Best of What to Do in Cuenca Ecuador
Since many air travel routes go through the main city of Quito, visiting Cuenca often gets skipped on most travel plans in the country and I can assure you that visiting Cuenca is one of the top things to do in Ecuador.
My first visit to Cuenca, Ecuador, the capital of the Azuay Province, was during a major overlanding journey through Latin America. Like many visitors, I was charmed by the city’s European colonial flair, its indigenous markets and the fabulous climate of this beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Particularly popular with Americans with over 5000 expats making it their part-time home or living in Cuenca Ecuador full-time, it’s fair to say that many consider it one of the top places to retire. My second visit, this time for a period of 2 months, was a chance to explore the city on a grander scale.
Amongst the many great things to do in Cuenca many are free or inexpensive, this South American destination really delivers for the budget conscious traveller, and we all love that.
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Table of contents
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Choosing to stay right in the Centro Historico, a perfect location with almost everything a short walking distance or a few dollars cab fare away from the mall is a great decision. While there are many things to do in Cuenca, you might feel after a few weeks for a change of scenery. The perfect escape from the city just a few hours south is a beautiful and unexpected getaway destination, Vilcabamba, the valley of Longevity.
No. 1 Top Thing to Do in Cuenca Ecuador: Admire the New Cathedral
Now the iconic emblem of Cuenca, Ecuador, the New Cathedral Czech tiled blue domes (shown on the featured image), can be seen from all over the city and are as grand as any European duomos you’ve ever seen.
You can venture up the 150 steps to the top and enjoy a panoramic view of the city. Make sure to go inside, an opportunity to appreciate and admire the church’s glorious interiors.
No. 2 Top Thing to Do in Cuenca Ecuador: Relax in Parque Abdon Calderon
Considered the heart of Cuenca, this park is the perfect spot to relax and watch the world go by. Beautifully lined with palm trees that provide shade, there’s no better way to unwind than to grab a frozen delight at Tutto Freddo’s ice-cream parlour, ideally located at one of the park’s main intersections, right on the corner of Simon Bolivar. Sit on one the park’s many benches and enjoy the treat!
Warning: Very addictive and habit forming.
No. 3 Top Thing to Do in Cuenca Ecuador: Enjoy Free Symphony Concerts
Another one of the 50+ beautiful churches of Cuenca in San Sebastian square
Don’t miss the opportunity to attend the free Symphony Concerts at the Old Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción. The old cathedral now functions as the Museum for Religious Art and is located right in front of Parque Calderon opposite the New Cathedral. Free concerts including symphonic ones are offered periodically, just ask around for the schedule or check this Facebook page.
No. 4 Top Thing to Do in Cuenca Ecuador: Stroll the Centro Historico
Gorgeous details at every corner, don’t forget to also look up!
Enjoy the streets, some with narrow sidewalks, explore and dive in the many local boutiques and markets. The historical center of the city is patrolled by police brigades making it very safe to stroll around. There’s even a permanent satellite police unit stationed directly in the Parque Abdon Calderon.
Our friendly neighbour Dave would actively walk an hour-long circuit several times a week to get his exercise. Get a great walking route here from Intentional Travelers
Want to see more beautiful pictures of the historic center?
View some here from Simplicity Relished
No. 5 Top Thing to Do in Cuenca Ecuador: Buy flowers at Parque de Los Flores
Tucked away on the side street of the new cathedral, this little corner is the ideal place to satisfy your olfactory senses. A great variety of flowers can be purchased for ridiculously low prices. Not many people know that Ecuador is the third-largest exporter of cut flowers in the world. In fact, did you know it’s the world Orchid capital!?
The equatorial position provides constant daylight and the high altitude’s cool nights are a wonderful environment for many species of flowers, especially long-stemmed roses with around 400 varieties growing in the highlands of Ecuador. Don’t resist… buy fresh flowers every day!
Night vendors beside the new Cathedral
No. 6 Top Thing to Do in Cuenca Ecuador: Shop at the Mercado 10 Augusto
Right on Calle Larga, this covered market has two floors. The first floor opens to the meat vendors, grain bins and a variety of fresh produce. The second floor offers similar goods, adding an array of fresh cheese plus an area comprised of food vendors selling hornado, roasted pig. Why not delve into the local culture and partake in a cooking class which starts with selecting the organic ingredients at this market?
A fabulous place to walk around in, to take it all in and of course, to fill up on groceries. Get ready for a lot of raw meat, poultry and fish, mostly hanging or fanned out in the open air without refrigeration or ice. At least the weather in Cuenca isn’t too warm!
Here’s a short video that captures it all…
So far during our travels, this was the most raw meat, poultry and fish in an open market _ with no fridge or ice- we witnessed. Good thing the climate is mild here in Cuenca. We still have a hard time we the unrefrigerated poultry…
Posted by Marquestra on Saturday, February 20, 2016
No. 7 Top Thing to Do in Cuenca Ecuador: Walk along the Rio Tomebamba
The river runs along the south side boundary of the old town and is, in most parts, parallel to Calle Larga, a main road. You can access the scenic pedestrian footpath by descending a few flights of stairs from several access points throughout the old city. Safe and peaceful, it’s a perfect place for a romantic stroll with your partner.
