16/06/2024

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The 25 best things to do in Cuenca, Ecuador: A two day itinerary

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The 25 best things to do in Cuenca, Ecuador: A two day itinerary

Cuenca, The Athens of Ecuador, is considered one of the most beautiful cities in Ecuador. It is a small city but rich in history, architecture, culture and gastronomy. In fact, the Historic Center of Cuenca was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999 for its Spanish colonial architecture. Cuenca has one of the best preserved colonial centers in Latin America.

Fun fact: The official name of Cuenca is Santa Ana de Los Ríos de Cuenca.

In this travel guide I leave you a great list of essential things to do in Cuenca in one or two days. I recommend that you take the red bus tour of Cuenca so that you can learn more about its history and then you can return to all the places knowing a little more information about each place. If you wish you can also take a private tour of the city.

Cuenca is located at the intersection of four rivers that make it an even more beautiful city. Along with its beautiful colonial streets, European architecture, beautiful churches and cathedrals, Inca ruins and craft centers make Cuenca an unforgettable city on your tour of Ecuador.

Where is Cuenca, Ecuador?

Cuenca is the capital of the Azuay province, in the Andes mountains in southern Ecuador. Cuenca is only 250 km east from Guayaquil and 440 km south Quito.

Is Cuenca safe to visit?

I would say that Cuenca is the safest large city in Ecuador. This is why many foreigners have decided to make Cuenca their new home, as one of the top destinations in the world for retirement. Like anyplace else, it is always important to be aware of your surroundings, use common sense and avoid walking alone at night. As we say in Ecuador, do not give papaya, do not put yourself in unfavorable circumstances. But in general, you can explore Cuenca without problems.

What is the weather like in Cuenca?

Cuenca has a privileged climate with pleasant temperatures all year round. The city is located at 2,560 meters above sea level. Cuenca has two seasons: rainy and dry. The best time to visit Cuenca is from mid-March to mid-May, when it is warmer. The temperature in Cuenca is between 14°C and 20°C.

What clothes do I need to pack for Cuenca?

  • During the day: a light sweater, long pants, comfortable shoes, socks, hat or cap, sunglasses, sunscreen.
  • During the night: a coat, comfortable shoes, thick socks, scarf, long pants.
  • If you plan to visit the outskirts of Cuenca, I recommend you wear gloves, a hat for the cold, and a waterproof coat.

How do I get to Cuenca?

Cuenca is well connected to other cities in Ecuador, at least in comparison with other equally important cities in the country. You can get to Cuenca in 4 ways: plane, private car, buses or buses.

  • Plane: Mariscal La Mar Airport has flights from Guayaquil and Quito. The good thing about the airport is that it is located near the historic center. From the airport you can walk to the Calderón park, take a taxi, private transfer or the tram. The taxi costs around $3 USD, the tram $1 USD (buy the tickets at the machines at the stops).
  • Private Car: If you have a private car, I recommend using Google Maps to give you exact directions from where you are located.
  • Bus: The Terrestrial Terminal is located next to the airport. The good thing is that there are direct buses from many cities in the country. Bus fares vary depending on where you are coming from in the country.
  • Busetas: Busetas, also known as vans, operate from several cities in the country. What I like the most about the vans is that they are faster than the buses and they are direct. Like the buses, they have a pre-established departure time, although sometimes you have to wait for it to fill up. These buses are taken from different points of the city. There is no central point like the terrestrial terminal, I recommend you always ask the locals where you can take them and look for the contact information on Google so that you can call them directly and find out all the information. For example, outside the Simón Bolívar airport in Guayaquil there are stands for these vans.

How many days do I need to visit Cuenca?

Cuenca is a city that can be visited in a day (see its main attractions) to a week or more! It has so many things to offer tourists that it depends a lot on the pace you want to visit. I hope this travel guide with the 25 things to see and do in Cuenca will help you plan the days you need to enjoy this city and its charm.

My recommendation is that you stay in Cuenca for a minimum of two full days, with a week being ideal. Remember that Cuenca is the perfect base to visit other wonders in the area such as the Cajas National Park, Ingapirca, Cojitambo and other nearby towns. If you are adventurous and do not want to waste a second of your time in Cuenca, you can take an electric scooter tour of Cuenca.

Where is the best places to eat in Cuenca?

Cuenca is known for being a great gastronomic center of Ecuador. It has the best restaurants in the country. You can also find daily menus from $2.50 USD or you can eat at the stalls of the Mercado 10 de Agosto. I loved the beer at the Cuenca Beer Company of the San Luis Seminary, the hot chocolates at Chocolatería Dos Chorreras (they also serve crêpes, waffles, ice cream and churros) and the food at the Mansion Matilde restaurant. In that same building on the ground floor you will find several restaurant options. Another good option is the El Consuelo restaurant or the Raymipampa restaurant to try the probar el mote.

