Many consider Cuenca to be the most beautiful city to visit in Ecuador, and it's hard to disagree. Cuenca's charm is in it's small manageable size and proud yet laid back vibe. The preserved UNESCO historic center combines seamlessly with a picturesque natural setting to lure you in. Cuenca's cobbled streets, churches and plazas take you back to colonial times. This is a city where old traditions are respected, and culture still means something. Cuenca is also the safest city in Ecuador and a haven for ex-pat retirees. So let's find out what all the fuss is about!
Keep reading for all of our recommended best things to do in Cuenca Ecuador.
Cuenca is renowned as Ecuador’s cultural city, popular with artists and poets alike, and also for it’s fine UNESCO recognized colonial architecture. So many of Cuenca’s highlights involve the rich history and present-day culture of the area.
The city was first developed by the Inca as a trading center and then rebuilt in grand style by the Spanish. Today there are great examples of both cultures that you can explore. With just over 400k inhabitants, a pleasant year-round spring climate, and an enviable safety record, Cuenca is a city that should be on your travel radar.
From Quito we recommend to take the short 30-40 domestic flight to Cuenca. Flights are scheduled 7 days per week throughout the day and are usually quite inexpensive. The alternative is a long haul 8-10 hour bus ride.
From Guayaquil your only option is the 3-4 hour bus ride, passing by banana and cacao plantations along the way.
Cuenca city can be visited in a single day, but two days works better. The charm of Cuenca afterall is to potter around and take it slow, so why rush things. If you also wish to visit some of the excellent tourist sites outside of Cuenca then 3 or 4 days works just fine.
Cuenca is the safest city in Ecuador, and one of the safest in all Latin America. Of course there is some petty crime like in any city, but if tourists take basic care then their trip to Cuenca will usually be completely trouble free.
Spanish king Charles V. drew up the plans for Cuenca in the 16th century and it has been an example of a UNESCO colonial city ever since. The city still maintains the original design and is considered one of Ecuador’s best places to see Spanish architecture in the country along with Quito.
Exploring Cuenca's historic center is therefore a must! Impressive sites include the Old and New Cathedrals, the latter with its towering blue domes. There are many open plazas such as Central Plaza Calderon and smaller San Sebastian. Traditional markets like the colorful flower market with indigenous cholas (ladies) selling their wares as they have for centuries. Or stroll Cuenca's cobbled streets and people-watch to get a sense of the history of the city.
Pumapungo was the religious center of the Incan city of Tomebamba (the original city, prior to the Spanish colonial period). Today Pumapungo is a park, performance center and the location of the town’s best museum with exhibits from cultures that date back to even before the Inca and Spanish in the area. There are regular performances by the Cuenca symphony here as well as by international musicians. The grounds have Incan ruins where you can see ritual baths and an aqueduct system that is still used today for the expansive gardens of the complex. If you only see one museum in Cuenca then Pumapungo should be it!
Believe it or not, the city of Cuenca is the world’s major exporter of Panama Hats, so we highly recommend learning more about this elegant attire while you are here. Homero Ortega or the Barrancos Panama Hat Museum are the best spots to find hats in Cuenca. Both have informative exhibits about hat weavers and finishers, as well as shops with the best value Panama Hats you will find anywhere in the world. Just don’t forget to ask your guide how Panama stole the fame from Ecuador.
No trip to Cuenca would be complete without a relaxing stroll along the picturesque Tomebamba River that flows through the center of the city. The Tomebamba river divides the old town from the more modern area of the city, with green banks & crystal clear water making for a pleasant walk. Several bridges criss cross the water from side to side along the way, and there are wonderful photo opportunities of Barranco’s historic buildings that tower over the riverfront.
If you are looking for quirky and off the beaten path then try the El Carmen de la Asunción Monastery. Here cloister nuns still live in the middle of an active city, without any direct contact to the outside world. They sell homemade products such as honey, sweets & cookies, jams and more, which help them to make a living. But the fun part is that you they have to make the sale without you being able to see them. So they have set up an ingenius rotating confession booth, where buyers ring for service, place their money on one side, while the nuns deliver the product on the other and rotate the booth to make the exhange. The monestary entrance is just behind the flower market, and few tourists head here.
For the best panoramic views across Cuenca City just head up to the Turi Lookout, which is just a short taxi ride from the old town area. The vista of red tiled roofs and the unmistakable blue cathedral towers make the trip worthwhile.
On the way up why not visit the Edwardo Vega ceramics workshop too, located just before the top of Turi hill. Cuenca is famous for ceramic pottery, and Mr. Vega is a very recognized local artist. Watching him work is quite a privilege, and the shop is perfect for souvenir or gift shopping.
Amaru Biopark is a great option for families with kids, with nature trails, conservation exhibits, and many Ecuadorian bird and animal species to enjoy. The highlights for many are the Andean bear and condor, as well as Amazon monkey species. Allow half a day for the return journey and zoo visit.
