Cuenca (Ecuador)

Cuenca is a vibrant colonial city in southern Ecuador, the third largest in the country, and the capital of Azuay Province. The city is located in a highland valley at about 2,500 m (8,200 ft) above sea level, and is home to 518,000 people according to the 2010 census. Its moderate climate makes it enjoyable year round. The center of the city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site site because of its many historical buildings. Everywhere you look in Cuenca, there are flowers, blooming trees, grass and rushing waters.

Cuenca is surrounded by mountains on all sides, with passes to the west, south and east. From downtown, looking southwest, you can see the beautiful Cajas mountains; the majority of this area is protected by the large Cajas National Park (Parque Nacional Cajas), well worth the trip.

The city is cleaner and safer than most large cities in developing countries and there are claims it has purer water than most U.S. and European cities. Unlike other cities in Ecuador, the drinking water is OK to consume. From 2010 to 2013 the government utility agency, ETAPA, built brand new water and sewage mains covering 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres).

The Cuenca city government recently hired a Spanish urban planning company to design 80 km of bicycle trails that will be constructed throughout the city of Cuenca. These trails are in addition to the trails that already follow several of the rivers that run through Cuenca.

Understand

Iglesia de Santo Domingo

Cuenca's full name is Santa Ana de los cuatro ríos de Cuenca. The dominant features of the city's geography are also the source of its name; In Spanish cuatros rios means "four rivers" and cuenca means "basin", and the city is in a basin made by a confluence of rivers. These rivers are the Tomebamba (named after the Cañari culture), Yanuncay, Tarqui and Machangara, in order of importance. The first three of these rivers originate in the Páramo of Parque Nacional Cajas to the west of the city. These four rivers are part of the Amazon river watershed. In fact, the locals are very proud of their rivers.

Cuenca is a city whose culture encompasses over 100 years or more at the same time. While walking in Cuenca, you will see modern buildings, use high-speed internet and wireless communications while seeing natives washing their clothes in the river while talking on cell phones. You will see many modern vehicles while seeing people move their cows, horses and donkeys to graze along the rivers and parks. In around the markets, you will see people milking their goats and others hauling milk into town on a donkey. This is the charm of Cuenca, a culture that encapsulates traditions and practices of many decades.

In mid-February 2013, construction began on the Tranvía (tram). Work will continue to near the end of 2014, with the rapid transit system becoming fully operational in early 2015. The Tranvía is designed to decrease traffic and pollution in Cuenca, particularly in the Historic District.

Cuenca is a very walkable city. Over the past year, the city has been upgrading miles of sidewalks which is making the city even more pedestrian friendly. Just watch for the drivers, because they will not watch for you. The Ecuadorian government is working on slowing down traffic, but this will take some time and education.

Get in

By plane

There are daily local flights from and to Quito, Guayaquil and neighboring countries as well. Currently TAME, LAN and AeroGal all offer daily service to Cuenca. AirCuenca offers service every day except Sunday.

A taxi from the airport to the center of the city is approximately $2–3 USD.

By bus/car

Cuenca lies on the Pan-American highway. Buses offer connections to many cities in Ecuador. The bus system in Ecuador is well developed. Buses can be obtained every one or two hours during the day.

Loja for connections to Vilcabamba (4.5-7 h, $7.5). Be warned that the Viajeros buses to Loja do not have a working bathroom and they can take up to 7 hours (we were told at the office that it would take 4 hours and that it would only make one stop, but we stopped more than 50 times and ended up so full the bus could hardly struggle uphill). This was with Viajeros "International".

San Luis buses run from Cuenca to Loja using the national park route and take 4.5 hours, $8. Departures at 7:45, 11:00, 16:00, 19:30 and 24:00. There is a working toilet.

Alausi. 4 hours (Transportes Alausi) Riobamba. 6 hours (Patria)

Piura, Peru: There is a new service to Piura leaving at 19:30, 21:00 and 23:00. This is a partnership between two companies, Pullman Sucre and CIFA International. It is necessary to change bus at either Machala or Huaquillas. The 19:30 and 23:00 services connect to a special sleeper seat service. The price is $12–15 USD depending on the class of service. It is a good idea to purchase your ticket a day in advance as it is not unusual for them to book out.

Tumbes, Peru: As above, plus additional departures at 13:15 and 15:00. $7 from the border.

There is a $0.10 departure fee for leaving from the bus terminal.

