With how much everyone hyped up Cuenca, I was prepared to be pretty disappointed. There was no way it could possibly live up to those lofty expectations, right? Wrong. It did not take long for me to see why everyone loves this city, locals and travelers alike. The gorgeous historical center is flanked by rivers and surrounded by mountains in every direction. Cuenca is as beautiful as it gets. The budget-friendly costs of living in Cuenca mixed in with an exciting nightlife scene makes it a perfect spot for travelers of all types, from backpackers to expats. Backpacking in Cuenca is a dream.
I could have stayed here forever. And a lot of people do. Cuenca is home to a huge expat community that have discovered Cuenca and just decided that it would be their forever home. I don’t blame them at all. Cuenca is rad. Without further ado, here is the backpacker’s complete guide to Cuenca.
Some Quick Facts About Cuenca, Ecuador
Cuenca is the fourth-largest city in Ecuador. Despite its size, it still maintains a cozy, small-town vibe that you won’t get in Quito or Guayaquil. This is especially true in its colonial center. The centro historico in Cuenca is one of the most beautiful and best-preserved colonial centers that I have seen in all of Latin America. Although it is nestled at the already lofty elevation of 2,400 meters above sea level, Cuenca is surrounded on all sides by even taller mountains. The ones at the nearby Cajas National Park stand at over 4,000 meters.
Oh, and because Cuenca is up in the mountains, the tap water is actually safe to drink here! I drank it all the time and did not have any problems whatsoever. Apparently, many Ecuadorians fill up on Cuenca’s tap water when they come to visit because it is that much superior to the water anywhere else in Ecuador. Seriously though, I was drinking straight from waterfalls and lakes while I was hiking up in the mountains near Cuenca.
Cuenca is located in the southern part of Ecuador, making it a popular entry or exit point for backpackers coming from Peru or backpackers leaving Ecuador. The bus terminal has buses that go all the way to Peru or almost anywhere that you would want to go in Ecuador. Cuenca is a pretty accessible city. When I was in Guayaquil’s bus terminal, I saw that buses for Cuenca left pretty much every half-hour during the day.
Where To Stay in Cuenca For Backpackers
As far as cities go, Cuenca might be one of the most backpacker-friendly that I have ever been to. There are a number of hostels all over Cuenca, but unlike Montañita or Baños, they are pretty spread out so it doesn’t feel like just a backpacker town. Despite being one of the largest cities in Ecuador, Cuenca is very budget-friendly. That goes for accommodation, too.
Alternative Hostel was where I stayed and it felt far from your typical backpacker hostel experience. Compared to the other hostels that I’ve stayed at in Ecuador, it was refreshingly modern, trendy and clean. Best of all, it was very affordable. A dorm bed cost only $8 while a decently sized private room costs $12. For a hostel as nice as this, I was shocked. I’ve slept at much worse places for much pricier rates.
Other highlights of the hostel include a rooftop terrace that has a beautiful view of the city and the surrounding mountains. The beautifully decorated common areas make it easy to meet other travelers or sprawl out somewhere other than your bed. A large TV with Netflix and a bunch of couches can make for cozy movie nights with your travel squad during the weekdays. A full kitchen and the equally trendy El Macario Cafe attached guarantees that you never go hungry in Cuenca.
The location is a bit further from the center of the old town, needing about a 10-15 minute walk to reach the main plaza. However, the walk there and back passes through some of Cuenca’s best attractions. Rio Tomebamba is at most a 5 minute walk from the hostel, and you can follow the riverside trail all the way into the centro historico. Alternative Hostel provided an amazing experience and a perfect balance of social atmosphere with making sure you are well-rested to take on the city of Cuenca. It is also right across from Calle Larga, making a trip to the best restaurants and bars in Cuenca very accessible.
The Best Things To Do in Cuenca, Ecuador
Catch the sunset from Mirador de Turi
The Mirador de Turi is a 15-minute drive from Cuenca’s Centro Historico and gives you one of the best views of the city. I did not realize just how big Cuenca was until I found myself in awe at its vastness from the mirador. There is no bad time of day to visit Mirador de Turi. However, the sunset can be one for the ages if you are lucky to have some clear-ish skies.
Cuenca can be unpredictable when it comes to clouds so it can be a gloomy one or it can be an unforgettable one. Either way, it is worth going up here and drinking a warm canelazo and a caramel-filled churro. The vibe here is quite nice as it will usually have a few other people enjoying the sunset with you. A view like this is best shared, after all.