No. 8 Top Thing to Do in Cuenca Ecuador: Learn a few things at the many local museums
If you enjoy museums you’re in for a treat with over 30 of them listed on Trip Advisor for Cuenca. We enjoyed the following ones and hope you will too.
Museo del Banco Pumapungo: Slightly out of the way on Calle Larga, this venue probably offers the most complete information about the canari and indigenous culture of Ecuador under one roof. Don’t be fooled by the Museo del Banco sign. There’s a tremendous amount of exhibits about the history, art, clothing, agriculture and even in-depth information about the Amazon tribes here. Entrance is free and takes note that all of the signage is in Spanish. Give yourself a few hours of your time at this museum while in Cuenca.
Manuel Agustin Landivar Museum: Located in the Todos Santos sector, this museum is mostly outside, revealing ruins from different cultures overlaying each other such as the Narrio Cañari and Inca. Some vestiges and archaeological objects dating back pre-Col.
Museo del Sombrero Homero Ortega: More like a hat shop with a tiny museum in the back, this visit will give you a lot of insight on the fabrication of the infamous Panama hats. Weaving, shaping, steaming, there’s all lot that goes into making a Panama hat! Did you know that the Panama hat originated in Ecuador? In short, the name came from the place it’s being shipped to and not its manufacturing country (learn all about it in this great article from Bellatory)
Museo de las Culturas Aborígenes:If you enjoy archaeology or anthropology, this small and discreet museum is sure to delight. It may seem rather ordinary but all in all, the variety and sampling of the pieces makes for a pleasant but short visit.
Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno: Not exactly a modern art gallery with a lot of panache, but the exhibits are quite interesting and are presented in a pretty setting. The renovated site is an old insane asylum, with a nice courtyard situated right in the beautiful San Sebastian square.
No. 9 Top Thing to Do in Cuenca Ecuador: Get pampered at Piedra del Agua Termal & Spa
After all these great things to do in Cuenca, you’re now probably looking to unwind and relax. This spa, set in a gorgeous natural environment, is sure to enchant you. The Piedra del Agua thermal and spa site has hot and warm outdoor pools, 3 outdoor mud baths, underground hot tubs, a sauna and massage services. A lot of the heating is provided by the natural underground volcano. Furthermore, the restaurant on site also offers very good meals.
I had such a tremendous time here, spending the day hopping around the ”circuit”, I highly recommend it. They have amazing 2×1 prices for day passes and other promotions on weekdays that are not to be missed for a decadent treat. Accessible by cab from the city centre, at a small fare.
No. 10 Top Thing to Do in Cuenca Ecuador: Indulge in Fine Dining
One would not imagine finding so many great restaurants in Cuenca but the list of great venues is quite long and could deserve a blog post of its own. Here are my top contenders for a romantic couple’s night out or to indulge in a decadent meal.
If you really want to impress your spouse or just want to spoil yourself, this is the perfect place to do it. Judging from the exterior’s facade, you would never expect that there is such an oasis inside, right on Simon Bolivar street, just a few minutes walk from the Parque Calderon. Prepare to be amazed, the food, the atmosphere, the whole place is truly sublime.
You could pass by this building several times without knowing the gem that is inside, it was thanks to our good neighbour Dave (an expat) that I had the pleasure to make this extraordinary culinary discovery. To minimize expenses, or if you’re on a budget, go for lunch as the restaurant offers fixed menu -table d’hôte which are a phenomenal value.
Want to book a room at Mansion Alcazar? Find the rates here on Booking.com
Restaurant El Jardin in Hotel Victoria
This restaurant is strategically perched in the mountainside on the south side of Calle Larga making it an epic location for a romantic dinner. The glassed dining room offers an extraordinary view, overlooking the city. Ask for a table near the window and prepare for a great meal. I had the opportunity to eat here for Valentine’s Day and can strongly recommend it.
Literally under the Church of Todo Santos on Calle Larga, this magnificent restaurant will amaze you with its grilled meats and gastronomic fare. Almost in the catacombs of the church, the underground effect confers a VIP and somewhat mysterious atmosphere to the evening. Very pleasant and also good value.
Things to Know Before you Go
~One of the best things about a visit to Cuenca is that it’s a compact city center (Centro Historico) which makes it perfect to explore by foot. Venturing out and about a little further by taxi is usually around $2 to $3.
~Cuenca has a very temperate climate often referred to as Eternal Spring but the 2300 meters high altitude that provides this climate can be a bit of challenge to adapt to at first. So plan accordingly, strenuous activities should be put aside for the first couple of days.
~North American provisions are quite easy to find at big supermarkets on the outskirts of the city’s center.
~As always, stay vigilant and beware off pickpockets in public places and markets.
Keep your valuables safe with a Pacsafe bag
How to get there
Cuenca has a small airport but most international flights do not connect here. However, there are regular domestic services by air that offer routes via Guayaquil (closest) and also Quito through TAME and LATAM. The easiest way to reach Cuenca is by bus or private shuttle.
Because of its location on the Pan-American highway, it isn’t hard to find transportation to get you there from Guayaquil, the journey takes around three and a half hours.
How about exploring Baños from Cuenca, a fun town with loads of adventure, such as the Swing at the End of the World. Read how to get there here
Have you been to Cuenca, Ecuador?
Please share your experiences, comments or questions below…
Please share your experiences, comments or questions below…