Cuenca is all about the churches

For a city of around 350,000 residents, the Cuenca faithful are spoiled for choice when it comes to places of worship. In the historic district alone, there are 53 churches (one for every week of the year), but there are at least a dozen historical and architecturally-prominent ones that stand out. Here are a few.

The Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, also known as The New Cathedral, sits in front of the city’s centre square, Parque Calderon.

This cathedral is one of the most-photographed churches in Cuenca; distinctive for the three blue domes that sit atop the structure.

The Iglesia de San Francisco

Iglesia San Alfonso

Iglesia Todos Santos

Iglesia de San Sebastian

Mirador de Turi

This last church is something of an after-thought – an ecclesiastical adding of more potatoes to the stew. The Mirador de Turi was the last stop on our double-decker bus tour of the city and we were parked here for almost a half-hour. The church has a command post overlooking the city of Cuenca and a couple of souvenir shops, but after admiring the view and taking our requisite photos we had 20 minutes to kill.

Still, nothing to complain about – our tour was $5 and highly entertaining. We would not likely have made the trek up here on our own and if you look closely at the photo, you will see bands of rain falling on the city. Rain is a constant here, but more on that later.

I love double-decker buses. I love riding on the top level, listening to raspy Spanish over the loudspeakers and ducking the electrical wires as we career around narrow streets. I wave at people below and have a grand time getting the sense of a new city. Stephen is marginally less enthusiastic – he enjoys the sights, but I think it feels just a bit cheesy to him.

Our bus stuck mainly to the historic centre and provided a great overview of the geographical layout and of the main points of interest to return to later. One tremendous advantage to travelling two stories off the ground is being able to have a birds-eye view of some of the fine design details and intricate carvings of the doors, windows and eaves.

A stately downtown hotel.

A men’s fine clothing store.

The historic Dr. Sojos building, built in 1907 of exposed brick and cement imported from France. There is a pharmacy on the main floor, which is still operating to this day.

And… this unusual display. With no explanation, we can only guess at the intent of the mannequins.

Cuenca is a compact, highly walkable and truly beautiful city. Cuenca is Spanish for basin, which is evident by the mountains surrounding it and the four rivers that run through it.

The River Tomebamba creates a natural divide of the city, with the historic area on one side and the more modern city on the other. Tomebamba is shallow and fast, merges into the Amazon and spills out into the Atlantic.

It is a highly photogenic river, with walkways on both sides and bridges bisecting at regular intervals.

This bridge is both a memorial and a protest. Since 2014 (the year femicide was criminalized) there have been 1,247 murders of women and girls, usually by family or intimate partners. The causes are complicated, in part a result of a patriarchal society where domestic violence is still an invisible crime. In spite of ongoing protests every year, in 2022 there were 332 cases of femicide, up from 197 the previous year.

This bridge, called Puente Roto (Broken Bridge), doesn’t actually cross the river, but presents a pretty compelling photo op.

Most of the bridges meet up with a climb up steep stairs to reach the historic centre. If, like me, you are struggling with a bit of breathlessness from altitude, (Cuenca is 2550 m. above sea level), you take the steps slowly and admire the artwork on the way up (or down).

Hanging baskets with streamers frame one of the staircases.

A slow walk home after a market day.

Cuenca is filled with street art and murals, and the quality is quite exceptional.

And of course there will always be the street art with a message, sometimes political, sometimes simply meant to make you think. This one is not a new thought, but the last sentence may have gotten lost in translation.
“Those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.
Think differently, don’t piss.”

We have found Ecuador to be a little more expensive than Colombia and part of it is the U.S. dollar. The move to American currency happened in 2000, when the Ecuadorian Sucre was so unstable that the economy was in danger of collapse. The change was controversial and it is not clear that the economy is any better, since minimum wage is still just US$400 a month.

We are getting a fiendishly poor exchange rate of about 40%, which means that a $200 withdrawal from an ATM here costs us about $290 (with fees), and a $5 beer comes in closer to what we would pay back home. Our buying power feels less, but it is all relative. For example, museums in Cuenca are free!

We are still finding great accommodation for about $60-$70 CAD a night, an eight-hour bus ride cost just $10, and a 3-course Ecuadorian lunch is about $5.00. But the craziest deals are in the markets.

I have yet to buy meat – it scares us both (memories of violent GI episodes from past travels), but just look at these fruits and vegetables. So incredibly fresh and nothing over a dollar!

If we lived here, I would fill our house with flowers. Ecuador is one of the top flower growers in the world and the variety of cut flowers and houseplants and succulents is staggering. Think of this – two bunches of roses (24 roses) for $5. Houseplants for a few bucks.

The Mercado de Flores is fun to walk through and admire the wares, even if it does feel like a tease. In addition to buckets of cut flowers, you could also buy elaborate wreaths and what looks like funeral arrangements.

Parque Calderon is the central square in Cuenca, flanked on four sides by churches and arched portals with cafes, shops and vendors. The park itself is quite manicured and a natural place to rest and watch the world go by.

A typical street scene.

One of the older streets in Cuenca – Mariano Cueva. Many of the buildings are low and brightly coloured.

