The colonial city of Cuenca has it all. The best things in life are free and so are the best things to do in Cuenca. I found myself loving life in this quaint Ecuadorian city while barely having to spend a time. There’s a reason (actually, a lot of reasons) why so many backpackers and expats alike have fallen in love with Cuenca. There are so many things to do in Cuenca, yet at the same time, it feels like you don’t need to do anything at all to have fun here. Life can be taken slow in this beautiful southern Ecuadorian city nestled between the mountains.
Visit Parque Nacional el Cajas and Hike Laguna Toreadora
You can’t visit Cuenca without making the trip over to Cajas National Park. Tucked away in the mountains about 45 minutes from Cuenca, you can spend days exploring the stunning landscapes of Cajas. The highlights are the lagunas which number over 200. At 4,000 meters in altitude, there is no shortage of mountains or peaks to climb, either.
The most popular hike is along Laguna Toreadora. It is a quick and easy hike, although a bit wet. The more adventurous can hike up the nearby mountain to catch a stunning view of the surroundings. Dress for all types of weather because it can be freezing cold or sweltering hot depending on the weather and cloud cover.
Catch The Sunset From Mirador El Turi
One of the best viewpoints that you can get of Cuenca is from the Mirador El Turi. Nestled up on a hill, it is a bit of a hike unless you are willing to pay for a taxi to get you up there in about 10-15 minutes. At sunset, the vibe is unbeatable. It is a nice local spot where time stops for a bit as everyone pauses to watch the stunning mountain sunsets together.
It is a beautiful spot at all times of day, and even at night once the lights start turning on and the colorful city disappears into a sea of black and flickering yellow. You can buy a churro and a warm canelazo as the air starts to cool and take in the views for a while.
Stroll Through Museo Pumapungo’s Ruins and Gardens
Right across from my hostel was the free-to-enter Museo Pumapungo. We went to see the ruins and only got about thirty minutes of exploring in before the museum closed on us. We came back a few days later to check out the rest, visiting the shrunken head exhibit and learning a lot about the various indigenous cultures that inhabit Ecuador.
Outside of the museum are some Incan ruins. They aren’t the largest but they are still pretty cool to explore, especially since entrance is free. You can catch the remains of some buildings, huge ovens, as well as an aqueduct and what is supposedly a bathroom. You can go down the hill behind the main complex and take a stroll through some botanical gardens along the river and even check out an aviary. Pumapungo is a very modern and well-kept museum and park, which made it a prime spot to hang out during the day in case the inside of my hostel room became a bit suffocating.
Climb Up To The Nuevo Catedral’s Towers
Cuenca’s most iconic building is their New Cathedral, a gorgeous structure topped off with its three beautiful domes of pastel blue. You can pay $2 to enter the tower and climb up to those domes to catch a stunning panoramic view of Cuenca and the city’s surroundings. At only $2, this was easily worth the entrance fee. The views were stunning and seemingly endless. The lush, green mountains contrasting with the red-tiled colonial roofs of the city was a view that never got old.
Make sure to explore the inside of the cathedral as well. It is an intricately beautiful building both inside and out. You aren’t allowed to take pictures during mass but entrance is free if you don’t plan on going up to the towers. Make sure to take your time admiring every tiny detail that went into this magnificent cathedral.
Visit Seminario San Luis
Just next door from the cathedral is Seminario San Luis. It is a little plaza that looks up at the domes of the New Cathedral. With flowered balconies everywhere you look, it is a very cute and serene spot for a coffee or a beer. There are a number of restaurants here, all of which were surprisingly reasonably priced.
Walk Along Rio Tomebamba
The main river that runs through Cuenca is the Rio Tomebamba. Running parallel to the bustling Calle Larga, you can drop on down and escape from the chaos of Cuenca’s busiest street. It is a serene spot for a riverside stroll down here. You’ll catch many locals having picnics, reading books, or just taking a breather down here.
Do Go Chasin’ Waterfalls at Giron
About 45 minutes away from Cuenca is the small village of Giron. This small village boasts some very large waterfalls. El Chorro de Giron is a beautiful waterfall and an epic hike that will probably take a full day out of you. You can choose to only hike down to the lower level, which is what we did since we were just making a quick detour on our drive from Cuenca to Loja.
