The city is comparatively safe, the climate pleasantly cool, and the locals with their singsong accents are very welcoming. There are plenty of kindred spirits too because Cuenca has become very popular both with travelers and retired folk looking for a quiet, scenic city to study or simply relax.
Cuenca (elevation 2,530 meters), capital of Azuay Province, is known as the “Athens of Ecuador” because of its architectural beauty. The center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996, and walking around the stately squares, churches, and colonial houses is a delightful experience.
Devout Catholicism dominates the city, both architecturally and culturally; consider the city’s municipal motto: Primero Díos, Después Vos (First God, Then You).
The city is not without its Bohemian streak, however: There are seven universities here with a large student population, and Cuenca was also the first regular meeting place for poets in Latin America.
Cuenca also has a proud sporting tradition. The city is home to Jefferson Pérez, who became Ecuador’s first and only Olympic medalist in 1996 by taking the gold in speed walking. At age 22, he was also the youngest-ever Olympic walking champion. A devout Catholic, he chose not to bask in his fame but celebrated his Olympic win by embarking on a 450-kilometer pilgrimage from Quito to Cuenca. He went on to become a three-time world champion, set the world record for the 20-kilometer walk, and retired after winning the silver medal in Beijing in 2008.
Cuencanos—and all Ecuadorians—are fiercely proud of Jefferson Pérez, and locals will often be seen practicing speed walking in the city’s parks. Luis Chocho, Pérez’s first trainer, has a city academy that has trained generations of champion speed-walkers. Cycling and jogging are also very popular in Cuenca; on a recent visit, I met a diminutive, middle-aged taxi driver who was enthusing about beating a “Dutch giant” half his age in a half-marathon.
Cuenca’s wealth of religious architecture makes it easy to believe the local saying that the city has a church for every Sunday of the year (the tourist office claims that there are indeed 52). The churches of San Sebastián to the west and San Blas to the east once marked the city’s boundaries. Note that many museums and attractions (as well as most restaurants) are closed on Sunday, the best day to take a day trip outside the city.
Catedral Nueva and Parque Calderon
Palm and pine trees fill charming Parque Calderón, Cuenca’s central park. On its west side is the immense twin-towered facade of one of Ecuador’s architectural wonders—the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, usually called simply the Catedral Nueva (New Cathedral). Begun in 1880 by an ambitious local bishop who decided the old cathedral wasn’t big enough, it was originally planned as South America’s largest church, with room for 10,000 worshippers.
Work stopped in 1908 because of “architectural miscalculations,” leaving the square twin towers unfinished. Quite how it would have looked if the bishop’s ambitions had been realized defies imagination, but the pink travertine facade is still a stunning sight. For an even better view, walk around to the north side of the park to see the twin blue domes, covered with tiles imported from central Europe.
Inside, the Catedral Nueva is even more awe-inspiring, with a stunning gold-leaf altar, pink marble pillars, and stained glass windows from Belgium and Germany. Services fill the nave with voices chanting prayers in Latin and Spanish. Even if you’re feeling burned-out on churches, this one is not to be missed.
On the opposite side of the park, the Catedral El Sagrario, better known as Catedral Antigua (Old Cathedral), is the city’s oldest building, begun in 1557 with stones from the ruins of the Inca palace of Pumapungo. The steeple was used by La Condamine’s group as one of the fixed points in measurements of the shape of the earth, inspiring a Spanish scientist visiting in 1804 to comment that this spire was more famous than the Egyptian pyramids. In a recent renovation, original 16th-century frescoes were discovered on the walls. Religious services were held here until the construction of the Catedral Nueva. Today it is often used for concerts.
Getting to Cuenca
Buses: Cuenca’s terminal terrestre is probably the most orderly and pleasant bus terminal in the country. It is two blocks northeast of the traffic circle at España and Huayna Capac. Several companies run luxury bus services to Guayaquil (4 hours, $8), which recently increased in price, and Macas (7 hours, $8.50). Panamericana (España 5-24) has an office just beyond the bus station and sends luxury buses to Quito (10 hours, $12) daily at 10 p.m.
Buses to Loja (4.5 hours, $7.50) travel via Saraguro, and Transportes Cañar has direct buses to Ingapirca ($2.50) at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily. Jahuay has more regular buses to Tambo ($1.80), where you change for Ingapirca. For El Cajas National Park (45 minutes, $2), take a Guayaquil bus and ask the driver to let you off at the entrance.
For Gualaceo, Chordeleg, and Sigig, buses run every hour. Buses to other small towns and villages around Cuenca leave from Terminal Sur, close to the Feria Libre outdoor market on Avenida de las Amíricas. Local city buses cost $0.25.
Taxis and Car Rental: The minimum taxi fare in Cuenca is $1.25, which will get you to most places in town (taxis don’t have meters). The bus station and airport are each a $2 ride from the city center. Reputable, prebookable companies include Ejecutivo (tel. 7/280-9605) and Andino (tel. 7/282-3893). For car rental, try Localiza (tel. 7/408-4631) at the airport or bus terminal.
Air: Planes leave from Cuenca’s Mariscal Lamar airport, two kilometers northeast of the town center on Avenida España. It’s a 10-minute walk from the terminal terrestre or a short hop by taxi or local bus.
TAME has offices in town (Astudillo 2-22, tel. 7/288-9581 or 7/410-3104) and at the airport (tel. 7/286-6400) and flies to Quito (Mon.–Sat., $85 one-way) and Guayaquil (Mon.–Sat., $70 one-way). For similar prices, Icaro, Aerogal, and Air Cuenca also regularly fly to Quito and Guayaquil.
© Ben Westwood and Avalon Travel from Moon Ecuador & the Galápagos Islands, 5th Edition