Ecuador The New Cathedral in Cuenca, Ecuador is among the city's most recognizable sites.

Published on October 9th, 2013 | by Mark Chesnut

The New Cathedral in Cuenca, Ecuador is among the city's most recognizable sites.

TRAVEL PHOTOS: Top 5 Reasons to Visit Cuenca, Ecuador

It may be Ecuador’s third-largest city, but Cuenca enjoys a decidedly top-of-the-list profile with international travelers, thanks to its historic architecture and unique culture. During a recent Ecuador trip, I took a quick flight from Quito to Cuenca (read my LAN Airlines flight review here) to pay my third visit to this lovely little metropolis. This two-night visit allowed me to come up with my own top 5 reasons to visit Cuenca.

With a booming expat population and new developments in the works like a brand-new Sheraton hotel — the first international brand in the city — as well as a new planetarium and a new tram system that will link the airport with the historic city center, Cuenca is clearly positioning itself for more visitors. Here’s why the city should be on your travel itinerary:

1. The History
Cuenca’s city center is listed with the UNESCO World Heritage Trust, but not for just one type of architecture. You’ll find lots of diverse visual treats here. Start at Parque Abdon Calderón, the beautifully maintained central square, and pay a visit to the old cathedral, built in 1557 and now home to a museum, and the new cathedral, an imposing brick creation that started construction in 1885 and never quite finished. Stroll in any direction and you’ll find lots to photograph — including the stately city hall, multiple churches and the colorful flower market in front of El Carmen de Asunción monastery.

For modern art in a historic setting, head to the Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno, which is set in a temperance home that dates to 1876. The best overview of the region’s history is offered at the museum operated by the Ministerio de Cultura del Ecuador, where scale recreations of indigenous and historic housing, costumes and traditions are exhibited in a stark modern structure. Outside the city, you can tour Ingapirca, the largest known Inca ruins in Ecuador.

2. The Nature
Another day trip from Cuenca brings visitors to stunning mountain views. About an hour away is El Cajas, a national park with scenic rivers, streams and lakes. It’s a beautiful place for bird watching, hiking and nature photography. We stopped for photos and easy hiking at the lake and river called Llaviucu, where resident llamas and alpacas graze just a few feet away from an abandoned brewery, then headed even higher for some spectacular, cloud-shrouded views. Stop for freshly caught local trout for lunch on the way back to the city; we ate at Dos Chorreras, a lodge and farm that operates its own restaurant, set amid pools filled with ducks and geese.

3. The Relaxation
I spent a relaxing afternoon at Piedra de Agua, one of several thermal bath spas just outside the city. With a variety of treatments and experiences, you can tailor the visit to soothe away whatever is bothering you —  Piedra de Agua, considered one of the more upscale thermal baths in the region, offers massage therapy, steam baths and mud baths, as well as cuisine in the on-site restaurant. The fee is $10 for use of the pool only, or $30 for access to pools, mud and steam baths.

4. The Shopping
With traditions dating to both Colonial and pre-Hispanic times, Cuenca is a great place to shop for arts and crafts. Among the most popular purchases are the inaccurately named Panama hats (confusion related to old trade routes through Panama made people think they were from Central America, but these hats are really made in Ecuador). You can learn more about the paja toquilla — as it’s correctly called in Spanish — and get your own handmade creation at places like Homero Ortega, a hat maker that offers tours and operates its own upscale boutique (see photos from my tour of the Homero Ortega factory and shop).

5. The Ambiance & The Ecuadorian Cuisine
With its historic center and blend of colonial and indigenous traditions, Cuenca is a bit like Quito. But Cuenca is much smaller, which makes it easy to stroll and find quiet places to relax. The cuisine here is especially rewarding; have lunch or dinner at the antique-chic Tiestos (where I had one of my best meals of the entire Ecuador trip) or the elegant Villa Rosa — or stop for homemade hot chocolate and fresh bread at Todosantos, a restaurant set dramatically in a restored historic religious complex.

Wherever you dine, don’t leave Cuenca without sampling local favorites like locro de papas con queso criollo y aguacate (a potato soup with cheese and avocado) and fritada con llapingachos, aguacate, mote pillo y choclo dulce (Ecuadorian pork with fried potato cakes, hominy and sweet corn.

Where I Stayed: The Oro Verde Cuenca, a modern, upscale hotel located outside the city center. Read my full review of the Hotel Oro Verde Cuenca.

More Info:

Culture, Nature & Adventure: 3 Great Reasons to Visit Ecuador
HOTEL REVIEW: Hilton Colon Quito — Luxury & Location in Ecuador’s Capital
HOTEL REVIEW: Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve & Lodge


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About the Author

The founder and editor of, Mark has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and manager. He's worked with some of the biggest consumer, in-flight and travel trade publishers that cover Latin America.

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