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Cuenca—or, in its full name, Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca—is the capital of Ecuador’s Azuay Province, sitting in a valley surrounded by the scenic Andes Mountains. The charming destination is widely considered to be the country’s most European city, thanks in large part to its breathtaking architecture that resembles much of that throughout Spain. The city also boasts a rich intellectual and artistic history, having produced more notable writers, artists, and philosophers than anywhere else in Ecuador. This culture can be seen throughout Cuenca’s many museums, as well as in craft traditions such as textiles, ceramics, and the world-famous panama hat. Along with its pleasant climate, Cuenca’s proximity to Cajas National Park makes it a haven for lovers of the outdoors. Within the city itself, a mixed population of college students, retirees, and expats from around the world has contributed to a laidback atmosphere, diverse attractions, and an eclectic culinary scene.
El Centro — Having earned the title of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the historic district of El Centro is made of quaint cobblestone streets lined with centuries-old churches, picturesque parks, open-air markets, and colonial homes that have been turned into hotels. Here, around the city’s main square of Calderon Park, is where you’ll find the the ornately domed New Cathedral and the 16th-century Old Cathedral, the longest-standing building in the city. The neighborhood is also home to the majority of Cuenca’s museums, including the Museum of Aboriginal Cultures, the Museum of Modern Art, the Folklore Museum, and even a Panama Hat Museum. The southeast end of the district has the largest cluster of restaurants and bars, particularly around Calle Larga, while to the west side of the park there are plenty of shopping malls, boutiques, and outdoor markets.
Gil Ramirez Davalos — To the west of El Centro, Gil Ramirez Davalos is a more modern neighborhood, home to high-rise apartment buildings and the Jefferson Pérez Colosseum. Small yet concentrated, the area around Calle Gran Colombia is also known as Zona Rosa, a name given to neighborhoods that buzz with the activity of restaurants, nightclubs, and bars.
El Vergel — To the southeast of El Centro, El Vergel is a fascinating mix of old and new, with centuries-old architecture and archaeological ruins sharing the streets with shopping malls, a planetarium, a 16,000-seat stadium, and a selection of both local restaurants and international fast food chains. Beautiful Madre Park frequently hosts concerts featuring hometown bands, and also has plenty of picnic tables, playgrounds, and green spaces for relaxing. On a hill overlooking the river, the Pumapungo Ruins are an ancient Inca archaeological site surrounded by a variety of native plants. Here, visit the Pumapungo Museum which houses Ecuador’s largest collection of ethnographic objects including art, clothing, tools, and maps.
For a lovely view overlooking Cuenca, head to the observation deck at the Church of Turi just 2.5 miles (4 km) south of the center of town. You can reach the hill by taking a taxi, visiting the site on a tour, or—for a truly unique experience—walking all the way there. From Calderon Park, a roughly 45-minute stroll on Avenida Solano will bring you to the Pan-American Highway. Make a quick left and then at the roundabout, continue up the hill for less than a quarter of a mile (300 m). On your right, you’ll soon see a wide stone staircase leading up the hill. While the walkway is a whopping 439 steps, the top of each flight has a landing where you can stop to catch your breath and enjoy the amazing scenery as it unfolds before your eyes. Upon reaching the top, you’re met with panoramic views of Cuenca’s romantic skyline, from the red-tiled roofs of the houses to the spires and domes of the cathedrals. No matter how you get to the hill, there’s no better time to come than at sunset when the sky becomes ablaze with purple and orange over the Andes Mountains.
Explore the must-see sites of Cuenca in just a few hours. With a local leading the way, make a quick trip to see contemporary work at the Museum of Modern Art, stop to smell the roses at the flower market near Calderon Park, and admire the impressively elaborate architecture of the New and Old Cathedrals. Next, head to a factory to observe the intricate work that goes into making the city’s renowned panama hats. See landmarks such as the Broken Bridge and the Serrano Stadium before ending your tour on the top of Church of Turi hill. If you want to make a short visit to the city even easier, you can pair the tour with 2-night accommodation and transportation between the airport and your hotel on the days before and after your tour.
Once you’ve explored Cuenca to your heart’s content, head east of the city to the colorful towns of Gualaceo and Chordeleg In the former, visit 2 markets that are famous for their handicrafts and learn how the traditional technique of ikat is used to make textiles, ponchos, and shawls. In Chordeleg, a town known around the country for its silver and gold, you can enjoy free time to pursue the tiny shops, chat with the local artisans, and gain valuable insight into the jewelry-making process.
For even more adventure, head further out to the Ingapirca Ruins, the largest archaeological site in Ecuador. In Cuenca, board a coach for a drive through the dramatic countryside to the city of Alausi, where you grab a seat for a ride on the Devil’s Nose train. Traveling along a zigzag track for roughly 1.5 miles (2.4 km), the train descends backward down the nearly perpendicular face of a mountain. Upon reaching the bottom, hop back on the coach for a drive south on the Pan-American Highway to visit the Ingapirca Ruins. Explore the site’s significant structures, learn how they Incas changed the course of civilization, and uncover how those changes still impact us today.