A typical street just a block or two away from the main square. Modest, but still interesting.

Back to the weather for a minute. We are in Cuenca in the rainy season, and March is one of the rainiest months. It is very difficult to travel in South America for an extended period and coordinate ‘best weather” with three or four countries. They are all subject to different influences, and since we wanted to be away for our winter, we are getting a mixed bag.

What we will get every day in Cuenca is rain. It will rain for an hour or two – torrential rain that creates ankle-deep rivers to wade through. Thunderstorms, with dramatic lightening that feels right overhead. Drizzle and mist. Dark clouds that just roll in over the mountains and obliterate what little bit of sun was there a minute ago. Weather here is BIG. But rain in some form, is pretty much a daily thing, so you go nowhere without your umbrella. You go ahead and make your plans – a walk in the park, a hike in the woods, a wedding – you can’t wait for the weather.

We have been here three days and I’ve worn a sleeveless top and I’ve worn my winter coat. Apparently weather in Cuenca is a variation of this all year, only with a dry (drier) season in the summer months, but temperatures remain a comfortable spring-like range of 15-25 degrees with cool nights.

The climate, the fabulous scenery, the glorious amenities, endless activities, very affordable lifestyle, wonderful dining-out scene, and what seems like an upscale dental office or high-end health clinic on every corner, means that Cuenca has attracted a healthy expat community – estimated to be between 8,000-10,000 people.

I read somewhere you can live a comfortable lifestyle here for about US$22,000, or CAD$30,000 a year. For that, you get a 3-bedroom home, and all other normal expenses, plus maid service and $12 manicures.

That may well be the case, but Cuenca is still very much an Ecuadorian city, filled with charming, beautiful, helpful Ecuadorian people. We are loving it here so far and have another blog posting in a few days to fill you in on the rest of our stay.

16 thoughts on “Cuenca is all about the churches

  1. Seeing the cheap roses reminded me of our stay in Quito. Our hotel lobby and our room was filled with huge vases’ of roses of every colour. What an interesting time you are having. Not to worry about the rain – your skin doesn’t leak !!! Probably the quietest time to travel as for tourists. Keep on enjoying you two.

    Love Lyn Morris


    1. It’s true – as the old saying goes – I’m not made of sugar. And, to make a liar of myself – today so far, not a drop of rain. Not many tourists at all, and I continue to bumble along with my Spanish, so I’m happy about that.


  2. Loved this blog. Trying to figure out what the people of Cuenca do if they are not growing flowers or going to church? Is there any export or industry?


    1. Nanc, I’m not sure – I know they are big on Panama (really Ecuador) hats, textiles, agriculture, tourism. Lots of small artisan shops, but that doesn’t propel an economy.
      This is the downside of travelling so light – there are so many beautiful things here, and at incredible prices.


  3. Excellent. Yet another informative and delightful tour of your latest destination. 53 churches must be a record for a community of 350 thousand. The street arts never cease to be fascinating and wonderful. The wall message on the type of groups creating social change is an interesting derivative of Margret Mead’s well-known quote except Mead felt the group should be “thoughtful and committed” instead of “crazy”. The final statement on the wall is uniquely Ecuadorian. Your photos and descriptions make us feel we are there with you..


    1. Aha – trust you to know that was Margaret Mead – the quote was very familiar. Apparently those 53 churches are just the ones in the centre core – so the outlying areas have their own churches. As you know, we’re not church-goers, but I find great solace in slipping into a church and just sitting for a few minutes.


    1. Vikki – the architecture is amazing and I could have taken dozens and dozens of photos that are all equally beautiful. You would be going crazy – between the buildings and the drama of the sky, you’d have loads of painting inspiration.


  4. I would love to see a place like that, so colourful and love all the churches. Keep having fun and I am really enjoying your blogs.


    1. So many parts of Mexico are the same – the grand churches and the colourful buildings. One of my friends said that South America is nothing like Mexico, but I see a lot of similarities.
      Glad you’re enjoying the blogs Sharon – I hope you’re having a good winter is Los Barriles.


      1. Yes we are and we’ve been to Guanajuato and also Guadalajara this winter. Now the weeks are winding down and the weather is getting warmer. Won’t be long before the suitcases come out again. Hope to see you both in Nanaimo this summer or Gabriola.


  5. Another fabulous post, Ginny. Just such an amazing trip!!! Our plans pale by comparison. Stay safe and enjoy.
    We both enjoy these posts immensely so keep them coming. Hi Steve.


  6. Cuenca looks like a lovely place to visit (in spite of the rain)! The expression “if you’ve seen one church, you’ve seen them all” is not the case in Cuenca. I thought the river that divides the city would be lovely to view on walks around town and I loved the picture of the hanging baskets! So much to see, no wonder who are staying awhile!


    1. You’re right, Heather – the river walk is beautiful – more so on the older, historic side as the road there is small and quiet and you don’t have to dodge the maniac drivers. We haven’t taken the time yet to just do a river stroll and not “sightsee” – just walk for the sake of it. It is obviously a haven for the locals, who we see sitting and reading or having a picnic.


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