Destination guide: Cuenca, Ecuador

Cuenca is an old city in Ecuador with a colonial air, located 450 kilometers south of Quito and split into two by the Tomebamba River. To the north is the historical center, with its maze of streets and endless colonial churches, while in the south, its residential areas, malls and wide avenues stand out.

Cuenca is known as the "Athens of Ecuador" and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, making it the third most important city in Ecuador.

  • Cuenca - Things to do



    Two blocks east of Plaza de San Sebastián stands the bare, 19th-century Church of San Cenáculo (cnr Bolívar & Montalvo). One block north of the church is Gran Colombia, the main handicraft and shopping street in Cuenca.

    The street's landmark building is the Church of Santo Domingo (cnr Gran Colombia & Padre Aguirre), which has some fine carved wooden doors and colonial paintings inside. Although it looks older, the church was built in the early 20th-century. Although its doors are rarely open to the public, the Church of El Carmen de la Asunción (Mariscal Sucre near Padre Aguirre), founded in 1682, is one of Cuenca's prettiest sights, thanks to the colorful flower market (daily) held on the small Plazoleta del Carmen out front.

    A few paces south along Padre Aguirre brings you to the 19th-century Church of San Francisco, which towers handsomely above the not-so-handsome (but still very interesting) Plaza de San Francisco. The plaza is flanked by old arcaded buildings with wooden balconies and is crowded with a permanent ramshackle street market. On the western side of the historical center, the Church of San Blas, on the plaza of the same name, was once the western boundary of colonial Cuenca. Originally built in the late 16th-century, the small colonial church has since been replaced by an early 20th-century building. The modern church is one of the city's largest and is the only one in Cuenca built in the form of a Latin cross.

      Sub-Type: Religious, Spiritual

    Museo de las Conceptas

    This religious museum in the Convent of the Immaculate Conception, founded in 1599, offers a glimpse into centuries-old customs of the cloistered nuns who live here. You can’t actually see the nuns – they’re cloistered, after all – but you can see their primitive bread-making equipment and dioramas of their stark cells, as well as some important religious art. Strangely enough, this old-fashioned nunnery has wi-fi (but only for visitors!).

     Latitude: 41.3837432900000 / Longitude: 2.1819736960000
    Sub-Type: Museum
    Telephone Number: +593 7 283 0625
    Opening Hours: 9am-5pm Tue-Fri, 10am-1pm Sat
    Pricing: admission $2.50
    Address: Miguel 6-33  

    Museo Pumapungo

    Cuenca’s most important museum, Museo Pumapungo has an entire floor of colorfully animated dioramas displaying traditional costumes of Ecuador’s diverse indigenous cultures, including Afro-Ecuadorians from Esmeraldas province, the cowboy-like montubios (coastal farmers) of the western lowlands, several rainforest groups and all the major highland groups. The finale features five rare and eerie tzantza (shrunken heads) from the Shuar culture of the southern Oriente.

    Sub-Type: Museum
    Telephone Number: +593 7 283 1255
    Opening Hours: 9am-6pm Mon-Fri, 9am-1pm Sat
    Pricing: adult/under 12yr $3/1.50
    Address: Calle Larga
    Extras: btwn Arriaga & Huayna Capac


    If you've any interest in the world's most outrageous and beautiful plant species, you'll love the Universidad de Cuenca's Orquideario. With over 400 species of orchids, it's hailed as one of the country's best. Most plants are in flower between December and May - it's truly a sight to behold!

    Sub-Type: Gardens
    Telephone Number: +593 7 284 2893
    Opening Hours: 08:00-12:00 & 14:00-18:00 Mon-Fri
    : free
    Address: Quinta de Balsaín, W of City
    Type: bus / Details: 1B from Muñoz
    Transportation Type: taxi

    Río Tomebamba & Calle Larga

    The swift, rock-strewn Río Tomebamba is attractively lined with old colonial buildings that tower above the grassy riverside. The buildings themselves open onto the street of Calle Larga, which runs parallel to - and directly above - the river. From Calle Larga, three attractive stone stairways lead down to Avenida 3 de Noviembre, which follows the river's northern bank and makes for a pleasant walk. The largest staircase, at Hermano Miguel, is known as La Escalinata.

    One of the river's landmark features is the Puente Roto (Broken Bridge), the remaining third of an old stone bridge that once spanned the river. Inside one of Calle Larga's historical buildings, the Museo Remigio Crespo Toral (283 3208; Calle Larga 7-27 near Borrero) contains religious sculptures, colonial furniture, paintings and a fine selection of indigenous artifacts. It has been under restoration for some years and was scheduled to reopen in late 2006.

