Cuenca is a vibrant colonial city in southern Ecuador, the third largest in the country, and the capital of Azuay Province.
Cuenca lies in a valley at about 2,500m (8,200 ft), and is home to around 450,000 people. Its moderate climate makes it enjoyable year round.
There are daily local flights from and to Quito, Guayaquil and neighboring countries as well. Currently TAME, LAN, and AeroGal both offer daily service to Cuenca.
A taxi from the airport to the center should run about $3.
Cuenca lies on the Pan-American highway. Buses offer connections to many cities in Ecuador.
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". To add to this we took the same bus today (11-01-2013) and it was a modern bus with a toilet and took just under 5 hours with 3 stops at towns and a few stops in between to let others on off.
San Luis buses run from Cuenca to Loja using the national park route and take 4.5 hours, $8. Departures at 7.45am, 11am, 4pm, 7.30pm and 12 midnight. There is a working toilet.
Alausi. 4 hours (Transportes Alausi)
Riobamba. 6 hours (Patria)
Piura, Peru: There is a new service to Piura leaving at 19:30, 21:00 and 23:00. This is a partnership between two companies, Pullman Sucre and CIFA International. It is necessary to change bus at either Machala or Huaquillas. The 19:30 and 23:00 services connect to a special sleeper seat service. The price is 12$-15$ 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.
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 $1-2 ($1 more at night) per trip. The fee should be negotiated before entering the car. Some taxis makes 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.
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. See the Tumbes article for more information on options from there.
- Baños - A beautiful spot just outside of Cuenca with large lakes for fishing. This is not to be confused with the Baños further north which is the entrance to the Rainforest. There are thermal baths ($5.50) available at a hotel complex which includes a few hot pool at 36C and Turkish baths.Many people come here to relax in hot saunas, swim in the hot or cold waters of the pools and relax with family and friends.
- The New Cathedral (c 1885). Looming over the main plaza is city's main church, with its 3 large domes.
- El Sagrario (the "old cathedral"). Construction began in 1557. It's no longer in use as a church, and is now a museum. A restoration project has been completed recently and the original paint and old murals can now be seen in certain sections. $2.
- Museo del Banco Central and Pumapungo. A great museum with sections on ethnography (the section on the Shuar and the shrunken heads were particularly interesting) and old Ecuadorian money (and with it a good explanation of history, though only in Spanish.) Free entry, as are all the other state owned museums (this only took effect recently). Pumapungo is an old site right behind the museum requiring some imagination.
- Sightseeing Bus. $5 for 2 hour tour of Cuenca and a visit to the Mirador de Turi (Turi viewpoint). Leaves from Parque Calderón. For one price, you can get off the bus anywhere you like and get on the next bus that comes.
- Learn Spanish. There are many language schools for foreign visitors in Cuenca.
- Local News. There are many spanish newspapers and outlets in Cuenca.
- Cuenca News Digest (local news in English), (available online), . free.
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 artisan 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 artisans have booths with beautiful embroidery, metal, wood and leather work, Panama hats, musical instruments, knit goods, jewelry and other handicrafts.
- ABC Libreria, at Padre Aguirre 8-11 y Sucre, Phone: 593-7 2845 749. diagonal to the flower market has a tiny selection of English books.
- Rafael Paredes & Hijos, ☎ 831-569. To buy from their fine range of Panama hats. You get a short tour round, an explanation of how they are made and a chance to see your hat go from a simple woven straw cone to a finished wearable hat. Various styles, men's and women's and sizes.
- Used Books, Hermano Miguel (near Calle Larga). There are two wonderful used English book stores --although a bit pricey ($5-20)
- Mall del Rio. Cuenca's biggest shopping mall, with cinemas (mainly Spanish language but there are always 1 or 2 English films too) and food court. $2-2.50 by taxi (10 min).
- Artesanías Galapagos, Presidente Cordova 6-37 y Hno Miguel, . M-Sa: 09:00-19:00; Su: 09:00-13:30. Good selection of Postcards and tourist stuff - this shop will send items anywhere in the world.
La Fornace has three or four branches here. The fruit pizza is excellent and quite inexpensive. The ice cream is also delicious and costs about 70¢ for the first scoop.
Some of the "hole in the wall" diners and eateries can be surprisingly good. There's a small restaurant located between two shops on the main plaza, where they serve wonderful chicken with vegetables.
- Women's Coop, on General Torres --near Mariscal Sucre ((next to the artisan market)). closes around 2pm. Cheap, nutritious, and local lunch with a soup and a drink. Made by indigenous women in a sweet courtyard. Vegetarian and meat options. $1-1.50.