Just a short way out of the city you can find the perfect spot for some quality relaxation. At Piedra de Agua Spa bathe away your aches and pains in the natural hot pools (open until 11 pm), or splurge on one of the surprisingly affordable spa packages. Few tourists know about this little piece of heaven, and the site is usually quiet during the week.
The restaurants of Cuenca have really sprung to life over the past decade, and are recognised as among the finest in all Ecuador. Today Cuenca restaurants combine international tastes with Ecuadorian fusion and traditional Spanish food. Expat owned cafes have also sprung up, serving comfort food from home with warm social conversation.
Keep reading for our top cafe and restaurant recommendations in Cuenca Ecuador.
San Sebas Café is an expat favorite for its hearty breakfasts, sandwiches, burgers and Mexican fare. San Sebas also hosts regular events including a night where people recreate famous works of art which is at the top of the list for a fun thing to do in Cuenca for many.
Le Petit Jardin brings another aspect of the city’s history to light as a French restaurant that serves a revolving menu of delicious fare based on what’s available at the local markets. Cuenca has a strong French influence, seen around town at the plazas and parks. Le Petit Jardin not only serves fine cuisine, but is also a lovely spot to hang out, surrounded by plants and flowers, and with great views over the city below.
Anima Cocina de Autor is another hit with locals and travelers alike that is on the cutting edge of fusion food in the city and country. Seasonal ingredients produce innovative dishes that show off the talent and creativity of the kitchen.
Ever popular with locals (Cuencanos), Tiestos offer tasty Latin fusion cuisine, with an original menu based on traditional food with a twist. The friendly chef likes to get to know diners in person, and is often seen doing the rounds chatting to his clients. Tiestos desserts in particular are a true work of art, and almost too good to eat. This is a very popular place, so advance reservations are usually required even during the week.
Cuenca is famous for serving arguably the finest roast guinea pig (cuy) in the country, and no restaurant does it better than Guajibamba. The waiters take especially good care of tourists and are usually happy to show first hand how the guinea pig is prepared. Perhaps not for the faint-hearted, but a very traditional Ecuadorian cuisine experience none the less.
Bars in Cuenca Ecuador have also grown in the city, as today there are microbrews that serve pints far beyond the commercial bottle, and bars that serve international fare with flair. Read on for our top Cuenca nightlife picks.
Jodoco Belgian Brew brings both Belgium brews and food to Cuenca. Traditional Belgian house beers include Triple and a Quadruppel stout. While menu items like traditional beef stew and mashed potatoes with sausage and veggies deglazed in beer are crowd-pleasers. They also offer shared tablas with beef, sausage, mussels, and cheese nibbles.
Serving Ecuadorian craft beer including a Centinela Stout with chocolate, a Blonde, a Wheat with agave nectar, and an IPA- Zarza Gastropub shows off some of the interesting flavor’s that use the country’s ingredients to make their products shine. Their menu has a great selection of upscale pub grub along with homemade smoked meats and a Tex-Mex section.
If you have a bit more time on your hands, we highly recommend getting out of Cuenca city to explore further afield. Varied day trips include Inca Ruins, a stunning national park, and quaint villages for handicraft shopping.
El Cajas National Park is an easy and rewarding day trip from Cuenca. If you love nature then El Cajas is the place to come! This beautiful reserve is known as the lake district of Ecuador, with over 270 lakes surrounded by mountain peaks and glacial valleys. El Cajas is a wonderful example of Andean Paramo habitat, and home to fauna such as Andean bears, condors and puma. Visitors can also find the world's highest altitude tree here - the hardy Polylepis tree. There are various trails to explore, but do take a guide with you as it's easy to get lost when the clouds role in.
Another popular day trip from Cuenca is to Ingapirca ruins. Ingapirca is the largest and best preserved Inca archeological site in the country, and also shares historic and cultural links with the local Cañari Indians. A local guide is recommended to explain the history of the Incas in Ecuador, and provide insight into the various sections of the site. Signage is also in place for a more basic interpretation, as well as a small museum. The site is also home to a family of photogenic llamas to add a bit of spice to your landscape shots.
The small indigenous villages of Gualaceo, Chordeleg & Sigsig are famed for the production of local handicrafts, in particular, gold & silver jewellery, woven goods, woodwork, pottery and more. This is the perfect Cuenca day trip for authentic souvenir and gift shopping, as well as an opportunity to rub shoulders with the friendly local indian population.
Happy Gringo Travel offers a 3 day Cuenca highlights tour, including many of the above mentioned sites in and around the city. We also arrange custom made trips to Cuenca or other destinations in Ecuador. For more information or a FREE TOUR QUOTE contact a member of our team.
In conclusion, there are many fun things to do in Cuenca Ecuador for tourists. If you are thinking about an itinerary for Ecuador's highlands then Cuenca is a very strong candidate for inclusion. Cuenca city itself is an attractive and laid back place to explore, and the surrounding countryside boasts some real gems too. Happy Gringo highly recommend spending some time in this uniquely charming city!