Explore The Incredible Cajas National Park
On the bus ride from Guayaquil to Cuenca, I took about a hundred photos in the span of the 15 or so minutes that we drove through Parque Nacional el Cajas. This region of Ecuador is beautiful beyond what words can describe. It is home to about 230 lagunas and is surrounded by mountains, waterfalls, and more stunning scenery. The drive is amazing but you need to get your feet on the ground to get a feel for just how beautiful Cajas is.
The most popular hike is the loop around Laguna Toreadora but there are dozens of trails that are well-marked as well. Cajas is a hiker’s dream. Even if you aren’t much for hiking, there are plenty of less-challenging and equally beautiful trails for a more laid-back adventure.
I personally couldn’t believe that I had never heard of Cajas before. A place like this warrants more international attention than it gets, but I guess that is the beauty of a place like Ecuador. Parts of it are often so overlooked that you’ll be one of the only travelers in the area. You’ll have a view like this all to yourself.
Walk Along the Rio Tomebamba
There are a few rivers that run through Cuenca but the main one is Rio Tomebamba. It runs parallel to Calle Larga for a long stretch so just walk down and enjoy a calming walk or a jog along the trail. The scenery is gorgeous and the vibes are great, too. Everyone is collectively chilling and enjoying life along the river. Dogs will probably be frolicking around. It does not get much better.
Have Hornado at Mercado 10 de Agosto
So I’m cutting down on meat but when I saw the hornado at Cuenca’s Mercado 10 de Agosto, I knew I had to try it. It was the biggest pig I’ve ever seen, entirely oven-baked. It was the juiciest meat and crispiest pork skin I have ever had in my life. We have lechon in the Philippines and it sounds blasphemous to say, but this blew away any lechon I had ever had. Check out Doña Elsita’s stand for the absolute best. She is my queen and I worship her.
Visit Abdon Calderon Park
This is the main park in Cuenca’s Centro Historico. It’s where you’ll find both the Old and the New Cathedrals of Cuenca. This bustling plaza is full of beautiful architecture that has been well preserved through the ages. The center of the park is home to an astonishing 2,000 species of plants. This spot is a beautiful place to chill and watch life go by. You know how most Latin American Plaza de Armas are. Just sit and chill.
Go Inside (And On Top Of!) The New Cathedral Of Cuenca
Although the outside is breathtakingly beautiful, the interior of the New Cathedral of Cuenca is equally breathtaking. It is intricately designed and extravagant. It is definitely one of the most beautiful cathedrals that you will find in Latin America.
And for one of the best views of Cuenca, you can even go on top of the Cathedral itself. You will need to climb quite a few stairs but the view is beyond worth it. My friend counted and said it was 155 steps but I don’t trust him at anything math-related at all so take that with a grain of salt. It didn’t feel all that difficult but if you haven’t adjusted to the altitude, it might be.
The view is incredible because you can see all parts of the city. From Abdon Calderon Park just below to the vast mountains in the background, it really gives you a sense of how blessed Cuenca is with both natural and man-made beauty. It costs $2 to enter the towers but the view is priceless.
Take An Audio Tour of Cuenca’s Old Cathedral
I walked into the white building across from the new cathedral.
“Where is the Old Cathedral?” I asked the worker guarding the entrance.
“… You’re in it.”
Let’s be honest, that was far from the stupidest question I’ve asked in Ecuador. The worst was probably asking what the exchange rate was when I first arrived. Ecuador uses the US dollar, by the way.
Anyway, we made it into the Old Cathedral and with the $2 entry fee, you can get a little audio guide that walks you through the impressive building. It tells you about its history and the beautiful works of art that still adorn its interior. You can also go down into the tombs beneath the church. It was cool but it definitely smelled very tomb-y. For $2, it was worth it. Especially if you were tired of just aimlessly wandering around Cuenca like I did for a full week before deciding to sightsee.
Have A Beer or Coffee at Seminario San Luis
Just next to the New Cathedral is Seminario San Luis. You can catch an amazing view of the cathedral from this small square lined with flowers and beautiful colonial architecture. There are a couple of restaurants and cafes located in this small plaza so plop down and have a beer or a coffee while taking in the beautiful view of the cathedral.
Plaza San Francisco and the Artisanal Market
For the best view of the New Cathedral, head over to Plaza San Francisco. This bustling square is home to lots of local artisans and craftsmen, as well as annoying pigeons and the big Cuenca sign. Strike a pose by the Cuenca sign with the New Cathedral in the background for maximum Instagram likes.
Towards the edge of Plaza San Francisco is a small doorway that leads into an extensive arts and crafts market, selling everything you could imagine. It’s easy to miss but it is well worth roaming around if you need to do some shopping. On the square itself are plenty of people selling souvenirs and the iconic alpaca sweaters that every tourist in South America has.
