Easily one of the most charming cities in Ecuador, Cuenca has long been a favorite with travelers for its undeniable appeal.
With a gorgeous, UNESCO-protected colonial center, nearby national parks to explore, historic ruins, and great food, it has a lot to offer visitors – whether you plan to stick around for a few days or a few years. Cuenca is, after all, a haven for expats and long-term travelers.
Our ultimate guide to Cuenca, Ecuador will show you how to enjoy the city best, including local tips and tricks for visiting Cuenca. Plus, we’re sharing all the best things to do in Cuenca and day trips from the city you’ll love!
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As soon as you step foot in Cuenca, you’ll see why everyone raves about this easygoing, quaint city. Mountain views peak through between historic streets paved with cobblestones, brightly-colored buildings surround green plazas, and church domes mark the “skyline” everywhere you look.
Formally known as Santa Ana de los Riós de Cuenca, though you’ll never hear it referred to as such, Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its abundance of historic buildings and monuments, most of which are open and accessible to visitors.
Beyond the historic center of Cuenca, there is much more to see and do in Cuenca that makes a visit to Cuenca worth it. Nearby Parque Nacional El Cajas (El Cajas National Park) is among Ecuador’s most visited national parks for its stunning beauty, and just over an hour north of Cuenca is Ecuador’s largest Incan ruin.
Located in the less-visited south of Ecuador (the northern area of the Ecuadorian Andes near Quito tends to be more frequently visited), this popular city is a true gem with so much to offer. Whether you’re heading onwards towards Guayaquil to catch a Galapagos cruise or east into the lush Amazon, Cuenca is a good jumping-off spot for further travel in Ecuador.
If you’re looking for a place to stick around for a few months in Ecuador rather than just for a few days, Cuenca is also worth considering.
Long a favorite with foreigners looking for a slower pace for life and a more affordable place to call home, Cuenca has its fair share of expats, retirees, and long-term travelers to keep you company. Keep reading for our recommendations about living in Cuenca to see if it’s right for you.
Is Cuenca Ecuador Worth Visiting?
Cuenca, Ecuador is definitely worth a visit. This charming, laid-back city is a gem offering much of the very best of Ecuador: history, great food, nearby attractions, natural beauty, and more. It’s a favorite among travelers to Ecuador and has earned a reputation as one of Ecuador’s best travel destinations.
However, if you’re working with just a short itinerary to Ecuador, I actually recommend prioritizing a visit to Quito instead of Cuenca. Why? Quito and Cuenca are very similar with their beautiful historic center and mountain surroundings, but Quito has much more to offer in terms of travel potential, with day trips or overnights to some of the country’s most unique destinations.
If you’re spending any less than 10 days in Ecuador, just choose Cuenca or Quito, not both.
What is Cuenca Ecuador Known For?
Cuenca, Ecuador is best known for its gorgeous historical city center, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its impressive cathedrals, mansions, plazas, and buildings. It’s certainly evident to travelers that this part of Cuenca is something special.
In recent years, Cuenca has also become known as one of the most popular destinations for U.S. retirees and expats looking to relocate for a lower cost of living and better quality of life. While Cuenca can be more expensive than some other cities in Ecuador, it’s a destination that is easy to fall in love with.
How Many Days Do You Need in Cuenca Ecuador?
We generally recommend that travelers spend at least two to three days exploring Cuenca, Ecuador. Beyond just the stunning historic center and an array of attractions in town, you’ll also find nearby national parks like Parque Las Cajas and the Incan ruins at Ingapirca, meaning you’ll have plenty to fill your itinerary while visiting Cuenca.
While plenty of visitors stick around for longer – some even working from Cuenca as a new, flourishing digital nomad hotspot, I think after about three full days you’ll want to move on, whether to the beaches on the coast of Ecuador or south to Loja and Peru.
Read More: 10 Best Cities in Ecuador
Cuenca Ecuador Map
We created a complete Cuenca Ecuador map to accompany this article – here you’ll find all the hotels, restaurants, and things to do in Cuenca that we recommend throughout the article (plus, some extras)! Feel free to click around the make use of this map, or even download it for your trip to Cuenca so you always have it handy.
