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Adventures wait to be found in the beautifully quaint city of Cuenca, Ecuador. The town has an incredibly rich and complex history–it was even rumored to have been the lost city of El Dorado. Allow yourself to discover this beautiful town snuggled in the endlessly spectacular southern Ecuadorian Andes Mountains. Spanish colonial architecture is everywhere and there are plenty of activities, both in the town and day trips easily accessible just outside. When it comes to the best things to do in Cuenca, Ecuador, there is more than enough variety to keep every kind of traveler busy.
With the impressively long full name of Santa Ana de Los Ríos de Cuenca, the town is known for its delightful temperature with a year-long spring climate. (This is thanks to its proximity to the equator and its relatively high altitude at 2,560 meters above sea level). Its old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thanks to its well-preserved Spanish Colonial architecture.
Situated just 250 kilometers from Guayaquil, 440 kilometers from Quito and 400 kilometers from the Peruvian border, you’re just a short while away from discovering the little slice of heaven that is Cuenca, Ecuador.
Pass through the paintings of Ecuadorian legends and discover their story. Lose yourself in the ethnographic exhibits. There are carvings, pottery, and textiles to more than satisfy your cravings. Even if museums aren’t your thing, once you make it to the Shuar exhibit, that will all change. Here, you will find the shrunken heads. The rest of this huge museum is full of brilliant and detailed information on other indigenous cultures of Ecuador and Cuenca. (As Cuenca itself has one of the longest histories in South America) It’s recommended to visit this site twice so that you can properly enjoy everything there is to see. (We all know museums can leave you with an overwhelming amount of knowledge to process!)
Otherwise known as the Plaza de Armas. This is the main square in Cuenca, and a great spot to relax with a book, or just to kick back and people watch. There are artists and vendors peddling their wares, and around lunchtime, this place becomes a hive of activity for the locals and tourists alike. Almost the whole town comes to enjoy the foliage in the spring sunshine that is so typical of Cuenca.
In typical Ecuadorian style, there are markets aplenty here in Cuenca. Most are geared specifically to the Ecuadorian population rather than tourists. Consequently, if you want a feel of the ‘true’ markets, this is where to get it from. The Plaza de San Francisco Market offers a combination of the ‘traditional Ecuadorian market’ while still having a little strip of souvenirs for the tourists to browse. Some of these trinkets are even from the Otavalo Market, northwest of Quito and famous worldwide.
Whether you’re a market person or not, make sure not to miss out on the flower markets. You may already know that Ecuador is the orchid capital of the world, but did you know that Cuenca is the orchid capital of Ecuador? Just behind the new Cathedral (the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception), you will find a market selling hundreds of different types of flowers. From the fabled orchid to roses and lilies galore, this is a really spectacular sight to see.
A little further out, but a wholly worthwhile journey, sit the Inca Ruins of Ingapirca. The largest known ruins of the Inca Empire in Ecuador. The site was originally settled by the Cañari peoples, who joined peacefully with the Incas after the leader, Tupac Yupanqui, married the daughter of the Cañari leader. If you love Inca history, this site is a must on your list of things to do in Cuenca, Ecuador.
Something a little different! The zoological park in Cuenca is not your average zoo! With natural enclosures instead of cages, a much more natural and pleasant experience for both you and the animals ensues. Be aware that most of the zoo is up a hill, so if you have a problem with your walking mobility, calling ahead is advised. But an afternoon spent checking out the indigenous species of Ecuador that fill up this zoo is definitely a worthwhile afternoon, especially for animal lovers. With everything from bears to monkeys, enjoy the wildlife at your fingertips.
You won’t escape Cuenca without checking out the magnificent buildings. Afterall, it’s old town was declared a world heritage site in 1996. So, give in and put them on your itinerary. A sample of what to expect includes:
Founded in the same year as the city (1557) and converted into a museum when no longer functional, as its size could not accommodate the extra people attending as the town grew into a city. The cathedral was funded through donations made to the city, which is largely the reason that it still stands. Directly opposite sits
(Or the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception.) This magnificent site was 80 years in construction and is still not technically finished. Probably the first thing that you will notice about this building is that the spires that would normally sit atop its neo-gothic architecture are… not there. This is because the architect who designed the church forgot to account for the weight of the building. Because of this, the foundations were not properly enforced, so the structure simply would not support the weight of the spines. Despite this catastrophic mistake, the cathedral stands tall and beautiful upon the Plaza de Armas, its blue domes and red marble showing off what it could have been.
It may seem strange to you that a bank would make this list. Home to the municipality of Cuenca since 1999, this gorgeous neoclassical building deserves its reputation. Showcasing a style of architecture typical to Ecuador in the time that it was built (1913).
Hike up the hills to find a beautiful, Disney style church sitting at its peak. Here, an incomparable view of the city, spanning for miles and miles. Don’t miss out on the panoramic views of the whole of Cuenca. Visit during the day or the night, (or both) depending on the views you prefer. There is a tour bus that can take you up if you don’t want the walk and a couple of shops and restaurants alongside the church.
Built in 1899, and so named after the mountain that it crawls down (and back-up on your return), allow this beautiful train to take you through the countryside. Sit back and enjoy the flawless Ecuadorian scenery, while your guide talks you through your journey, the history, and the culture of your surroundings. This journey is easily combined with a tour of the Ingapirca ruins but a brilliant, full day out.
Just 35 minutes outside of Cuenca, El Cajas National Park should be on everyone’s list of things to do in Cuenca. Ecuador is famous for its biodiversity and jungle, you would be doing yourself a disservice to miss out on this gem. Follow one of the marked trails through the cloud forest, appreciate the wildlife, or lose yourself (not literally) in the many lakes and pools that give the park it’s truly beautiful scenes.
The river starts in the El Cajas National Park, which is just next to the city. It runs through the city, and, after combining with several other rivers, joins the Amazon River. Take a walk along the banks or ride a bike to take in the tranquility that flows with the water. The route is relatively flat and is a nice stretch of land to stretch your legs before heading to the center to grab a bite to eat.
There is an endless number of unique and wonderful things to do in Cuenca, Ecuador, and even more day trips available just outside of the town. Head to Vilcabamba to enjoy mindfulness activities like yoga, or take to the mountains for some biking. Cuenca is the kind of town to spend weeks in, it truly is worth getting to know this amazing slice of southern Ecuador.
You will want to return to this sophisticated, quirky city before the bus even pulls out of the station. Use it as a pit stop on your way to Peru, or just fall in love with the streets, and the way that the people sing while they speak. Cuenca is a paradise to fall deeply in love with.