Museo Pumapungo: Ruins, Shrunken Heads, and Botanical Gardens
Since I was staying at Alternative Hostel, Museo Pumapungo was literally right across the street from me. Aside from being an incredible museum that opened my eyes to just how diverse and unique the different tribes and cultures of Ecuador were, it was also an amazing place to be in tune with nature. It is free to enter, so naturally, I went multiple times.
Outside of the museum, there are Incan ruins. Nothing too spectacular but it is worth visiting. You can see the canals and baths and huge ovens and the remnants of some larger structures.
Beyond the ruins, there are beautiful botanical gardens with plants from all over the world. There are plenty of spots to just take a leisurely stroll. We even took a solid nap up on the hill by the ruins overlooking the city. The view is beautiful, and on a sunny day, there are few places I would rather be in Cuenca.
The Nightlife Scene of Cuenca
So nightlife in Cuenca was something that I was really looking forward to. First of all, the altitude means that you can get drunk significantly faster. Second, I heard Cuenca was the drunkest city in all of Ecuador. That was both a good thing and a bad thing. I knew they would be ready to party. But, since they apparently can’t control themselves, Cuenca is one of the only cities in Ecuador where drinking in public is not allowed.
Cuenca does get pretty wild at night. However, one of my highlights of my time in Cuenca was all the day drinking we were able to do. There are so many bars and restaurants in Cuenca with beautiful views and ambiance that you can’t help but to just have a beer every hour or so. Cuenca is as laid-back of a city as it gets.
Along Calle Larga, you will find a large concentration of bars and pubs. During the weekends, the streets are packed and the people are ready to party.
Nidia Fuzion Party is supposedly the place to be if you want to jam to reggaeton all night. Considering that I want to jam to reggaeton for the rest of my life, I really wanted to go. We decided to save it for later as we stumbled into some random girls who said that Nidia sucked and promised to take us to a better club. The “better club” was not that great so we left for Nidia about an hour or so later only to see that it had been shut down for the night by police. Que lastima.
The other highlights of Calle Larga include all of the incredible drunk food options. I walk up and down Calle Larga at least like 3 times a day and keep note of all of the promising drunk food options. Shawarma, $1 slices of pizza, and more. Throw in the vendors that set up shop and sizzle some burgers for all the drunk party animals coming out of the club and you’ve got options.
Avenida Remigio Crespo Toral
With Cuenca being home to one of Ecuador’s top universities, there is a lively nightlife scene surrounding the University of Cuenca. Avenida Remigio Crespo Toral is home to a number of bars. We stumbled onto the road by randomly trusting a few strangers who said they could take us to another bar after the one we were at got shut down for letting minors in.
In hindsight, should we trust random strangers when we are drunk in a foreign country? Maybe not, but when you need to party, you need to party. We took a taxi from Calle Larga and ended up at a bar called Heisenberg, which we ended up not even going into because one of the people we were with did not have their ID.
We tried a bar down the road which we have no idea what it was called. She tried using a 6′ tall German guy’s ID to get in, a bold strategy for a blonde girl barely above 5 feet tall. Eventually, we somehow got in before downing a few $1 shots and allegedly tearing up the dance floor. I don’t really remember much besides waking up next to a box of corn and hitting up an ex-girlfriend from 9 years before. I do remember that this road had an abundance of drunk food, so if you don’t feel like partying at Calle Larga, this is the place to be.
Along Rio Tomebamba
Running pretty parallel to Calle Larga is the Tomebamba River, one of Cuenca’s most beautiful spots during the day. It is a bit more ratchet at night since you’ll likely find a lot of drunk people peeing into the river or under the bridges. However, there are plenty of clubs that line the river. It’s a great spot not just at night either. Hit up one of the multi-story bars and restaurants with terraces overlooking the mountains and the river and you’ve got the perfect spot for a beer.
Once night time rolls around, the most poppin’ spot in Cuenca is Zoociedad. They play a wide mix of music and cover is only $3, and includes a large beer or another drink. So basically, free entry. The place was packed and there was a big crowd but the music was kind of all over the place for me. There are a number of other places along the river so just go on a scouting mission for a place that works for you.
Where To Eat in Cuenca
One of my favorite things about Cuenca was that you could stay for months and never eat at the same place twice. The first day that I was in Cuenca, I bought some groceries at the supermarket to try and save money. Alas, most of those groceries never ended up getting used. There are just so many nice places to eat in Cuenca.
I’m not a food blogger or restaurant critic so I’ll keep my descriptions short and sweet. I’ll cut right to the chase for each one. Incomplete sentences and all.
