All About Cuenca Ecuador

Of all of the cities in Ecuador, Cuenca is arguably the most charming with its cobblestone streets, old-world cathedrals, colonial parks and urban rivers.

In recent years, Cuenca has become a hot spot for expatriates and retirees settling down to live. Safety, low cost of living and pleasant, although slightly cool climate attracts expats to settle down in this small Andean city.

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The famously traditional Cuencanos continue a proud intellectual tradition that has produced more notable writers, poets, artists, and philosophers than anywhere else in Ecuador. Cuencan culture and history are thoroughly represented in the city’s many museums. Those seeking culture in Cuenca by day can choose from a variety of  churches and colonial plazas.

By night, bars and restaurants are plentiful with excellent traditional and international food and bargain priced. Nightlife in Cuenca ranges from bohemian to upscale, but the music tends to be lowered down rather early, mirroring the city’s conservative traditional culture.

Cuenca is the capital of the Azuay province, the third largest city in Ecuador, and the economic center of the southern Sierra. These distinctions, along with the city’s incredibly we preserved history, have earned Cuenca the honor of being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Trust site.

Many of Cuenca’s hotels are converted colonial homes and mansions, and in themselves are interesting to pop into for their colonial architecture and furnishings. Many of the hotels have restaurants where you can sit down and soak in the history.

Though most of Cuenca’s sites of interest are churches, parks and museums, outdoor enthusiasts flock to Cuenca for El Cajas National Park which offers spectacular hiking and trekking opportunities, and the bicycling around Cuenca is second to none, especially mountain biking on thousands of miles of seldom visited trails.

Cuenca Facts & Statistics

  • Full name: Santa Ana de los cuatro ríos de Cuenca
  • Capital city of Azuay Province
  • Total population of Cuenca Canton: 417,632 inhabitants
  • Urban population of Cuenca proper: 267,000 inhabitants
  • Altitude: 2500m (8200 ft) above sea level
  • Mayor: Marcelo Cabrera Palacios

History of Cuenca

Cuenca’s history begins long before the arrival of both the Spanish and the Inca. The city was originally a Cañari settlement called Guapondeleg and is believed to have been founded around 500 AD Guapondeleg translates into “land as big as heaven.”

Cuenca's Catedral, one of many colonial churches in Cuenca

Cuenca’s Catedral, one of many colonial churches in Cuenca

The New Cathedral (Catedral de la Inmaculada) dominates the plaza.

Less than half a century before the conquistadors landed, the Inca, after a bitter struggle, conquered the Cañari and occupied Guapondeleg and the surrounding area. Though the Inca replaced Cañari architecture with their own, they did not exclude the Cañari or their impressive achievements in astronomy and agriculture. Rather, they absorbed these elements of Cañari culture, as was customary when they conquored other cultures.

Shortly after the defeat of the Cañari, the Inca commander, Tupac Yupanqui, ordered the construction of a grand city – Pumapungo, “the door of the Puma” – whose magnificence was to challenge that of the Inca capital of Cuzco. Indigenous people told the Spanish conquorers stories of golden temples and other such wonders, but by the time the Spaniards found the legendary city of Pumapungo, all that remained were ruins, leaving the Spanish to wonder what happened to the fabled splendor and riches of the second Inca capital.

After being abandoned by the Cañari and then the Inca, Cuenca was sparsely populated until the 1550′s. The Cuenca that exists today was founded by the Spanish in 1557, which was relatively late, considering southern Ecuador’s other major city, Loja, was founded in 1548.

Cuenca’s population and importance grew steadily during the colonial era and reached the peak of its importance in the first years of Ecuador’s independence; it became the capital of one of the three provinces that made up the nascent republic, the other two capitals were Guayaquil and Quito.

Living and Retiring in Cuenca

In the last several years, Cuenca has become a major destination for retirees looking for low cost, high quality lifestyle. Most retirees find that they can in fact live off of their fixed incomes. Restaurants in Cuenca are of excellent quality, plentiful and quite cheap. Strolling the colonial streets, riverside paths, visiting colonial churches and escaping to the andean countryside (especially Cajas National Park where there is excellent hiking and trekking) are all fulfilling, free activities. Exploring Cuenca’s museums is very affordable and an excellent way to relive Cuenca’s rich history.

Where Cuenca has become expensive is costs of buying a house or apartment. Prices now are in the $900 per square meter ($90 per square foot) range, making it more expensive than Quito, Guayaquil and many small cities in North America. The locals normally blame expats for the relative real estate bubble that has developed in Cuenca, as it has clearly affected local real estate prices.

Cuenca’s Climate 

Like most of the rest of the Ecuadorian Andes, Cuenca enjoys a mild climate year-round. Days are generally warm and nights are cool enough that you should pack a sweater. The average daily temperature is 14.6 degrees C (58 degrees F). The rainy season is the same as Quito’s and generally lasts from mid-October until early May. During this time, mornings are typically sunny and afternoons cloudy with light, periodic showers.

How to Get There & Away

Cuenca’s main bus terminal, Terminal Terrestre, is located on Avenida España in the northeast of the city, a twenty-minute walk or a brief taxi ride from the historic center. Buses leave throughout the day, and into the night, destined for QuitoGuayaquilLojaVilcabamba, Riobamba and Machala. The trip to Quito is about 10 hours and costs about $15 USD. Many people prefer to take over-night buses, though reports of bags being robbed and the opportunity to see magnificent scenery along the way may outweigh the benefits of a night bus.

Alternatively, many people fly into Mariscal Lamar Airport, also located on Avenida España.

See our Cuenca transportation and orientation page for complete details.

Related EE.com Pages
Cuenca, Cultural Pride
Cuenca Hotels
Cuenca Map
Cuenca Attractions and Site Seeing
Cuenca Nightlife
Cuenca Museums
Cuenca Photos
Cuenca Guide
Cuenca Hotels
Tours in and around Cuenca
Cuenca Activities
Cuenca Restaurants

Updated June 19, 2013