Things To Do in Cuenca, Ecuador
There are plenty of things to do in Cuenca, and while you’ll have tons of freedom to craft the itinerary that is perfect for you, my recommendation is to see a range of things and have a range of experiences in Cuenca. Don’t just visit the natural gems around the city or just visit the historic center highlights – make sure to do a bit of all of the best things to do in Cuenca!
1. Visit El Cajas National Park
One of my favorite things to do in Cuenca, Ecuador is actually just outside of Cuenca. El Cajas National Park is one of the most beloved national parks in Ecuador for its stunning and totally unique landscape – some areas of this park almost look like they could be on the moon they’re so distinctive.
You can plan as active a visit to the park as you like or simply drive through the park from destination to destination appreciating its beauty – you’ll find tours that do both and can arrange tons of different experiences in the park if you’re looking for something in particular.
Because El Cajas is such an expansive park, you’ll really need to visit with a guide (or at least a taxi) to get the most out of your trip and explore the different areas of the park. Thankfully small-group excursions and day trips from Cuenca to El Cajas are quite common and affordable. You’ll get to take some gorgeous hikes, visit the stunning Luspa Lake, and more.
2. Take a Comprehensive Tour of Historic Cuenca
Historic Cuenca is by far the most impressive and beautiful part of the city. With plenty of gorgeous churches, cobblestone streets, plazas, and historic buildings, it’s no wonder why Cuenca has long been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While the central historic neighborhood of Cuenca is quite walkable, taking a comprehensive Cuenca tour can be a great way to see all of the city, especially if you’re on a shorter itinerary and don’t have tons of time to get lost. Transportation included to the popular Mirador de Turi (Turi Viewpoint) makes it a very convenient way to see the city.
You’ll also find great tours of Cuenca that include half-day visits to El Cajas National Park, the ruins at Ingapirca, and more.
What To Pack for Ecuador
Check out our Ultimate Ecuador Packing List to help you pack for your trip – we’re sharing exactly what to bring to Ecuador and what we never travel without.
3. Visiting Cuenca’s Stunning Cathedral
By far the most famous symbol of Cuenca is its massive (and beautiful) cathedral. Known as the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, this impressive church’s stunning blue-tiled domes are totally unique and are by far the most recognizable part of the Cuenca skyline.
This church is massive and grand, so take time to explore its impressive altars and temples when you visit. Near the entrance you’ll find a giant statue of Pope John Paul II, commemorating his visit to the cathedral in 1985.
This cathedral is actually Cuenca’s newer cathedral. The city’s old cathedral, known as the Iglesia del Sagrario or the Antigua Catedral de Cuenca is also gorgeous, though not as large, and is also worth a visit. Located directly across the Parque Calderón plaza from the newer cathedral, it’s easy to visit both as part of a self-guided walking tour of the city.
4. Visit Cuenca’s Flower Market
Located in a plaza just around the corner from Cuenca’s Cathedral, the city’s small but impressive flower market is one you won’t want to skip – after all, Cuenca is a huge exporter of flowers to destinations all over the world.
The market offers everything from basic arrangements and bouquets to altarpieces that churchgoers take to bring to any of the historic center’s many Catholic churches. You’ll also find some of the stalls selling souvenirs or smaller tokens to take home with you.
If you’re visiting the market and you see the church (Iglesia del Carmen de la Asunción) open, make sure to drop by for a visit. It’s not as impressive as some of Cuenca’s other beautiful churches, but it’s worth a quick peek.
5. Take a Day Trip to Ingapirca
Ecuador’s most impressive indigenous ruins are the ruins of Ingapirca, a site inhabited by both the Incas and the local Cañari indigenous populations. The Incans didn’t arrive until the end of the 15th century, so much construction here is Cañari, and it’s quite impressive.
The most impressive part of the site is the circular Temple of the Sun, which stands impressively on a hillside overlooking the area. You’ll be able to explore the ruins quite freely, checking out interesting spots like tombs, courtyards, and terraces – there’s quite a lot to see here.
About an hour and a half north of Cuenca, most visitors choose an affordable day trip to Ingapirca from Cuenca as both the easiest and generally the most cost-effective way to access this site. While you can access Ingapirca from Cuenca by bus, the trip takes almost double the time and requires a fair amount of walking, plus you won’t have a guide to lead you through the site.
Small-group guided day trips of Ingapirca also generally include some cool stops along the way – the one we recommend (our friends used this company and loved them!) includes two stops along the way, including to see artisans making Panama hats by hand, and to a charming small town along the way.
