Colonial Cuenca, Ecuador 

By Stephen O. Addison, Jr.
This item appears on page 16 of the January 2017 issue.
Plaza de las Flores in Cuenca. Photos by Stephen O. Addison, Jr.

Cuenca, Ecuador’s third-largest city, is often called Ecuador’s most beautiful town, and its historic center has been declared a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO. This colonial city has become home to many American expat retirees, as well. 

Cuenca is located in Ecuador’s southern highlands (elev., 8,200 feet), about an hour by air or eight hours by bus south of the capital, Quito. My wife, Paula Owens, and I chose the easy itinerary and flew between Quito and Cuenca on LATAM Airlines. (TAME also flies this route.) 

While I’m sure the cheaper option of traveling by bus offers advantages, we were able to get some great views of the volcano Cotopaxi on both of our flights in July 2016.

With a population of one-third of a million people, Cuenca is no relaxed, quaint village. Bus, taxi and auto traffic on the historic center’s streets is heavy and noisy. While the ubiquitous taxis are ridiculously cheap, you’ll often spend much of your trip stuck in traffic. (The 2½-mile trip from the small, easy-to-use, in-town airport to our hotel cost about $3 and took us almost a half hour due to heavy weekday traffic. The reverse trip on a Saturday morning took 10 minutes.)

Unlike in many historic city centers, there are no pedestrian streets. Sidewalks often are narrow and in poor condition. Ultimately, the traffic ruins the city’s ambiance and makes exploring the historic center less than appealing. 

Cuenca’s scenic historic district offers plazas, cathedrals, churches, museums, ruins, etc., which are worth visiting, and we found the people to be friendly and welcoming. Small shops and restaurants were plentiful and often very affordable. The Museo del Banco Central, aka Museo Pumapungo, was excellent. 

Cuenca could be the best place in the world to buy a “Panama” hat, really a sombrero de paja toquilla, or toquilla-straw hat. The helpful folks in the tourist office at Parque Calderón can show you where the best hat factories and shops are located. I’m happy with my new hat. 

Parque Calderón and Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción

The best aspect of our visit was we had selected a quiet, comfortable hotel room overlooking the Río Tomebamba. Our lodging, the excellent Hotel Victoria (Calle Larga y Presidente Borrero; phone +593 7 2877401, hotelvictoria
), is in one of the 17th-century mansions perched on the steep, north bank of the river. We stayed two nights in a garden room for $88 per night, including breakfast and taxes.

The hotel’s rear garden and the narrow and, mercifully, almost traffic-free road Paseo 3 de Noviembre, which runs along the riverbank, provided a much-appreciated oasis. 

It’s not my desire to discourage anyone from visiting Cuenca, but visitors should know in advance what to expect and to plan accordingly. Ultimately, we were disappointed. The noise and fumes from the intense traffic were just too much to allow us to really relax and enjoy our visit. 

Charlotte, NC