A gentle, clean and polite city, Cuenca has all the colonial charm and history of Quito at a less frenetic pace. And although the southern city is famed for its buttoned-up, conservative sensibilities, scratch the surface and you’ll find a quirkier, alternative side to the city where street art, underground nightlife and top-level vegan restaurants form part of its identity.
The true home of the Panama hat, Cuenca has many more surprises in store, from the European-style riverfront to the Incan ruins a stones’ throw from the city centre. Just outside of the town favoured by artists and writers the natural beauties of the region beckon, including the vast and brilliant El Cajas National Park and steaming hot springs.
What to do in Cuenca
- Visit the hat museum and buy a hand-crafted sombrero that will last you for years
- Wander around Parque Calderón, the hub of the city where the lovely domed cathedral is located
- Stroll along Calle Larga, where museums and charming old town houses sit side by side with trendy bars and restaurants
- Discover incredible Inca ruins at the Parque Arqueológico
- Hike El Cajas National Park past shimmering lakes, through enchanted forests, and up rocky hilltops
Eating and drinking
It’s easy to dine very well in Cuenca with a handful of nationally acclaimed restaurants, including fancy, riverside options for supping cocktails served in bronze pineapple beakers. Tiesto’s, a cosy den of premium meat and fish served special, baking hot pans, deserves a particular mention. Wander along the length of Calle Larga for a plethora of Middle Eastern, Italian and vegan offerings (as well as the best bars and discotecas) or make like the locals and order the staple hearty soups and pork dishes.
The Remigio Crespo Toral Museum is worth a visit if only for its fabulous riverside café, a blissful place to sip sangria and watch the world go by in the shade of ancient trees. But check in advance opening hours of any museum you visit – they have a habit here in Cuenca of opening and closing at peculiar times.