6. Take an Ecuadorian Cooking Class
If you’re looking to take some of Ecuador’s varied cuisine home with you, what better way is there to do it than taking a cooking class? Cuenca is a great city for it, as it has an abundance of great markets, so you’ll get to explore with a local chef in tow before learning how to make some of Ecuador’s best dishes.
Taking a local cooking class or market tour is one of my top recommendations if you’re looking to have an engaging cultural experience while traveling. Plus, you’ll get to taste some absolutely delicious food and will be better able to decipher menus and order local food with confidence throughout the rest of your trip.
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7. Try Local Food at the Mercado 9 de Octubre
Even if you don’t explore the markets of Cuenca with a chef, make sure you visit the markets! While there are several markets in Cuenca to choose from, both outdoor markets and covered indoor markets, Mercado 9 de Octubre is one of the best options. Giant, with tons of offerings, and just a few blocks from the center of Cuenca, it’s easy to access and a great place for shopping (or just people-watching.
Mercado 9 de Octubre is one of the best places in Cuenca to sample local foods or eat on a budget (Ecuador backpackers take note). Stalls on one of the upper levels offer prepared foods ranging from soups and juices to full meals for just a few dollars a plate.
While you’ll find favorite dishes from all over Ecuador, local Andean favorites like roast pork and cheesy potatoes called llapingachos are among the most popular options.
8. Take in the View from Mirador de Turi
Set in an expansive valley surrounded by verdant mountains, there are plenty of spots around Cuenca to take in a great view of the city. One of the best (and most popular) destinations for a beautiful view of the city is the Mirador de Turi (Turi Viewpoint), which offers a view you won’t forget.
This panoramic viewpoint is right near a gorgeous church, making the view even more impressive. If just dropping by for a view of the city isn’t enough to draw you to this place, the variety of cafes and restaurants all around the lookout platform are a great reason to stick around and enjoy the view a little longer.
You can take a public bus here (ask at your accommodations for the easiest route to take from where you’re staying), catch a taxi, or even walk, though the ascent up the stairs, if you walk, is a brutal one, especially considering the altitude of Cuenca.
Where to Stay in Cuenca Ecuador
You’ll have no lack of choices when it comes to where to stay in Cuenca. Guesthouses and boutique hotels abound, many of them charming and historic. While you won’t find tons of modern hotel chains here, you’ll love the beautiful options you have to choose from in Cuenca.
El Cafecito Hostel ($)
The comfy, cozy El Cafecito Hostel is by far Cuenca’s best hostel, offering affordable private rooms and dorm rooms in the heart of the historic center of the city. This hostel’s showstopper is its expansive rooftop patio and cafe, complete with hammocks and loungers – the view is absolutely breathtaking.
Selina Cuenca ($ – $$)
If you’re looking for something nicer than a standard hostel, Selina Cuenca is definitely the place for you. Gorgeous dorm rooms and private rooms, as well as impressive public spaces like a bar, cafe, coworking space, and expansive terrace, make this a destination you’ll want to stick around for.
Selina also does a great job of welcoming travelers to the city with activities like yoga classes and welcome drinks, as well as group trips and excursions to help you get to know other travelers.
Santa Lucia House – Forum ($$)
Located in the very heart of the historic center of Cuenca, Santa Lucia House – Forum is a gorgeous yet affordable boutique hotel with loads of character and charm. The interior patio is a great place to relax and plan your day exploring Cuenca, and rooms are comfortable and unique. You’ll be surprised how affordable this gem is.
Mansion Alcazar Boutique Hotel ($$ – $$$)
A historic mansion turned boutique hotel, Mansion Alcazar is an impressive destination that always seems to outdo itself. Gorgeous dining rooms and salons give way to manicured gardens and even an intimate spa. Rooms are large and comfortable, with beautiful details and the perfect mix of modern and historic charm.
Hotel Cruz del Vado ($$ – $$$)
Hotel Cruz del Vado feels like a landmark more than just a place to stay the night, with its impeccably refurbished historic spaces giving way to what is Cuenca’s most beloved and remarkable hotel.
The rooms are exquisite, offering a touch of history and gorgeous views. Even more impressive views await from the hotel’s expansive terrace – you’ll even be able to spot the blue-tiled domes of Cuenca’s cathedral. The restaurant is absolutely delicious and worth a visit, even if you aren’t a hotel guest.
