Considered one of the most beautiful cities in Ecuador, Cuenca is located in the Andean mountains of the country. Cuenca is a very colourful place with a lot of history. The city is known for its cobblestone streets, houses with facades of a Republican style, and for being surrounded by low mountains.
Before the Spaniards conquered Cuenca, there were two other cultures that settled here: first the pre-Inca culture called Cañari who were living in the area for around 3000 years, and then the Incas who came and named the city Tomebamba. Although the Spaniards destroyed most of their constructions, we can still see Inca stones which were incorporated in some of the Spanish structures, like colonial buildings, churches, and museums. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are lots of great things to do in Cuenca, such as visiting the beautiful Cajas National Park and the fascinating Museo Pumapungo.
Due to its location, the city can sometimes experience several changes of climate and temperature over the course of the day. Below is our Cuenca travel guide with information on all the best things to do, places to go and what not to miss.
CATEDRAL DE LA INMACULADA – Known as the 'New Cathedral', this huge construction could not be completed according to the original plan, because the towers had been designed in a way unsupported by the rest of the building. They had to modify the original plan and place them lower down. You can visit the top to get a great view of the plaza and most of the historic centre of the city.
IGLESIA DEL SAGRARIO – Known as the Old Cathedral, this is an excellent place to learn about what Cuenca was like in the past. Highlights include paintings, sculptures, and altars donated by the leading families of the time.
CAJAS NATIONAL PARK – Located 40 minutes from the city, there are beautiful landscapes around the park and over 230 lagoons inside. Activities like trekking, cycling and camping are very popular, but be prepared for different types of weather conditions.
MUSEO PUMAPUNGO – At this museum there are three permanent exhibitions:
Ethnographic: Pottery, art, and traditions from the different cultures in Ecuador.
Tomebamba Archaeology: An interactive room where you will learn about the different cultures that were settled in this area, and especially the key findings from the last few years about the Tomebamba culture.
Numismatics: In this room, you will see all the coins and banknotes that existed in Ecuador until today.
MUSEO DE LAS CULTURAS ABORÍGENES – This is a very complete and entertaining museum with many archaeological pieces from different cultures of the old Ecuador.
INCA RUINS OF INGAPIRCA – Ingapirca takes you to another world: it’s a place full of architectural richness, where you realize how wonderful the Inca culture was in the past. An interesting and unavoidable option!
EXHIBITION GALLERY OF THE MUNICIPALITY OF CUENCA – Located in front of the new Cathedral, here you can see samples of great artistic value recognized by local, national, and international artists.
*** WHAT NOT TO MISS ***
Walk around the historic centre where all the colonial buildings, museums and churches are located.
You can choose between the local market, or a variety of restaurants serving the regional and international cuisine. Among the classics of Cuenca’s cuisine, you should not miss tamales, made from corn flour, or chumales and humitas, which are made of tender corn that has been milled and steamed.
For typical Ecuadorian food, go to Raymipampa (Benigno Malo 8-59), located in the central square of the city. The menu is extensive and in both English and Spanish, and you’ll find a mix of tourists and locals in this restaurant.
Visit A Pedir de Boca (Benigno Malo 5-54) for an explosion of flavours – if you fancy a change from South American cuisine, this is the place to go to for amazing Asian food.
San Sebas Café (San Sebastian 1-94 y Mariscal Sucre) is the best breakfast place around. It’s close to the main square, and serves delicious food that will keep you full all day. The bread has a famous reputation! Tip: if you come on the weekend, get here early – it gets packed out.
If you like the nightlife, a recommended place to go for dinner is Monday Blue (Calle Larga) which is Mexican-themed and has great cocktails. Another option is Inca Lounge and Bistro (Paseo 3 de Noviembre), where you’ll find a mixed crowd of expats, locals, and travelers. It has a laid-back atmosphere, a big screen to watch sports, and tasty burgers if you get hungry.
Cuenca has a variable temperature of between 7-15 degrees Celsius in winter and 12-25 degrees Celsius in summer. It experiences spring weather all year round, which is ideal for planting flowers and orchids that are exported worldwide. The average temperature in the city is 15 degrees Celsius.
Coming from Quito by bus takes about 8 or 9 hours.
Coming from Guayaquil by bus takes about 3 hours.
Coming from Quito by plane takes around 55 minutes.
Stay at Calle Larga, it is one of the main streets of the city where many cultural attractions and shops are located. At night, the area becomes very lively due to the presence of bars and restaurants, many of which offer live music shows.
One place to check out is Alternative Hostel (Av. Huayna Capac y Casique Duma Esq), where you can find both shared and private rooms on offer. It is about 15 minutes by foot to the main square. The kitchen is well-equipped, and there’s a nice balcony and common area where you can hangout. The atmosphere is sociable, but it’s not a party hostel. Overall, a very good option!
The hostels/hotels around the local market are not the best option as it’s a little unsafe.
If you travel around Ecuador by bus, keep your valuables safe. The best way to do this is to keep a small bag on your lap, rather than by your feet.