By Jessica Festa
Home to interesting museums, affordable shopping, colonial architecture, and heritage offerings, Cuenca is one of Ecuador’s most popular destinations for tourists. One major draw to the city is its historical center, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site as it’s “…a remarkable example of a planned inland Spanish town (entroterra) that bears witness to the interest given to the principles of Renaissance urban planning in the Americas.” To really understand for yourself what makes the city so special, exploring Cuenca’s historic center is a must.
Established in 1557 by Spanish explorer Gil Ramírez Dávalos, Cuenca has a rich history with a large Spanish influence that can be seen through its many landmarks, including over 50 churches as well as museums, monuments, plazas and more. Start with a visit to the Old Cathedral — also known as the Church of the Shrine — whose planning began the year the city was founded and was created solely for Spanish immigrants. Constructed from stones from the Tomebamba Inca site, it has impressively preserved its original colonial basilica design. Today, it’s no longer used for services but instead sits as the oldest structure in Cuenca, housing the Museum for Religious Art. It’s also open to those interested in exploring the interior.
Next, cross the cobbled street to the New Cathedral, otherwise called the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, whose construction began in 1880 when the Old Cathedral became too small to meet the demands of the population. Designed mainly as a Romanesque Revival style — although Neo-Gothic, Baroque Revival and Byzantine Revival can also be seen — the building’s most striking feature is its three beautiful and enormous blue-and-white tiled domes towering over the city.
In between the two cathedrals you’ll find Parque Calderon, a small yet pristine park where one can enjoy a peaceful respite on a bench or scenic stroll. The park is also surrounded by cafes and restaurants, making it a great place to grab a bite. One block away from the park you’ll find Tia Pepita Cafeteria. During lunch you can opt for their menu of the day, where for about $2 USD you’ll enjoy a soup, entree, dessert and juice.
Continue exploring the sites at the Santo Domingo Church, built in the early 20th century with whitewashed pillars and twin 40-meter (131-foot) high bell towers. It’s Cuenca’s second-largest church and is located on the popular shopping street of Gran Colombia, where you can peruse handicrafts, Panama hats, jewelry and ceramics.
Then there’s the Monastery of El Carmen de Asuncion, touted as one of Cuenca’s most beautiful churches because of its interior that emits a glow from its golden pulpit. The Baroque-style building was founded in 1682 and features beautiful religious artwork, a sculpted stone facade and white exterior that contrasts beautifully with the daily outdoor flower market in front.
Within Cuenca’s historic center you’ll also find a number of plazas worth exploring. First of all, Plaza San Blas Square is home to the Church of San Blas (originally built in the 16th century and then replaced in the 20th century) as well as serene fountains and trees. There’s also San Francisco Square, a popular place for the buying and selling of local handmade goods and textiles.
And no trip to Cuenca would be complete without perusing some of the interesting museums in and around its historic center, some of which include the Interamerican Center of Popular Arts, Museum of the Central Bank of Ecuador, the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Aboriginal Cultures, and the Panama Hat Museum.