Cuenca, Ecuador offers an abundance of activities and attractions that make it a must-see destination! As soon as you step foot in this charming city, accompanied by its idyllic colonial architecture and cobblestone streets tucked away within the Andes Mountains – only a short plane ride from Quito’s capital – you almost immediately understand why travelers often find themselves returning time and time again. So if your next trip takes you to Ecuador consider exploring Cuenca; although one visit won’t be enough!
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Visit Old Town
The Historic Center of Cuenca was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, largely due to its dense concentration of ornate, vibrant colonial architecture and orthogonal town plan. The ornate facades found throughout the cobbled streets of Cuenca’s Historic Center are enough to keep you fascinated for a few hours at least. Around every turn, you’ll find beautiful, iron balconies, thick, stucco-clad walls, marble details, and gorgeous carved wood. Teenagers will enjoy exploring this historic district and learning about Cuenca’s rich culture and history.
Go Whitewater Rafting on the Toachi River
The Toachi River offers some of the best whitewater rafting in Ecuador. Teenagers will enjoy spending a day rafting down the river and admiring the scenery of the Andes Mountains. There are also several companies that offer tours, so teenagers can sit back and relax while someone else does the paddling for them.
Visit Ingapirca Ruins
The Ingapirca Ruins are located just outside of Cuenca and are the largest Inca ruins in Ecuador. The ruins consist of an ancient temple, terraces, and walls that were built by the Inca Empire over 500 years ago. Teenagers will enjoy exploring these well-preserved ruins and learning about the Inca Empire.
Shop at Otavalo Market
Otavalo Market is one of the largest markets in South America and is known for its textiles, handicrafts, and food. Teenagers will enjoy browsing through the market stalls and bargaining with the vendors for souvenirs to take home with them.
Take in the beauty of the Cathedral de la Inmaculada
The magnum opus of Cuenca is undoubtedly the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, a stunning example of an architectural mélange. The building has characteristics of Gothic, Romanesque, and Renaissance composition. Also known as the New Cathedral, this gorgeous building boasts beautiful Spanish stained-glass windows, Italian marble, and its iconic baby-blue domes. Its construction lasted over one hundred years, but the resulting building was well-worth the wait.
While many people coming to Cuenca are familiar with the cathedral, few know that you can visit the towers, which provide epic views of the whole city. Even if you don’t plan on ascending the 150-step spiral staircase to the towers, the cathedral’s interior is open to visitors daily, with hours from 8:00-13:30 and again from 14:00-16:00.
Enjoy a fresh breakfast at Café Fractal
I happily stumbled upon this place on my very first morning in Cuenca. They have a wide variety of breakfast meals to choose from, each fit for a king. Ranging from $2-$4.50 USD, each breakfast meal is nearly enough for two people. I ordered the Desayuno Continental on my first day and never looked back, ordering it daily until I was due to return to Quito. For $3.50, I got a coffee, fresh juice, eggs, pan del dia, and a large portion of local, fresh fruits. It was superb, and perfect to give me enough energy to sightsee for hours on end.
Hike Cajas National Park
Cajas National Park is located just outside of Cuenca and is a popular destination for hiking and camping. The park offers stunning views of the Andes Mountains and is home to a variety of wildlife, including wild horses, llamas, alpacas, and condors. Teenagers will love hiking through this beautiful park and spotting some of the local wildlife. The hike is low-moderate difficulty, but still a great way to have a little adventure in Ecuador.
Due to the many lagoons in the park, it’s a great spot to admire the different species of migratory birds that call Cajas their temporary homes.
There are a number of guided tours to Cajas National Park available. You can also hike Cajas on your own. Entrance to the park is free.
Sample local goodies at Mercado 10 de Agosto
There are tons of covered markets located throughout Cuenca, but by far the biggest market with the most offerings is Mercado 10 de Agosto. You can find expected staples such as fresh produce, herbs, more meat than you can imagine, and local spices. However, you can find some much more interesting offerings here as well. On Tuesdays and Fridays you can get a traditional cleansing from Limpia women, if you are in need of good fortune, love, or money (who isn’t?). People from all walks of life come for the cleansings. From businessmen to indigenous teenagers (and of course, gringos), but pregnant women seem to dominate. The market is so big and has so many vendors that you have to explore the surrounding streets outside as well, as the vendors tend to overflow on particularly busy days. If you like sour things, try some Super Hiper Acido candy, a local candy from Ecuador.
Try the ceviche at Raymipampa
Following my day of hiking in Cajas, this was my first stop. I was starving, sun burnt, and exhausted. I had yet to sample Ecuadorian ceviche, and my skin was so hot (and already blistering, despite slathering on sunscreen all day), that I wanted something chilled. A crisp, refreshing glass of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and a bowl of fresh ceviche was just what the doctor ordered.
Raymipampa is located on the perimeter of Parque Calderón. It’s consistently touted as one of the best restaurants in the city. It’s very affordable (as are most places in Cuenca) and the ceviche was to-die-for. If you’re visiting Ecuador and eating ceviche, you might be confused as to what to do with the little corn nuts it’s served with (as was I). Instead of eating them like an appetizer, like I did (what can I say, I was starving), you add them to the ceviche for a bit of texture. This is one of many things you need to know before you go to Ecuador.
Learn about Panama hats at Homero Ortega Museum
Despite its name, did you know the Panama hat was actually invented in Ecuador? That’s right. Among the best things to do in Cuenca is to visit the Homero Ortega Museum. Here, you can learn about the famous hats’ origins, how to make them, and maybe purchase one to take home as a souvenir. The museum offers free, guided tours available in Spanish and English. The museum is located at the production headquarters of Homero Ortega, a well-known brand of Panama hats. This means that your visit to the museum is fully interactive, as you’re directly involved in the production process. Definitely a place worth checking out while in Cuenca!
