Cuenca is a large colonial city full of history in the south of Ecuador. With a laid back and charming atmosphere, Cuenca is known for its churches and crafts. Before the Spanish invaded, Cuenca was inhabited by several pre-Columbian civilizations as well as the Incas. There are several museums and ruins you can visit in the city and surrounding area.
Cuenca is Ecuador’s third largest city, but doable in a couple of days. There are some free walking tours which give a great sense of the city’s history as well as stopping at the most emblematic sites such as the new and old cathedrals of Cuenca, the Tomebamba river that separates the historic town from the modern barrios, and museums along the way.
Cuenca is famous for its craftsmen and women, who make beautiful woven goods, ceramics and metalwork. You can find some of their beautiful products in markets in Plaza de San Francisco or the Mercado de Artesanias on Sangurima road. Pay a visit to Eduardo Vega’s workshop to see how ceramics are traditionally made, but beware the things here are expensive! You can find most Cuencan craft items in Quito, but at a much higher price.
Staying in Cuenca
There is a good variety of hostels and hotels in Cuenca, with a few backpackers hostels that we really rate. Mallki hostel is a short walk into the old town, has a yummy breakfast and good wifi all for $6 in a dorm, or try Alternative Hostels which has $8 dorm with breakfast included as well.
Eating in Cuenca
Eating out in Cuenca is a lot of fun, as there are lots of cafés, bars, cheap eats and fancy restaurants. Some of our favourites are Moliendo Cafe, a Colombian spot with cheap lunch menus, arepas and yummy juices. Windhorse Cafe is also a winner, with a lovely atmosphere, yoga classes, and importantly, PIES (try the peanut butter one for instant death by pie). If you’re craving a good coffee, Nucallacta has amazing cappuccinos, as well as vegan goodies.
Nightlife in Cuenca
In the evenings, you’ll find lots of places that have live music (there’s even a jazz bar in Cuenca) as well as areas like Zona Rosa on Calle Larga, streets full of loud reggaeton, karaoke bars, shawarma and hot dogs open till the early hours of the morning.
Day trips from Cuenca
A beautiful day trip to the nearby Parque Nacional Cajas can be arranged with tour operators in the city, and usually costs around $40-$50 per person. You can also get there by bus in under an hour (a company called Oriental operates a route from Cuenca terminal) and spend the day or camp overnight if you have the equipment. Keep in mind the park is at high altitude and nights are very cold. The park is known for its beautiful lakes, and is home to Condors, giant hummingbirds and more incredible species.
Another beautiful day trip a little further out is the Ingapirca ruins. These Incan ruins represent a pre-colonial Incan settlement, complete with a sun temple and its surrounding infrastructure, all made out of perfectly carved blocks of stone. Many more areas like this would have existed in Cuenca itself, but the Spanish dismantled most of them to use the stone to make new constructions.
The Temple of the Sun is a large oval construction that was used for ritual and astronomical purposes. If you stand in the center, the sun rises and sets to your exact left and right through perfectly situated windows. Just outside the ruins, the Museo Sitio de Ingapirca displays a skeleton, tools and other artifacts recovered from the area.
Several of our passes include a visit to Cuenca. Check out the Wander Pass, the easiest and most flexible way to visit everything Ecuador has to offer. See you on the road!