Where to Eat in Cuenca Ecuador
Mercado 9 de Octubre
Whether you’re backpacking through Ecuador on a tight budget or have money to spend, make a point to stop by Mercado 9 de Octubre and grab a meal. There’s an upper level where you’ll find tons of food stalls serving fresh and delicious meals, including some Ecuadorian favorites you might not find in more upscale destinations.
If you’re a real market fan (like me!) or are sticking around in Cuenca for a while, here are some of the other markets in the city to consider visiting:
- Mercado 12 de Abril
- Mercado el Arenal
- Mercado 10 de Agosto
La Guarida is a more fine-dining option in Cuenca, though certainly not uptight! Here you’ll find delicious Ecuadorian and international dishes in a beautiful and cozy dining room, slightly off the beaten path but absolutely worth discovering.
Make sure to order the bolón if they have it on the menu – this traditional Ecuadorian dish is a fried ball of smashed plantains mixed with bacon and cheese, which sounds messy but is absolutely delicious!
Slightly outside of the main tourist destinations within Cuenca’s historic center, Moliendo Cafe is one of my favorite spots to eat in Cuenca. It serves delicious Colombian food in giant portions with affordable prices, making it one of the best deals in the city. Expect no frills here, but look forward to memorable meals!
Cafe De Nucallacta
Cuenca has its fair share of great coffee shops (many of which happen to be favorite hangouts for the city’s expat and retiree populations), but a favorite cafe option is Cafe De Nucallacta. This homey, cozy cafe serves a full menu of entrees including both local and international favorites, as well as traditional “cafe” foods like pastries and coffee served in a variety of ways.
Cafe de Nucallacta is so popular that I heard that it recently expanded to a second location, though it’s never been overly crowded when I’ve visited – it’s a great spot to crack open a book or recharge over coffee and conversation.
Living in Cuenca Ecuador
If you’re looking to stay around in Cuenca a little longer, you’re in luck. Since the 2010s, Cuenca has been considered a top destination for retirees looking for a place to settle down and enjoy the lovely weather, lower cost of living, and better quality of life the city can offer.
Expats and retirees in Cuenca number around 15,000 or more, making for a decent-sized population of foreigners in a city of around 600,000 people.
We also consider Cuenca to be one of the best cities in Latin America for digital nomads and remote workers. Why? It’s laid back and affordable compared to the United States or Europe, and its large expat population makes it easy to make friends. While you won’t find as many true digital nomads here as you’ll find in Quito, it is still a great destination for a few months of remote work.
When we lived abroad for years in Ecuador, we chose Quito, but here are some of the pros and cons of living in Cuenca, whether it be for a few months or as a permanent move.
- Pro: Cuenca has generally lovely weather, with springlike temperatures throughout the year. Keep in mind, it can get quite chilly in the evenings!
- Con: Cuenca doesn’t have an international airport. While it’s well connected to the rest of Ecuador by bus, this can make travel more challenging if you plan to travel a lot.
- Pro: Cuenca is laid back and beautiful, and it’s a much more relaxed city than others like Quito or Guayaquil. It’s gotten busier in recent years, but it’s generally a smaller and more relaxed destination you’ll absolutely love.
- Con: Ecuadorian bureaucracy can be quite a pain to deal with. Whether it’s obtaining residency, purchasing a home or vehicle, or anything in between, expect to do a lot of waiting when doing anything even remotely “official.”
- Pro: The large number of retirees and expats in Cuenca makes it easy to make friends who speak the same language and share the same experiences.
- Con: The large number of retirees and expats in Cuenca has a number of downsides as well. Cuenca is one of Ecuador’s more expensive cities, in part because of the number of foreigners driving up prices. It can also make it more challenging to meet local friends when you’re surrounded by other foreigners.
Carley Rojas Avila is a bilingual New York-based travel writer, editor, content marketer, and the founder of the digital travel publications Explorers Away and Home to Havana. Carley is an expert on all things Latin America, the Caribbean, and Cuba, having lived and worked in four different countries in the region. Her writing has appeared on the Associated Press wires and in Travel + Leisure, Yahoo, MSN, Euronews, The Weather Channel, and more. When she's not writing about her travels, find her front row at a Bad Bunny concert, befriending street cats, and taste-testing every pizza in Havana.