Are you looking for things to in Cuenca Ecuador? Did you know that Cuenca is one of Ecuador’s biggest retirement destinations for expats? To keep the expat population entertained, there are a bunch of fun things to in Cuenca that you can enjoy during your visit. Here are just a few of our favorites.
Do you want to make the most of your journey down to Cuenca? Rather than hopping on a domestic flight, consider taking a longer, but more interesting trip on the Wanderbus. From Quito, the Wanderbus departs daily to destinations like Quilotoa, Cotopaxi, Baños, and continues all the way to Cuenca. Instead of skipping these truly worthwhile destinations, why not add a few more days to your itinerary and buy a Wanderbus pass?
Eat, Drink and Party in Cuenca, Ecuador
Compared to Quito, Cuenca offers visitors a greater variety of international cuisine options as well as some quaint cafes and low-key nightlife. Cuenca is also a smaller city so you can literally walk to almost any place of your choosing, which makes it feel safer than other Ecuadorian cities. Long story short – plenty of fun things to do in this marvelous city with friends, your partner and if you’re flying solo.
Before you go out to eat, please note that Sunday and Mondays are SLOW days in Cuenca. Most restaurants and stores aren’t even open. Even though Cuenca is a relatively easy place to get around, you don’t want to waste your time going from one closed restaurant to another (I speak from experience). Check Google Maps, TripAdvisor or Facebook in advance, or ask your hotel staff.
Best restaurants in Cuenca
Something I’ve realized about online ratings: they’re not always the best way to gauge quality. Some restaurants are just better at encouraging customers to send positive reviews, and many businesses don’t have TripAdvisor profiles.
In lieu of this normally reliable info, what do you do? Ask around: ask at your hotel, ask other tourists you come across. Definitely don’t just rely on an online 5-star rating for activities and places in Ecuador.
While in Cuenca most recently, I went to the following restaurants and can honestly recommend them.
- El Capitán – This is one of the restaurants with excellent ratings that is, in fact, an excellent place to eat. You’ll want to return there more than once on your trip. El Capitán serves Ecuadorian coastal dishes from Manabí and does it well. It’s a small spot, with only a handful of tables, and service is wonderfully friendly. To ensure you get a table, make a reservation in advance. I recommend the camarón encocado or camarón al ajillo with a local Club beer.
- El Mercado – Probably one of the priciest places in Cuenca, El Mercado should be the destination of your one big splurge (that is, if you’re always traveling on a budget, like me). The venue itself is gorgeous, located on Cuenca’s barranco, overlooking the river. It uses local ingredients that are in season and describes itself as “retro-chic”. Save this one for a romantic night out 😉
- Punjabi Rasoi – One of the more affordable options on this list, Punjabi Rasoi is a hole-in-the wall Punjabi restaurant on Calle Larga that offer lunch menus as well as à la carte options. The food here tastes completely authentic and at an excellent price.
Best coffee shops in Cuenca
Since Cuenca is a relatively quiet city compared to Quito and Guayaquil, there are a bunch of coffee spots to enjoy. A few of my favorites are:
- Goza Espresso Bar – Do you enjoy sipping your cappuccino on a plaza on a sunny day? Due to its location, you might consider first going for a walk by the river and ending your tour at Goza Espresso. The café offers all the expected coffee options, as well as breakfast and lunchtime menus. This is a lovely spot to journal, read a book and just enjoy the present moment.
- Café de Ñucallacta – Backpackers love this place. It’s small, cozy, has hot/cold drinks, breakfast and lunch menus, pastries and even some vegetarian options. When it’s busy it can get a bit too crowded and messy, but for the most part this is an excellent and affordable option around Cuenca and probably a good spot to make new friends.
- El Cafecito – Located facing Plaza Cívica, el Cafecito is another little gem of a place. It’s a restaurant, bar and hostel, offering visitors pretty much anything they need in terms of food and drink. They have vegan and vegetarian options, and a beautiful terrace to enjoy a view of Cuenca city.
- Cafe Austria – This central café is quiet and a cozy place to visit on a rainy day. It offers coffee options as well as wine, and some food options (though I’d really only go for the beverages). Night-time events are sometimes organized here as well, like belly dancing shows.
Best night-time venues in Cuenca
- El Confesionario – A good setting is an important factor to enjoy a night out and el Confesionario’s location is truly lovely. Located in a courtyard beside Cuenca’s illuminated Cathedral, this is an excellent option for a romantic glass of wine before exploring the rest of Cuenca’s nightlife.