The typical food of Cuenca is the mote, a type of grain cooked in water. For example, you have the mote pillo, mote sucio, mote casado, mote pata, among others. You simply cannot leave Cuenca without eating mote, it is one of the best things to do in Cuenca.

The mote sucio is made with black lard (the leftover from the pork when preparing the fry) and the mote pillo is mixed with egg.

What is there to do in Cuenca at night?

Cuenca has a wide variety of restaurants, cafes, bars and nightclubs. I recommend you go to Calle Larga, the area of El Vado and Avenida Remigio Crespo Toral. In any of these sectors you are going to have an incredible time at night.

What are the best hotels in Cuenca?

The best area to stay in Cuenca is in the historic center, as it is safe and close to everything. Here are the best hotels in Cuenca:

Map with the best things to do in Cuenca:

Here is a map with the locations of the best places to visit in Cuenca:

20 best places to visit in Cuenca:

1. Historic Center of Cuenca

Your visit to Cuenca can be largely focused on the historic center. The good thing is that it is a very compact historic center, small but full of things to visit. The main avenue is called Calle Larga and it is an excellent point to start your tour. Within the Historic Center, visit the Abdón Calderón Park (central square of the city), the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (New Cathedral), the Sagrario Church (Old Cathedral), the Municipality and the San Luis Seminary, an ideal place to relax, eat something or have a coffee or juice with the best views of the domes of the new cathedral.

The historic center of Cuenca is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful city centers in Ecuador. At every corner you will want to take out your camera and photograph the facades of the buildings.

2. Abdón Calderón Plaza

You will find artists and merchants selling all kinds of products. It is ideal to relax and simply contemplate the beauty of the New Cathedral and its blue domes. Stop by Tutto Freddo, which is the best ice cream parlor in Cuenca.

3. Callejón de Santa Ana

Right next to the New Cathedral is the Callejón de Santa Ana, one of the most beautiful streets in the city. What makes this alley beautiful is its cobbled street and balconies decorated with flower pots.

4. Saint Louis Seminary

Saint Louis Seminary is considered the most beautiful colonial architecture in Cuenca. What makes this building special is its patio surrounded by restaurants, businesses and cafeterias. The most impressive thing is the view of the domes of the Cathedral.

5. La Antigua Catedral

The Iglesia del Sagrario (Old Cathedral) was founded in 1557 as was the city of Cuenca. The church is located in front of the Calderón park, facing the new cathedral. Its architecture is that of a colonial basilica. Admire its gold leaf altarpieces and bellows organ. Today the church serves as a museum, since it was replaced by the new cathedral as the city outgrew its size.

Visiting hours are Monday through Friday from 9:00 AM to 5:30 PM and Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM. The Sagrario church is one of the most important places to see in Cuenca.

6. La Nueva Catedral

The official name is Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The first thing that catches your attention is the church’s Renaissance domes covered with tiles of Czech origin. The New Cathedral is one of the most monumental works in Latin America. It is a Catholic church in Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance styles. It is called the new cathedral, since it began to be built in 1885 and finished in 1980, long after the Church of the Tabernacle. The New Cathedral is in my opinion the most important religious site to see in Cuenca next to the Old Cathedral.

You can enter the cathedral for free, as it still serves as a church. If you want to go up to the terrace (its domes) by a spiral staircase, where you can enjoy one of the best panoramic views of the city, you will have to pay $2 USD per person. In total there are 150 steps that you will have to climb. One of the most typical things to do in Cuenca is to take a picture with its blue domes.

You can also go down to the catacombs of the cathedral. Hours and price vary. The last time I went it was temporarily closed. The most interesting thing about the cathedral is that it is technically still under construction and not yet finished.

7. Banco de Azuay

It is located in a neoclassical building and it is beautiful. It is one of the few buildings that still preserve the typical architecture style of Ecuador in 1913.

8. Plaza de Las Flores

The Plaza de las Flores is one of the most beautiful and instagrammable places in Cuenca and even in the world according to National Geographic. Here you can find different types of flowers and plants for sale. You will be able to see roses, orchids, jasmine, geraniums, carnations among other beautiful plants and flowers.

There is also the Church and Convent of El Carmen de la Asunción, a truly hidden jewel of Cuenca. A group of cloistered nuns lives in the convent from whom, through the lathe, you can buy their specialties: pitima water and pichó jelly.

Fun fact: Ecuador is the orchid capital of the world, and Cuenca is the orchid capital of Ecuador

9. Museo del sombrero

Going to the Toquilla Straw Hat Museum in Cuenca is essential, since it is part of the Culture of the Cuencanos. The toquilla straw comes from the province of Manabí but its large toquilla straw hat factories are located in Azuay. You will have the opportunity to learn more about the making of the toquilla straw hat, also known as Panama Hat, which is originally from Ecuador. Here you can see a demonstration of how they are made by hand. The Hat Museum has become one of the main attractions of the city.