It is a very overlooked destination by most tourists but it is well worth it. These were some of my favorite waterfalls that I encountered in South America.
Watch Life Go By At Parque Abdon Calderon
The main plaza of Cuenca is a perfect spot to chill and watch life go by. This heavily trafficked area is somehow both serene and not. You’ll be surrounded by a diverse range of flora, with Parque Abdon Calderon boasting over 2,000 species in the small square alone. However, everyone finds their way onto this street one way or another. You’ll have all the people-watching your heart could dream of.
Try Cuenca’s Famous Hornado at Mercado 10 de Agosto
My mouth is watering as I type this. For $3 per plate, I would get a fat stack of Doña Elsita Cardenas’ famous hornado with some choclos and veggies. Hornado is an oven-baked pork, where they’ll have the whole massive pig on display. The meat is extremely juicy and the skin is very crispy. I try to limit the amount of meat I eat but hornado had me weak at the knees.
Visit Latin America’s Best Flower Market
Apparently, the flower market in Cuenca was named by National Geographic as the best flower market in Latin America. With Ecuador being known for its roses, I could see that making sense. Although small, there is a wide variety of flowers all beautifully arranged. I never actually bought anything but it was fun to see the hustle and bustle of this unique attraction.
Take An Audio Tour Of Cuenca’s Old Cathedral
Just across from the New Cathedral is Cuenca’s Old Cathedral. It is no longer in use but for $2, you can take a self-paced audio tour of the cathedral and the tombs below the cathedral. There are various artworks and artifacts scattered throughout the church, making it an interesting way to spend an hour or so of your time while you are in the city center.
Be A Tourist At Plaza San Francisco
There’s a big Cuenca sign with the perfect backdrop of the New Cathedral’s three domes. This little plaza is always busy and is home to many local vendors selling artisanal goods and handicrafts. So yeah, go on. Live your best life and buy that alpaca sweater and strike a pose in front of the Cuenca sign.
Buy Some Artisanal Goods at the Artisanal Market
It might be hard to miss but just beyond Plaza San Francisco is a more extensive arts and crafts market. It boasts over 80 stores ranging from everything you could imagine. Just walk to the far side away from the flower market side and you should see the sign to enter it. It doesn’t look like much but once you walk in, it is like a maze of arts and crafts.
Take A Free Walking Tour of Cuenca
Not sure what there is to do in Cuenca? I took a free walking tour and it basically sorted me out for the rest of my time. I knew where to eat, what to do, and got some insider tips for my time in Cuenca. Of course, no walking tour is truly free as you are expected to tip at the end but for $5 or so, it was well worth the three hour adventure through the city.
Get A Traditional Cleansing (Limpia) At The Market
This was one of the only things that I didn’t get to do while I was in Cuenca. We went to the market to make it happen only to find out that they only have it on certain days. A limpia consists of a local healer diagnosing you with an egg and then coming up with the right concoction of herbs to heal you. For $3, I’ll gladly take that type of healthcare any day.
Have A Wild Night Out On Calle Larga
Cuenca is the drunkest city in Ecuador. I don’t know exactly how they calculate that but I’ve heard that more than once so I’m taking it for a fact. Calle Larga is their big party street, and it is only about a 5 minute walk from the city center. There are a wide variety of bars playing all types of music so you’re bound to find one that fits your style.
Eat Cuy At Salon Tres Estrellas
Although more common in Peru, cuy or guinea pig is also a popular dish in Ecuador. In Cuenca, Salon Tres Estrellas is the only place that you can get cuy. You’ll have to reserve around an hour in advance so they can prepare the cuy for you but it is worth the wait.
Visit Bioparque Amaru “Wildlife Refuge”
I am very iffy about this one because when I went, I was under the impression that it was going to be a proper wildlife refuge for rescued animals. It felt more like an under-staffed, under-funded zoo. I don’t doubt that they have the best intentions but the place was clearly understaffed and did not have sufficient room for all of their animals to roam.
I am iffy about this because I don’t really know what to do. On one hand, I don’t want to support zoos. On the other, these are indeed rescue animals, but their current situation is only slightly better than the ones they left. Is it better to not support this place and let the animals struggle even more? Or is it better to support the business in the hopes that the animals’ situation will improve?
It’s up to your discretion.
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