You cannot visit Ecuador without visiting Cuenca, one of the most beautiful cities in the country. Cuenca is a major cultural centre, in particular thanks to its rich history, always present through its museums and architecture.
After our detailed guide to Quito, here are some tips to know what to do, what to see, what to visit in and around Cuenca during your stay in the city.
What to visit in Cuenca?
1. The Colonial Centre
The city of Cuenca has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999 thanks to its magnificent colonial centre dating back to the 16th century. It’s a very pleasant neighbourhood to stroll around. It allows not only to observe very fine examples of colonial architecture, but also to rest in one of the charming shaded squares and to visit the many churches, precious testimonies of the rich history of Cuenca. Be sure to take a stroll along the Tomebamba River. It is bordered by picturesque colonial dwellings. It was for a long time a place where the inhabitants of Cuenca came to wash and dry their clothes: today, this practice is much less common but it still exists.
2. The Cathedral of the Inmaculada Concepción
In the heart of the colonial centre is Calderon Park, a place not to be missed during your walk. You will see the famous cathedral of the Inmaculada Concepción, also known as the “new cathedral”, as opposed to the “old cathedral” which is just opposite. The Cathedral of the Inmaculada Concepción is considered the most beautiful church in the city. Its construction began in 1880 but it was not consecrated until 1967, becoming the most important cathedral in Cuenca.
We recognize it from a distance thanks to its facade built in stone and pink Italian marble, its two imposing symmetrical towers and its magnificent blue domes. For the record, the two towers of the facade are unfinished: following a calculation error, the architect feared that they would collapse and he therefore preferred not to finish their construction. Next to the cathedral you will find a small cloister which is worth visiting, especially since you will have a better view of the cathedral from here than from Calderon park.
It is possible to enter the cathedral interior for free; however, you will have to pay $ 2 and climb 155 steps if you want to climb on the roof to enjoy a magnificent panorama of the centre of Cuenca. Also, you can visit the crypt with a guide, for $ 2 as well.
3. The Sagrario Church
Also known as “Catedral Vieja” (old cathedral in French), this church is one of the oldest in Cuenca. It was built between 1557 and 1567 with stones from the ancient Inca city of Tomebamba. Its interior is very different from that of the Cathedral of the Inmaculada Concepción. It is much less ostentatious: where the “new cathedral” is made of gold and marble, the “old cathedral” offers a flowery interior in pastel colours. Be sure to enter the cathedral to visit its chapels built in the colonial era and observe its magnificent Baroque pulpit, its religious paintings and its impressive organ dating from the 18th century.
4. The District of San Sebastián
San Sebastián is the traditional district of Cuenca. In Plaza San Sebastián, you can see the Church of the same name, a neoclassical style building which was built around a chapel dating from 1578. This church is distinguished in particular by its unique architecture, since its facade contains only one tower on the right side.
Take the time to contemplate the colonial houses around the Plaza San Sebastián, as well as the old prison built in 1876. This beautiful building has in the past also housed a school and then a rehabilitation centre. Today it houses the Cuenca Museum of Modern Art.
5. La Plaza de las Flores
Literally called “place of flowers”, this place is also a must in Cuenca. It hosts the flower market, which includes roses grown in Cuenca, which are considered the most beautiful in all of South America.
This is also the place where the Carmen de la Asunción Monastery is located, which is still the home of a community of nuns today. This community makes and sells many products such as honey, caramels and cosmetics. If you are curious, try the “agua de pitimas”, also prepared by the sisters, an infusion of red colour known for its medicinal properties and in particular its ability to repel bad waves.
6. La Plaza San Francisco
This square is known for its handicraft market, where you can buy items made from textiles from Otavalo, a region known in Ecuador for the unrivalled know-how of its inhabitants. Also, in the Plaza de San Francisco, take a tour inside the Casa de la Mujer, an important craft centre where you can find, among other things, hand-made clothes with alpaca wool. It’s the perfect place to buy souvenirs from Ecuador for your loved ones.
