Cuenca is sure to appeal to history and culture buffs visiting Ecuador. This colonial-looking city has narrow cobbled streets, ironwork balconies and red-tiled roofs, dozens of fascinating churches, and a wide variety of museums and art galleries. The tranquil streets are without the noise and pollution found in a larger metropolis. From Cuenca's charming central square, the Parque Calderon, you can see the large blue domes of the Catedral Nueva, a nineteenth-century cathedral with gorgeous stain-glass windows, a huge twin-towered facade, and a very ornate high altar.
The produce market is an integral part of Cuenca. While you might not find much to buy at the market other than exotic-looking vegetables, you'll be right in the center of a special weekly social occasion that holds the community together with a fiesta-like atmosphere of buying, selling, and visiting.
Rio Tomebamba, the river that separates Cuenca's colonial town from the universities and modern residences, is another colorful sight well worth a look. The downtown riverside is lined by colonial buildings and in other areas washwomen set their clothing out to dry on the river banks.
If you're seeking high-quality souvenirs, you'll want to inspect the Panama hats, leather jackets, embroideries, gold jewelry, and ceramics. In fact, you'll find a Panama Hat Stores that sell only Panama hats, which are not made in Panama at all. These hats were first made in Ecuador by poverty-stricken Cuenca residents of the 1830s, trying to make a living. Get yourself a Panama hat and save a dying art!
Day trips from Cuenca are plentiful and include SIGSIG, a remote agricultural village that is a key center for Panama hat production. You'll be one of the few tourists in this hilly countryside village nestled among the gorgeous hills, and you'll have a chance to view a courtyard of Panama hats being made in an array of colors.
Throughout the year, Cuenca residents hold celebrations, and chances are a festive gathering will be underway when you arrive. In early November, in such churches as the lovely Santa Domingo, you'll see the celebration of All Souls Day, when natives will be laying flowers and gifts in cemeteries and lighting candles in honor of ancestors. Next comes a line-up of festivals in different cities, including the annual week-long Festivales de Cuenca, celebrating Cuenca Independence. Throughout the city, you'll find concerts, food expos, circuses, craft exhibits, and much more.
The city of Latcunga, in the nearby volcano area, presents a parade and also a bullfight, a popular pastime that some visitors find disturbing and others enjoy as an integral part of the local scene.
El Septenario (Corpus Christi), a week-long celebration with fireworks and dancing. Begins second Thursday in June.
Independence Day, a four-day celebration with cultural fair, starting November 3
Founding Day, similar festivities on April 12