- Jazz Society Café – Do you like live jazz? The Jazz Society Café is a great option for a relaxed and sophisticated night out. Dine on Italian food while listening to local musicians playing classic jazzy tunes as well as other genres. The atmosphere here, plus the music, makes this a Cuenca highlight for just about anyone.
- Wunderbar Cafe – Wunderbar is another night-time venue for drinks, live music and socializing that is easy to find, affordable and offers both indoor and outdoor seating.
Shopping, the best souvenirs from Cuenca
Though beautiful souvenirs can be purchased all along the Ecuadorian Andes, shopping at the artisanal market is a fun thing you must do in Cuenca. This short trip can be done after breakfast for a few hours and ensures you return home with gifts for friends and family.
The local artisanal market is located at Casa de la Mujer, an indoor market with numerous booths and shops. It’s situated beside Plaza de San Francisco, which is just a couple of blocks from Parque Calderón. When asking for directions, just ask for “el mercado artesanal Casa de la Mujer” and polite Cuencanos will point you in the right direction. Like I mentioned, nearly everything in Cuenca is only a short walk away!
So, what do you get when visiting Cuenca?
Did you know Panama hats aren’t from Panama at all? These hats have always been made in Ecuador, but became known as Panama hats because they were shipped from Ecuador through the Panama Canal.
In Ecuador, these hats are made in Montecristi, a town along the coast, and Sigsig, a town only about an hour from Cuenca. They are made from a type of straw called paja toquilla, and depending on how closely they are woven, the price can range from $15 to $300! In Cuenca’s Casa de la Mujer you’ll find the traditional style and color at around $15, though boutiques around town will sell them in various colors and styles from $50-70.
Cuenca, as well as Cotacachi (near Quito), are two cities where you can buy handmade leather goods at incredibly good prices. If you’re in town long enough, you can have an artisan replicate your favorite leather jacket or purse for a fraction of the price!
Cuenca is also known for its work in jewelry, particularly in silver. A nearby town, Chordeleg, is definitely worth a visit if you’d like more variety to choose from, but if you don’t have the time, you can find pretty much anything you like at Casa de la Mujer.
Assorted arts and crafts
If you prefer to select from a curated collection of Ecuadorian arts and crafts, visit Galería El Barranco. In addition to handcrafted products, El Barranco hosts numerous fairs and events throughout the year, highlighting artists and local entrepreneurs.
Fancy a museum?
On my last visit to Cuenca I overheard someone say, “the entire city of Cuenca is like a museum,” and I couldn’t agree more. Compared to other cities in Ecuador, it has likely dedicated more care to restoring buildings; modernizing where needed but preserving beautiful and old qualities to give the entire city added a touch of rustic charm. You’ll find that exploring Cuenca’s museums and historical buildings can be quite a fun thing to do while there.
One of the easiest ways to view preserved and restored colonial architecture around town is to jump on the yellow or red double-decker buses that leave Parque Calderón on a daily basis. Along the way, you’ll stop through Museo del Sombrero de Paja Toquilla (FREE) y Pumapungo Museum, its ruins, and gardens (FREE).
Museums in Cuenca
There is an overwhelming number of museums in Cuenca, really too many to visit during a short visit. However, if you can afford a day to explore museums, make sure to check out the two above-mentioned museums, as well as the Museo Sociedad Historia de la Medicina (FREE) and Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes ($4 entry).
If you’re a museum lover and want to see more than the four museums listed above, there is a Museum Route you can follow using this document (Spanish). If you end up visiting all of these museums, you’ll know more about Ecuadorian history and culture than you’ll know what to do with!
Cajas National Park
Though technically not in Cuenca, but 45 minutes away, Cajas is a must-see destination if you’re passing through this area and definitely belongs in the “fun things to do in Cuenca” list.
Cajas National Park is a high-altitude paramo that covers 285.4 km2 (110.2 sq mi). It is dotted with lakes and ponds, stony outcrops and is an astoundingly beautiful place for the nature lovers among you. Here, you can birdwatch and hike for a day, or multiple days.
From Cuenca you’ll find affordable day trips to Cajas that often include a tour guide and lunch, though you can also hop on a local bus and get off at one of the entrances. If you’re on the Wanderbus, you’ll be taken directly to the entrance of the park.
This isn’t, by any means, a comprehensive list of the fun things to do in Cuenca. In fact, there’s much more where this came from! But if you’re stopping through town for a couple of nights and don’t want to waste time just wandering around, with this list in hand, you’re good to go. Enjoy your stay, and don’t forget to buy a hat!