Cuenca is often referred to as the cultural capital of Ecuador and it’s easy to see why.
The cityscape is burgeoning with endless churches, colonial-style buildings, the historic remnants of various indigenous cultures and of course, a myriad of museums and cultural centres to peruse at leisure.
I spent three full days in Cuenca, exploring the pretty parques and plazas and visiting endless museums, breaking only to enjoy a coffee or juice in one of the city’s many cafes and restaurants.
There are dozens of museums in Cuenca and during my time there I feel like I made a good dent in them, so, therefore, you do not have to! Here are, in my opinion, the museums in Cuenca that are essential viewing and those that can be assuredly skipped.
This is the city’s main museum and you can tell. Sprawled over three floors in an imposing stone building right next to the Banco Central de Ecuador, this is Cuenca’s main cultural centre and it shows.
With a museum of the national bank and currency on the basement level (Museo Numismatico -Spanish only), temporary and local exhibitions on ground level and an impressive indigenous cultures exhibition on the top floor, this museum has lots to offer to tourists.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the museum is the easily missed archeological park. Hidden behind an old building outside the back of the museum is the remains of an ancient Incan city built in the 15th century.
Lovingly curated, the ruins are complimented by beautiful gardens and an aviary full of impressive tropical birds. If you only see one museum in Cuenca, this has to be it.
Languages: Mostly Spanish but still good for English speakers
See or Skip: See, definitely
Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno
The modern art museum of Cuenca is situated in a pretty neighbourhood on the edge of the historic centre of the city.
Overlooking an inviting plaza, the museum offers an interesting collection of modern pieces by Latin American artists as well as three temporary exhibitions at any given time.
Though all the context given is in Spanish and the collection is rather small, a visit to this peaceful museum is certainly recommended. The building is also a piece to behold in itself and a brief history of the development of the building is also offered (in Spanish).
See or Skip: See
Museo del Sombrero de Paja Toquilla
A popular museum in Cuenca is the hat museum, an ode to the Panama hat, that despite its name is actually Ecuadorian in origin. Less of a museum, the interior of the centre is more of a large panama hat shop but you will still get some great insight into the delicate process and art of creating these hats.
There is always a friendly face willing to show you around, give you a brief history of the panama hat and walk you through the hat-making process (they make hats within the shop and you can watch them in action. Note that most of the staff here doing the short tours are Spanish speakers only, but definitely still pop in for an interesting snoop and of course, to try on a hat!)
See or Skip: See
Casa-Museo Remigio Crespo Toral
Remigio Crespo Toral was a Cuencan author and poet who owned an impressive colonial building in the centre of the city where he lived with his wife and ten children.
His house is now a cultural centre, filled with beautiful old artefacts, paintings and trinkets of the family all laid out against the backdrop of this stunning old house.
The information on the exhibits is all in Spanish but I met several staff here who were able to give me insight into the house and the family in English. There is a pretty cafe/ restaurant situated on the outside back terrace overlooking the canal which is the perfect place to grab restorative treat between museums.
See or Skip: See
Prohibido Centro Cultural
If you are interested in something completely different to potentially any museum experience you have ever had, I dare you to head to the ‘forbidden’ alternative art museum.
Stuffed full of controversial and dark-themed artwork, this museum is run by the family of Eduardo Moscoso, a local artist whose artwork was banned by the conservative Cuenca officials in the 1980s. Now the centre is a celebration of everything alternative and offers a welcoming and open-minded experience for visitors.
I was greeted at the door by France Moscoso, son of Eduardo, who works as an artist and graphic designer while also manning ship at the centre. He was a great guide and welcomed me fully into this weird and unexpected little centre of extreme art. You can spend some time here perusing the vast array of paintings, sculpture and graphic work and also get your picture taken on a throne of skulls or in a guillotine. Whatever floats your boat.
Admission: $1.50 USD
Languages: English and Spanish
See or skip: See, for something totally different
Museo de las Conceptas
This museum is held within a colossal old monastery in the city centre. While all the information is in Spanish, the building itself is impressive to explore as are the collection of old religious paintings and relics.
If you have interest in religious organisations or artwork, this is worth a visit. The museum is quite small and won’t take much time to wander.
See or skip: See, but only if you have already done all of the above!
Museo Manuel Agustin Landivar
This museum is really a small showcase for the Canari-Incan ruins found on the premises. Unfortunately the ruins are not kept in good condition and looking out over the busiest intersection of the city, they leave something to be desired especially with the spectacular ruins at Pumapungo located just up the road.
The museum is a one room exhibition of artefacts found on the site with little information.
See or Skip: It only takes a second to have a look at the ruins so worth popping in, but don’t feel ashamed to skip.
Archaeological Museum of Cuenca
This museum offers a wide array of artefacts from indigenous cultures of Ecuador dating from B.C right up to the Incan period.
While the artefacts are impressive, there is little to no context about the actual indigenous cultures they were from and how they lived. This unfortunately made my time in this museum a bit disappointing as I felt I did not learn anything.
In fact, I think I spent more time and got more enjoyment from the museum shop, which is full of great local produce.
Admission: $4.00 USD
Languages: Spanish and English
See or skip: Depending on your interests, I would say skip.
Unfortunately I didn’t make it to them all…
- Museo de la Medicina: Nestled inside an actual hospital is Cuenca’s museum of the history of medicine. I attempted to visit this museum on two occasions but unfortunately both times it was closed. Having heard from a fellow traveller that this was a very interesting and kind of creepy experience, I’m sad to have missed it and looking in from the outside, I would say it is worth a visit.
- Museo CIDAP: The Inter-American Centre of Popular Art was unfortunately closed when I visited due to the installation of a new exhibition. This small building on the canal offers a number of temporary popular art exhibitions and has a pretty little cafe located onsite.
- Museo de Esqueletologia: For another slightly weird experience, why not visit the museum of bones? Yes, bones. This museum was also unfortunately closed for me upon arrival but if TripAdvisor reviews are anything to go by, this seems to be a creepy but unique experience.
I hope this helps you to navigate the many museums in the beautiful city of Cuenca, especially as there is not that much information on them all online. Take the time to soak in the culture and atmosphere of this pretty town to really experience everything it has to offer.