3 Best Things to Do in Cuenca, Ecuador
Cuenca is the third-largest city in Ecuador, and it is one of the prettiest colonial cities you can visit in this country. If you decide on traveling to the southern part of Ecuador, read our guide on the three best things to see and do in Cuenca and its close surroundings.
Cuenca, the beautiful city in southern Ecuador, has over 300 000 inhabitants, but the historical center has a very peaceful, almost a small-town atmosphere that we would have never guessed so many people live here.
The relaxed vibe, pleasant weather, pedestrian-friendly streets and post-card like architecture caused that Cuenca is a popular destination among foreign travelers and locals, who in a short time want to see and do the best what the city and its surroundings has to offer, but it is also a place popular among expats and retirees who decided to spend the rest of their lives here.
After almost three months on the road, we had a feeling that Cuenca came into our way at the right time as we needed to refill the energy and boost our enthusiasm to explore new places.
We wandered its tidy streets, walked around the historical center numerous times and always found a reason why to do it again, every afternoon we bought hand made coconut ice cream, sat on a bench and watched local people walking around in their colorful clothes and enjoyed the international cuisine - for the first time and last time on our year-long trip we ate pizza and went to an Indian restaurant.
Cuenca is not a bustling city, time here flies slowly, and it gives you the opportunity to get to know the place without a rush.
It is a place where you can see the Spanish influence everywhere around, yet it remained remarkably authentic. We spent three days in Cuenca, and during this period had plenty of time to see and do the best things Cuenca and the picturesque hills around have to offer.
Here are the top three attractions, according to our opinion, you must do when in Cuenca.
WALK THE HISTORIC CITY CENTER
UNESCO-listed city of Cuenca is a place where you don't need to follow your tight itinerary and tick off one place after another.
It is a city where you can freely wander around its streets, stop every now and then when you spot something you find interesting, admire the colonial architecture, enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and watch how such populated city was still able to keep its indigenous traditions and way of life.
Cuenca is not the classic World Heritage Site as it does not have many must-see landmarks except for one or two churches, a couple of museums or the main plaza, but the historic center is incredibly picturesque and pleasant to walk around. Take your camera in hand, and let's aimlessly walk the streets of Cuenca, we are sure you will find a hidden gem no other traveler had discovered before you.
Here are some of the best things you can see and do in Cuenca.
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception | Cathedral de la Inmaculada is one of the largest in South America and because it was completed quite recently, in 1975 local people call it New Catherdral to distinguish it from other cathedrals in the city.
It is a massive and very interesting structure which cannot be overlooked, especially because of its blue domes which stand out in particular.
You can walk inside and admire the interior, or for $2 it is possible to climb the stairways to get spectacular views of the city.
Parque Abdon Calderon | The large park in the middle of the historic center serves as the main square thus meeting point and is lined with pretty houses with arcades, there is a fountain in the center, benches where you can sit and enjoy ice cream, greenery and you can see some government and administrative buildings as well.
Rooftop Balconies | When booking your room in Cuenca, always check if the hotel has a rooftop terrace - most of the buildings in the city have an open terrace on the highest floor, from where you can get a great view of the city, drink tea or beer and wait for the sunset.
Tomebamba River | Walk only ten minutes or so from the city center, and you will get to Tomebamba River where it was pleasant to walk around, and for a while, we had a feeling we are not in South America, but back in Europe.
On the other side of the river starts the busier and more modern part of the city, but we did not feel like exploring this part of Cuenca and we did not cross the bridge to the other side.
Pumapungo Museum and Park | We visited only one museum in Cuenca, Pumapungo Museum so we cannot compare with others, but we found it extremely interesting as the exhibits show ancient artifacts found in the area, but especially it focuses on the indigenous culture, history, and struggles.
It is not possible to take pictures inside the museum, and we even had to leave our backpack in a locker.
Outside the museum is a garden, where you can find Inca terraces where Inca people grew their crops, nowadays the part of it was turned into a botanical garden.
Panama Hat Museum | One would think that the term Panama Hat must come from the country of Panama, but don't be fooled here.
Panama Hat is the original product of Ecuador - if you want to hear the story behind the origin of the name, visit one of the museums, shops or factories around Cuenca.
Market | Cuenca is a large city so you can find here many markets, but our favorite one was Mercado 10 de Agosto.
It was close to the city center we could buy here lots of fruits and vegetables without being ripped off, and fresh juices and local food were good and reasonably priced here. It was one of the most authentic indigenous markets in the middle of the city we've ever visited.
Iglesia Sagrario | You cannot walk around Cuenca and not notice the white church Iglesia Sagrario, also known as the Old Cathedral, because it was built in the 16th century.
Plaza de San Francisco | San Francisco square is a newly renovated plaza in Cuenca, where you can nowadays find a big red sign Cuenca where tourists can take an apparently obligatory photo, and except for architecture, you can visit the place to shop for clothes on a market.
Ecuador also has its Inca ruin. It is by no means as famous as any ruin in Peru, but as we were traveling from north to south, and Ingapirca ruin was the first Inca archeological site we've seen on the continent, we found it interesting and worth undertaking the quite long trip from Cuenca.
Had we visited Machu Picchu in Peru first, we would have probably rated Ingapirca ruins with the word 'lovely'.
However, when you are in Cuenca, visiting Ingapirca Ruins is for sure thing you should consider doing.
If you are traveling from Riobamba or any other destination north from Cuenca, you can spend a night either in small towns such as Cañar or El Tambo so you won't have to return the next day and continue to Cuenca after visiting the ruin.
