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Built by the conquistadors on the site of a pre-Colombian settlement, Cuenca sits in Ecuador’s highlands. Mountain passes and four swift-flowing, boulder-strewn rivers ring the city.

Cuenca’s appeal lies in its central historic zone. This district of grid-like streets opening out onto plazas is compact enough to walk around. Cobblestones, fine townhouses, and graceful ironwork balconies decked with geraniums have led UNESCO to declare the area a World Heritage Site.

Despite its misleading name, the Panama hat was born in the nearby town of Montecristi and is made with locally grown toquilla straw. Workshops and factories that have perfected this age-old craft still carry on their trade around the city.

Laid-back, colonial Cuenca is Ecuador’s quaintest and prettiest city. A visit to one of the Panama hat factories is highly recommended, but it’s also just a great place to stroll around, taking in the flower and handicraft markets.

Ecuador specialist Caroline

Things to see and do in Cuenca

Take a walking tour of the historic area

Guided walks are an excellent way to explore the main landmarks of central Cuenca. Tours usually begin at the western tip of the historic district in the Plaza de San Sebastián. This quiet square was used for bullfighting in the 18th century.

At the Plaza San Francisco, you step into a lively artisanal market. Here, stallholders sell the wide, multihued and heavily embroidered skirts typically worn by Cuenca’s ‘cholas’ (indigenous women from Ecuador’s Azuay Province, of which Cuenca is the capital).

All of Cuenca’s important administrative buildings circle the Plaza Mayor, but none are as striking as the New Cathedral. Its blue and white candy-striped domes can be seen all over the city.

Visit the Panama hat factories and workshops

Panama Hat maker, CuencaCuenca’s home-grown headgear isn’t just for visitors. In the surrounding villages, you’ll see many local people wearing Panama hats. The best way to explore the hat production process is by visiting a factory or workshop. In central Cuenca, look out for craftspeople repairing battered Panamas.

Rafael Parades y Hijos, a small factory at the junction of Calle Larga and Calle Tarqui, is a particularly good small-scale hat factory and museum. The oldest hat-making establishment, Homero Ortega y Hijos, is good for ‘superfinos’. These pliable lightweight hats roll up into a thin sausage, making them ideal for packing.

Wander among blooms in the Plaza de las Flores

The flower stalls filling this small tiled square are all covered by the same elegant taupe sunshade. Vendors in traditional dress sell baskets heaped with all types of roses, orchids and many other specimens. The church of El Carmen de la Asunción, with its white façade and elaborate carved stone entrance, watches over it all.

Visit the city’s museums

The building occupied by Cuenca’s Museum of Modern Art has its own story to tell. A low-lying structure with two stately courtyards, it was originally a 19th-century temperance house, reserved for recovering alcoholics. Today, it shows paintings and sculptures by Ecuadorian and international artists.

The grander Central Bank (Pumapungo) Museum is a treasure chest of archaeological and ethnographic finds from the region. The tsantsas (shrunken heads) made by southern Ecuador’s Shuar people are a popular exhibit. Also contained within the museum complex are the minimal ruins of Pumapungo, a mysterious Inca city that is said to have once been as important as Cuzco.

Make a day trip to El Cajas National Park

This highland reserve of grasslands, trout-filled lakes, cloudforest and quinoa forest lies around 30 km (18 miles) west of Cuenca.

It’s ideal for hikers looking to go on a day walk, or those interested in wildlife. The park’s residents include Andean gulls, black frogs and wild llamas. Guides accompany you through the park, navigating routes and helping you identify the vegetation and flora, which includes rare bromeliads.

Best time to visit Cuenca

Cuenca seems to enjoy a spring-like microclimate for most of the year. The weather is at its best, however, during Ecuador’s dry season (June to September).

Please note that the city can be very quiet on Sundays and museums are generally closed on Mondays.

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Festivals, events and seasonal reasons to visit

  • Inti Raymi, the June Summer Solstice (Festival of the Sun), is the biggest festival in the Ecuadorian calendar. Cuenca celebrates with music, dancing and local food.
  • 3rd November is Ecuador’s Independence Day. This is usually a quiet period, when businesses shut down and families take time off.
  • Cuenca’s annual foundation celebration takes place every year on 12th April (the date on which the Spanish founded the city in 1557). The whole city enjoys parades and fireworks. Cuencanos (inhabitants of Cuenca) also choose a ceremonial ‘queen’.

Speak to someone
who's been there

Audley Travel specialist Caroline

Start planning your tailor-made trip to Cuenca by contacting one of our Ecuador specialists

Suggested itineraries featuring Cuenca

Our itineraries will give you suggestions for what is possible when you travel in Cuenca, and they showcase routes we know work particularly well. Treat them as inspiration, because your trip will be created uniquely by one of our specialists.

Map of Cuenca

Places & hotels on the map

    Places near Cuenca

    Accommodation choices for Cuenca

    We’ve selected a range of accommodation options for when you visit Cuenca. Our choices usually come recommended for their character, facilities and service or location. Our specialists always aim to suggest properties that match your preferences.

    • Hotel Santa Lucia, Cuenca

      Santa Lucia

      Medium

      Conveniently located in the centre of Cuenca, just steps away from the main square, this hotel is a lovingly restored building full of character.

    • Mansion Alcazar, Cuenca

      Mansion Alcazar

      First Class

      This property is a fully renovated late 19th century mansion that is located in the heart of Cuenca.

    Ideas for experiencing Cuenca

    Our specialists seek out authentic ways to get to know the places that could feature in your trip. These activities reflect some of the experiences they've most enjoyed while visiting Cuenca, and which use the best local guides.

    • El Cajas National Park
      El Cajas National Park

      El Cajas National Park

      El Cajas National Park

      The El Cajas National Park is 28 000 hectare area of some 230 lakes and quinua forest starting at 3000 metres (10 000 feet) that is home to a variety of wildlife including the Andean Gull, black frogs, humming birds and condors as well as a variety of indigenous plants including many rare bromeliads and orchids.

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    • Gualaceo Countryside Tour
      Panama Hat maker, Cuenca

      Gualaceo Countryside Tour

      Gualaceo Countryside Tour

      The valley of Gualaceo is 22 miles (36 kilometres) from Cuenca, at an elevation of 7,446 feet (2,370 metres) above sea level. The ride starts along the Santa Ana valley and then high in the mountains, through very scenic landscapes, which change at every curb.

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    • Cuenca Scenic Tour
      Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Cuenca

      Cuenca Scenic Tour

      Cuenca Scenic Tour

      Have a comprehensive but leisurely tour of the colonial city of Cuenca. The tour includes the Plaza of San Sebastian, a colourful artisans market, and the Museum of Modern Art, which featuring an excellent collection of contemporary fine art.

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