It is also in Plaza San Francisco that you will see the church of the same name, one of the most beautiful in Cuenca. It is recognizable by its central tower, the construction of which was not completed until 1930. The Church of San Francisco is much older, but it was renovated at the end of the 19th century. Despite everything, it retains its original style, a mixture of baroque and neoclassical. Inside the Church, take a look at the altarpiece behind the altar, which dates from the 17th century and is considered a true work of art.
7. The Sombrero Museum
Cuenca is the birthplace of Panama, a famous Ecuadorian hat traditionally woven by hand. This accessory, which has come back in fashion in recent years, was originally worn by workers who worked on the construction of the Panama Canal, hence its name. The Sombrero museum is dedicated to this hat: you can learn more about the making of this hat and its history, as well as view vintage photos and an impressive collection of panamas.
8. The Museum of Aboriginal Cultures
This establishment is a private museum and it is not always clear whether it is open or closed (you just have to ring the bell to be invited to enter!). With more than 5,000 objects, artefacts, fossils and jewellery, this museum traces the history of Ecuador from the first populations (the Valvidia people) to the Incas. If you are interested in history or archaeology, this is a place not to be missed!
9. The Cuenca Local Market
Be sure to visit the Cuenca market, where you will find many exotic fruits typical of the region, such as pitajaya or rambutan. The city hosts several markets, but if you are in the centre, prefer that of 10 de Agosto. You can also taste traditional dishes such as “hornado”, a whole braised pork.
10. The Pumapungo Museum
This establishment is a must when you come to Cuenca. It is located in the heart of a park where it is very pleasant to walk. You will be able to observe more than 200 species of plants and flowers native to the country and if you open your eyes, you will also come across more than 30 species of birds, such as hummingbirds, parrots and toucans. The park, like the museum, is free. Inside the museum, several exhibits will allow you to learn more about the history of Ecuador and the native peoples, but also about Ecuadorian currency from its origin to the present day. Behind the museum, the archaeological site of Tomebamba is impressive: it is one of the largest Inca cities, and you will see that there are still some very beautiful remains.
11. The Viewpoint of Turi
To enjoy a very beautiful panorama of the city of Cuenca, climb up to the viewpoint of Turi. This site is accessible by tourist bus or taxi but if you have the courage, you can also get there on foot by climbing a staircase. From there, you can contemplate the whole city, but also visit the souvenir shops and eat in one of the restaurants. There is also a small church to visit on site.
12. The Santa Domingo Church
This church is known to be one of the tallest in the city. It stands out for its facade built in a neoclassical style and framed by two large towers. In the middle, we can see a representation of Santo Domingo. Be sure to go inside: you can contemplate a magnificent marble altarpiece, as well as several statues of saints including Santo Domingo.
13. The San Alfonso Church
This neo-Gothic building was built from 1874 on the ruins of the Augustin Convent and it was inaugurated in 1888. However, the construction of its two symmetrical towers did not end until 1945. This church is worth especially the detour for its interior: you can see the oldest organ in Cuenca but also a very beautiful fresco representing purgatory and paradise, as well as very beautiful confessionals.
14. The Ruins of Todos Santos
This site located on the edge of the Tomebamba river invites you to visit the remains of stone constructions dating from the pre-Inca peoples (especially the Cañari people) and the Incas. In particular, you can see the ruins of an old sugar mill. Todos Santos is today a museum built around the ruins, which provides interesting explanations of the Inca and pre-Inca civilizations.
Day Trips Around Cuenca
15. Cajas National Park
Fancy a nature getaway for a day? Direction the Cajas National Park. This nature reserve is only 30 km from Cuenca. With 28,000 hectares and over 250 lakes, Cajas National Park is one of the most beautiful parks in the country. It is renowned for its archaeological richness but also for its flora and fauna: more than 145 plant species and more than 150 species of birds have been recorded there. This park is also the home of many endemic and endangered animals. You will notably be able to come across pumas, Andean tapirs, llamas, jaguarondis or even wolves and bears.
