Why do tourists and expats continue to flock to Cuenca? A travel writer visits and discovers why

May 1, 2024 | 0 comments

By Lisa Mayfair

A colonial jewel of Ecuador, spilling over with cobblestoned streets, well-preserved churches and attractive leafy plazas — all tucked into a verdant Andean valley traversed by four winding rivers — Cuenca wins out as the country’s most idyllic urban locale.

Cuenca, Ecuador’s historic district is distinguished by its iconic cathedral domes and red tile roofs.

Even as international headlines report high crime rates in Ecuador’s coastal cities, Cuenca continues to be relatively safe, mostly isolated from the violent drug trade. A recent report by the worldwide crime monitoring site InsightCrime included Cuenca among the five safest cities in Latin America with populations above 500,000. In terms of murder and violent crime rates, Insight says that Cuenca would rank among the top ten safest cities even in the United States.

From the Inca to the Spanish to the most recent wave of foreign settlers — this time, in the form of thousands of American retirees — it’s little wonder that outsiders have long descended on Cuenca in droves. Ecuador’s third-largest city, UNESCO-protected Cuenca is second to none when it comes to urban appeal, with a small-town, old-world feel that’s pleasantly devoid of what can be overbearing noise, pollution, and crowds in larger Ecuadorian cities (Quito, Guayaquil).

Tourists and settling pensioners alike can count on rave-worthy restaurants, welcoming watering holes, cozy cafes, heavenly handicrafts shops, and copious cultural events — all to be enjoyed at refreshingly low cost (easy enough to quantify, since Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar as currency).

Despite drug trafficking violence in other parts of Ecuador, Cuenca maintains a low crime rate and is popular with foreign tourists. City officials say that the expat population, estimated to be 12,000, continues to grow.

Add to that a natural setting that affords plenty of opportunity to hike and exercise, spring-like year-round temps, affordable housing and healthcare, and a booming social scene teeming with expats, for a winning combination of a higher quality of life at a lower cost of living. So winning, in fact, that it’s become one of the most popular places in the world for Americans to retire overseas. Just back from a week on the ground there, here’s a firsthand look at just why this place is luring crowds for the long term.

Cuenca’s city center touts enough colonial-era buildings — now converted into boutique hotels, shops, and eateries — and well-preserved churches (with 52 of them, churchgoers here have a venue for every week of the year) to warrant the city UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. The main square, Parque Calderón, comes fronted by both the Old Cathedral (Cuenca’s oldest structure, dating to the 16th century; it’s now a museum of religious art) and the monumental New Cathedral, drenched in marble and capped by the city’s iconic trio of blue-tiled domes.

The multilevel Pumapungo Museum is well worth a gander for its display of Incan artifacts, colonial-period artworks, and more; out back, the archaeological site reveals ruins of a former Inca palace, alongside a botanical garden and aviary. Nearby, the Museum of Aboriginal Cultures showcases further indigenous archaeological finds, like funerary urns and primitive pottery.

Stroll or jog along the tree-lined paths of the Tomebamba River, pop into a Panama hat factory like Homero Ortega (Panama hats are actually Ecuadorian in origin), or head over to the hilltop Mirador de Turi for sweeping views over the city.

Outside the city center, Baños beckons with rejuvenating thermal baths and inexpensive spas treatments at Piedra de Agua or one of the other spas. Or, take off for two worthwhile day trips into the Andean countryside at the Incan site of Ingapirca — the country’s most impressive Incan ruins; or, to the lagoon- and trail-traversed Cajas National Park, a glacially formed national park boasting 230-plus lakes (hook up with one of Cuenca’s many tour agencies to schedule a guided tour).

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