador’s Yunguilla Valley, Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca – Cuenca for short – is a hot-spot for expatriates and retirees especially from America.

Ecuador’s third-largest city is quite European, up-market, and renown as the walking city – it’s so easy to walk around in Cuenca.

The most notable philosophers, poets, artists, and writers in Ecuador also hail from Cuenca.

Cuenca, Ecuador, South America

Because of Cuenca’s incredibly preserved history, the city centre made the UNESCO World Heritage Trust list in 1999.

Cuenca, Ecuador, South America

Charming Cuenca offers relaxed clean streets, many restaurants serving traditional and international food, and also bars and much nightlife.

A little history

Originally named Guapondeleg, artefacts confirm the primarily hunter inhabitants date back to 8060 BC.

Over the centuries and developing sophistication, farming, shamans, controlling of plagues, and managing water became everyday life until the Spanish conquered in 1557.

The Spanish renamed the city to Cuenca after a town in Spain.

What to see

Fabulous museums, colonial churches, colourful cultural festivals, and beautiful park spaces to unwind await.

Head to the El Cajas National Park for breath-taking hiking and trekking, or if you’re into mountain biking, then Cuenca offers miles and miles of trails that are scarcely visited.

Historic Centre

If you’re anything like me, then you’ll be happy just strolling the cobbled streets and alleyways of the historic centre’s urban fabric, whilst soaking up a local’s day.

man, Cuenca, Ecuador, South America

Or, discovering compelling street art and odd-shaped architecture, which make for an intriguing pre-cursor to exploring better-known sites…

street art, Cuenca, Ecuador, South America

…such as around the Plaza Mayor, where two impressive cathedrals oppose one another, and where the important Town hall, Governor’s office, and Law Courts vie for a place on a tourist’s must-see list.

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

Also known as The New Cathedral, the building of this spectacular Romanesque Revival building with its striking blue and white domes of Czechoslovakian glazed tiles, commenced in 1885 and continued for almost a century.

Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, Cuenca, Ecuador, South America

The external dome opulence – symbolic of Cuenca – is only exceeded by its internal imposing arches and soaring domed ceilings.

Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, Cuenca, Ecuador, South America

Vibrant lead-light windows created by Spanish artist Guillermo Larrazábal, depict fables of a past era…

Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, Cuenca, Ecuador, South America

…or symbolic meanings now forgotten to a modern society.

Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, Cuenca, Ecuador, South America

When first constructed, 9,000 out of Cuenca’s 10,000 population could fit in the cathedral.

The call of religion never fades…

Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, Cuenca, Ecuador, South America

Some find this a peaceful and cool place in which to rest.

Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, Cuenca, Ecuador, South America

The facade is made from cool alabaster and local marble, whilst pink marble from Carrara (Italy) covers the floor.

Panama Hat Museum

Contrary to common belief and the name “Panama Hat”, this type of hat originated in Cuenca not Panama back in the 1900s, when Panama Canal workers wore the hats.

Panama hats, Cuenca, Ecuador, South America
Free entry, the museum holds hat demonstrations on weaving, shaping, steaming, and finishing. Just wandering through the wooden moulds, ancient irons, and hundreds of hat variations is enough to make you want to buy one or two of these elegant hats.

Panama hats, Cuenca, Ecuador, South America
Paia Toquilla – a palm-like plant that grows at 1,000 metres – is the natural fibre from which the Panama hat is made. These days the Carludovica Palmata, another type of straw is also used.

Panama hats, Cuenca, Ecuador, South America

Although Cuenca saw it’s first Panama hat factory in 1836, the hat gained worldwide recognition in 1855 at the Paris World Fair. Following President Roosevelt’s visit wearing this hat in 1904 whilst inspecting the Panama Canal, the hat became popular and highly sought globally, and is one of Ecuador’s valuable exports.

Prior to all of this, natives of the Andes wore the hat thousands of years ago.

Not to be worn in the rain, the lightweight hat is excellent for shielding eyes from the sun, especially at Cuenca’s 2,550-metre-height.

Street scenes

Love Cuenca’s street scenes and this city is wonderful for people-watching, so want to share a few locals with you…

Cuenca, Ecuador, South America

Many Panama hat shops or what can only be described as an opening in the wall, grace Cuenca’s streets.

Panama hats, Cuenca, Ecuador, South America

Street markets spring up along the way.

markets, Cuenca, Ecuador, South America

Rest stops are plentiful amongst the cool, aged stone niches…

Cuenca, Ecuador, South America

Interesting use of Bug’s Bunny cartoon in this hat stall.