Interesting fact: During the construction of the Panama Canal, the demand for the toquilla straw hat increased, since it protects from the sun and is of excellent quality. Although the hat is of Ecuadorian origin, it was internationalized in Panama and since then it has unfortunately been known as the “Panama Hat”.

You can also visit the Homero Ortega Museum, although it is further away from the city.

10. Church and Plaza San Sebastián

The San Sebastián Church sits on what was the western limit of the city and is located in the square of the same name, considered one of the most beautiful squares in Cuenca. It is also the site of the murder of a member of the French Geodesic Expedition, who had come to measure the equinoctial line in 1739. They say that the man was murdered because of his love affair with a woman from Cuenca. In the area you will be able to visit several workshops where you can admire the city’s craft tradition.

11. Mercado 10 de Agosto

The Mercado 10 de Agosto is the most popular market in Cuenca. It is an excellent place to learn more about the culture of the city and its gastronomy. The Mercado 10 de Agosto is just a few minutes from the Hat Museum and I would say both are mandatory visits. In fact, you can’t leave the market without a spiritual cleansing.

What is a spiritual cleansing? In a few words, it is an ancient Andean spiritual healing practice that removes the evil eye and dark energies. The cleansing is done with medicinal herbs, oil, incense and a chicken egg. The latter has the property of healing and removing all those bad energies. The Mercado 10 de Agosto with its cleansings is one of the most curious places to see in Cuenca.

What I like the most about the market are the murals that decorate it. You will find several stalls with fruits, vegetables, meat, cheeses and even huecas (small restaurants).

12. Mercado de la Plaza San Francisco

Another market that you can visit is the Mercado de la Plaza de San Francisco, Mercado Artesanal, which is located behind the new cathedral and next to the Plaza de las Flores. Here you will also find the giant letters of Cuenca. The Craft Market has more than 100 stalls with Ecuadorian crafts, perfect for buying souvenirs and typical clothing from the Ecuadorian Andes. Without a doubt, visiting the market is one of the essential activities to do in Cuenca.

13. Pumapungo Ancestral Park and Museum

One of the most important museums in the city of Cuenca is the Archaeological Park and the Pumapungo Museum which teaches about the anthropology and ethnography of Ecuador. Here you can learn more about the origin, customs, traditions, clothing of the different ethnic groups and indigenous Ecuadorian communities. One of the things that makes Ecuador unique is its great cultural diversity.

The Archaeological Park shows the ruins of the ancient city of Tomebamba, the northern administrative center of the Inca Empire. While the museum shows the great heritage wealth of Pre-Hispanic cultures such as the Cañari and Inca that inhabited the place many centuries ago. Be sure to visit the Shuar exhibition, since here you will find an exhibition with shrunken heads.

Admission is free, making it one of the best things to do in Cuenca.

14. El Barranco

El Barranco is an idyllic neighborhood of semi-detached houses located on the banks of the Tomebamba River, with an extensive 2 kilometers route that goes from the El Vado Bridge to Av. Huayna Capac. From there you can admire an impressive view of the river and enjoy a pleasant evening in the cafes and restaurants. This place refers to Cuenca of Spain, since some hanging houses are seen, although they are not the same as those in Spain. El Barranco is one of the most picturesque places to see in Cuenca.

15. Museum of Aboriginal Cultures

The museum has more than 5,000 pieces that tell the story of the aboriginal cultures of Ecuador, from the paleoindian archaeological periods to the Inca period. Here you will be able to see funerary containers from the thousand-year-old coastal culture of La Tolita, horns from the Cañari culture and bone ornaments.

16. Remigio Crespo Toral Museum

This is a great museum to learn more about the history of Cuenca. The house where the museum is located is beautiful and has a viewpoint with unique views of the ravine.

17. Puente Roto

My favorite place and one that I try to visit constantly when I visit Cuenca is the Broken Bridge, a 19th century bridge that was built on the banks of the Tomebamba River. In 1950, this stone bridge was partially washed away during a heavy flood, only 10 years after it was built.

Instead of rebuilding, or even demolishing, the remains of the bridge were left as is and today it is a tourist attraction to spend time with friends, family or as a couple. In our case, part of our wedding photo session was here. One thing that you must do in Cuenca is to enjoy the Tomebamba River and walk along its banks.

18. Church of Santo Domingo

The Church of Santo Domingo is the second largest in Cuenca. It has two twin towers, 37 meters high and neoclassical in style. The cool thing is that inside you can find the largest bell in Ecuador, which weighs approximately 6 tons, is 2.40 meters high and has a diameter of 2.60 meters.

