Cuenca Travel Guide

Located in the southern Ecuadorian Andes Cuenca is known for its historic city center, declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1999, and the magnificent surrounding mountains. In 2014 Cuenca was voted Best Adventure Hub by Outside Magazine: Cajas National Park is only 30 minutes away and is a paradise for hikers, while there are world class rock climbing destinations nearby.

Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador and an attractive destination for travelers and expats due to its pleasant weather, relaxed pace, colonial architecture, stable economy and its natural surroundings which are ideal for adventure activities. TerraDiversa specializes in travel to Cuenca and the southern Ecuadorian Andes, offering a wide range of activities, experiences and tours in and around Cuenca.

When to go

As with most of the Ecuadorian Andes, there are no conventional seasons to speak of and there are often four seasons in one day. Although located only a few hours south of the equator, temperatures can get cool because of the altitude with lows of 10ºC and highs of 24ºC. The highland dry season is from June to September with sunny clear days. The wettest months are around April and May with rain in the afternoons, although climate change is affecting the usual patterns.

High season
Besides public holidays, high season in Ecuador coincides with holidays in Europe and North America and runs from mid-June to early September and late December to early January.

Holidays and festivals
When planning your trip to Cuenca, take into account the following festivities which are particularly attractive times to visit the city.

· June · Corpus Cristi:

The Feast of Corpus Christi and Septenary is a week-long event is held to celebrate of the Eucharist of the body of Christ. Corpus Cristi begins on the first Thursday after the week of Pentecost and is a commemoration that is both religious and popular regarding the universal celebration of the body of Christ.

Festivities take place around the Parque Calderón. Each day, different priostes (stewards) pay all the expenses of the festivities—amazing towers of fireworks and many hot air balloons made out of paper. Bands enliven the festivities and popular games of chance are set up and played. Very traditional in this celebration are the “Dulces de Corpus” (Confectioner’s Sugar Candy of Corpus) such as quesitos (honeymoon pies), arepas (butter cookies), huevitos de faltriquera (sugar candy), and roscas de viento (puff-pastry).

· November · Fiestas de Cuenca · Independence of Cuenca:

Cuenca’s independence from Spain occurred on November 3rd 1820. From November 1st to 4th commemorative acts of a civic, military, cultural and folklore nature are held throughout the city.

· December · Pase Niño · The Great Procession of Pase del Niño Viajero:

This is the most important religious celebration and procession in Cuenca. It begins on Avenida de las Americas and crosses the city on Calle Simón Bolívar ending up in Parque Calderón. Thousands of children of all ages participate in this huge parade wearing costumes that evoke biblical episodes of the birth of Jesus, mixed with representations of Ecuadorian ethnic groups, many on richly decorated trucks. Of special interest are the Mayorales, children with luxurious outfits riding horses decorated with candies, sweets, loaves of Christmas bread, fruits, currency and typical dishes who march to the sound of Christmas carols which enliven this great parade. It is said that the Pase del Niño is the fifth river of Cuenca due to the large number of participants it has each year.

Getting there & around

There are direct flights to Cuenca Airport from both Quito and Guayaquil. Traveling by bus is simple and cheap, though levels of comfort vary widely. Traveling by bus from Cuenca you can reach Guayaquil in about 3 or 4 hours, Quito in 8 hours, Huaquillas on the Peruvian border in 4 hours and Loja in 3 or 4 hours. Another option is to travel in tourist transportation (mini-bus) for a more comfortable experience that will take you to your destination in less time, and stopping wherever you like on the way. Be aware that there are busetas offering minivan services, but these do not have permits to operate across provincial borders meaning that the authorities have the right to, and do, stop these minivans at random, leaving you without a ride. At TerraDiversa we have created tours to take you between Cuenca and Guayaquil, or between Cuenca and Quito along the Avenue of the Volcanoes. Contact us to book your place.

Bus transportation within Cuenca is easy and cheap, though traveling by taxi is also an inexpensive option. Renting a car is also an option though prices can be pretty steep and you should have both your national and international license with you. At TerraDiversa we also recommend bike rentals, chauffeur-driven minivans or 4×4 vehicles, run by licensed and professional tourist transportation. We can provide professional guides to accompany you on your adventures. Contact us for bookings.

