Before I began researching my trip to Ecuador, I had never heard of Cuenca. In my research, I learned that it’s a charming expat city a short plane ride away from Ecuador’s capital city, Quito. I began wondering: Is Cuenca worth visiting? Would it be worth it to take a plane for a few days to visit another city, or would my time be better spent staying nearer to Quito? The answer wound up being a resounding ‘YES!‘. There are so many things to do in Cuenca, I’m so glad with my decision to visit, and can’t wait to return in the future.
Cuenca is a colorful colonial city situated in the southern half of Ecuador. The city is the third largest in the country, and home to a thriving digital nomad and expat community in addition to friendly locals. A designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are plenty of things to do in Cuenca to satisfy your sense of adventure for a few days.
Table of Contents
covid restrictions in ecuador
Before making any travel reservations, be sure to check the COVID restrictions currently implemented in Ecuador. Be aware that things are subject to change with no notice and that most travel insurance companies do not cover COVID-19 for cancellations or treatment. Travel safely, wear a mask, socially distance, and follow all local regulations.
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Table of contents
- covid restrictions in ecuador
- discover charming colonial architecture
- take in the beauty of the cathedral de la inmaculada
- enjoy a fresh breakfast at café fractal
- take selfies with wild horses at cajas national park
- sample local goodies at mercado 10 de agosto
- try the ceviche at raymipampa
- learn about panama hats at homero ortega museum
- get a little weird at museo pumapungo
- take a wellness day at piedra de agua
- learn about local indigenous culture
- discover the local flower market
- admire the world-class street art
- people-watch in parque calderón
- take in the views from a rooftop terrace
- stroll the banks of the tomebamba river
- try mote pillo
- get panorama views at the top of mirador de turi
- admire iglesia sagrario
- check out some of the coolest doorways in cuenca
- book list
- pin it !
discover charming colonial architecture
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.
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.
take selfies with wild horses at cajas national park
Hiking Cajas Parque Nacional is easily one of the best day trips from Cuenca, as it doesn’t take very long to get there. I booked my experience through Airbnb, with an American expat host named Marc. I was the only guest, so it was just the two of us exploring the park together. Marc showed me some of the secret spots in the park, such as an abandoned brewery, viewpoints to admire the Andean landscape, and explained much of the park’s history with me. 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. As interesting as the birds were, by far the highlight of the experience was encountering a herd of wild alpacas, and one of wild horses. The horses were so friendly, as you can see, that one nuzzled up behind me and we got a great selfie! Sorry you can see up my nose.
While Marc isn’t currently offering this Airbnb experience, there are a number of other 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
Among the best things to do in Cuenca (and Ecuador in general) is roam the streets in search of some of the best street art around the world. The depictions in the epic murals range from local customs to indigenous portraits, and are as moving as they are beautiful. After exploring the street art in a few different cities throughout Ecuador, I found the street art in Cuenca to be my favorite. You can easily spend a few hours taking photos of Cuenca’s street art, perfect for a leisurely afternoon. The street art alone makes Cuenca worth visiting!
people-watch in parque calderón
Take a seat in Parque Calderón to watch passersby and bask in the warm Ecuadorian sun. The park is centrally located and served as my focal point throughout my time in Cuenca. After a big meal, or a few glasses of wine, I really enjoyed sitting here with a book or just my headphones to spend some time simply doing nothing. With the shade of the palm trees and the trickling fountains, you’ll find the perfect ambiance to just sit and chill.
take in the views from a rooftop terrace
The best rooftop bar to get picture-perfect views of the Cuencan rooftops was by far Hotel Cruz del Vado. You don’t need to be a hotel guest to visit their rooftop restaurant (I wasn’t). Admittedly, it’s a bit pricer than other bars and restaurants in Cuenca. Still, with views like this, it’s totally worth it – especially considering how much you save with the cost of living in Cuenca.
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. I owe my love for doors and doorways around the world to my mother, who is constantly stopping for photo ops on all of the trips we take together. Cuenca has some of the most beautiful doors I’ve seen in all of my travels.
Related: Exploring the Mindo Cloud Forest