Fastest Wi-Fi with plenty of choices for breakfast. Vegetarian friendly. Cozy and pretty centrally located. Their huevos rancheros are to die for. I’m writing this from Nucallacta right now and I’m ordering hazelnut latte after hazelnut latte. Also to die for.
Colombian restaurant with amazing arepas. Cheap dinners for $3.50 that come with rice, meat, avocado, plantains, beans, veggies, and a juice. Food good. Why use lot word when few word do trick?
Cafe Luz y Sal
Frappes that will send you into a diabetic coma. Lots of options that are reasonably priced. They have card games and Jenga if you want to be those guys at a restaurant (we were those guys at a restaurant). Their Hawaiian wrap, while totally not local, was one of my favorite things I ate in Cuenca.
El Macario Cafe
Trendiest cafe you will find in Cuenca. Modern decor, cheap prices and good food. Perfect for breakfast or brunch and has a lot of vegetarian options.
El Mercado 10 de Agosto
Cheap almuerzos and other food everywhere. You can go here to buy some groceries as well. They’ve got every grain and vegetable and fruit imaginable. Hell, you can even take home a whole pig from the meat market if you wanted to.
Doña Elsita Cárdenas and her world-famous hornado
Best hornado in the world. Find her at Mercado 10 de Agosto serving pork and serving looks. We have lechon in the Philippines so I thought I knew what I was getting into when I ordered a plate of hornado. Oh boy. This blew lechon out of the water. The crispiness of the skin and the juiciness of the meat along with the delicious llapingacho… It was a $3 meal to die for.
Angelus by Tutto Freddo
Coffee and sweets right on Parque Abdon Calderon. Surprisingly cheap for how centrally located it is. I didn’t test the Wi-Fi there but looks like a nice spot to work. Digital nomad life, am I right?
Amazing location in Seminario San Luis. Slightly more expensive but the tucked away location is very serene. You’ll be surrounded by flowers and beauty all around.
Artisanal beer and epic sunset views of Cuenca. A half-liter of their beer was $5, which is kind of steep but hey, we were paying for the view, too. And the one I ordered was one of the best beers I have ever had.
THE spot for Cuy (guinea pig) in Cuenca. Really unique interior decor. We split a cuy and a jar of canelazo between three people and it came out to about $12 per person. Not bad for spoiling yourselves as a backpacker.
Cute and cozy cafe that is close to the center of Cuenca’s old town. Looks like a zen place to work and is very vegetarian friendly.
One of the cutest little restaurants you will find in Cuenca. Has a bit of a French vibe to it. Perfect for grabbing a beer and a coffee on their terrace and catching a beautiful view of the city. The interior decor is unique and alone is worth stopping by for.
This place has a really lush and green interior. You walk into the restaurant feeling like a Disney princess surrounded by plants and paintings and art. I haven’t actually eaten here yet but it looks gorgeous.
Miscellaneous Information About Cuenca
Drinking in public is apparently prohibited
Cuenca is the drunkest city in Ecuador, apparently. I never got that vibe but to be fair, I did find myself drinking at all hours of the day while I was in Cuenca. However, because of how often everyone drinks, it apparently gets pretty wild so you technically aren’t allowed to drink on the streets.
Weed is like super easy to get
We were walking along the river after a difficult day of day drinking and decided that all we were missing was a little sesh by the river. The sun was setting and the views were glorious. One of my friends asked the first person he saw and that guy just gave us two small nuggets of weed for free. A day later, we were having the same issue and saw a street performer juggling on the street. Once he was done, he gave us a sizable baggy of weed for $2. Basically, getting weed in Cuenca is as easy as finding cocaine in Montañita.
Cuenca is surprisingly cheap considering it is totally the best city in Ecuador
When I arrived at the bus station, I was absolutely starving. I got a meal for $2, a pleasant change from Montañita where the meals were quite expensive.
The Best Day Trips To Take From Cuenca
El Chorro de Giron
These waterfalls are located about an hour south of Cuenca in the small town of Giron. The waterfalls are an impressive 70 meters high, or about 230 feet. The hike down to the waterfalls is less than a kilometer and the scenery is beautiful all throughout. It gives you an idea of how stunning and diverse Ecuador really is.
These ruins are the most well-preserved and most complex Incan ruins in Ecuador. It is about 80 kilometers north of Cuenca and one can take a bus or drive there. It takes about an hour and a half. Another option is trekking there, a journey that takes 3 days total.
It’s no Machu Picchu but it is beautiful and worth visiting while you are in Cuenca. Most people who come to Cuenca end up staying way longer than planned so there’s no doubt that you’ve got some time to kill anyway.
Cajas National Park
A picture’s worth a thousand words so here’s several thousand words.