Ingapirca ruin is an archeological site showing the blend of two cultures - Cañari and Inca - the base was built by indigenous Cañari people (whose descendants by the way still live in the area), and later when Incas came and conquered the place they built new structures or remodeled the old ones.
It is not possible to walk around the site on own, you must buy a ticket ($6) (which includes a guided tour either in Spanish or English, but as there were no information boards around to explain the history of the site, we found it very helpful, and we learned a lot of new stuff here.
The site is quite small, and its purpose is still uncertain.
Most likely Ingapirca served as a fortress, but people lived within its walls as well with domestic animals (there are still stones they used for constructing houses), but Ingapirca also has the most significant building the Temple of the Sun which had a religious and ceremonial purpose.
To get to Ingapirca ruin you need to take a regular bus from Cuenca's bus terminal every day at 9 AM.
The bus returns in the afternoon (check the current schedule), but the time is usually convenient so you'll have enough time to explore the site and even have a quick lunch. The drive took us 2.5 to 3 hours as the bus stops often to pick up locals along the way.
CAJAS NATIONAL PARK
If you've already made it to Cuenca, you should seriously consider making a one-day trip to Cajas National Park as for us, except for admiring the historical center, it was the highlight of our time spent in the city, and definitely one of the best things we've done in Ecuador.
Only 30 kilometers from Cuenca, lies the absolute hiker's paradise notoriously known for its moody weather but also for stunning views of green hills, deep valleys and hundreds of lakes.
Unless you just finished hiking Quilotoa Loop or biking in Chimborazo National Park, we recommend you to leave the visit of Cajas National Park for your last day in Cuenca as the park sits in suffocating altitude at 4450 meters above sea level, so it is important to acclimatize well.
The cheapest way how to get to Cajas National Park is by a regular bus leaving every day in the morning Cuenca's bus terminal.
When you arrive in the park, you need to register and choose the trail you want to hike as there are many options from two-hour trails to multi-day hikes.
It is also possible to take a guided tour which also includes transport from Cuenca, in case traveling on own is not your thing.
The weather in Cajas National Park was like from a guidebook - we had blue skies, clouds, strong wind and at the end even rain, but nothing could spoil the beauty of the area, rather the opposite.
We think this national park is exactly one of those few destinations in the world which you can enjoy in every weather, and sometimes the clouds add to the dramatic atmosphere and make the experience even better.
Cajas is a wild and pristine park where you can also spot wildlife, so it is only up to you if you decide to spend here a couple of hours, a day or stay overnight - personally, we think longer is better.
Our Tip: Cuenca does not need to be an ordinary one or two-nights destination on your itinerary, but if you can afford to spend more time in the area, and you do not have enough of the city's colonial charm, there are some more activities you can do.
One of them is visiting artisan villages Chordeleg and Gualaceo or Banos de Cuenca (do not confuse it for the other and more famous town in Ecuador) where you can take a dip in hot springs around the city.
The second, even more popular day-tour, is taking the famous train ride through Ecuadorian countryside, which also includes sightseeing of well-known tourist attraction Devil's Nose, and this tour also includes visit of Ingapiraca ruins. Check out the train tour here.
WHERE TO STAY IN CUENCA
Cuenca is the prettiest colonial city in Ecuador, so you can expect to meet here a lot of foreign and local visitors any time of the year. The center of Cuenca is very picturesque, and it is worth it to find a room in the heart of the city to have everything nearby.
We've handpicked three best hotels for every type of traveler.
Budget | Selina Cuenca - Perfect location, beautiful and clean facilities for a cheap price, co-working place, kitchen, and terrace - you probably won't find a better deal in Cuenca.
Mid-range | Hostal Mariscal Inn & Suites - Reasonably priced hotel which offers the best value for your money in Cuenca. Comfortable beds, excellent breakfast, and a great atmosphere are the main reasons why to stay here.
Luxury | Mansion Alcazar - Colonial boutique hotel in the center of Cuenca offers comfortable spacious rooms, perfect service, and tasty breakfast. Top pick for everyone looking for a higher standard.
Alternatively, search for your accommodation via Hostelworld.
WHAT TO PACK FOR VISITING CUENCA
Weather in Cuenca can be tricky, and you can easily experience all four seasons within one day.
The city is 2560 meters above sea level, but also close to the equator, so it can be chilly in the morning or when the sun goes down, and too hot during the day.
If you also want to visit some places around Cuenca such as Cajas National Park, it is better to anticipate rain and travel well-prepared.
We've written an in-depth post on what to pack for South America where you can find essential things you should bring along when backpacking in Ecuador.
HOW TO GET TO CUENCA
Cuenca is one of the must-visit destinations in Ecuador, and thanks to it getting to the city is pretty easy as you can reach Cuenca by direct bus for example from Riobamba (the base for visiting Chimborazo National Park), Guayaquil, the port city from where you can take a flight to the Galapagos Islands, Loja or Chiclayo in Peru.
We found traveling around Ecuador by bus fine and never had any issue. Buses usually ran on a schedule, and we did not experience major delays, the country is small and thanks to it we did not have to spend that much time commuting as usual which was a pleasant change.
When on a bus, always keep an eye on your belongings - never leave your bags unattended or do not keep them on an overhead shelf as Ecuador is unfortunately known for bus robberies.
The bus terminal is a bit far away from the city center, 2.5 kilometers. We decided to walk, but you can take a cab for $5.
When short on time, you can fly to Cuenca, but there are only a couple of flights a day, only from the capital city of Ecuador, Quito.
When looking for flight tickets you can search Skyscanner to find the best price.
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