- Cafe Eucalyptus, Gran Colombia 9-41, . 5-11pm, later on Th-Sa. Very popular with travelers, they offer everything from Pad Thai to pasta, salads, hummus and guacamole, all very tasty. It's warm and friendly, and also good for groups. Quite expensive for Ecuador, $5.07 for a coca-cola plus tip makes one think that the travellers are taken advantage of. Mains $3-9.
- Mixx Gourmet Ice-cream, Parque San Blas. Home made icrecream with a variety of flavors, including exotic fruits and alcoholic flavors such as whisky, beer, brandy or vodka.
- Govinda's, Juan Jaramillo 7-27 y Borreo, ☎ 098 333 518. Lunch and dinner. Nice Vegetarian restaurant with Indian style dishes at lunch (almuerzo) and also some italian options. Good juices and hot chocolate. Popular also with locals at lunch time. $2.50 for 'almuerzo', $3.50-7.00 for a meal.
- Nectar, Benigno Malo 10-42 and Gran Colombia, ☎ 2844118, . generally open for lunch and somedays for dinner. Beautifully decorated vegan restaurant run by great people. Has wonderful fusion cuisine, which includes Andean, Indian and Thai flavors. Converts into a Jazz Club evenings W-Sa. $2.75 for the almuerzo.
- La Mesa is a great salsateque on Wednesday nights. Full of locals and extended stay travelers. Extremely fun.
- El Cafecito hostel-bar-restaurant. Appears very noisy and uncomfortable as a hotel, but it is a good place to eat lasagna or sandwiches although more expensive than most places. El Cafecito is the perfect place to start your night with a few drinks and to then proceed elsewhere.
- Banana Cafe, Banana's has just moved to a new location, where the Kookabura Cafe used to be, on Calle Larga and Benigno Mal. Run by three local women, Banana's serves an outstanding breakfast at a fair price. Their new hours are 8 a.m. to 3p.m. for breakfast and lunch. Then they open again in the evenings for dinner from 6:00 to 10:30. The dinner menu features mainly seafood. Closed on Monday's. The menu includes such items as GREAT omelets, pancakes, french toast, homemade granola, fresh fruit juices, smoothies & yogurt (plus numerous other yummy breakfast goodies).
- Jazz Society of Ecuador, same as restaurant Nectar in the 'Eat' section. On Wed., Thurs., Fri., Sat. from 6.30pm on this is the option in Cuenca if you're up for some Jazz. Run by Jim and Jorge it takes place in the location of Nectar restaurant (see Eat). There's always musicians joining so it's fun and diverse. Debby, Jim's wife offers great meals at reasonable prices (stuff like Pasta with Vodka sauce for $5.95) with changing menu and always a veggie option. Of course there are cocktails on offer as well.
- Hostal Villa Del Rosario, 5-25 Honorato Vasquez, Cuence (Opposite El Capitolio hostel). Lovely, quiet place, with a mix of rooms to suit all travellers: singles, doubles, double en-suites. Gorgeous little courtyard with garden in the middle of it all; a hummingbird likes to hang out there sometimes! Very cheap, but really clean, and just nice. $2 dollar breakfast: eggs, toast, juice, coffee, bread and jam. Towels provided. Lady owner very friendly, but it really helps to speak Spanish! Cuenca is really safe, but even more so in this area - Calle Larga is a block away. Reception is next door, but there is a bell to ring to the left of the hostel door to get someone to come over - it's hard to spot it, but the bell is there! $8-10.
- La Casa Cuencana, Hermano Miguel 4-45 ([email protected]), ☎ +593 7 282 6009, . Owned by an Ecuadorian family, this hostel is located in the heart of Cuenca's historic district. Dorms and private rooms available with or without private bathroom. Hostel is quiet enough to get a good night sleep but in the same neighborhood of all the great restaurants and bars. from $7 for a dorm room (Oct 2012).
- Tourist of the World Hostal, Calle Larga 5-79 ([email protected]), ☎ +593 7 282 9125. Hostel with nice views on the river, a kitchen, and lots of random DVDs. Also, extremely friendly owners. Just ring the door bell across the street. from $6 for a single room.
- Casa Sol, Estévez de Toral 10-33 and Gran Colombia, tel: +593 7 282 2507, Nice family run hostel near center. Price: 7 USD (Oct 2012) including breakfast Bed quality varies, atmosphere is great and the owners (Luis and Maria-Elena) are very helpful. You can use their kitchen and laundry facility is available. To get there, take bus 28 from the bus terminal (25 cent) and get off at Estévez de Toral. The hostel doesn't have a sign, so look for the number. Walking to Terminal Terrestre takes about half an hour.
