The Athens of Ecuador
Cuenca, the most European city in Ecuador is like being transported 400 years back, to the colonial era, or feel as if you were in a city in Spain. Countless historic buildings perfectly preserved since their construction, some of the finest architecture in the country thankfully safeguarded and not destroyed by earthquakes and volcanoes, the general unfortunate fate of most of the original Spanish colonial cities along the “ring of fire”, from Mexico to Chile. With such a huge heritage and history, equal to Quito’s patrimony, it is no surprise this is another of the highlights listed by UNESCO a World Heritage Site; and if that would not be enough, you can deduct it form its nickname: “the Athens of Ecuador”.
This was one of the highlights in our trip through Ecuador, a place no one should ever miss when coming to the country. One of the most beloved gems and most visited city, middle in the highlands of Ecuador at a height of 2500 meters above sea level. A great gateway not only for the history of the city but a great base for visiting a right region where you are never far from the Andes, mountains and volcanoes, pristine nature, natural parks, small traditional villages and some of the finest Inca archaeological remains. But beware don’t be fooled on something as important and as simple as the weather. Fair enough you are within the tropics where people usually believe in great weather, but can lead to confusion. At these higher latitudes and by the Andes all changes. It is only 40 minutes’ flight from Guayaquil where it rarely drops below 30 degrees centigrade, yet here the norm will rarely be over the 20’s mark, however on one of our days here it was raining horrible and was quite cold, and abruptly the following day was scorching hot and sunny all day through. Our last day was a mix of the past two. You never know what’s from one day to another.
Cuenca’s origin, although at over 8000 years of human activity, it can be realistically traced as a settlement to the Cañari people who founded it in around 500 AD under the name of Guapondeleg. The Cañari were defeated by the Incas who built in its place the grand city of Pumapungo, (the door of the Puma), actual site of Cuenca. Its magnificence was said to have rivaled that of the Inca capital of Cusco, and was known as the second capital of the empire. However, just half a century later with the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, they found the city abandoned and lying in ruins. All it was known were the stories told by the Indians about a rich city of wonders, golden palaces and temples, and therefore, considered a possible candidate for the mythical city of gold which the Spanish called El Dorado.
The time you should considering for this city really depends up to you, basically in what’s your overall plan in Ecuador and how many days you have in total. The true fact is that a full day is well more than enough. The city is small and you can see absolutely everything in just a day. This means you can continue with further plans as visiting the biggest and best preserved Inca city in Ecuador, Ingapirca on a day trip from Cuenca and whatever else is in your route. To name another 2 of the spectacular things you can do nearby are the “Nariz del Diablo” train ride (Devil’s nose) and the UNESCO World Heritage Site listed Sangay National Park where you have from plains to volcanoes, forests to glaciers. That’s how we planned our time in here and worked great, giving us enough time for doing everything we really wanted: Cuenca, Ingapirca and some nature in between.
Something you should consider when in this city (although you will find it everywhere in Ecuador and beyond, notoriously in Panama) are the famous straw hats that come from here. These hats are worldwide known as the Panama Hat, however, don’t mistake it for being from Panama as they are not. The fact for become to be known as the Panama Hat was for being from the port at Panama City where the hat were distributed through the rest of the world.
As last, on a similar note I wrote on the Quito and Guayaquil travel guides, food. Ecuador is very rich in gastronomy, with a mix between both the coastal and Andean areas giving a choice to anyone. From fresh seafood and fish, the fantastic hearty meats. From light dishes around the hot regions (mostly the coast) to pots, casserole and soup dishes in the colder and higher regions. Something traditional from this region (and Peru) is ceviche (or cebiche or seviche). This dish is composed of small cuts seafood and fish cooked in lime juice and salt, mixed with onions, tomatoes, peppers, cilantro, and lime juice. A vegetarian variation called cevichocho is very popular in Ecuador, and it’s made of chocho beans, onions, tomatoes, cilantro, limes, oranges and tomato sauce generally served with maiz tostado, plantain chips, avocados and hot sauce. Similar to the Brazil churrasco, you can find great meats freshly cut on your table; also popular is chaulafan (fried rice), and tallarin noodles mixed with chicken or beef. Ecuador is not a cheap country, but the opposite, it is way above any expectation, however if you search, you will get great prices for lunch or dinner. They do serve what’s called “almuerzo”, and it’s the very same as “menu del dia” as it is known is Spain. This is a drink, starter, main course and dessert, and will cost you in the range of $2.50 and $3.00. Yes, that’s the price!
