Santa Ana de Los Rios de Cuenca, more commonly known as ‘Cuenca’, is a UNESCO World Heritage city in the central Andean region of Ecuador. This picturesque city is the perfect mixture of ancient heritage, rich culture, and modern innovation.
Divided by the waters of the Tomebamba river, Cuenca is home to numerous colonial-era churches and Cathedrals, pre-Columbian sites, as well as a modern town with restaurants, shops, and a vibrant bustling city-life that welcomes visitors from all over the world.
Cuenca is strategically located to offer visitors access to Ecuador’s many natural adventures, including visiting the rainforest, accessing gorgeous beaches, and exploring magical natural reserves that can only be found in Ecuador.
Cuenca also has a low cost of living and warm, welcoming locals, making it a favorite destination for expats and retirees, who find the residence visa process much quicker and easier than that of other destinations.
With all these perks, we’ve created a list of a few of the best things to do in Cuenca suitable for any budget. Note: you’re likely to fall in love with this gorgeous little big town, so don’t blame us if you decide to stay.
El Cajas National Park
El Cajas National Park is just an hour away from the city, making it a perfect getaway to connect with beautiful flora and fauna in the surroundings. There’s also an abundance of picturesque lakes, mountains, rainforest, and waterfalls — so don’t forget your camera!
Taking a bus from Cuenca to El Cajas will cost you no more than $7, and the service is surprisingly good as the region is extremely tourist-friendly. So pack yourself a few snacks and enjoy a day immersed in nature.
Pumapungo Park and Ethnographic Museum
The Pumapungo Park and Ethnographic museum is open to the public, with an entrance fee of under $5. A 30-45 minute bus ride from the center, the site is located in ancient Incan ruins that took a cultural turn once the region was colonized by the Spaniards, giving it a distinctive identity that is explained throughout the museum.
La Calle Larga and Tomebamba River
Back in the town, Cuenca has a wide assortment of things to do that are well within budget. Alongside the Tomebamba river runs a street called Calle Larga (Long Street). This is where Cuenca’s lively lifestyle takes place with an abundance of restaurants, bars, clubs, hotels, and museums sure to keep you entertained for many nights and days. Any time is good for a stroll down the street to discover new adventures or to breathe in the coolness of the water of one of the town’s four rivers.
Mirador de Turi
A must-do in Cuenca, Mirador de Turi is located in the southern tip of the city, overlooking the entire city and beyond. The Mirador is easily accessible by bus or a cheap taxi ride, but for those of you who consider themselves to be in good shape, there is also a staircase that guides you to the top. The Mirador is home to the picturesque Church of Turi, a bunch of souvenir shops, and a variety of food options to replenish your energy stores too.
The cobblestone streets and sidewalks of Cuenca’s historic downtown offer a gorgeous alternative to wander around and discover incredible sites and buildings that overflow with history and beauty.
One of the most iconic churches is the Cathedral of The Immaculate Conception, also known as the ‘New Cathedral’. The church stands out as the tallest in town and is crowned by three onion-shaped domes that dominate the skyline. Pay a small donation to climb up the stairs and enjoy a gorgeous view of the city.
In front of the Cathedral, you’ll find the Parque Abdón Calderón, a quaint square filled with trees, benches, and vendors adding to the charming atmosphere. The park is also where free concerts take place at various times in the week, so you’re bound to run into something fun here.
In the area around the park, there are plenty of museums that charge only a small entrance fee and are well worth visiting. They include the Iglesia del Sagrario, Cuenca´s “Old Cathedral” and a piece of architectural art. And the Homero Ortega P. & Hijos museum and factory where the original Panama Hats are made and where you can learn about their production.
Elsewhere, be sure not to miss the Museum of CIDAP, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Remigio Crespo Toral Museum, where history buffs can brush up on their knowledge of Ecuador.
Parks and Markets
Cuenca boasts many small parks scattered around the city so make the most of relaxing in the green spaces. Parque de Los Hippies is where artisans hand-make all types of souvenirs, from bracelets and necklaces to paintings, shirts, and more. While Parque de las Flores is where numerous flower vendors gather to display beautiful flowers in elaborate arrangements, or simply a couple of roses for that special someone.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite exploring, Cuenca is home to various markets where you’ll find some of the most delicious and freshest fruits and vegetables. Tuck in to delicacies such as Mote Pillo — the white corn prepared with scrambled egg and cheese is exploding with local flavor and is guaranteed to have you asking for seconds.