Travel essentials

The official currency of Ecuador is the US dollar. Bring low-denomination bills as $20, $50 and $100 bills are rarely accepted, except in banks. ATMs are readily available in Cuenca mostly connected with Visa/Plus and MasterCard/Cirrus/Maestro systems, though some accept American Express and Diners Club cards, but you usually won’t be able to withdraw more than $300-500 from an ATM in a day and local handling charges will apply. Traveller’s cheques are getting difficult to change.

Take into account that Value Added Tax (I.V.A. in Spanish) is 12% and is added to most goods and services. This is often included in the quoted price directly, while others add it to the end of the bill. Sometimes a 10% service charge is added automatically as well, while often this is at the client’s discretion. V.A.T. can be refunded to foreign tourists leaving from Quito or Guayaquil airport for Ecuadorian-made goods or accommodation services (costing $50 or more) purchased in establishments which display a tax-free logo. At the airport you will need to fill in a V.A.T. refund application form, submit invoices, a copy of your passport, present purchased goods at the SRI-CAE counter in the check-in lounge and have a credit card.

ID cards
Full-time students, under-26s and teachers should consider getting an ISIC card, International Youth Travel Card or International Teacher Card as these are sometimes recognized for discounts. Over 65’s who are either residents or nationals are entitled to discounts on buses, flights, V.A.T. refunds, cinema tickets and more.

Always ensure you purchase a suitable travel insurance policy when traveling abroad. When planning to take part in adventure activities, ensure your policy covers them. If you’re not sure, contact your insurance provider. We can provide information about travel insurance on request.

Cuenca is known for its high quality and professional healthcare services and private hospitals, and it is increasingly becoming a destination for medical tourism.

Cuenca is about 2500 meters above sea level. When traveling to high altitudes talk to your general practitioner to discuss health risks. To avoid altitude sickness we recommend you ascend gradually, stay well-hydrated and wear appropriate clothing. If you notice any signs of altitude sickness descend to a lower altitude and seek medical attention.

To avoid food poisoning or stomach problems, wash your hands frequently, use a sanitizing gel, avoid food sold on the street, drink bottled water and make sure your food is completely cooked or peeled.

110V/60Hz is the standard supply and sockets are for two flat prongs. Fluctuations are common so we advise travelers use a surge protector.

Ecuador is –5 GMT (Eastern Standard time zone) and the Galapagos Islands are -6 GMT. Daylight saving is not observed.

Phone & Internet
Public and private phone offices with phone cabins are widely available, as are internet cafés. Roaming isn’t cheap anywhere in the country, so consider buying a phone and account in Ecuador. If you wish to use your own phone and purchase a chip, remember to unlock your phone before arrival as this is costly in Ecuador.

* This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please check before traveling.

Packing tips

The weather can be unpredictable in Cuenca, with warm, sunny mornings followed by cooler and rainy afternoons. When packing make sure to bring warm clothes, rain gear, hiking boots or shoes, light clothes for sunny weather and a swim suit for visiting the hot springs in Baños. We always recommend sun protection, a sun hat and sunglasses as the sun can be very strong. If you are going to be doing any adventure activities you can usually rent all equipment from the tour operator but bring your own if you are particular.

Fact file

Cuenca is believed to have originally been known as Guapondelig, a city of the Canari nation whose people inhabited the central portion of what is now Ecuador. Later the Incas, under the rule of Huayna-Capac, built the city of Tomebamba on the same site and made it the second capital of the Inca Empire.

Today the city’s full name is Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca and it is the capital of the Azuay province. Cuenca means basin in Spanish, so named by the conquistadors in 1557 because of its location in the base of a valley surrounded by mountains. Modern Cuenca was founded in 1557 under the command of the Viceroy of Peru, Andrés Hurtado de Mendoza. Since then Cuenca has grown to include almost 500,000 citizens and is the economic and cultural center of the southern Andes.

