The beautiful city of Cuenca, Ecuador, has become something of a sensation as a retirement and expat haven for Americans; but the same things that have foreigners flocking there will attract tourists, too: 16th- and 17th-century architecture, beautiful vistas of the Andes mountains, nearby Incan ruins and good museums, among many other sights and experiences. This primer lists just a few reasons to visit this bustling city on the river.
The lively, colorful city of Cuenca, Ecuador; photo via Wikimedia Commons.
The city of Cuenca stays busy with markets every day of the week: The main market on Plaza Rotary sells mainly fresh fruits and vegetables, while steps away on Plaza de San Francisco, another market boasts food as well as souvenirs and a variety of household items. Small flower markets pop up all over town regularly. The larger food markets tend to have stalls selling food ready to eat, and it's usually a safe bet that it'll be tasty—but weak stomachs should use caution in eating street food. Ecuador is an agricultural heaven, and any fresh produce is local (with the exception of apples—it's too warm to grow apples in Ecuador); be sure to wander a market and try some of the fruit and veggies on offer.
It might not be quite as impressive as Machu Picchu (few things are!), but the site of Ingapirca, about an hour and a half's drive from Cuenca, still stuns with its views of the surrounding Andes and the remains of an intriguing culture. A good guide is essential and can really bring the ruins to life, giving you an idea of what the civilization looked like in its heyday. Ingapirca is the best ruins site in Ecuador and definitely warrants a day-trip from Cuenca.
The ancient Incan site of Ingapirca; photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Cuenca has several interesting museums, including the Museo de Banco Central and the Museo de las Conceptas. The former is actually on the site of an Incan ruin, and is a must-see. The ruins are small, but interesting, and llamas and alpacas wander the grounds. The museum is small but worth a visit: It usually has exhibits on local art, music and traditions. Beyond its nondescript entrance, the Museo de las Conceptas houses a lovely courtyard that makes for a wonderful respite from the busy streets, and the former convent displays both period and modern art. The facade of the church it's associated with (and right under) is gorgeous.