Some restaurants we can strongly recommend, with great prices, incredible value for money for such a huge and delicious portions are Raymipampa right on Parque Calderon, next to the New Cathedral serving traditional Ecuadorian food; and if you feel like Mexican, El Pedregal Azteca is as of now, one of the best Mexican restaurants I’ve ever been, including Mexico! Try the chicken with mole, that was out of this world.
For more information about Cuenca check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Ecuador’s currency is the United States Dollar (USD), where the country only mints its own coinage, of the same value as the USD cents. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Cuenca
With such a compact historic centre along few streets, the best way to visit is by walking in zigzags taking a different street on each turn. The main street limiting by the north is Gran Colombia, while at the south is the Tomebamba River, separating them 6 streets in between.
- Gran Colombia Street The main street marking the northern end of the historic town, the original Spanish colonial settlement. Some of the main hotels are along this street.
-Santo Domingo Church The second largest church in the city after the New Cathedral, completed in the 19th century.
- Simon Bolivar Street One of the nicest, where almost every building within the 4 streets surrounding the Parque Calderon are untouched since its constructions over 4 centuries ago.
-San Sebastian Park The westernmost edge of the historic town, containing the San Sebastian Church and Museum of Modern Art of Cuenca, both of which colonial structures.
-Santo Cenaculo Church Built in 1902, half way along the street to Parque Calderon.
-Parque Calderon The main square at the centre of the colonial city, the political and religious heart since the city’s foundation.
-Del Parque Hotel One of the colonial hotels overlooking the square right at the northwesternmost corner.
-San Luis Seminary Opposite Del Parque right across the road.
-New Cathedral Attached to the Seminary, was built in 1880 at the opposite side of the square from the Old Cathedral. Its 3 blue domes have become a landmark of Cuenca. You can access the roof, for $1.00 fee with nice views over the city.
-Plaza de las Flores Although not entirely in Parque Calderon, it is along the side of the New Cathedral on Mariscal Sucre Street. A small square famous for its flower market.
-Supreme Court of Justice The last building along the western side of Parque Calderon, corner with Mariscal Sucre Street.
-Sucre Theatre At the opposite corner on the eastern side of the square.
-Old Cathedral The Church of El Sagrario as it is known, was built in 1557 immediately after the city’s foundation by the Spanish, however, through the centuries became too small prompting the construction of the New Cathedral. Nowadays, no longer consecrated, is a museum, $2.00 entrance fee.
-Northern side All of the buildings along this side (Simon Bolivar Street) are beautifully preserved, as opposed to the southern side where none are left, instead ugly ones in their place.
-Corner Bolivar with Presidente Borrero At just a block ahead from Parque Calderon is this intersection with the next street, where all of the corner buildings are worth architecturally,
-City Hall Palace One of the most beautiful buildings in Cuenca, in neoclassical style.
-Provincial Building One of the few pure art-deco style constructions in the city.
-San Alfonso Church In neo-Gothic style from 1888, having its towers completed in 1945.
-Casa del Seguro Opposite the church, in Andalusian style.
-San Blas Square The easternmost end of Simon Bolivar Street (although it continues for one more block ahead this square), far east limit of the historic core.
-San Blas Church Although of recent construction in the 20th century, occupies the same place as the original small colonial chapel that stood in the 16th century.
- Mariscal Sucre Street From San Blas, take this street heading back towards the centre. You will pass again Parque Calderon, but no need to continue any further than when reaching Calle Tarqui.
- Presidente Cordova Street Coming from Calle Tarqui to the next parallel street to Mariscal Sucre, and heading east on your next zigzag until Calle Mariano Cueva.
-San Francisco Church Built in neoclassical style, with an important 17th century baroque altarpiece.
-Las Conceptas Square and Church Very small yet very charming with all the colonial buildings surrounding around.
- Juan Jaramillo Street The next street to turn on your zigzag, but follow it along until the intersection with Presidente Borrero Street, where you can take this south towards Calle Larga, parallel to the river.
