Cuenca, Ecuador, is a colonial gem that lays sprawled out amidst the Andes mountains that surround the city. Between Cuenca’s history, the culture, and many adventurous pursuits that abound in the area, there are so many interesting and fun things to do in Cuenca, Ecuador!
This comprehensive Cuenca Ecuador travel guide aims to highlight the best things to do in Cuenca. We hope this guide helps travelers to plan out activities & explorations when visiting the city, in addition to discovering some worthwhile day trips from Cuenca.
During each of our month-long visits to Cuenca, we’ve made a concerted effort to really get to know this city and deeply explore everything that visitors may find interesting to do. Recommendations span from the popular must-see attractions in Cuenca, like the New Cathedral to more obscure pursuits such as getting a traditional cleansing at a local market.
And let’s not forget about those Cuenca day trips. Don’t miss hiking through the most biologically diverse place in the Andes or exploring Ecuador’s largest Inca ruin site. We’re now happy to share all these intrigueing discoveries of what to do in Cuenca, Ecuador!
Yet before listing Cuenca’s best attractions and excursions, perhaps it may help to get to know this city a little better. So let’s begin with a brief background about Cuenca and its appeal as a great place to travel in Ecuador.
Get to Know Cuenca, Ecuador!
With a growing city population of approximately 350,000 people (over 600,000 including the entire Cuenca canton), Cuenca is Ecuador’s third-largest city. Cuenca was founded as a Spanish settlement in the mid-1500s. But traces of civilization go way back to over 10,000 years ago! Perhaps most notably, Cuenca was once inhabited by the Incas, as evidenced by ruins that visitors can still see from right within the city today.
The city’s full name is Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca. That’s quite a mouthful, so almost everyone simply refers to the city as “Cuenca” instead. The translation of this lengthy city name references the four rivers that run through Cuenca. One of those rivers pleasantly slices right through the center of town, making for a particularly nice stroll.
Cuenca is also known as the “Athens of Ecuador.” The charming colonial streets of Cuenca do give off a certain European flair. But this nickname is not only a reflection of Cuenca’s architecture, cathedrals, and ruins. It’s also a reference to Cuenca being a long-held hub of culture, art, and artisanry.
It’s this history and traditions that have helped make the historic center of Cuenca to be designated as one of only three of Ecuador’s cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites. (The others are the Inca Andean Road System and Quito).
UNESCO further recognizes Cuenca for its centuries-old colonial architecture. Cuenca’s city planning has been respected and followed here for more than 400 years. You can read the full UNESCO description outlining Cuenca’s universal value here.
Cuenca is largely a safe city in Ecuador. It carries a pleasant and tranquil vibe. Local people are notoriously welcoming and friendly. And we found there to be little threat of petty theft and pickpockets, as there is in some of Ecuador’s larger cities.
Between Cuenca’s friendliness, colonial charm, Andean culture, beautiful mountain scenery that surrounds, and the consistently pleasant climate, it’s no wonder that many foreigners are traveling here. Cuenca is becoming not only a popular travel destination in Ecuador. Expats and retirees are moving to Cuenca to make it their new home. There’s certainly lots of appeal here to do so!
After all, there are so many great things to do in Cuenca itself in addition to the many day trips, that make it well worth a lengthy stay. We now hope this detailed Cuenca, Ecuador travel guide helps to highlight exactly that!
Best Things to Do in Cuenca Ecuador
There are so many awesome things to do in and around Cuenca. Simply strolling the cobblestone streets of Cuenca’s historic city center can be a fantastic casual pursuit while touring around the city. Undoubtedly, visitors will do exactly that while exploring the many recommendations laid out in this Cuenca travel guide.
We hope this list of things to do in Cuenca provides some solid ideas on what to do around town. Also, here’s a handy Cuenca map to help find your way around to all the points of interest listed throughout this travel guide.
1) Climb the Towers of Cuenca’s New Cathedral
Cuenca’s Cathedral de la Inmaculada is a centerpiece of the city that is commonly referred to as the New Cathedral. Although construction began in 1885, the cathedral was not completed until nearly a century later (1975). That’s why it’s referred to as the “new cathedral.” The cathedral’s signature blue domes have defined Cuenca’s skyline ever since.
A visit inside this grand Catholic church is a must-do while visiting Cuenca. The New Cathedral is among some of the largest churches in South America. The massive interior is said to be able to fit over 9,000 church-goers. Cuenca’s New Cathedral is easily accessible and open to the public, as faithful Cuencanos pop in throughout the day to worship.
As long as visitors are dressed modestly and service isn’t going on, don’t hesitate to quietly explore the New Cathedral’s vast interior. You’ll find plenty of marble and stained glass to admire. Take a look at the gold leaf-covered altar. Also, find the wooden replica of the cathedral (towards the front right, facing the altar). Perhaps even consider lighting a candle.
But don’t stop there. Many visitors don’t realize that it’s possible to climb up the towers of the Cathedral! There’s a small ticket booth just as you enter the cathedral’s northern (right-side) entrance that grants access to a narrow spiral staircase.
It takes many steps to reach the top, where the effort is rewarded with fantastic views of Cuenca’s historic center. You’ll also get an up-close look at the Cathedral’s pretty blue domes. (Note: the domes were still undergoing renovations in early 2019, but efforts should be wrapped up by the time you’re reading this.)
