A Quick Guide to Cuenca: Ecuador’s Most Charming City
The city of Cuenca, Ecuador is a true colonial gem and some would go so far as to call it Ecuador’s most beautiful city. It’s elegant historic Spanish colonial buildings, mixed with its colourful indigenous culture and dramatic street art, make walking around Cuenca a real delight. There are bright colours everywhere in Cuenca!
Not only is Cuenca a stunning city but its slow-tempo lifestyle is loved by expats from all around the world, many who enjoy living out their retirement there. The weather is nice, people are friendly, the real estate and health care are more affordable and, by Latin American standards, it’s a safe city to live in.
So should you visit Cuenca, Ecuador? Absolutely; we spent a whole week there to explore, relax and soak up its atmosphere and we really enjoyed ourselves. Here is a small guide to help you plan your visit to this lovely city.
What to do in Cuenca?
1- Take a free walking tour of Cuenca’s historic centre
Always start with a free guided walking tour in any city that offers one. It’s the best way to get acquainted with a city. From Monday to Saturday, at 10 am, you can join a free walking tour of Cuenca’s historic centre.
A local guide will meet you near the flag poles on the edge of Plaza Calderon, the city’s main square. They will take you around town for about two hours, showing you its best sights and its most colourful streets. The tour finishes at the local market, where your guide will show you the best places to eat. After that, you can head back to explore or photograph any place on the tour that took your fancy.
Be sure to tip your guide at the end of the tour. Like the rest of us, they don’t work for free!
2- Visit the New Cathedral
A visit to Cuenca’s most beautiful and most iconic Catholic church is a must-do. The New Cathedral, La Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepcion is one of the largest churches in South America.
As pretty as its exterior is, with its blue-tiled domes dominating the city’s skyline, the cathedral’s interior is worth exploring too. It was built to hold 9,000 people and it is still in use today. Lots of locals head there to worship throughout the day. You are not allowed to photograph inside the church during mass. However, if a mass is not in progress, feel free to capture its stunning interior. The marble work, stained glass and the awe-inspiring gold leaf-covered altar are worth the detour.
For $2, you can also climb the 150 steps to the top and get a nice view of the city’s skyline.
Note: The new cathedral was never fully completed due to structural design issues but looking at it today, you’d never know.
3- Take a stroll along the river
In the south of Cuenca’s historic centre is the Tomebamba River. This river flows down from the Cajas National Park and cuts the city of Cuenca in half while making its way to the Amazon.
The area around the river is a nice place to take a stroll. Alternatively, you can hire bikes and ride alongside the river. If you have some time, go as far as the Parque El Paraiso and grab some local food on the way in “Calle De Las Herrerias” to take as a picnic lunch. It’s a great way to spend an afternoon, especially if it’s on Sunday when most of the city will be very quiet.
4- Head to the Turi viewpoint
The Turi viewpoint is where you’ll get the best views across the city. You can walk there but it will take you about 50 minutes and there are a few steps to tackle towards the end. We chose this option because we had a lot of time on our hands. You can also catch a $2 – $3 taxi ride if you don’t have time to walk or if you don’t fancy the exercise. The view is also worth checking out at night, to see the city all lit up.
5- Enjoy the local markets
There are many local markets in Cuenca where you can buy all sorts of delicious local food, fresh vegetables, fruit, nuts, corn, spices and much more. Markets always provide great insight into a city’s culture. You will also see many ladies there that are dressed in their colourful traditional outfits. Bear in mind that many of them will not want to be photographed, so always ask first and respect their privacy if they say no.
The flower market is located right next to the New Cathedral and is another fabulous place to visit if you want to be blinded by colours! The many flower arrangements for sale are simply stunning and so cheap!
6- Head to the Cajas National Park for a day trip
You just cannot miss visiting the Cajas National Park while in Cuenca. The Cajas National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site that is home to hundreds of magnificent lakes, lagoons and waterfalls. It is located in the highlands of Ecuador, about a thirty-minute drive from the city centre.
The scenery is just breathtaking and it is bound to be your favourite thing you do while in Cuenca. It certainly was a highlight for us! You can reach the Cajas National Park by local bus or go there with an organised tour.