- Calle Larga Parallel to the Tomebamba River, with nice buildings and museums along. If you wish to continue keep doing a good route following zigzags, then take it east first.
-All Saints Church Built in eclectic style in 1924 in the place of a former colonial chapel.
-Puente Roto An old colonial bridge no longer in use where only its beginning with some arches stand. A nice viewpoint from the top.
-All Saints Ruins Some of the uncovered archaeological remains of the once important Inca city of Pumapungo are visible not far ahead from Puente Roto.
-Pumapungo Museum Farther ahead along Calle Larga is the main museum with all the archaeological finds of the Inca city. The placement is where the former castle stood.
- Riverside – Avenida 12 de Abril A nice walk along the river with nice views over the buildings. From Pumapungo Museum take this heading back west, any of the bridges are in coincidence with the streets heading north to Parque Calderon and nearby at the heart of the old town.
Mariscal Lamar Airport serves only national destinations such as Quito and Guayaquil being very convenient to get here by plane rather than countless hours on a bus. However as of April 2017, the Guayaquil to Cuenca route has been scrapped (possibly temporarily). It is located at the northeast right in the middle of the city, barely 15 minutes’ walk from the terminal to the beginning of the historic centre. Airports in Ecuador tend to really be inside the city centre. Only Quito’s is the new exception, where due to limitations on current trends, security reasons and ever increasing traffic a new one was constructed outside the city, and Guayaquil’s soon to follow. From the airport, a taxi to a hotel around the historic centre will be no more than $3.00, it’s just 10 minutes’ drive.
Coming overland is way a much more lengthy journey. The city lies along the Panamerican highway and the main bus station, Terminal Terrestre is located on Avenide de Espana, few meters south from the airport terminal. Plenty of national and international buses crisscross the country and head beyond towards Colombia and Peru. But as said, prepare yourself for long trips, where in the other hand, are extremely panoramic passing through beautiful scenery at the foothills of the Andes, volcanoes and pristine jungle. We had no choice as our flight from Guayaquil to Cuenca was scrapped, so came by bus. It was little over 4 hours and the landscapes were stunning passing the El Cajas National Park. The cost is only $6.25 per person per way.
Within the city centre there is no need for taking any public transportation. There are only buses, and soon to open a light rail tram system. A bus ride costs $0.25 and remember you need to have the exact fare to put inside the box as you enter. If you do not have the change, let the driver know and try to get any extra money you put from other people entering the bus. Taxis are usually in the range between £1.50 to 3.00, and must put the taximeter on by law (not as in Guayaquil where it’s not mandatory). If they don’t do, ask them, and if any hesitation, get on another taxi. Here in Cuenca at least you know you cannot be cheated as they must comply with the taximeter law.
Walking anywhere the historic town is your best way to enjoy every sight. It is not big at all, with many of the streets pedestrian and generally very narrow. Distances are never big, and even getting from/to the airport on foot from the city centre is matter of maximum 30 minutes on foot.
Cuenca has a great choice of hotels considering its smaller size comparing to Guayaquil and Quito. Do not expect to find any 5* property, there are none, however there is a good range of 4* and boutique. Finding a deal was in the other hand a bit hard, and not because of the fare itself. Basically we knew what we wanted and what kind of standard, but reading the comments on what’s supposed to be some of the best hotels, were not too good, while some 3* hotels were having great comments and the sort of facilities we were after. It took us longer and ended up having 2 different hotels booked at the same time until we decided for one and cancelled the other reservation. Rarely we’ve been in a situation like this!. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
We stayed at Del Parque Hotel, right by one of the corners of Parque Calderon, the main square in the heart of the historic centre. Location could not be any better, just right there in the middle, and so was the property itself. A very beautiful colonial structure, family run business at just 12 rooms, yet very nice. We booked a superior room which are larger than the standard, hence I can only tell about our experience from this kind of room. It was actually larger than expected, with a kitchenette, large windows overlooking the square and nice street, and a comfortable bed. And even considering you are in the middle of the city, busy and more noisy than anywhere else, the room was quiet at night and comfortable. Staff was very friendly and very approachable, and a good breakfast served daily in their restaurant/coffee downstairs. A really charming location! Highly recommended to anyone.