Cuenca was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1999. The city is also a multiple winner of International Living’s title of best retirement haven. In 2014 it was voted Best Adventure Hub by Outside Magazine.

Food & drink
If you’re in Cuenca make sure you try locro de papas (a delicious soup of potato, cheese and corn with avocado), llapingachos (cheesy potato cakes), cuy (roast guinea pig), seco de chivo (mutton stew), hornado (slow-roasted pig), motepillo (boiled corn mixed with eggs) or even humitas (cakes of ground corn with cheese, sugar, butter and vanilla steamed in banana leaves) and higos con queso (figs with cheese). Also try to get your hands on nationally produced chocolate such as those made by Pacari which you can buy in select shops or in one of the bigger super markets.

We recommend visiting one of the local markets, particularly 10 de Agosto at the west end of Calle Larga. Try one of the many fresh jugos (fruit juices) made from carrot, orange, coconut, taxo (a kind of passion fruit), mora (blackberry), maracuyá (passion fruit), tomate de árbol (tree tomato), naranjilla or babaco (both fruits native to Ecuador). Pilsner and Club are the main national beer producers. Other nationally produced alcohol includes chicha (fermented corn drink), rum and aguardiente (sugar-cane spirit). In the mountains they combine aguardiente with sugar, cinnamon and hot water to make canelazo which is ideal for staying warm. Imported spirits and drinks are highly taxed and expensive.

Arts & crafts


Modern ceramics in the Azuay province are the result of a mixture that combines aboriginal and Spanish techniques. Techniques like hand molding, hitting, huactanas and lathe are used. The process is long and laborious, including kneading the mud, molding it, baking it in the oven, glazing and varnishing it. In addition to work by artisans, industrial ceramic production is widely developed in Cuenca. Tiles for roofs, floors and walls are acknowledged nationally as well as internationally for their fine quality.

· Textiles:

The art of fabrics in Cuenca finds its roots in antiquity. It is known that the Cañaris used knitting techniques that were very similar to those used currently in the rural areas. Garments made with vegetal fibers such as cabuya (string plant) and cotton (which was obtained in trade with cultural groups from the coast) were produced at that time. Later the Incas introduced the llama fleece and the Europeans introduced the sheep fleece, diversifying the styles and designs of the fabrics. The tints were obtained from all kinds of plants, flowers and fruits, as it is done currently in some rural communities.

Typical garments produced in Cuenca and the province of Azuay include skirts, shawls, blouses and bags. All of these show beautiful traditional stitching, with drawings of flowers, petals and leaves. To create these products, diverse materials such as wool, cotton and velvet are used.

The fabrics that are most desired by national as well as foreign tourists are those manufactured with the technique known as Ikat, especially shawls called macanas. Shops where skillful artisans weave beautiful garments with diverse designs on looms are found in outlying communities. These garments are created through a process of “binding and dyeing”. The colors are often natural tints made from fruits (grapes, blackberries, walnut), flowers, vegetables (carrot, onion) and even some animal products such as a type of insect called cochinilla. The fringe of these garments are handmade in order to obtain designs of flowers, birds, animals and trees.

· Jewelry:

Jewelry made in Cuenca is acknowledged as among the best in Ecuador due to its quality, originality and fine design. Skilled goldsmiths in Cuenca and its surroundings manufacture earrings, rings, pins, bracelets, hanging symbols and necklaces in silver, gold and other materials. The designs maintain, in most cases, a marked influence from pre-Colombian and Colonial art. Stones like emerald, diamonds, opal, aquamarine, topaz, saudas, alexandrites and garnets are used to decorate them. Many of the materials used are imported from other countries.

The filigree technique is one of the most interesting aspects of jewelry in Cuenca. It involves weaving silver and gold thread of several thicknesses, covering some spaces and leaving others uncovered in order to form a translucent texture. According to some writers, the origin of this technique is Asian and was developed later in Spain and Portugal. The traditional candongas are manufactured using this technique, including the earrings used by Cholas Cuencanas which are an indispensable part of their festive outfits.