Once there, you can do some short hikes and enjoy the stunning scenery, as well as its abundant flora and fauna. The Cajas National Park really reminded us of Tasmania, our favourite state back home. It too has some truly remarkable wilderness areas that are similar to Cajas.
In Cajas National Park, we first visited the Llaviucu (Zorrocucho) Lake, before hiking the Camino de Garcia Moreno. The scenery was simply jaw-dropping! We also enjoyed seeing the wild Llamas, especially when they began crossing the road just as we were driving back towards town and then decided that they wouldn’t move and we would just have to wait! It reminded us of the holy cows in India. Llamas rule!
There are also several other day trips options available from Cuenca, such as visiting the Inca Ruins of Ingapirca, the artisan towns of Chordeleg, Sigsig and Gualaceo, or the Yunguilla Valley.
7- Learn about the Panama hats
Panama hats are actually not from Panama. They come from Ecuador! Confusing right? So why are they called Panama hats? It’s because they were produced en-masse and exported to Panama during the construction of the Panama Canal in the 1900s. They helped protect the canal workers from the sun. When U.S. President Roosevelt visited Panama and the construction site, he was photographed wearing one. This led to the hats becoming known as “Panama hats” all around the world.
But Ecuador is actually where the hats are made and Cuenca is the largest producer of Panama hats. There are a couple of museums, such as the Museo Sombrero De Paja Toquilla by the river, where you can learn more about the hats themselves and see how they are produced. This museum is also a shop, so if you fancy buying one you can do so there. Prices start from around $25 but if you want one of the finest quality, you could end up paying thousands of dollars. The most expensive Panama hats take weeks to make by hand.
8- Enjoy Cuenca’s street art
Like many places in Ecuador, Cuenca is big on street-art and you’ll come across some really lovely pieces as you wander the streets.
Where to stay in Cuenca, Ecuador?
We stayed at Pepe’s House B&B and we really enjoyed it there. It was good value, the staff are super friendly and helpful, and it is very close to most attractions in the city centre. We walked everywhere from Pepe’s. They offer dorms as well as private rooms with bathrooms.
Best rated on booking.com:
Great location: Hostal Casa Central
Best reviews: Casa Todosantos
Good value: Casa Rumi Bed & Breakfast
If none of those are suitable, you can search across all the major accommodation sites with hotelscombined.com, using the search box below. We use it all the time.
Where to eat in Cuenca?
El Santo: For cheap and tasty Mexican fare
Full Criollo Sabor Venezolano: For the best Venezuelan food in town
El Macario Cafe Cantina: For great coffee and fantastic salads
Loreto Empanadas: For the best empanadas in Cuenca
El Confesionario: For dinner with a view over the new cathedral.
Is Cuenca safe for tourists?
Cuenca has a large middle-class population with few poor areas. That means there is not as much financially motivated crime and Cuenca is pretty safe to walk around during the day and even early in the evening. However, use common sense and do not flash your expensive jewellery or cameras. Cuenca does have some petty crime, just like everywhere else in the world.
How to get to Cuenca?
You can reach Cuenca by local bus or by plane. There is a small airport, just a few minutes from the city centre. However, the bus is definitely your cheapest option. There are direct buses going to Cuenca from Quito, Ambato, Riobamba, Banos, Guayaquil and even Tena.
Tips: If you are travelling by local bus, be extremely careful with your belongings. Hold on very tightly to your valuables. Do not store anything in the overhead luggage area or below your seat. We almost got our laptops stolen by a gang of thieves who boarded our bus. They’re so quick and sneaky!
Another option is to travel with the Wanderbus. Wanderbus is a sightseeing hop-on-hop-off bus that does a loop around Ecuador, visiting the main tourist cities and attractions along its way.
The Wanderbus is more comfortable and safer than the local buses. Of course, it isn’t as cheap but considering how flexible it is and that you also get a guided tour along the way, we reckon it is excellent value. There are different passes to choose from and of course, you don’t have to do the entire loop if you don’t have time. We chose the pass from Quito to Cuenca, with stops in Baños and Alausi. It was perfect for us and we really enjoyed it. You can check them out here.