Cuenca is a “World Craft Capital”, declared as such in 2020, joining a second recent recognition as the first Latin American Diverse Craft City for its great variety of trades related to traditional arts. And yet, beyond the hype, Cuenca has always, since ancient times, been considered a hub for craft talent and tradition.
Goldsmithing, jewelry, pottery, and ceramics have long been a part of society since pre-Inca times throughout what is now southern Ecuador. The Cañarí civilization, for example, developed a profound ability to work with the materials provided by its environment. They were skillful tool creators and their lifestyles were based on technique, savoir-faire, and agile hands.
An ageless art
Despite the Inca and Spanish conquest, ancient craft traditions never ceased to develop, as new professions emerged according to the needs of the times. Saddlery and tinsmithing became popular during Colonial Cuenca and woodwork to this day proudly display the skills of Cuenca’s famed woodcarvers in the city’s most majestic churches.
Some neighborhoods have preserved their craft tradition for centuries, such as El Tejar or Convención del 45, where ceramic arts have reached a high level of aesthetic prowess. Another example is the traditional Las Herrerías, known for its wrought-iron workshops, a central part of local culture. It’s a common tradition to place iron figures produced here, including crosses and roosters, on roofs across the city to ‘bless’ the home.
We cannot ignore, of course, what is probably the most emblematic craft of them all: the toquilla straw hat, used by none other than the iconic Cuenca “cholita”. This practice has deep ancestral roots that remain intact. The process can last between days and weeks, it all depends on the delicateness of the hat being woven. By separating each strand carefully, the less space for the sun to pass through, the finer the hat shall be.
Another popular art that lives on in Cuenca is embroidery. Ancient findings of copper and bone needles reveal an age-old knowledge and use of thread by the Cañaris for weaving, sewing and even creating more complex ornaments. A current sample of this art is the colorful skirts chola’s wear, which can take up to fifteen days to confection by hand.
A living museum open to Cuenca marauders
To this day, each of these activities takes place in small artisanal workshops, generally family-run for generations. It is common to walk past some of them as you stroll along the Historic Center. Most spaces are divided in two: a workshop and a product display area.
Their doors open to the public, whoever walks by can admire craftsmen and women at work and even step inside to enjoy the art and process. Some peek in out of sheer curiosity, others like to sit and chat with the local artisans responsible for these wonderful pieces. This is why open-door workshops are central to Cuenca’s identity and a centuries-old tradition.
Find classic handicrafts in venues across the city, including CIDAP (Centro Interamericano de Artesanías y Artes Populares), which organizes permanent events such as the Handicrafts Festival of the Americas. Visit Cemuart, one of the most complete craft displays in Cuenca; Plaza Sangurima, or “Plaza Rotary”, an open-air craft market with all kinds of handmade products, at good prices; or Portal Artesanal de Cuenca, a large, new space dedicated to highlighting the talent of Cuencanos far and wide.
Where to find arts-and-crafts in Cuenca
*for a full listing of craft workshops to visit during your stay in Cuenca, please log on to: https://visitcuencaecuador.com.ec/en/artisans-and-museums/
Opening hours: Monday thru Friday from 9 AM to 5 PM
Address: Hermano Miguel 3-23 y Paseo Tres de Noviembre
Phone: +(593 7) 282 9451
Centro Municipal Artesanal CEMUART
Opening hours: Monday thru Saturday from 9AM to 6 PM. Sunday: 9AM to 1PM
Address: General Torres 7-33 y Presidente Córdova
Phone: +(593 7) 284 5854
Facebook: Centro Municipal Artesanal “CEMUART”
Plaza Sangurima (Plaza Rotary)
Opening hours: Monday thru Sunday from 8AM to 6PM
Address: Vargas Machuca y Sangurima
Phone: +(593 7) 413 4900 ext. 1307
Portal Artesanal de Cuenca
Opening hours: Monday thru Saturday from 8 AM to 6 PM (Friday open till 10:30 PM)
Address: Av. Huayna Cápac y calle Simón Bolívar
Teléfono: +(593 7) 407 9396
Página web: edec.gob.ec