- Hostal Villa Flora, Borrero 5-15 (entre Juan Jaramillo y Honorato Vásquez), ☎ +593 7 284 5842 or 284 5935. checkout: 02:00pm. Very charming and comfortable hostel, excellent location in the historic centre. The rooms are well decorated, and it is clean. Also includes a cafeteria service, a laundry, and cable tv. 8$ the single room with shared bathroom. [email protected] from 10$ p.p. with private bathroom. WARNING TO TRAVELLERS: Hostal Villa Flora is a dump. The hostal is mostly used for young Ecuadorian couples to have sex. It is not clean, the rooms are cramped and stuffy. There are no windows except to the hallway and the bathroom smells like raw sewage. The staff are really indifferent and make a lot of noise all through the night. This place should be avoided.
- Casa Naranja at Mariscal Lamar 10 38 & Padre Aguirre has nice, clean rooms at less than $US 13. Features 2 indoor patios, fully equipped kitchen and is centrally located just 3 blocks from the main square in a safe area. Is a colonial house with indoor balconies and has single, double, triple and quadruple rooms. [email protected] Telephone: +593 7 282 5415; 24h mobile +08 8867661.
- Hotel Casa del Aguila, Mariscal Sucre, ☎ 593-7-2849580, . In a pictorial colonial-style building in the the Historical center. 17 comfortable rooms with bathroom, distributed in 3 floors $US 59.00 for two people, excluding 22% tax and free breakfast.
- Hostel Calle Angosta, Tarqui I2-38 entre Sangurima y Vega Munoz ([email protected]), ☎ 593 7 282 2489, . This place is set back off the road, so it's pretty quiet. You are immediately treated like family, and they will do anything reasonable to help you out. There is parking, and you are about 8 blocks from central park. The water hot and they provide cable TV. While it does lack a little homeyness, it's because the facility is brand new. From $27 for a single room with private bath, $40 for a couple with private bath - all include breakfast: bread, juice, coffee, and eggs.
- Posada del Rio Lodging, +59372823111, . Nice hostel in the center of the city with a full kitchen, hot showers 24/7, and the friendliest service in town. Warm, homey, and very centrally located. From 20$ for the dorm, 28$ private (weekday - higher on weekends!).
- Hotel Inca Real: Charming heritage site at General Torres 8-40 between Sucre and Bolivar, behind the new cathedral. Most rooms are large, and all are quiet. All room windows open onto interior courtyards. Three colonial houses joined into one charming hotel. There are three interior courtyards. The first is the hotel lobby and breakfast room, the second has a lovely fountain, and the third is a quiet hideaway. Phone: 07-2823-636. $US 45.14 for two people, including tax and breakfast.
- La Cofrada del Monje, Phone: 2831251. Great location on Plaza San Francisco at Presidente Cordova 10-33 y Padre Aguirre. The rooms may be a bit noisy with the windows open, but the street noise will die down after dark when the buses quit running. If you're concerned about noise, the quietest rooms are on the sides: 1, 2, 6, 7. The hot water available. US$ 32.00 for two people, tax and breakfast included.
- Hostal Macondo at Calle Tarqui 11 64 & Mariscal Lamar,  is situated in an old colonial building with a pretty courtyard. The price includes breakfast. Very pretty but simple rooms, quiet, with a self-serve kitchen, free wireless, book exchange, and large DVD library. Very nice hot showers with good pressure. A private room with a private bathroom is $28 USD (Sept 07).
- Hotel Milan, Presidente Cordova 8-89 (corner of Padre Aguirre), ☎ 2831104, . The most affordable nice hotel in town. Located in the center, across from the church and square of San Francisco. Most rooms have a balcony. All have cable TV and hot water. Price includes breakfast on the roof. Friendly staff, excellent value. $17 for one person, $25 for double.
- Hotel Crespo, Calle Larga 7-93, . Overlooking the river, it has woody carpeted rooms, some with great views. Breakfast is included, Wifi is free, and they also have 1 computer near the lobby. $50+.
- Mansion Alcazar, Bolivar 12-55, . This beautiful hotel is probably the best in town. $120+.
Cajas National Park 1 hour drive to a beautiful national park with beautiful lagoons.The temperature is very cold in this area and fishing ia a good passtime in this area.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. Numerous sources state that entrance is USD10 but I didn't get charged at all when I went. (Oct 2012)
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.