Get around

Cuenca's tourism office, iTur, is located on the main plaza (Parque Calderón) and has lots of helpful maps and brochures to guide you during your visit in and around the city. (Monday-Friday 8:00–22:00, Saturday-Sunday 8:30–13:30 Mariscal Sucre, between Luis Cordero and Benigno Malo. Tel: 07-282-1035, itur@cuenca.com.ec, URL: www.cuencaecuador.com.ec). There is also a satellite iTur office in the airport (Monday-Wednesday 7:30–11:00, 14:00–15:30PM and 17:00–19:00, Thursday-Friday 7:30–11:00, 14:00–15:30, 16:30–19:00, Saturday 8:00–12:00. Tel: 07-286-2203, ext 162).

Central Cuenca is easily walkable, and it is often faster than taking a cab through the narrow traffic-jammed lanes.

Cabs are readily available and charge $1.50–$3 per trip. The fee should be negotiated before entering the car. Some taxis make use of taxi-meters.

City buses are also fairly easy to figure out. Most bus stops are marked. The cost is $0.25 per ride (exact change is required as you put coins into a machine, there is no fare collector on the bus). You can find a guide to using the City buses, as well as maps of the routes and an online trip planner at CuencaTransit.com.

See

Do

Approximately one hour north by automobile or one and a half hours by bus is the excavated ruins of Ingapirca (Kichwa: Inkapirka, meaning “Inca wall”). The ruins are located just outside of the small town of El Tambo in the Cañar Province. The town was named after the Inca palace and temple site. These are the largest known Inca ruins in Ecuador. At the site, you will see the excavated temples of both the Incas and the Cañar. Ingapirca was the northern ruling city of the Inca empire.

Directions: In order to reach Ingapirca, there are two different access roads from the main Panamerican highway that are approximately 8 to 10 km travel: (1) North entrance from El Tambo (recommend option); and (2) South entrance which is just south of Uculoma. The journey east from the Panamerican takes you through typical southern Andean countryside panorama, including sheep, donkeys, llamas. You can hire a driver ($20–30 from Cuenca), but there is also a bus service. Direct buses to the ruins can be boarded at the bus terminal close to Cuenca airport, leaving at 9:00 and 12:20, returning at 13;15 and 15:45, journey time 2¼ hours. Outside these times, take a bus to El Tambo (2 hours) and change there for a bus to Ingapirca (30 minutes). The bus fare is $2.50.

The majority of the tours are in Spanish. There is an English guided tour once per day. Ingapirca is always closed on the many holidays in Ecuador, so make sure to check out the holiday schedule before you take a trip to Ingapirca. $6 foreigners, $2 Ecuadorians.

Learn

Buy

Buy some flowers at the flower market on Calle Sucre across from the new cathedral. Continue on about a block from there to get to the clothing and artesan market where one can also find knit crafts from Otavalo. Lovely handmade ruanas, sweaters, hats, mittens, and finger puppets are also available here.

Inside the yellow CemuArt building across from the police station at the market other artesans have booths with beautiful embroidery, metal, wood and leather work, Panama hats, musical instruments, knit goods, jewelry and other handicrafts.

Eat

Drink

Sleep

Budget

Mid-Range

Splurge

Go next

Cajas National Park 1 hour drive to a beautiful national park with beautiful lagoons.The temperature is very cold in this area and fishing is a good pastime. Go with a guide or ask for a guide at the park entrance. It is very easy to get lost here as maps are not always accurate. The entrance is free of charge.

Sig Sig and Chordeleg Lovely towns about an hour outside of Cuenca. The landscape during the bus ride is quite scenic. Chordeleg is known for its silver and gold and is a pleasant town to walk around in. Sig Sig is known for a co-op of women who weave 'sombrero de paja toquilla' aka 'Panama Hats' or 'Montecristi'. There is a beautiful river to sit by and a market to visit.

Onward towards Peru: Many travelers find themselves in Cuenca as their last stop in Ecuador before heading to Peru. The fastest way to get to Peru is via Huaquillas and into Tumbes. At Cuenca's Terminal Terrestre there is a company called Pullman Sucre that will sell you a ticket to Tumbes, Mancora or Piura. The journey is fairly simple and involves the following: First 5 or so hours on a Pullman bus until Huaquillas where the bus will stop by the highway at the Ecuadorian immigration point to get your exit stamp. Since this is the end of the journey on the first bus you will have to wait for the CIFA bus to arrive and pick you up. The CIFA bus will head through Aguas Verdes and onto the Peruvian immigration point to get the entry stamp and then head onward towards for another 30–40 mins to Tumbes.

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