    A block away, on the stairs down to the river, the Centro Interamericano de Artes Populares (Cidap; 284 0919, 282 9451; Hermano Miguel 3-23; admission free; ;09:30-13:00 & 14:00-18:00 Mon-Fri, 10:00-13:00 Sat) displays changing exhibits of traditional indigenous costumes, handicrafts and artwork from around Latin America. It has an outstanding crafts store and promotes many of its featured artists and artisans by selling their work. Further along Calle Larga, the Museo de las Culturas Aborígenes (283 9181; Calle Larga 5-24; museoarq@etapaonline.net.ec; admission around US$2;09:00-18:30 Mon-Fri, 09:00-13:00 Sat) houses an outstanding collection of about 5000 archaeological pieces representing some 20 pre-Hispanic cultures of Ecuador and reaching as far back as 13,000 BC. The layout is very attractive, and there's a small gift shop and bookstore.

    Continuing east, you finally come to some small (almost nonexistent) Inca ruins at the Museo Manuel Agustín Landivar on Calle Larga, beside the Río Tomebamba. Unfortunately the site and the museum were closed indefinitely in early 2006, but you can still see the ruins from the outside.

    Sub-Type: River


    Café Austria

    Every caffeinated drink known to humankind, dainty Austrian cakes, pressed sandwiches and goulash make for a great menu at this Austrian-owned café. English-language newspapers are always available.

    Latitude: -2.9002884989876 / Longitude: -79.0051639080048
    Sub-Type: Café
    Telephone Number: +593 7 284 0899
    Opening Hours: 9am-11pm
    Pricing: mains $3-7
    Price Range: Low
    Address: Benigno Malo 5-95

    Café Eucalyptus

    The irreverent Eucalyptus menu proudly declares that it doesn’t serve ‘customs officials, crazy bus drivers, or airline executives.’ For the rest of us, dozens of Cuban, Vietnamese, Spanish and other reliably delicious international dishes are served at cozy tables near roaring fireplaces, and an extensive variety of wines and beers flow from the gorgeous bar. This wonderful restaurant should cure any gringo’s hankering for home, and, thankfully, it still serves guidebook writers.

    Latitude: -2.8962381863877 / Longitude: -79.0044343471527
    Sub-Type: Tapa
    Telephone Number: +593 7 284 9157
    Opening Hours: 5-11pm Mon & Tue, 5pm- midnight Wed & Thu, 5pm-1am Fri, 7pm-4am Sat
    Pricing: small plates $3-6
    Price Range: Low
    : Gran Colombia 9-41
    Website: www.cafeeucalyptus.com


    This atmospheric restaurant has a small menu of traditional plates like seco de chivo (goat stew) and gourmet fritada (fried pork with hominy, avocado and other garnishes). It’s also one of the best places to try cuy (roast guinea pig); if you’re game, call an hour before you go for prep time ($17 for two).

    Latitude: -2.8939880064606 / Longitude: -79.0027070045471
    : Regional
    Telephone Number: +593 7 283 1016
    Opening Hours: noon-3pm & 6-11pm Mon-Sat
    Pricing: mains $4-6
    Price Range: Moderate
    Address: Luis Cordero 12-32


    Cine Cuenca

    Screens blockbuster Hollywood flicks in English (with Spanish subtitles). Check Cuenca's newspaper El Mercurio for cinema listings. Address: Padre Aguirre near Mariscal Lamar, City Centre.

    Latitude: -2.8953381149532 / Longitude: -79.0048956871033
    Type: Night
    Sub-Type: Cinema


    Of the bars located along Presidente Córdova, this is the trendiest. It’s nonstop dancing from about midnight to dawn Thursday to Saturday.

    Latitude: -2.9001706329528 / Longitude: -79.0014624595642
    Sub-Type: Bar
    Pricing: drink minimum $2
    : Presidente Córdova
    Extras: near Cueva

    La Mesa

    This is where the locals go when they want to salsa, and boy, can they salsa. It’s fun to watch as much as dance. The tiny sign out front is easy to miss

    Latitude: -2.8976632980294 / Longitude: -78.9990162849426
    Type: Night
    Sub-Type: Dance
    Address: Gran Colombia 3-55

    Events Overview

    Cuenca’s Independence Day is November 3, which combines with November 1 and 2 (All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day) to form an important vacation period for the city and the whole country. April 12, the anniversary of Cuenca’s founding in 1557, often comes on the heels of Easter celebrations. It’s a time when school kids take loyalty pledges to the city, and the Reina de Cuenca (Queen of Cuenca) is selected. Cuencanos display their abundant civic pride with elaborate fireworks-laced floats from different neighborhoods.

    Carnaval, as in other parts of Ecuador, is celebrated with boisterous water and talcum powder fights in which no one is spared.

    In keeping with Cuenca’s strong Catholic identity, the Pase del Niño Christmas Eve procession occupies participants with preparations throughout the whole year and culminates in one of Ecuador’s most spectacular religious displays. Corpus Christi is usually on the ninth Thursday after Easter, and often coincides with the indigenous celebration called Inti Raymi on the June solstice. Carried out with the same fervor as other big Cuenca holidays, it spills over into a weekend full of processions and fireworks displays. Parque Calderón transforms into a big outdoor candy festival with vendors selling traditional sweets.