Get a little weird at Museo Pumapungo
Want to check out something completely morbid and unique to Cuenca? Go to Museo Pumapungo to see their macabre collection of shrunken heads. This is a huge, free museum in Cuenca whose highlight is unquestionably their shrunken head exhibit, from the Shuar people of Amazonia.
In addition to the shrunken heads, they also display indigenous art and artifacts, all of which gives more insight into the area you’re visiting. The museum is not open on Mondays.
Take a wellness day at Piedra de Agua
Need a little R&R during your travels in Cuenca? A great option after a day of hiking in Cajas is to visit the America’s only underground spa facility. With various treatments, including red and blue thermal muds, mineral salt therapies, thermal shock experiences, and Turkish baths, you can enjoy the different spa services for two and a half hours starting at $57.00, which is super cheap if you’re coming from the States! The spa offers a variety of packages, but this is the one I went with. You are provided with a towel, robe, and mask upon arrival. There is also a small shop that sells bathing wear and accessories in case you forget yours. If you get hungry afterwards, you can check out the on-site restaurant. Book your time here by reservation only – COVID restrictions are in place, but the spa is still open.
Learn about local indigenous culture
Visit Museo de las Culturas Aborigines to explore Ecuador’s indigenous history. The museum, which is closed on Sundays, showcases over 5,000 different archaeological artifacts from pre-Inca indigenous cultures. Because the museum offers guided tours in English, you can fully immerse yourself in the ancient pre-Hispanic civilization.
Discover the local flower market
La Plaza de las Flores is located near Plaza San Francisco in the historical center of Cuenca. It’s a beautiful, sweet-smelling outdoor market ideally located. Simply watching locals make their purchases is as exciting as discovering the wide variety of flowers found there. There is a lot you can learn from the flower market as well. Did you know that Ecuador is the world’s third largest exporter of cut flowers? Visiting Flores Square is a great way to experience the industry on a smaller scale, first-hand.
Admire the world-class street art
Step into a vibrant world of art and culture in the heart of Ecuador’s Cuenca, where the streets come alive with stunning murals and street art. Wander through the bustling lanes and witness an array of breathtaking depictions ranging from local customs to indigenous portraits. This immersive experience is a gateway to Ecuador’s rich history and art scene, and a must-do for enthusiasts and curious travelers alike.
The charming city of Cuenca boasts some of the world’s best street art, captivating in both its beauty and emotional impact. Lose yourself in this kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, and stories, a true feast for the senses. With plenty of opportunities for photo opportunities and leisurely exploration, Cuenca is a destination you wouldn’t want to miss!
Stroll Around Parque Calderón
Step into Parque Calderón and soak up the vibrant energy of Ecuadorian culture! Located in the heart of Cuenca, this park offers the perfect spot for relaxation and people-watching. Marvel at the trickling fountains and sway of palm trees while basking in the warmth of the sun. After indulging in a delicious meal or sipping on some wine, unwind with your favorite book or playlist in this idyllic atmosphere. Join the many travelers and locals alike who have found serenity and rejuvenation in this iconic Cuenca landmark.
Enjoy Epic Views from a Rooftop Terrace
Step into the past by experiencing the ultimate rooftop experience at Hotel Cruz del Vado! The rooftop restaurant is a picturesque spot to get a bird’s-eye view of Cuenca’s rooftops. You don’t need to be a guest to indulge in the beauty of the city. Although it’s a bit pricey compared to other bars and restaurants, think about the savings from the low cost of living in Cuenca. Trust us – you won’t regret the splurge when you witness these amazing views!
Stroll the banks of the Tomebamba River
Cuenca has the benefit of being the confluence of four rivers, most notably the Tomebamba River. The Tomebamba flows through Cuenca, converging with the Amazon, and ultimately making its way to the Atlantic Ocean. The river banks are a popular place for young couples to find privacy and warmth in each other’s arms. Pack a picnic (solo, with a friend, or paramour) and settle in to the peace that comes with the sounds of the babbling river and chirping birds that make the banks of the Tomebamba their home.
Try mote pillo
Corn is life in Ecuador, so it should come as no surprise that hominy (dried corn kernels soaked in an alkali mixture) is a staple in traditional recipes. Mote Pillo is a traditional Cuencan dish made with hominy and scrambled eggs, onions, garlic, and achiote. It’s traditionally served alongside fresh bread and slices of cheese. You can also find this filling breakfast dish at Café Fractal, my personal favorite breakfast spot in Cuenca.
Get panorama views at the top of Mirador de Turi
At Mirador Turi, you’ll find unimpeded views of gorgeous Colonial Cuenca set over the Tomebamba river. Turi Viewpoint is located just ten minutes outside of the city center. Here, you can also visit Aventuri, which gives you an epic swing ride over the gorge. I didn’t dare take the swing ride, as heights aren’t really my thing. Still, the views are worth it, even without the swing ride.
Admire Iglesia Sagrario
The Old Church, as it is commonly known, is one of the most popular things to do in Cuenca. The Iglesia Sagrario is now home to a museum filled with religious artifacts from throughout Cuencan history. One of the rooms is covered wall-to-ceiling in religious murals, in addition to a depiction of the Last Supper with life-sized sculptures.
Check out some of the coolest doorways in Cuenca
In addition to the stunning architecture that decorates the streets of Cuenca, the doors are equally (if not more) breathtaking. Cuenca has some of the most beautiful doors I’ve seen in all of my travels.
Where to Stay in Cuenca
Related: Exploring the Mindo Cloud Forest
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