· Shawl Straw & Panama hats:

Weaving shawl straw to manufacture hats, baskets, bags and purses is one of the traditional crafts in Cuenca and the province of Azuay. This fiber comes from the palm of Carludovica Palmata, also found in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Only in Ecuador has its use became an important financial source for many families and a significant exporting industry.

In Ecuador Carludovica Palmata is cultivated in the coast, where artisan centers for shawl straw weaving such as Jipijapa and Montecristi have been developed. This activity has also flourished in the Andean mountain area of Ecuador. The manufacturing process of shawl straw is made up of several steps. First the fiber taken from the palm must be treated to make it soft and clear. Generally the fiber that is ready to be worked is sold in different shops or markets on the coast and in the mountain region where artisans purchase it. To manufacture a hat, the first step is to divide the straw: the finer the fibers, the greater the quality of the hat. The weaving is performed by hand in a circular manner with the use of a mold to form the three parts: inner lining, cup and skirt. In the majority of cases the artisans sell their products half-finished to the mercantile markets where the process of “repair” is performed, including cutting the remaining straw, washing, fumigating or whitening, pressing, macerating, ironing and adding morocco leather and bands. Only then is the hat ready for sale or export.

The shawl straw hat (also known as Panama Hat) is known all over the world as a high quality product and it has become synonymous with elegance and distinction. Nowadays it is exported all over the world and the finest hats are sold for up to two thousand dollars or more.

· Tin:

In innumerable shops scattered throughout the city, tin utensils such as jars, molds, watering cans, buckets, pitchers, and pots are manufactured. These are sold in weekly fairs in the surrounding areas or daily in the historic center of Cuenca at Plaza Rotary.

· Iron:

The art of ironwork is usually maintained within families and passed down from generation to generation. On Calle de las Herrerías the smithies forge farming tools such as shovels and picks, as well as household decorations (such as crosses), lamps, lanterns and all kinds of fences and rails for doors, windows, balconies and handrails.

· Carpentry:

Carpentry is very much alive and well in Cuenca and its surroundings. In most cases carpenters work in small shops using traditional tools to manufacture doors, windows, handrails, furniture and all kinds of decorative items. Wood like willow, seike, laurel, eucalyptus, romero, saraz and cedar are generally used.

· Leather:

Bags, shoes, jackets, suitcases, belts and purses are custom made with exquisite materials. Beautiful saddles are also created, with the finest taking up to four months to complete.

· Fireworks:

In Cuenca and surrounding rural areas some families have perfected the technique for manufacturing all kinds of fireworks which are indispensable to traditional celebrations (though for the most part now illegal). They are made with raw materials including reed, cabuya string, chillo string, construction paper and gunpowder. Mice, rockets, wheels, multicolored hot air balloons, crazy cows and towers are just some of the resulting creations.

Where to stay

Cuenca offers a wide range of accommodations from inexpensive hostels and boutique hotels, to short-term rental apartments located in the historic city center. Thanks to years of experience, we are experts in helping you find accommodation to suit your requirements. These are some of our recommendations:

  • Casa del Barranco (Budget)
  • Casa del Águila (Tourist)
  • Cigale (Budget)
  • El Barranco Condos (Short term rentals)
  • Hotel Victoria (Tourist)

  • Inca Real (Tourist)
  • Mansión Alcazar (Luxury)
  • Posada del Ángel (Tourist)
  • Santa Lucía (First Class)
  • Visit Cuenca Properties to rent an apartment in Cuenca

Where to eat

  • Dos Chorreras (Traditional)
  • El Cigale (International)
  • El Cristo del Consuelo (Traditional)
  • El Mercado (International)
  • Fabianos (Pizza)
  • Inca Lounge (Bar snacks)
  • Izpano (Urban food)
  • Mangiare Benne (Italian)

  • Marea Mar (Pizza)
  • Mediterraneo (Italian)
  • Pedregal Azteca (Mexican)
  • San Sebas Café (Breakfast)
  • Sofy Global Cuisine (International)
  • Sucré Salé Café (French & Coffee)
  • Sunrise Café (Breakfast)
  • Tiestos (Traditional with a twist)

cuenca travel guide


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