Cuenca is famous for its colorful festivals, distinct food, and breathtaking scenery
Cuenca, Ecuador’s third-largest city and the economic center of the southern sierras, has long been known for a rich intellectual, artistic, and philosophical tradition that matches its colonial architecture.
The city is famous for its colorful festivals, distinct food, and breathtaking scenery. Because of its history and state of preservation, Cuenca is one of Ecuador’s three UNESCO World Heritage Trust sites (the others are Quito and the Galápagos Islands).
Founded in 1557, Cuenca was not connected to the rest of Ecuador with a paved road until the early 1960s, a fact that helped preserve both its architecture and heritage. Since then, Cuenca has developed rapidly and today has a strong infrastructure and efficient transportation system.
Cuenca means “basin” in Spanish, and the city sits on a plateau surrounded by mountains. Four rivers are found in the Cuenca basin and one, the Tomebamba, runs right through the center of town.
Although near the equator, Cuenca sits high in the northern Andes at an altitude of 8,300 feet and its residents enjoy year round spring-like weather. Temperatures rarely go beyond highs in the 70s F and lows in the 50s F, so a sweater or light jacket is sufficient all year long. Rainfall averages around three inches per month.
Although there are technically two ‘seasons’ in Cuenca–wet and dry–for a good part of the year you will find a pleasant mixture of clouds, sunshine, and a little rain on most days. There is typically higher rainfall in the months of March, April, and May, while July and August are known for being sunny, windy, and chillier. Generally speaking, the days are a little warmer from September to February, but the weather in Cuenca is infamous for changing on a dime, and it’s always a good idea to wear layers. Sunglasses and a hat are also very helpful to protect you from those Equatorial high-altitude rays.
Cuenca has been the fastest-growing city in Ecuador since 2000, and now boasts a population of well over 600,000. Over 75% of residents live outside the historic center in what is known as the newer districts of the city. These newer districts feature a mixture of the city’s first suburbs, plus many modern mid-rise condominiums. It also has four malls, numerous hospitals, grocery stores, cinemas, plus scores of restaurants serving a wide variety of international cuisines.
In spite of its size, Cuenca is a pedestrian-friendly city. Most expats forego vehicle ownership in favor of walking, taxis, and buses. The average taxi fare is $2 to $2.50, and bus fare is only 30 cents. The new light rail system, opened in 2020 and known locally as the “Tranvía”, also costs just 30 cents and provides direct access to the historic center. Plans are also being considered to convert a large area of downtown streets to pedestrian-only.
Major infrastructure improvements are a constant throughout Cuenca. You’ll find new play areas for kids and exercise equipment for all ages throughout the city. As cobblestone streets are repaired, construction crews take the opportunity to bury utility lines and upgrade the sewer system. Sidewalks are being widened, and if you like to cycle, you’re in luck, as new bike lanes are showing up all over town.
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