There’s also a plaque up here explaining why the bell towers you’re standing on don’t contain any bells. It describes why the church was left unfinished and incomplete. We won’t give it all away though. You’ll have to go to Cuenca’s New Cathedral and climb those steps to find out!
2) Get a Limpia (Traditional Cleansing) at the Local Market
The Mercado 10 de Agosto is a local Market in Cuenca, where residents come to stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables, among other local products. It’s a great place on its own merit to simply see all the local produce and soak in the market atmosphere.
Consider buying some fruit while you’re here! There are also many exotic fruits to discover, like tree tomatoes and naranjillas, that you may not have access to at home.
Just be aware that the bundles of produce tend to be priced by the dollar. So if you’d like a single banana, that’s not going to happen. A dollar will likely buy you over 10 bananas!
Yet another reason to visit this local Cuenca market is to experience a “limpia.”
A limpia is a traditional cleansing that has been passed down through generations. On the bottom floor of Mercado 10 de Agosto, there is a steady stream of customers partaking in this traditional cleansing. Pregnant women and babies appear to form the largest base of limpia clients. Yet everyone from working-class men to sweet old abuelas come to Mercado 10 de Agosto to seek this treatment.
This spiritual cleansing process is meant to help rid anything terrible from within. It’s interesting to watch the action of what’s involved in the cleansing. Yet for a real cultural experience while in Cuenca, visitors can consider jumping right in to get a limpia too!
But before you go ahead with getting a limpia in Cuenca, just know what you’re in for. This video provides a primer of the process.
Those being cleansed may endure a fair bit of being roughed-up by various plants and herbs. A raw uncracked egg is rubbed around the body as part of the cleansing. It’s a diagnosis mechanism. Strong herbal alcohol fumes are breathed in too. And a process known as baño de flores, or flower bath, involves having a mouthful of flower petals being spit at you. Yes, really.
It all makes for quite the travel experience and arguably one of the most interesting cultural things to do in Cuenca.
3) Stroll, Bike, or Picnic Along Cuenca’s Rio Tomebamba Riverfront
Running along the southern edge of Cuenca’s historic center is a scenic stretch of the Tomebamba River. The river originates up in the mountains of Cajas National Park and flows onward down into the Amazon. On its way down the Andes, the river slices right through the middle of Cuenca.
The Tomebamba River makes for a most pleasant place in Cuenca to take a leisurely stroll from right within the city center. The grassy riverbank is lined with trees that offer shade on sunny days, while colonial buildings loom above. There are a few cafes and restaurants with views along this section of the Tomebamba River. Don’t hesitate to pop in for a coffee, cerveza, or a snack.
Better yet, consider a picnic right along a grassy stretch of the river. Many canoodling Cuencano couples can be found doing just that.
And if you happen to be in Cuenca on a Sunday, consider going for a bike ride along the Tomebamba River. Every Sunday morning here in Cuenca, the city provides hundreds of mountain bikes to residents and visitors for free. It’s known as Ruta Recreativa.
This gives everyone an opportunity to bike on the off-road trails that extend further down the river. On two wheels, you’ll be able to get much further than walking. To get a free bike on Sunday mornings, just exchange an ID or passport and off you go!
4) Learn About Cuenca’s Production of Panama Hats
Ecuador, not Panama, is the origin and production center to what is well-known around the world as the “Panama Hat.” The reason for this confusing name is because these Ecuadorian hats were being exported to Panama while the Panama Canal was being built in the early 1900s. Then US President Roosevelt visited the construction site and was photographed wearing the hat in Panama. Hence the name “Panama Hat” has stuck ever since.
But make no mistake, this is purely an Ecuadorian product. The town of Montecristi lays claim to the birthplace of Panama hats. Yet it is Cuenca and the surrounding area that has become the largest producer of these hats, which are also known locally as sombreros de paja toquilla.
So when visiting the city, a great thing to do in Cuenca is to learn about the delicate process it takes to produce these hats. You’ll see just how the hats are weaved with painstaking detail, entirely by hand. There are a few factories, “museums,” and shops around Cuenca to explore the craft of this truly Ecuadorian tradition.
Two of these Panama Hat museum/factories are:
- Museo Sombrero De Paja Toquilla
- Homero Ortega Museum
Museo Sombeweo de Paja Toquilla. Within Cuenca’s historic center, it’s easy to get to the Museo Sombrero De Paja Toquilla. It’s more of a shop than a true “museum,” despite having a few very basic exhibits. Yet it’s still definitely worth going into, to see the fine craftsmanship and possibly purchase a hat. There’s also a very pleasant café in the back, overlooking the Tomebamba River.
Homero Ortega Museum. A more complete look into these famous Ecuadorian hats can be found at the Homero Ortega Museum. This is more of an actual museum, where a guide accompanies visitors on a free 30-minute tour. During this tour, you’ll learn about the history of this Ecuadorian tradition while taking a look directly into the hat-making process.
This fifth-generation company claims to be the oldest and most experienced Panama hat producer in Ecuador. So they’re well-equipped to explain all about Ecuador’s famous hats. Of course, museum-goers exit through the gift shop. There, you’ll be greeted with a friendly, no-pressure sales attempt.
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