Cuenca is a lovely colonial town in the south of Ecuador, full of beautiful buildings, street art, and interesting museums. Everything in the town is within walking distance, so you can easily spend your days there wandering from place to place, enjoying the scenery as you go, and taking a break in one of the many cafes and restaurants dotted throughout the town. AJ and I spent three days there exploring as much of Cuenca as we could, including;
Visiting the Churches:
Cuenca is full of stunningly beautiful churches, from the impressively large cathedral to La Merced with its intricate wooden carvings. The exteriors and interiors show off impressive carvings, paintings and statues, and are a treat to take in and admire. I would recommend going to see:
Visiting the Museums:
There are a variety of art, religious and historical museums to be found, in all shapes and sizes. We didn’t get to all of them; some were closed for refurbishment and some weren’t open when we tried to go in. However we managed to see the majority on offer which included:
• Barranco Museo del Sombrero
This museum shows the history of the production of hat making in the country. You can see all the different tools and stages of production from weaving to shaping to finishing, and if you’re lucky, a guide will be able to show you some of the machines in use. At the back of the museum is a hat shop where you can see people making hats. There’s plenty of different varieties and colours to try out and buy if any take your fancy. It is a surprisingly interesting visit!
• Pumapungo Museum and Inca Site with Gardens
I had read a lot of good things about the Pumapungo museum before we arrived in Cuenca, so it was top of my list to visit. I don’t know whether it was bad timing, but I was really disappointed; we could only go into two rooms as most of the museum was being refurbished. One room had three, albeit very interesting, paintings, and the other was on the history of the evolution of currency in Ecuador, which would be interesting except that everything was in Spanish so I couldn’t understand a lot of it. The most interesting things I saw where the giant coins, and the revolving windows that had polarizing filters in them so that they would alternate between bright and dark (I love a bit of random physics!).
Out the back of the museum however, is the Pumapunga ruins and Inca garden with aviary. That was really interesting; you get to walk around the ruins – stick to the path laid out or you will be yelled at by a security guard – and read about what the different rooms were used for and how it was laid out. Please note, the ruins are basically bits of wall with one recreation of a house, there’s nothing much there which is a bit of a shame.
Down the hill from the ruins is the Inca garden which is stunning. There are a variety of trees and plants with models of how the land would have looked at the time of the Incas, and in the centre is a circle split into segments with a variety of Inca vegetables and plants on show and a rotating speaker in the centre (why it’s rotating I’ve no idea, but it’s pretty cool to watch). Off in one corner is a forest complete with roaming llamas, and if you continue further along the path you will come to the aviary, where you can meet all sorts of cute birds native to Ecuador; most will stare at you from their perch but if you’re lucky you’ll make a few curious friends!
• Cathedral Vieja Church and Museum
We almost didn’t go into this church because we figured we could see plenty of others for free. However, we found ourselves with some free time on our hands and so decided it was worth the $1pp entry fee to check it out. I am SO glad that we did; it is absolutely gorgeous! The ceiling, the walls, the massive organ, the statues and carvings in all the little side rooms, and the statue recreation of the last supper. It is absolutely worth checking out if you have the chance.
• Museo de la Ciudad
This museum was pretty tricky to find given that there was no sign outside it. We walked up and down the same street about three times before we went to where it was marked on the map, and looked in the archway at the side of the building. We saw a courtyard with a security guard at a desk there, so we wandered in, asked if we were in the right place and we were! The exhibition rooms are upstairs, and it’s all contemporary and modern art, focusing a lot on short films and really interesting large sculptures.
• Museum of Modern Art
This museum is a little out of the way from the central plaza but it is definitely worth a visit. There are lots of little rooms, each exhibiting a different artist and style of art from paintings to videos to sculpture.
• Miguel Illescas C. Galeria de Arte
We stumbled across this little gem on our way to the Pumapunga museum. The gallery is small but bright, airy and with a cheerful atmosphere. The artwork in it is STUNNING; lots of metal work to create sculptures and pictures. Walking around that gallery was the first time I cursed travelling for a year as there was no way I would be able to (a) afford to buy any of the pieces and (b) be able to carry it around with me for another 9 months even if I could buy it. I’m absolutely determined to buy something from this artist when we get back!
