Located at an approximate altitude of 8,500 feet (2,591 meters) above sea level, the City of Cuenca sits about 292 miles (470 kilometers) south of the nation’s capital Quito. It is part of the Southern Ecuadorean Andes, one of Ecuador’s best destinations.
Cuenca is not just Ecuador’s third-largest city in terms of population and economic activity; thanks to its well-preserved Colonial-era architecture, it is also one of the country’s most important not-to-miss destinations. Additionally, Cuencanos have welcomed many expats to their city, many of whom settle here to enjoy the convenience and affordability of a modern city with a temperate year-round climate and access to many stunning natural parks, mountains, and rivers.
So, what makes Cuenca such an appealing place to visit? And, what inspires so many foreigners to move here, whether temporarily or permanently? Well, why not see for yourself? In this blog, we’ll give you an overview of this attractive destination so you can add it to your itinerary when visiting beautiful destinations in Ecuador.
Cuenca’s History and Relevance
Cuenca’s historic center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. Many of its well-maintained buildings date back to the 18th and 19th centuries, which makes sense since the city was founded circa 1577 and has been an important hub and regional headquarters for much of the country’s governmental, agricultural, and export endeavors.
The historical importance of what is now Cuenca dates way back to around 500 A.D. It was in this area that the indigenous Cañari people settled. They named their growing settlement Guapondeleg. In the late 15th century, the Inca arrived and conquered the city, renaming it Tomebamba. Within a relatively short period, it became perhaps the second-most important center of the Inca Empire, behind only Cusco in what is now Peru.
Interestingly, the Inca leveled Tomebamba in anticipation of the Spanish arriving to lay claim to the city as part of their conquest. Some legends hint at Cuenca being the fabled “Lost City of Gold” or “El Dorado.” Could it be true?
Today one of the best destinations in Ecuador is Cuenca, and its surrounding communities manufacture many commercial items, including electronics, appliances, textiles, jewelry, furniture, ceramic tiles, and tires. These products are manufactured in the region and exported both domestically and internationally.
One well-known export is the ever-popular Panama hat, made from toquilla straw. Notable hat-makers like Homero Ortega are based here and feature a museum and shop frequently visited by tourists and locals alike. It is a popular stop on many city tours.
One of the most important visitor sites in the region (and quickly, the most important archeological site in Ecuador) is the Ingapirca Ruins, located a couple of hours from Cuenca in its namesake town. This archeological site is home to what was once a Cañari complex, complete with its intricate aqueduct. This fortress-like set of buildings is believed to have been used for numerous purposes, including ceremonies, war planning, political strategizing, astronomical observation, and more. When the Inca arrived in the region, they leveled many structures but kept the foundations. Upon these, they erected several new buildings using their own construction style.
The Pilaloma complex, which extends along the southern side of the compound, is believed to host the tomb of a Cañari priestess and 10 of her servants. The Temple of the Sun, a unique ritual site that the Inca Empire used to celebrate the Sun as part of the Inti Raymi tradition (also known as the Festival of the Sun), which coincides with the solstice every June, is also located in this southerly part of the complex.
There are many other fascinating aspects of these ruins. You can learn about them when you visit and take a guided tour. There is also a small museum to explore Inca and Cañari artifacts, such as sculptures, traditional clothing, tools, ceramics, and more.
Cuenca’s Culinary Offerings
One of the most celebrated reasons for visiting or living in Cuenca is its remarkable affinity for fine cuisine. If you plan to visit this popular South American destination, dine at one of countless fine restaurants and cafés. There are several worthwhile recommendations, such as Tiesto’s, which features reimagined traditional Ecuadorian fare with spectacular attention to detail, and Altitud 2.560, which offers a fusion of international and Ecuadorian flavors.
Cuenca is a magical destination in Ecuador because it contains some of the richest soil in Ecuador, and its yield is quite productive. It is, therefore, no surprise that widely consumed products, such as vegetables, maize, grains, fruits, sugar, cotton, and coffee, are grown in the surrounding valleys. When you travel to Cuenca, you can taste what makes its gastronomy unique for the land’s fresh products.
Wherever you go in Cuenca, prepare to find a variety of cuisine, plenty of charming restaurants, and a vivacious gastronomic culture. The affordability and quality of Cuenca’s restaurants are due to a wealth of locally sourced ingredients and many talented chefs. It is a tourist destination in Ecuador. Consider it an arena where the most accomplished and adventurous culinary experts vie to impress. The result is a massive win for all restaurant-goers. Consider also that most restaurants offer eclectic and elegant settings, making the dining experience one you will remember!
Ecuadorian cuisine features plenty of fresh vegetables, seafood, poultry, meat, and pork. Meals are often accompanied by delicious freshly baked bread, incredible soups, various grains, and various herbs and spices used dynamically. For carnivores, Cuenca, like Buenos Aires, has a reputation for being a terrific place to sample grilled meats served with chimichurri or prepared with more elaborate sauces. Conversely, shrimp- or fish-based ceviche is popular alongside the traditional locro (creamy potato soup) topped with fresh avocado and queso fresco (farmer’s cheese).
Natural Areas and El Cajas National Park
The City of Cuenca sits in a valley with numerous rivers, four of which intersect the city: Milchichig, Tomebamba, Yanuncay, and Tarqui. A fifth river, the Machángara, flows northeast of the city. The surrounding paramo (highlands) ecosystems are home to Andean condors, spectacled bears, giant hummingbirds, and alpacas.
El Cajas National Park is just 15 miles (24 kilometers) outside Cuenca. This well-known nature destination is home to these (aforementioned) ecosystems. Within this park, there are approximately 270 lagoons or lakes. The highest peaks reach about 14,436 feet (4,400 meters). It is no wonder that the name comes from the Quichua word caxa, which means cold, signifying that this is a sort of “gateway to the snowy mountains.”
This is where two of Cuenca’s rivers (Tomebamba and Yanuncay) originate, eventually flowing into tributaries of the Amazon River. Over 50% of Cuenca’s drinking water is sourced from El Cajas. The region’s flora is perfectly adapted for straw grass, and Polylepsis (also known as the “paper tree”), thanks to the region’s low atmospheric pressure, high altitude, and humidity. The park’s lower altitudes are cloud forest ecosystems.
Many animal species found in El Cajas, which include over 150 bird species, are well adapted to these ecosystems. Mammals such as porcupines, pumas, coatis, weasels, foxes, and rabbits roam throughout. There are also several amphibians and insects in the region. El Cajas has been identified as both a World Natural Heritage Site by UNESCO and a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, all the more reason to visit this awesome nature destination in one of the most biodiverse countries in South America. These are some tourist destinations in Ecuador that you can take advantage of.
How to Get to Cuenca, Ecuador
Travel to Cuenca, Ecuador, is most leisurely by plane. Daily flights are available from Quito and Guayaquil, Ecuador’s two international airports. A round-trip domestic flight from Quito to Cuenca lasts less than one hour and costs under $200. If you are considering how to get to Cuenca, Ecuador, conversely, one can travel by car, bus, or train, though travel times may vary. There is plenty of accommodation options in Cuenca; hotels, inns, haciendas, hostels, and direct rentals are available throughout the city and surrounding areas. Take the opportunity to visit the most popular tourist destinations in Ecuador.
Why not chat with a destination expert about adding Cuenca to your dream Ecuador itinerary? Combine this destination with a visit to the Galapagos and Quito for a whole experience of this fantastic destination!