Cuenca

Cuenca pretty much has it all: Picturesque colonial streets. Sophisticated but friendly inhabitants. A relaxed atmosphere. A perfectly pleasant climate. It’s no surprise, then, that the locals — and a large number of retired U.S. expats — consider Cuenca the best place to live in Ecuador.

Spanish colonialists founded the settlement of Cuenca in 1557, building upon foundations previously laid by the Cañari civilization and their eventual conquerors, the ever-expanding Inca Empire. Some pre-Columbian construction can still be seen, but it is Spanish colonial architecture that gives the city its distinct look and feel.

Cuenca is considered the most European-looking city in Ecuador. Its city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, dotted with numerous cathedrals and churches, cobblestone streets and Catholic iconography. For visiting tourists, just wandering around the city center is an experience in itself: taking in the scenery, soaking up the café culture, and enjoying the city’s restaurants and bars.

Cuenca is also a cultural hotspot. You’ll find some of Ecuador’s best museums here, including the Museo de las Culturas Aborígenes, Museo del Banco Central and the Parque Arqueologico del Pumapungo. There’s also a modern art museum and a handful of other galleries. For something completely different, visit the Prohibido Centro Cultural, a small museum dedicated to more extreme — some might say sacrilegious and profane — forms of cultural expression.

The city and its surrounding area are also known for traditional handicrafts, most notably the production of Panama hats. Despite their name, Panama hats are actually of Ecuadorian origin, and some of the finest examples are made in and around Cuenca. For fine metalwork, meanwhile, head to the nearby town of Chordeleg, which specializes in gold and silver jewelry.

Outdoor enthusiast will also get a kick out of Cuenca thanks to Cajas National Park. Located within easy reach of the city, the park is full of lakes, lagoons, craggy peaks and scenic ravines. Hiking trails range from easy two-hour treks to multiday excursions. You can also fish for trout inside the park, go horseback riding, or simply set up camp and enjoy the great outdoors.
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