Panama hats, Cuenca, Ecuador, South America

There’s always time for a chat amongst friends…

Cuenca, Ecuador, South America

…or an intense game of evening street Chess.

Chess players, Cuenca, Ecuador, South America

The mannerisms of Cuenca’s Charlie Chaplin are extraordinarily uncanny.

Cuenca, Ecuador, South America

Patient flower seller contemplating a next sale…

Cuenca, Ecuador, South America

…brilliant facial expressions and moods.

Buy flowers at an average price at this small flower market on Miguel Vélez, which sees stalls of brightly-coloured flowers bursting from beneath umbrellas.

If you’re hunting for fresh cheap fruit and vegetables and don’t feel like walking, then take an auto-bus for just a few cents to the Mercado 3 de Noviembre.

Bizarre story!

Ever been in an awkward situation where a plastic surgeon intently studies your face and body, then arrogantly advises that he can ‘fix’ things for you?

The story goes something like this…

Invited to an expat’s party by a complete stranger that we met walking his 6 dogs – a story for another time – we meet many interesting characters and all with a tale to tell.

This particular party goer is an American plastic surgeon and eager to let me know he can do wonders for my face and breasts. He even goes as far as saying that he can do a “two for one deal” on my breasts, but also can take 10 years off my face!

Not sure whether to slap his face or take up his offer – luckily, a couple of drinks dull my senses – so do neither.

Have you ever experienced such an awkward and embarrassing situation?

Getting there

map Loja, Cuenca, Ecuador, South AmericaIf you’re travelling from Loja in southern Ecuador, then the journey takes around four hours until you reach Cuenca’s picturesque region – if all goes to plan.

The scenery is quite varied as you traverse on the highway, swerving through mountainous cliffs until descending down to rolling hilly plains and maize farmlands.

All this whilst a myriad of music from panpipes, Pasillo, Reggaeton, and random Latin American music blares from the speakers above your head. Keeping you awake and alert, you can’t escape this noise.

Tiny villages and larger towns pop up along the way, breaking up the expansive Ecuadorian vistas.

Where to sleep

Cuenca boasts a plethora of accommodation for all budgets – it’s not long until you stumble upon loads of colonial mansions and homes converted into hotels or hostels.

Many hotels also have a restaurant, which is a great place to unwind whilst absorbing delightful surrounds.

Hostal Hogar Cuencano offers inexpensive clean cosy rooms with a private bathroom, communal kitchen, and friendly staff. The hostel’s Wi-Fi isn’t speedy, but at least it’s consistent.

Leaving Cuenca

Sadly, the South American adventure is almost over and with only a couple of relaxing days in Cuenca, it’s time to move on and visit the remote town of Baños de Agua Santa.

I hear there’s a volcano brewing close by to Baños…what could possibly go wrong?

One more question, do you prefer this post’s updated layout? Just a small move of the Getting there information to above Where to sleep instead of the start of the post, as think it’s more logical. Let me know if you think this works better. 🙂

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more images. More posts on Ecuador at Image Earth Travel.

31 responses to “Why You Need to Visit Ecuador’s Charming Cuenca”

  1. LuLu B - Calabrisella Mia Avatar

    The cathedral is impressive! I had no idea the Panama hat didn’t actually originate in Panama…cool!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      South America is full of impressive cathedrals and just when you think you’ve seen the most opulent one, the next one pushes it aside!
      No, before travelling to Cuenca I had no idea either…guess it’s the old story of ‘never assume’ just because of the name.

  2. gillmorris Avatar

    I’d love wandering around Cuenca with my camera, it’s looks really interesting. Love your posts Nilla! Yes, I think it’s more logical to have getting there first 🙂 xx

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      I’m sure you’d take some wonderful photos of Cuenca.
      Thanks for the feedback on post format. I used to have the “Getting there” right up at the beginning of a post, then go into details of the place. So moved it to the bottom above “Where to sleep”. Figure that readers want to read about the place first, then if interested, read how to get there, sleeping, etc. – hope that makes sense. 😉 x

  3. easterntrekker Avatar

    That was great tour of Ecuador…now I am going to go back a find the photo of me with their hats…from years ago. HA!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you!
      Let me know when you find the hat, I’d love to see it…

  4. Lisa Dorenfest Avatar

    I am very much like you and would be thrilled to stroll those cobbled streets and alleyways with my camera. Your people shots are captivating as always and I totally intrigued by the history of the Panama hat. No one has ever approached me with that two for one special — perhaps my physiognomy is deemed unsalvageable at this point and one implant is enough for me (#breastcancersurvivor).

