13 Best Things To Do In & Around Cuenca, Ecuador
Last updated on April 22nd, 2023 at 08:34 am
Sitting at 2500 meters high and surrounded by a beautiful mountain range, Cuenca, Ecuador, the capital of the Azuay Province, is a Spanish colonial city filled with European charm. Originally a Cañari settlement, with a rich past of conquistadors and Incas, this Unesco World Heritage site is a true joy to visit and discover. With so many different types of activities within the city center, Cuenca has something to offer to all types of travellers. We’ve had the pleasure to visit this great city twice during our South American travels and hope you’ll enjoy this rundown of the best things to do in Cuenca.
1 – Visit the New Cathedral
Rarely is there a mention of Cuenca without its iconic emblem, which is the New Cathedral. The cathedral’s tiled blue domes can be viewed from all over Cuenca and are reminiscent of those that can be seen in Europe. You can work your way up the 150 steps to the top and appreciate a magnificent view of this gorgeous city. Make sure to also visit inside, it’s a not to be missed opportunity, as you can witness for yourself and admire the church’s glorious vastness.
2 – Relax in Parque Abdon Calderon
Right in the middle of the city is the grand plaza, a perfect place to relax and do some people watching. Mature palm trees line the entire park, providing welcome shade for tourists and locals alike. It’s an ideal spot to unwind. Sit on one of the park’s many benches and enjoy your frozen treat from one of many local vendors. Just heavenly!
3 – Walk around the Historic Center
This city has many interesting architectural details that can be admired while strolling the streets. Step into one of the local dives for a drink or explore many local boutiques and markets as you wander about. You’ll also get to enjoy the many art murals adorning a number of building around the city.
4 – Get Your Flower Power On
With its equatorial position providing constant daylight, the area’s high altitude providing cool nights, combine to make this the perfect environment for growing many wonderful species of flowers. It’s no surprise to find a Parque de los Flores right beside the New Cathedral. The climate is especially beneficial for long-stemmed roses with around 400 types growing in the mountains of Ecuador. Give into temptation and buy some fresh flowers every day! Did you know? A little-known fact is that Cuenca, Ecuador is the orchid capital of the world.
5 – Shop at One of the Many Local Markets
With loads of items to choose from, you can get your market “fix” and do provisions to your heart or stomach’s content in Cuenca. Try Mercado 10 Augusto or Mercado 9 de October, for a wide variety of produce, meats and cheeses. The Feria Libre, on the outskirts of Cuenca, is the largest of them all, with many indigenous vendors offering a wide variety of artisanal crafts and of course, food products. There are also many artisanal markets where you can purchase local crafts such as alpaca blankets, leather belts and sculptures, all within the city center.
6 – Walk or Bike Along the Rio Tomebamba
Easily accessible from a number of different access points throughout old town, the river Tomebamba offers a quiet respite from the city center’s hustle & bustle. It runs along the south side boundary of the old historic city and is, for most parts, parallel to Calle Larga, one of Cuenca’s main arteries. A paved pathway follows the river for a few kilometres, making it ideal for an easy walk or a pretty nice bike ride without any hills to deal with.
7 – Museo del Banco Pumapungo
At the end of Calle Larga, this museum is by far, the one that offers the most comprehensive information about the Cañari and the indigenous culture of Ecuador. Don’t be deceived by the plain and unpretentious exterior of this place. There’s a huge amount of exhibits to see inside, many about the history, clothing, art and agriculture. You’ll also get in-depth information about the Amazon tribes. Entrance is free, but take note that all exhibit information is provided only in Spanish.
8 – Museo del Sombrero Homero Ortega
Small but interesting, this museum has lots of information on the fabrication of the Panama hats. Actual steaming and shaping can be witnessed on the premise with historical artefacts on display. There’s a lot that goes into making a Panama hat! Interesting facts: the construction of the Panama Canal produced a large demand for the toquilla straw hats and because of its high fabrication qualities, this item became an indispensable element to the worker’s attire, protecting them from the extenuating Caribbean sun. From Panama, the hat became known internationally, and people began to call it the “Panama Hat’’ confusing the place of use with the place of origin.
9 – Enjoy the Many Restaurants in Town
Cuenca offers a great range of restaurants for every budget and taste. From luxurious to affordable, to typical or western cuisine, you’re sure to find a venue to satisfy your need and pleasure. Treat yourself to a great lunch at Mansion Alcazar, a steak dinner at Todosantos or stuff yourself on amazing tacos at El Pedegral Mexican.
10 – Mirador de Turi for the Best Views of Cuenca
Turi is located at a very short distance from the major shopping center, Mall del Rio. You can pay a few dollars from the Centro to access it by taxi, or you can also get to the mall on the number 7 or number 13 bus for a quarter, then catch a cab up the hill to the mirador.
Things to do Outside of Cuenca
11 – Piedra del Agua Termal and spa
For a relaxing day, head out to Piedra del Agua Termal and spa, located just outside of town. They have great specials if you’re in the mood for a self-indulgent treat. View our mud bathing, steaming and cave pool circuit video.
12 – Go hiking in Cajas National Park
Located just a 30 minutes outside Cuenca, the Cajas National Park is a spectacular area featuring 237 lakes – all of which are connected, making Cajas, the world’s highest concentration of lake area. Its supply represents 60% of Cuenca’s drinking water, said to be the finest in all of South America. Prepare yourself to be awed by stunning landscapes and breathtaking scenery.
From full day organized trips or reached independently by bus, you can enjoy this outstanding 29,000 hectares environment with lake Lagartococha at the heart of it all. Take into consideration that the park is set at 2800 meters in elevation, it might be a wise idea to get your body acclimated to Cuenca’s elevation before you venture out on a grand hiking adventure in the park.
13 – Visit Amaru Bioparque Cuenca
This venue is more than the typical zoological park. It serves as a refuge for many species of animals rescued from mistreatment and inappropriate welfare. Situated just a few kilometers outside the city center of Cuenca, the mountainside location provides a truly authentic and natural surrounding for the viewing of many wild species. You can enjoy a great falconry demonstration, a “truly authentic” feeding of the lions – to say the least, and some great exhibits, featuring reptiles and amphibians of South America. Put on good walking shoes to tackle the winding mountain trails while you explore this “Indiana Jones” type biopark.
Other Things You Should Know About Cuenca
- Visiting Cuenca’s compact city centre (Centro Historico) is easy and safe, perfect for exploring by foot. Getting around the city by taxi is rarely more than $2 to $3.
- Often referred to as Eternal Spring Cuenca climate is very temperate but the 2600 meters high altitude that provides this wonderful weather can be a bit of challenge to adapt to at first. Keep that in mind when planning your activities.
- Cuenca Ecuador is an American expat hotspot with 3000 to 5000 of them making up the population of 750,000 inhabitants. Which means Western style provisions are easily found in supermarkets.
- A great escape from the city, Vilcabamba, Ecuador is an easy shuttle ride.
About the Author
BIO We’re Phil & Nathalie, a married Canadian couple that quit the 9-5 back in 2013. Now digital nomads and savvy budget travellers, we occasionally splurge when and where it counts the most. Our travel blog stories offer useful information, money-saving tips sprinkled with wanderlust about travel destinations for couples.