Cuenca Ecuador, not to be confused with Cuenca in Spain, is without a doubt my favourite cities in the world. It has all the charm of the old part of Quito without all of the danger of getting robbed in Quito.
Cuenca is considered one of the best places for Americans to retire. It has one of the largest expat communities in Ecuador, but most travelers pass through here in a day or two.
It makes me sad because Cuenca has so much to offer for people who like the wander the streets. I have spent months just walking around and have learned some of the best views are just looking up.
I don’t know much about architecture but I do know one thing. Cuenca is the most beautiful city in Ecuador. It deserves more than a day. It’s my fourth time here but I think I may stay a while.
Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador and lies at around 2,500 meters above sea level. It is best known for the stunning colonial architecture in the city center. It has also been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Why You Should Visit Cuenca Ecuador
This is a great city for visitors as many of the main attractions located around the city center can be explored on foot. It also has several sites in the surrounding area which make for great day trips.
The slightly high altitude of Cuenca may leave a few people a little more breathless than usual as they explore. If you are going to be here for a few days, it is better to take in the easier attractions first. Leave the more vigorous activity for a few days until you have acclimatized.
How to Get to Cuenca Ecuador
Cuenca doesn’t have a good network of international flights as it’s home to a smaller airport. There are only a limited number of international connections. However, there are regular domestic services by air that offer routes to Guayaquil and Quito through TAME and LATAM.
The easiest way to reach Cuenca is by bus. As it is located on the Pan-American highway there is no shortage of long-distance bus routes to the city. Buses in Ecuador are the best way to get around and roughly cost $1 per hour of travel.
There are hourly buses that run from Guayaquil to Cuenca, which usually takes around three and a half hours. There are several buses running daily from Quito, which is a significantly longer eight to ten hour journey. I’d suggest you break it up and stay in Riobamba, which is almost the mid-way point.
You can also travel directly to Peru with an international bus in Cuenca. These buses travel through Vilcabamba on their way to the Peruvian border.
Public Transportation in Cuenca Ecuador
One of the best things about a visit to Cuenca is it’s a compact city center perfect to explore by foot. For slightly longer journeys such as a trip out to the airport or bus station, the fee by taxi is usually around $2-3.
However, you must negotiate any price before getting in the cab, as the local taxis do not have meters. If you’re on a tight budget buses are more affordable and cost 25 cents. You must have the correct change as tickets are purchased from a machine.
Things to Do in Cuenca Ecuador
Exploring the old town is definitely one of the highlights of any visit to Cuenca. El Sagrario is the Old Cathedral that was built in the sixteenth century and converted into a museum.
At the Old Cathedral you should begin your visit with a trip on the double decker sightseeing bus in Cuenca. It’s a great opportunity to get your bearings and learn a bit of history. There are two options, the north and south loop and while the south loop is more useful if you have time do both.
It’s only $8 for 90 minutes and will take you to the look off and other locations that would be more difficult to reach on your own. Be kind to the guides. Tourism isn’t as slick/sophisticated on mainland Ecuador and it’s incredible that they have realized this kind of tour is needed.
If you like churches the more modern nineteenth century cathedral is a massive construction. There is a grand entrance below a stunning round stained glass window and three large domes
Another popular attractions is the beautiful flower market. Here stallholders sell a huge variety of different flowers. If you’d like a photo of one of the sellers be kind and buy the very affordable flowers before asking for a photo.
With such a strong cultural backbone Cuenca Ecuador is home to many museums. Some museums share the story of Panama Hats and the currency system. Whereas other more non-traditional share real shrunken heads and old medical equipment. If you like to explore the quirky check out: A Definitive Guide to Cuenca Museums.
Off the Beaten Path
There are also several attractions that are a little more unusual, such as the small but interesting Amaru Zoo. Here you can see over 70 different species ranging from colorful birds through to monkeys, parrots and bears.
The Puente Roto is a bridge that was built in the mid nineteenth century, but was partially washed away in a flood just a few years later. Today the arches have become a gallery for graffiti artists.
The Museum of Modern Art is great for supporting local artists in the city.
Holidays in Cuenca
I’ve spent a lot of holidays and Cuenca is one of the most fascinating because it has a strong Catholic community. I highly recommend New Years in Ecuador as it has so many interesting traditions.
Day Trips from Cuenca
There are also plenty of things to do in the area surrounding Cuenca. One of the most popular journeys is the 90 minute bus trip to the historic ruins of Ingapirca.
There is now a small town there sharing the same name as the complex of the former Inca palace and temple. Today you can see the scale of the complex that would have been here. There is a large platform at one end, while the walls of the buildings stretch out over a large hillside.
If you love to hike or fish you must visit the Cajas National Park is somewhere that is home gorgeous lagoons, lovely highland lakes. Be sure to get a guide, I highly recommend Andres from Casa Cuencana as he is a licensed tour guide and also Ecuadorian. The best thing we can do as tourists is hire locals to make an impact in the community.
Eating in Cuenca Ecuador
This post about Ecuadorian food is a great start to understanding what to look for in Cuenca.
My favourite places are in the markets, Mercado 10 de Agosto is an older market but has an entire section dedicated to hornado and also incredible juice and fruit. There is also Feria Libre which is the largest outdoor market, and also sells clothing and electronics.
Personally I prefer local food and there’s so much to eat on the streets. But because Cuenca has such a large expat community you’ll find non-Ecuadorian food as well like spicy Asian food at A Pedir de Boca, german food at Maria’s Alemania and sushi at NOE. Food here will be significantly more expensive that local joints as it caters to foreigners.
There are plenty of bars around the city with the most popular in the Old Town and La Calle. If you can find it try the traditional canelazo, a spiced drink made with the local liquor Zhumir mixed with cinnamon, brown sugar and water.
Also one of the best things about Cuenca is that you can drink the water, another reason Cuenca is considered one of the best places to retire.
Hotels in Cuenca Ecuador
I really believe that you should spend your money on locals rather than the expat community. For tourism to be a positive experience for everyone it really needs to help with local economy. Cuenca has been welcoming to Americans retiring in the city. Sadly many only spend their money on other expat restaurants, cafes etc. It’s unfortunate as it takes away from locals trying to make a living wage.
This hostel is a series of buildings owned by a Ecuadorian single mother and her family. Each building is different. If you don’t like one room you can always ask to move to another as each has its own character.
There are dorms but also private rooms and a kitchen available so it feels like you’re living in an apartment rather a typical hostel. Plus one of the sons is a licensed tour guide with excellent English so you can book excursions through the hostel.
Luxury Hotels in Cuenca
If you are looking for luxury accommodation, then the Mansion Alcazar is a historic hotel in great surroundings. But it also comes with the price tag to match.
I have so much heart for Cuenca Ecuador, if there’s something I missed that you think should be included please let me know in the comments below.