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hey Lisa, thanks for your valuable feedback – much appreciated.
      Perhaps you’ve never been approached as you’re perfect as you are and not because you’re ‘deemed unsalvageable’.

      I did read on your blog somewhere about your cancer and hope that everything is OK now.

      1. Lisa Dorenfest Avatar

        Aww thank you for saying so! I’ve been cancer free since 2012 but the Captain’s went metastatic in 2015 and he’s been dealing with that as we’ve made our way around. we are currently in Medellin getting scanned and hoping for good results

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Sorry to hear that Lisa and hope that the scans produce good results.
        So important to enjoy life to the fullest whilst we can as you’re fully aware.

  5. Chocoviv Avatar

    Love this post!!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you for the feedback and glad you enjoyed my post!

      1. Chocoviv Avatar

        You are welcome 🙏

  6. Bniconann Avatar

    I would love to visit one day. One of my goals is to go from North America down to South America. That bizarre story is pretty weird haha! I wouldn’t know how to react. Thank you so much for sharing!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hi and welcome to the Blogosphere – just visited your site and notice you’re starting out with your blog.
      Thanks so much for leaving me a comment and hope you get to realise your goal – sounds like an excellent trip!

      Yeah, it was pretty random and thought I handled it well, without him walking away with a black eye! 😉

  7. Suellen Tomkins - Wild Heart Gypsy Spirit Avatar

    Loving the selection of hats and photos of the people

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you Suellen.
      Love the Andean faces, which are creased with time – just beautiful!

  8. the eternal traveller Avatar

    How rude of that man to be touting for business in such an unpleasant way. I’m glad you maintained your dignity. All those hats look wonderful in the museum.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Yeah, he was really over the top. I can laugh about it after the event as it is quite funny, but quite off-putting during the event!
      I absolutely love hats and surprised I didn’t walk out with one but as you know, when you’re travelling longterm, you can’t carry a lot and what’s the point of sending everything home?

  9. aliterarybent Avatar

    Again lovely photos. Interesting post and I can’t get over that cheeky plastic surgeon. That cathedral looks beautiful. I am not religious, but where ever we travel, we usually end up in an old church or cathedral – partly to escape the crowds and hustle and bustle and partly to marvel at the stained glass and wonderful architecture.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Happy you enjoyed this post and photos – thanks for your feedback!

      I know exactly what you mean as I also love visiting churches (free entry only) although I’m not religious at all, but typically, they’re stunning. Like you, I’ve always had a fascination with stained glass – need to do a course in this craft.

  10. fakeflamenco Avatar

    Thanks for the tour of Cuenca. The expat surgeon is simply a cartoon character. Time for the rear leg kangaroo punch out of the room for that tacky comment. You are wonderful just the way you are, Billy Joel is right. ; ) Rebecca

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hey Rebecca, glad you enjoyed my post and the tour.
      Yeah, the comments were brazen but guess it’s his profession and he may of needed extra cash so doing a hard sell!
      Think I handled it quite well under the circumstances and thanks for the vote of confidence. 😉

  11. David & Laura Speer Avatar

    Sounds like a wonderful place to visit I like how you threw in the Plastic Surgery story right in the middle of their kind of threw me off for a minute but also made me laugh

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thanks for the feedback!
      I wanted to include the story as it was quite funny, but didn’t know where in the post.
      Always good to keep my readers on their toes. 😉
      I did forget to add that many Americans visit SA as the plastic surgery is a fifth of the price than in the US and the surgeons are trained in the US and Europe. This is another funny story when I get to finish my posts on Venezuela.

      1. David & Laura Speer Avatar

        I didn’t know that about plastic surgery in South America alright well I’ll keep following along

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Neither did I until I was confronted with another bizarre moment back in 2008 in a Venezuelan kitchen.
        Also, women start very young with plastic surgery in SA and it’s not uncommon for a boyfriend to gift his girlfriend a nose or boob job at age 14 or 15 – tragic!

      3. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Travelling certainly opens your eyes to everything! 😉

  12. Rachael Stray | https://rachaelstray.com/ Avatar

    Wow can’t believe that surgeon! I didn’t realise that about the hats either – learnt something new!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Ha, ha, thanks for your comment Rachael. It didn’t do much for my confidence that’s for sure!
      I always thought that Panama hats started in Panama – makes sense but no.

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