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The former Incan town of Tomebamba (situated at about 2,500 meters in a valley of the Southern Ecuadorian Andes Mountains) was conquered by the Spanish in 1533 and thus Santa Ana de los Ríos de Cuenca (the city’s official name) was founded in 1557. With a current population of about 350, 000 people it is Ecuador’s third largest city. Cuenca is unarguably the center of culture and art in Ecuador.
Cuenca became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 for its charming historical center, churches, small cobbled streets and colonial houses with noble facades, prim balustrades, wrought iron balconies and red tiled roofs. With a total of 52, Cuenca is known as the City of Churches, one for every Sunday! The impressive churches in the old center date back to the 16th to 17th centuries. Being in the historical center, you might get the impression that time has stood still.
Cuenca is an ideal place for all travelers who are fed up with the bustling, noisy life of Quito. The inhabitants of Cuenca are more conservative and in this tranquil city traditions and customs are connected to modern life in a very harmonic way. You won´t find many skyscrapers here! The city is divided in half by the Rio Tomebamba (its former namesake). To the north of the Tomebamba is situated the heart of the colonial city and to the south, the newer suburbs. Along the river, views of its rapids, the beautiful colonial homes and large parks are popular among residents and tourists alike.
For general information about Ecuador, please refer to these official Ecuadorian sites:
For general information and recommendations from other expats in Cuenca, many teachers use gringrotree.com and gringopost.com. Note that these websites are often geared toward the growing retired expat community that comes here to live. Many of the apartments advertised are more expensive than others we can recommend. There are also a couple Facebook groups you can request to join regarding living as an expat in Cuenca.
In recent years, nightlife in Cuenca has grown substantially, offering something for everyone! Many bars and restaurants, popular among younger crowds, can be found downtown on Avenida Gran Colombia or on Calle Larga. Cuencano theaters often perform plays; Cuenca is known for its many museums (Pumapungo Museo, Museo Catedral Vieja, Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes to name a few); live music is commonplace and local movie theaters have the newest international and national movies. If you would rather relax and have a chat in a laid-back atmosphere, prefer trendy 'discotecas' or would like to take Salsa or Meringue lessons with the locals – Cuenca’s various night time activities meets most tastes.
A walk up to the church in Turi on the mountain overlooking Cuenca, relaxing in one of the many parks by the river, catching a 'Deportiva Cuenca' soccer match in the stadium or trying out your Spanish negotiating skills in the meat and fruit market '10 de Agosto' are just some of the many activities you can do if you have a little free time on your hands.
While studying/working at CEDEI, your daily life will be full of classes, cultural and historical visits and weekend trips! If you have a moment free and want to get out and stretch your legs, Cuenca has many great athletic opportunities. If you are a sport enthusiast, the "Coliseo Jefferson Perez" (named after Ecuador's only Olympic Gold Medalist) is for you.
Here, you will find squash courts, racquetball courts, a rock climbing wall, tennis courts, an Olympic sized pool, a diving pool, archery, basketball courts, as well as various classes such as boxing and muy tai style fighting. These are all available for a small fee. There are tourists who come to Cuenca to try their hand at mountain biking, zip lining through the forest, rock climbing, or relaxing trout fishing in El Cajas National Park.
After a hard day hiking in Cajas or a long week at CEDEI, visit Baños and take a dip in the thermal pools and steam baths at the Hostería Durán or one of the other spas located just outside of the city.
For everyone who is interested in history and culture, Cuenca is the town to visit. As the meeting point for many different cultures, Cuenca has a strong arts tradition. Cuenca boasts a huge variety of museums and art galleries and is the most famous artisan center in Ecuador. Despite the common misconception that Panama hats are from Panama, they actually originated in Ecuador and Cuenca is the industry’s center. (The reason they are famously called “Panama Hats” is because they were popularly used by workers during the construction of the Panama Canal) Visit the Panama Hat Factory on Calle Larga to learn more about the history and the making of these 'sombreros'. Make sure to pick one up on your way out, as they make an elegant and unique gift! Other common handmade crafts include leather jackets, ceramics, embroideries, baskets, gold jewelry and clothing. In San Francisco Plaza, you can find a small market with the famous textiles from Otavalo and close by lies an entire plaza filled with local fresh flowers for sale! Near the Plaza Cruz del Vado is another great spot with cafés, restaurants and artisanal shopping just across the Tomebamba from our Surcusal location.
Monthly rent for a comfortable apartment usually costs between $150 and $200 (including electricity, water and sometimes wifi), depending on your location. We have a list of available furnished apartments and houses that we recommend and will send you this list along with helpful instructions before you arrive. When you do arrive in Cuenca, you can also check the newspaper ads, which we have in the Secretary’s office, but what is usually available is unfurnished apartments. Unfortunately, we do not pay for housing. If you aren’t comfortable with your Spanish, we will help you with any phone calls to set up times to view apartments/houses.
Like the rest of the Ecuadorian Andes, Cuenca enjoys a mild climate year-round. Days are generally warm and nights are cool enough that you should pack a sweater. The average daily temperature is 14.6 degrees C (58 degrees F), occasionally rising up to 23 degrees C (73 degrees F) in the direct sunlight. The rainy season is the same as Quito's and generally lasts from mid-October until early May. During this time, mornings are typically sunny and afternoons cloudy with light, periodic showers. It is said that in Cuenca, one may experience four seasons in one day. Although you will not find much snow even at Cuenca's high altitude, it often the case that after a wonderfully sunny morning, a short rainstorm or a thunderstorm can be expected during the afternoon.
El Cajas National Park: This beautiful 2,850 square-kilometer park lies 30 km from Cuenca. It’s unique vegetation, hilly landscape and cool air never fail to impress. With over 250 lakes in the park, it is famous for its large lagoons. El Cajas is home to the origin of the Tomebamba and Yanuncay rivers, which both flow through Cuenca. A bus from Cuenca to El Cajas generally takes around 1.5 hours and costs no more than $5 both ways. If you’d rather take a taxi for the day, that would run about $60.
Ingapirca: The largest Incan ruins in Ecuador are quite a sight to see. The construction of this “Temple of the Sun” is famous for its chiseled stonework, purposefully done to fit perfectly together. The story goes that this was one of the final spots conquered by the Inca before the arrival of Spanish colonizers. The battle for this land between the Incas and the local Cañari groups was so hard-fought that it depleted Incan resources but some scholars claim without these loses, the Incan could have defeated the Spanish. Situated on a high hill overlooking nearby valley towns, a day trip to this historic site is well worth it.
Baños: A short bus ride outside Cuenca, this quaint village is home to thermal hot springs. If mud baths sound appealing, take a day trip to these beautiful spas with unbelievable prices.
Girón: This small town about a 50 minute bus ride from Cuenca is home to two amazing waterfalls. The views from the lower town only get better as you take a $5 cab up the mountain, a $1 entry fee and a short walk to the first fall. Here, it’s safe enough to stand under the waterfall if it’s hot enough! The second site is a bit further. Ask the entry attendant about the 1.5 hour hike up the mountain where you’re sure to be breathless when you arrive at the site that looks like a scene from Jurassic Park. When you climb back down, there’s a great restaurant waiting for you!
Gualeceo: This town is known for its artisanal crafts. Among the line of leather shoe stores, and ikat weavings stands, you’ll find an archeological museum and a flower farming tour.
Chordeleg: Just 10km south of Gualaceo, this small village is known more specifically for it’s jewelry. Gold and silver can be found pretty cheap, but be sure to watch out for lower-quality goods.
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