19. San Alfonso Church

In front of the Cuenca City Hall is one of the most beautiful churches to see in Cuenca. The name caught my attention, as that is the name of my dad and the beautiful blue spires sticking up into the sky. The Church of San Alfonso has a neo-Gothic façade that will captivate you. Formerly at this location the convent of San Agustín, but on its ruins in 1875 the construction of the Church of San Alfonso began.

In the main portal you will find an image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and it is that on December 10, 1966 it was consecrated as a Minor Basilica by Pope Paul VI for the dedication of its pilgrims to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

20. Municipal Museum of Modern Art

On the south side of Plaza San Sebastián is the Museum of Modern Art with an excellent collection of painting and sculpture exhibitions by contemporary Ecuadorian and foreign artists. The sculptures even occupy the interior patios adorned with trees and flowers. The structure was built in 1876 as a House of Temperance, for people with alcohol addiction.

Admission is free, with the following hours:

  • Monday to Friday from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM.
  • Saturdays and Sundays from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM.

21. Turi viewpoint

From the Mirador de Turi you will be able to appreciate the best panoramic view of Cuenca, since it is located in the upper part of Cuenca. From there you can enjoy a magnificent view of its churches and avenues. At the top there is a small theme park, where you can get to a swing that is on the hill and has a great view of all of Cuenca. To get there you can go by bus on the line that goes to “El Turi” and stops at the corner of Fray Vicente Solano and 12 de Abril or if you prefer you can take a taxi, which will cost between $5 to $7 USD. Without a doubt, an essential activity to do in Cuenca.

Next to the viewpoint is the Church of Turi, where the sculpture of the Virgen de la Merced, patron saint of the parish, on the altar, and on a side altar is Calvary with the image of the Lord of Bethlehem. The latter is also commemorated in a small grotto.

Tip: It is the perfect place to see the beautiful sunsets of Cuenca.

22.  Rescue Center: Amaru

Amaru aims to educate the community on the importance of protecting the biodiversity, natural and cultural resources of the country. Amaru is a private, non-profit conservation organization that was created by the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment through a ministerial agreement in 2002.

23. Clínica Bolívar

One of the most beautiful buildings in Cuenca is the Clínica Bolívar due to its unique façade. If you can and have time, take a walk so you can photograph it.

24. Matilde Mansion – Park House

Casa del Parque is one of the most incredible places that Cuenca has to offer. On the ground floor of the building there is a wide variety of restaurants and cafeterias and on the second floor there is a very elegant restaurant. It is a luxury restaurant with several rooms such as Turquesa. You cannot miss the chance to visit Matilde Mansion in Cuenca.

25. The terrace of the Negroni

The Negroni restaurant is an excellent way to end this post about the best things to see and do in Cuenca. Known as one of the best restaurants and bars in the city but also as the best place to watch the sunset in the historic center of Cuenca.

It is preferable to reserve a table in advance, since the last few times I have gone I have not been able to go near sunset. Keep in mind that you cannot make a reservation for the terrace, so if you want to go to see the sunset, I recommend going early and on a weekday. Prices vary and it is considered one of the most expensive places to eat in the city, but I assure you that it is one of the best restaurants to eat in Cuenca.

The best day trips from Cuenca:

  • Cajas National Park: The perfect place to see wildlife and hike between lakes and waterfalls. Although the trails are very well marked, I recommend taking a tour from Cuenca. If you decide to go by private car, I recommend stopping at the park entrance to ask for recommendations. If you don’t have a car, take a bus in the direction of Guayaquil, since they pass in front of the National Park and stop for travelers who request it. The park has public access until 4pm. You can also go hiking to the Luspa lagoon.
  • Ingapirca Archaeological Complex: Here you can find the largest known ruins of the Inca Empire in Ecuador. The site was originally established by the Cañari peoples, who peacefully united with the Incas. You can take a tour from Cuenca and learn more about this historic set of Inca buildings that would have functioned as a place to worship the Sun God. Without a doubt, Ingapirca is one of the most famous excursions to do from Cuenca.
  • Chordeleg and Gualaceo: Around Cuenca there are several towns that are worth visiting, among them is Chordeleg, which is known for its artisan workshops of fine jewelry made of silver, gold and other precious metals, and ceramics. In fact, Chordeleg was declared a “Creative City” by Unesco on October 31, 2017 and a Magical Town of Ecuador in 2020. You can take an excursion to Chordeleg and Gualaceo from Cuenca. Gualaceo, on the other hand, is one of the production centers for the finest fabrics and embroidery, using the ancestral technique of Ikat. It stands out for its emblematic toquilla straw hats and footwear.
  • Parroquia de Baños: it is known for its natural thermal springs that have mineral properties. You will find several spas and inns with thermal pools, Turkish baths and saunas. The most famous is Piedra de Agua where there are even underground hot springs, the Kidney Spa or the Novaqua.

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