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.
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.
Because of Cuenca’s incredibly preserved history, the city centre made the UNESCO World Heritage Trust list in 1999.
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.
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.
Or, discovering compelling street art and odd-shaped architecture, which make for an intriguing pre-cursor to exploring better-known sites…
…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.
The external dome opulence – symbolic of Cuenca – is only exceeded by its internal imposing arches and soaring domed ceilings.
Vibrant lead-light windows created by Spanish artist Guillermo Larrazábal, depict fables of a past era…
…or symbolic meanings now forgotten to a modern society.
When first constructed, 9,000 out of Cuenca’s 10,000 population could fit in the cathedral.
The call of religion never fades…
Some find this a peaceful and cool place in which to rest.
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.
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.
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.
Love Cuenca’s street scenes and this city is wonderful for people-watching, so want to share a few locals with you…
Many Panama hat shops or what can only be described as an opening in the wall, grace Cuenca’s streets.
Street markets spring up along the way.
Rest stops are plentiful amongst the cool, aged stone niches…
Interesting use of Bug’s Bunny cartoon in this hat stall.
There’s always time for a chat amongst friends…
…or an intense game of evening street Chess.
The mannerisms of Cuenca’s Charlie Chaplin are extraordinarily uncanny.
Patient flower seller contemplating a next sale…
…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.
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?
If 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.
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. 🙂