The best way to visit this park is to walk it, on one or more hiking trails. There are indeed several possibilities for short hikes or longer treks, at different altitudes. For example, you can follow the hiking trail that crosses the Llaviucu Valley and goes up to the viewpoint of Tres Cruces located at more than 4200 meters above sea level and which offers a breath-taking panorama. This hike takes around 1 hour 30 minutes and is an opportunity to meet llamas and alpacas.
Another path allows you to cross the park passing in front of ten lakes, each offering magnificent landscapes. This trek is a little longer (between two and three hours) but it is accessible to all levels.
You can also, if you have time, opt for a two-day trek by camping on site, to be sure not to miss anything that this park has to offer.
16. The Kushi Waira Community
Spend a day in the local Kushi Waira community. The members of the group will introduce you to the region from an eco-tourism perspective. On the program: the discovery of the local indigenous culture through dances, rituals, music and culinary specialties, but also the discovery of the region through a guided tour of the surroundings.
17. The craft road around Cuenca
About 36 kilometres from Cuenca, the small village of Gualaceo is known for its crafts. If your travel dates allow, go on a Sunday: you can visit the local market where everything is sold, from fruit and vegetables to kitchen utensils, herbal teas and handicrafts. It was in Gualaceo that the famous Ikat was born, a technique of weaving cotton by hand. Ikat has been used for millennia in Ecuador but also in Indonesia. It allows you to weave and dye pieces like shawls, drawing very typical geometric patterns. But beware, apart from the Sunday market, you won’t find many Ikat craft shops. But you can take advantage of your excursion to Gualaceo to pass through San Pedro de los Olivos, a small village located 8 km away and where you can find several craft shops.
Only 6 kilometres from Gualaceo, the small village of Chordeleg is also worth a visit for its crafts. Here you will not find weaving, but jewellery! The pre-Inca people already made jewellery in Chordeleg and the tradition continues today. You will find jewellery using the filigree technique, both with gold and silver. This very old technique consists in working a very thin metal ribbon to make an often-complex pattern, as meticulous as a lace would be. It gives really beautiful jewellery. In Chordeleg, you can also buy sculptures and pottery.
As for the small village of Sigsig, it specializes in the manufacture of panama, which is woven by hand with palm leaf fibres. Take a look if you are intrigued by this original hat that has gained popularity in recent decades.
This ancient fortress two hours from Cuenca is the best-preserved testimony to the Inca civilization in all of Ecuador. It is estimated that this site, dating back over 500 years, had two functions, one military and the other religious. One can in particular visit there a place of worship baptized “Temple of the Sun”, which occupies a central place in the middle of the ruins. The site of Ingapirca should be visited with a guide who will talk to you in particular about the techniques of construction of the Incas (We always recommend taking a guide, as this gives you a better insight, and at the same time, you support the local economy). These are still astonishing by their resistance to time and their capacity to remain upright even if the Incas used neither cement, nor another technique of the same type for welding stones together.
19. The Girón Waterfalls
The Girón waterfalls can be seen about 6 kilometres from the small village of Girón, in the middle of the agricultural area south of Cuenca. It is possible to get there by car, but if you have the time, it is better to go there on foot from the village: it is indeed an opportunity to meet incredible flora and fauna and contemplate very beautiful landscapes of nature. The Girón waterfalls are made up of three waterfalls: the first is about an hour’s walk from Girón, but to access the other two, you will need to plan a lot more time and have a guide accompany you, since not only hiking is much longer, but in addition, it is more difficult to navigate and it often happens that tourists get lost and never find the waterfalls.