Wandering the streets:
If you’re not in the mood for museums or churches and fancy stretching your legs, Cuenca is the perfect place for wandering. There’s an endless amount of beauty to be found around the city in its buildings and outdoor spaces, from the plazas to the parks. We were constantly surprised and entertained by what we found as we walked from place to place. My favourite finds were:
• Parque de la Madre + planetarium
There are lots of large and small parks to be found in Cuenca but Parque de la Madre was my favourite: it’s right by the river, it’s really big so there’s plenty of green spaces to relax in, and there’s really cool wooden carvings and statues scattered throughout the space including ornamental chairs and benches. At one end is the planetarium, which I’ve heard is good, but we weren’t able to get in to it.
• Street Art
The amount of art to be found around Cuenca was a wonderful surprise; I was constantly stopping and dragging AJ up and down side streets to take pictures of murals and paintings I spotted in the distance. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled as you explore the city, you never know what you’ll find!
• Beautiful Buildings and Plazas
The buildings in Cuenca are some of the best examples of colonial architecture I’ve seen in Ecuador; the colours and decorations are stunning. They’re scattered throughout the city, though you will see a high concentration near the central plaza.
The plazas around the city are beautiful too, from the immense and lush central plaza to the smaller plazas outside the churches such as La Merced. Make sure to also check out the Plaza de la Flores by Iglesia San Francisco where you’ll find a large and colourful flower market.
Eating and drinking:
There are many cute cafes and restaurants dotted around Cuenca; I loved getting to try out a different place every day whether for a snack or a full-blown meal. My favourite places that I went to are:
• Lido’s Donuts
This is a tiny doughnut shop right by the central plaza that sells doughnuts that taste as delicious as they look! There’s a large variety of flavours and looks, so you’ll probably find yourself going back a few times to sample as much as you can.
AJ and I have not had great Italian food in South America so far, and didn’t think that would change while we were travelling. We read about Fabiano’s and its stellar reputation for pizza and decided to give it a try. The reviews are not wrong – Fabiano’s pizza is AMAZING! The base, the sauce, the toppings, all of it is delicious and is reasonably priced.
This is a really cute coffee shop that does really nice coffee and great cakes. I spotted some other customers having burgers and sandwiches and they looked very good as well however I wouldn’t recommend their fresh juices – AJ had a mango juice that was more water than juice and was frankly unpleasant.
• Moliendo Café
This is a small Colombian restaurant that we spotted on one of our wanders around the city. We saw that they did arepas so decided to try them out. The arepas were in the ‘snack’ part of the menu so we ordered them with the intention of trying out another place for dinner later. We didn’t end up eating anything else for the rest of the day because the arepas were HUGE; they took up the entire plate and were covered in a pile of meat and vegetables. They were absolutely delicious and excellent value for money!
• Café Sebas
We went to Café Sebas specifically because we had heard they make their own homemade bread and we wanted to get some bread that wasn’t full of sugar as per usual in Ecuador! Our prayers were answered in the BLTA (bacon, lettuce, tomato and avocado) sandwich. The bread was lightly fried, the toppings were really fresh and covered in a really flavourful peppery sauce. Best sandwich in Ecuador hands down!
Day Trip to Ingapirca
Ingapirca is the largest Inca ruins to be found in Ecuador. While the site is nowhere near the scale or grandeur of Machu Picchu, if you’re into history and ruins it is well worth a visit. If you’re going to go, do it yourself rather than going with a tour company – we spent less than half of what it would have cost us with a tour company and it’s really easy to get there. Buses to the site run only a few times a day so you’ll need to check in the bus station when they are. The bus that goes out will wait for about two hours and then return which is enough time to see the site and attractions around it, so if that’s all you want to do then you can buy a return ticket in the morning which costs $7.
Ingapirca itself is most interesting because it was originally built by the Canari who were then conquered by the Incas who built on top of the existing structures. So when you look at the ruins you can see which parts were built by the Canari (circles, semicircles and ellipses), and which were built by the Incas (squares and rectangles). A guide is included in the price of the ticket ($2pp when we went – Dec 2016), and there are English and Spanish-speaking guides available.
When your tour of the site is finished you will have the opportunity to walk the small loop at the back of Ingapirca. We were told it would take us about 40/45 minutes to walk but managed to get it done in about 25 minutes. Along the loop you can see rocks in the shapes of different objects like a chair and a turtle; the most impressive is the Inca’s Face – complete with eyelashes and all!
Cuenca was definitely a highlight of Ecuador for me. It has plenty of museums and old buildings to explore, lots of parks and plazas to relax in, and little coffee shops to rest your feet and refuel in. It manages to retain the feel of a quaint colonial town while providing everything that a modern traveller would need.