20. Los Baños de Cuenca
This thermal bath is just 15 minutes from Cuenca. It is a real geological curiosity: it sits above a fault measuring more than 400 meters long, from which the water can rise to a temperature of more than 78 ° C! Of course, you will not bathe in such hot water as it would only be harmful to your skin. You should know that the waters of the Baños de Cuenca are known for their multiple benefits on the skin, the joints and the respiratory system. Spend the day there and come out with a healthier body and mind. You can bathe in hot baths of 40 ° C which will relax you and cold baths of 8 °C which can revive the blood circulation inside your body.
How many days to visit Cuenca?
Visit Cuenca for a week-end
If you plan to stay for a weekend of two or three days, there is plenty to keep you busy in Cuenca. Between the colonial centre and its churches, the district of San Sebastián, Plaza San Francisco, the museums and the viewpoint of Turi, you can see most of the city by walking.
Visit Cuenca in 5 days
If you are staying for five days in Cuenca, take the opportunity to organize a few day trips in the surroundings. Go hiking in Cajas National Park, visit the Girón waterfalls or take a tour of the Ingapirca site.
Visit Cuenca in a week
A week in Cuenca will be an opportunity to think outside the box. Visit the city centre then organize more unusual day trips. For example, spend a day in the Kushi Waira community, tour craft villages or relax at the Baños de Cuenca.
Good Places to visit in Cuenca
Where to sleep in Cuenca
- San Juan Hotel (4 stars): a renovated colonial-style mansion in Cuenca. San Juan Hotel is just 200 m from the park and Calderon Cathedral. With carved wood details, upholstered chairs and Spanish galleries, the San Juan hotel has elegant decor.
- Hotel Posada del Angel (4 stars): this establishment is ideally located, right in the historic centre of Cuenca and a stone’s throw from the Tomebamba river. This is a charming hotel, housed in an old republican house and which notably has a very beautiful patio in colonial style where you can rest at the end of the day. Breakfast is included as well as many services (Wi-Fi connection, television…). It also has a restaurant, Mangiare Benne.
- Hotel Carvallo (4 stars): it occupies a renovated house dating from the 19th century. You can enjoy 4-star decor and services. Boasting a colonial-style central courtyard, draped curtains and four-poster beds, this luxury hotel is located in the historic Cuenca district.
- Casa Montalvo Bed & Breakfast (3 stars): this hotel is also located in the heart of the city, a five-minute walk from the Tomebamba river and close to many museums. It includes multiple services such as Wi-Fi, television and a free shuttle system to the airport.
Where to eat in Cuenca
- Mangiare Benne: this is the restaurant of the Posada del Angel Hotel. It offers Italian cuisine in a warm setting. You can choose to enjoy your meal on the hotel patio! This restaurant is particularly famous for its pasta, served fresh with a sauce of your choice.
- Tiestos: if you want to taste the local cuisine, you will be in the right place. It is a fancy restaurant and you will need to book in advance, but it is worth the price. It is particularly famous for its beef tenderloin or simmered prawns.
- Los Molinos del Batan: cheaper than Tiestos, this restaurant offers local cuisine in a highly historic place. It is in fact located inside one of the first factories in Cuenca, now closed, located on the banks of the Tomebamba river. You can taste local specialties such as dried meat or pork accompanied by mote pillo, a traditional dish made from corn and scrambled eggs.
- Raymipampa: this restaurant is located right in the centre, on the Place du Parc Calderon. It is popular with tourists and locals for its very good value for money breakfast, to be enjoyed in a charming colonial setting. The atmosphere is a bit like that of Parisian breweries, but South American version.
How to get around during your stay in Cuenca?
The best way to visit the city is on foot, because it will allow you to go everywhere, stop when you want and especially enjoy what you see.
But you can also travel by tourist bus: a full tour of the city lasts 1 hour 45 minutes if you don’t get off, but you can also choose to get off and get off at any stop. The day will cost you $ 8.
Finally, taxis are also widely used in Cuenca. They are inexpensive: for example, a trip from the airport to the city centre will cost you $ 2.